Japan's yakuza mafia faces a crackdown

Japan's yakuza mafia has long run unchecked. Recent sumo scandals highlight a deepening war against organized crime in Tokyo.

Kyodo News/AP
An official of the Japan Sumo Association stood with wrestlers at a tournament July 11 in Nagoya to make an apology to spectators for the venerated sport’s connection to organized crime.

Recent scandals over illegal gambling among sumo players and ringside VIP tickets for Japan's notorious yakuza gangsters have enveloped Japan's venerated sport of sumo and fascinated the public.

But these are mere sideshows to what is roiling Japan's gangsters, many observers say. After decades of unspoken agreements between police and yakuza that have allowed organized crime to operate with relative impunity in everything from gambling on sport and illegal casinos to human trafficking and prostitution, the national police are cracking down on Japan's top yakuza gang, energized not only by the embarrassment over the sumo debacle but also by the emergence of a dynamic new National Police Agency (NPA) chief last year who wants to curtail the broad influence of yakuza in society.

"We want them to disappear from public society," Takaharu Ando told reporters in Tokyo after a meeting of police chiefs across Japan that he called to discuss strategies. While Mr. Ando may not yet have proved himself to be Japan's own Eliot Ness, there's no doubt about his determination to tackle organized crime.

Japan's 'confederation of gangs'

About half the estimated 80,000-plus yakuza members in Japan belong to the Yamaguchi-gumi confederation of gangs, making it almost certainly the world's largest criminal organization. The leading faction of the Yamaguchi-gumi is the Kodokai, from which the organization's imprisoned godfather and No. 2 hail.

It is this 4,000-strong gang – based in Nagoya, the western city that is home to Toyota – that has earned the distinction of a special police unit dedicated to its destruction.

It is difficult for most outsiders to fathom the openness with which yakuza gangs have operated. Membership is legal. Gangs have offices, are listed in phone books, and newly formed factions have been known to call press conferences to announce their logos and names. In return, the police expect them to abstain from street crime, exchange information, and have members – or at least fall guys – confess if civilians are injured or killed in intergang troubles. The authorities' thinking has been that organized crime was better than disorganized crime. Until now.

"For a number of years now, the police have had a particular problem with the Kodokai," says Jake Adelstein, author of "Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan." "Their antagonistic attitude toward the police – collecting information on them, not allowing detectives into the gang offices for a chat, not confessing, goes against the unwritten rules of how the yakuza get along in Japan."

At a conference on Asian organized crime held by the FBI and the NPA in Seattle in 2007, Mr. Adelstein said that when the police raided one Kodokai office, they found photos of policemen and their families. The FBI's reaction was to wonder how they got away with this, while the NPA representatives squirmed, according to Adelstein.

Using sumo as a wedge

Since Ando's appointment, Police officers have reportedly been instructed to attack the organization broadly, closing down front companies, investigating tax evasion, and even arresting members on minor traffic violations.

Then came the opportunity to damage the reputation of the gang by linking it to the dishonoring of the centuries-old sport of sumo, when it emerged wrestlers had been gambling illegally on baseball games through the Kodokai. "The baseball gambling story was leaked by the police to the press because some officers felt that an [internal sumo] investigation would be squashed from the top," says Adelstein. "The police are very good at using leaks … and they need to get public opinion on their side … by showing that the Kodokai disgraced and corrupted Japan's national sport."

Says one veteran observer of organized crime who spoke on condition of anonymity: "What has happened to sumo is just collateral damage in the war against the Kodokai.'

At about the same time the sumo gambling story was breaking, reports emerged that 55 Kodokai gangsters were in VIP seats during last summer's Nagoya sumo tournament, and had appeared on broadcasts on national TV. Few believe the timing was a coincidence, and the emergence of the reports appears to have been intended to put maximum pressure on the Japan Sumo Association to end the sport's deep ties to the yakuza.

The mobsters were apparently keen to be seen on television by the imprisoned godfather, Shinobu Tsukasa, who is due for release next spring after his stint on firearms charges. Mr. Tsukasa, also known as Kenichi Shinoda, has previously served time for murder after killing a rival boss with a samurai sword.

"In preparation for Tsukasa's release, a big plot of land has been bought in Nagoya, and there is talk of moving the Yamaguchi-gumi headquarters there from Kobe. The police crackdown is in part preemptive action before the big boss gets out," suggests the veteran yakuza observer.

A deep, indelible influence

The Yamaguchi-gumi has expanded activity during Tsukasa's reign, including moving outside its strongholds into Tokyo, which provoked a bloody turf war with local gangs and further angered police.

Even if the police chief, Ando, gets his wish and the gangs disappear from public society, the challenge of removing their behind-the-scenes influence will remain. A source from Tokyo's entertainment world, where the mob has strong connections, believes their presence is growing stronger. "There seem to be even more of these 'intelli yakuza' [intelligent gangsters] in the background these days, in financing and artist management. Many operate in the gray zones where people aren't sure what's legal or not," says the source, who asked not to be identified, "and not just in entertainment, but in other industries, too."

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