Earlier this month, Japan's National Police Agency held an emergency meeting to discuss what they believed was a looming crisis. The country's largest organized crime group, the 24,000-member Yamaguchi-gumi, had just split apart. And police feared the kind of violence that might follow.
"There has never been a gang war with drones available to drop bombs into the offices of rivals," a detective with the Hyogo Police Department told VICE News on condition of anonymity. "In recent years, there have been successfully made 3D guns that are capable of doing lethal damage. So even if a gang has no weapons on hand, they just need the right equipment. Print, kill, melt the gun. Those new guns will be hard to trace…. Escalation could be very fast and very bloody."
Thirty years ago, a power struggle in the Yamaguchi-gumi led the group's second-in-command to form a new organization called the Ichiwa-kai. After a gunman for the splinter group killed the leader of the Yamaguchi-gumi at his lover's apartment, a war erupted during which gang members were arrested in Hawaii for attempting to buy handguns, machine guns — and rocket launchers.
The Ichiwa-kai dissolved and the war ended in 1989 after the Yamaguchi-gumi began luring Ichiwa-kai members back — with, in part, a generous pension plan. Today, a top-level boss can reportedly retire with half a million dollars.
Financial considerations may be the only thing preventing the yakuza from starting a war. Under civil law in Japan, a yakuza boss can be held financially responsible for the crimes of his underlings. In 2012, former boss Tadamasa Goto settled with the family of a real estate agent his men killed by giving the family $1.2 million.
To the yakuza, money is more important than blood. But even money may not be able to erase the decades of bad blood among the Yamaguchi-gumi.
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Twenty-one different organizations make up Japan's yakuza, but the Yamaguchi-gumi was the gang whose power the police most feared. More than half of the organized crime in Japan was directly or indirectly under the group's control.
The organization was founded as a labor brokerage in Kobe in 1915 by a group of dockworkers, but it quickly expanded into criminal activity. In 1946, Kazuo Taoka formally took over the group and rapidly expanded it. What had been a 30-member organization grew nationwide, absorbing other syndicates and eventually setting up its own talent agency, construction companies, and other fronts. Taoka famously instructed his gangsters, "You all need to have a legitimate job."
The yakuza are regulated and monitored — the organizations themselves are not illegal. The addresses of their headquarters are listed on the National Police Agency website, the top bosses have business cards with corporate logos, and there are two monthly fanzines dedicated to the yakuza in addition to comic books and video games.
The yakuza claim to be humanitarian groups promoting traditional Japanese values, and in times of need, they're typically quick to provide supplies and aid. However, most of the members derive their income from blackmail, extortion, racketeering, trafficking, gambling, and fraud.
'It is only a matter of time before the good and bad of those who have mistaken their way is corrected.'
After the war ended in 1989, Yoshinori Watanabe of the Yamaguchi-gumi's Yamaken-gumi faction became the organization's leader. The faction, which currently has 2,000 members, remained the most powerful until 2005, when Tsukasa Shinobu of the Kodo-kai faction took over from Watanabe. The Kodo-kai proceeded to do what they could to weaken the Yamaken-gumi.
The rule of the Kodo-kai has not been good for the other 71 factions in the sprawling organization, especially the Yamaken-gumi. There have long been complaints of having to pay high association dues, and former bosses say that lower-ranking yakuza groups have been forced to buy supplies from headquarters at extremely high prices. This was one way the Yamaguchi-gumi was able to effectively launder money and shore up its accounts.
The US is also no fan of the Kodo-kai, having singled the group out for special sanctions last April.
It was the Yamaken-gumi faction that led the rebellion, creating a new organization called the Kobe Yamaguchi in late August with 12 other factions. The spark appears to have been a rumor that Tsukasa was going to retire this year and turn the organization over to another Kodo-kai leader.
The Yamaguchi-gumi called an emergency meeting on August 27 and summarily expelled the 13 bosses and their factions from the group. The depth of their anger became clear this week when they issued a statement via their web-page, condemning the rebellion.
"It is only a matter of time," the statement read, "before the good and bad of those who have mistaken their way is corrected."
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The majority of Japanese police are tacitly supporting the breakaway Kobe Yamaguchi, police sources and those close to the new group tell VICE News. In fact, the rebels delivered a notice to the Hyogo Police Department before breaking away from the Yamaguchi-gumi, and cops began guarding their headquarters before the split was even formalized. Police have been trying to destroy the Kodo-kai since 2009, when the head of the National Police Agency openly declared war on the faction, stating, "We will obliterate them from public society."
The Kodo-kai has been a notably anti-authoritarian faction of the Yamaguchi-gumi, actively challenging both the police and the Japanese government while implementing a set of rules known as the "three no's": No members should confess to crimes. No cops can visit the offices. No cooperation with police is allowed.
This may not sound like unusual gang behavior, but in Japan it is. Organized crime detectives would often visit the offices of the yakuza groups they were monitoring to drink tea, chat, and keep up to date. The exchanges were cordial. If there was gang violence, the yakuza would offer up someone for arrest. Before police raided yakuza offices, they often made an appointment. In turn, the yakuza made sure there were documents to be carried out in boxes so that reporters outside photographing the raid had something to shoot.
The Kodo-kai rejected that system.
There are a large number of Korean-Japanese members in the faction, and much of Japan, including the police, maintains a thinly veiled anti-Korean sentiment. In a rare interview with Sankei Shimbun in 2011, Tsukasa explained that, "We provide refuge for those marginalized by Japanese society — the outcasts, the Korean-Japanese, those from broken families who face discrimination. We make them strong and keep them from bothering ordinary people."
The Kodo-kai have also been vocal critics of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, accusing him of pushing the nation toward fascism. However, behind closed doors, the Yamaguchi-gumi and the Abe administration maintain some strange ties. One yakuza associate who helped fund the Kodo-kai's successful sex shop empire also founded a political support group for Hakubun Shimomura, Japan's minister of education and science. Earlier this year, it was revealed that Shimomura had received political donations from a Yamaguchi-gumi front company, and that he was closely connected to a mob financier.
Shimomura is best known in Japan for promoting "moral education."
The Yamaguchi-gumi split could become a major headache for the Abe administration. When gangsters feel it's to their advantage, they've been known to rat out their political allies. Though the Kodo-kai appear to have friends in the Abe administration, the Kodo-kai are reviled by police. So the breakaway factions and the police are working together.
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In an article published earlier this month in Nikkan Gendai, a member of the rebel group claims that there will be no bloodshed because police will attack the Kodo-kai for them. Their weapon of choice? Charges of tax evasion. And authorities may be able to obtain the evidence they need to prosecute the Kodo-kai from the rebel factions.
Among the 13 groups that split from the Yamaguchi-gumi is the Takumi-gumi, headed by Tadashi Irie. For years, he was the Yamaguchi-gumi's chief of headquarters — the No. 3 man in the organization, and the one who controlled the money. A Yamaguchi-gumi insider told Nikkan Gendai, "We have the banker on our side. He knows where all the money comes from and goes. We give the police the information, and they get to destroy the Kodo-kai. They'll bust Tsukasa for tax evasion — the end."
A senior member of the National Police Agency who was not authorized to speak on the record would tell VICE News only that, "We don't play favorites or make deals. We didn't encourage the split, but obviously we consider the Kodo-kai the most troublesome faction of the Yamaguchi-gumi. This is an opportunity to take them out."
In Japan, the police aren't unified in their thinking. While the National Police Agency considers the Kodo-kai a problem, the Osaka Police have a long-standing dislike for the Yamaken-gumi, the breakaway faction that heads the rebels. Police searched the Kobe headquarters of the Yamaken-gumi on September 9 on charges of fraud — the first police raid since the group was founded.
The raid allowed the police to gain information on the new group, and also served as a reminder to the world that the rebels are hardly the noble outlaws they claim to be. Still, the Hyogo Police are maintaining cordial relations with the rebels — a chance to seriously weaken the Yamaguchi-gumi is too good to pass up.
There is, however, one problem with the idea that the police can go after the Kodo-kai for tax evasion. Irie, the man who once controlled the Yamaguchi-gumi's finances, is planning to retire, according to some sources. He is well known for being a relatively honorable and loyal mobster in a world of double-dealing thugs. So Irie is unlikely to talk — which would make proving tax evasion difficult. And if the police can't dissolve the Kodo-kai with criminal charges, then the rebel factions may attempt to do it with violence.
Follow Jake Adelstein on Twitter: @jakeadelstein