Many Public Figures : Japan Gangs Not Really Underworld

Times Staff Writer

Hisayuki Takenaka, dressed in a formal black kimono with a white rose pinned at the waist, lifted a saucer of sake that had been given to him by the widow of his predecessor, the head of Japan's largest criminal syndicate.

Holding the saucer in both hands, Takenaka carefully sipped from it. Then he wrapped the saucer in a sheet of rice paper, placed it beneath a fold in his kimono and bowed to the 113 gang leaders assembled in the room.

They responded with a ritual clapping of hands, and at that instant, on July 10, 1984, Takenaka became the fourth leader of the syndicate known as Yamaguchi-gumi, which has 10,000 members and makes its headquarters in this port city.

The gangland ceremony was filmed--many of Japan's gangsters are public figures--and was shown on television the following Aug. 27 by the NHK network.

Wave of Gang Warfare

For the viewing public, it may have been an entertaining spectacle, but it also symbolized a split in the syndicate's ranks that has touched off a wave of gang warfare. As a result, the gangs are more than ever in the public spotlight.

Until Takenaka took up the ritual saucer of sake, Hiroshi Yamamoto had been acting chief of the Yamaguchi. Angered at being passed over for the permanent position, Yamamoto set up a rival group, the Ichiwa-kai. Then, on Jan. 26, Yamamoto's followers took their revenge.

Takenaka, who had been No. 2 under Yamamoto, was gunned down at the home of his mistress in a suburb of Osaka. Slain with him were two other men.

In the weeks since, the Yamaguchi has struck back, killing eight Ichiwa gangsters and seriously wounding 12 in a series of gunfights. For their part, the Ichiwa gangsters have killed three more Yamaguchi men.

Gang Roundup Month

In all, more than 50 shooting incidents have been attributed to the split in the syndicate. Police believe there will be more.

Faced with the outbreak of gang warfare, the police are making unscheduled sweeps--in addition to the customary annual roundup of gangsters in October, which they have designated as "Intensive Roundup Month." The annual affair is an effort to attract the attention of the press and the public, but neither pays much attention.

In the unscheduled roundups, more than 2,000 gangsters had been taken in by May 1, roughly half again the number commonly netted in the annual autumn sweep.

According to Ikushige Masuda, chief of the Hyogo detective bureau, the gang war will continue until the Yamaguchi syndicate power struggle is resolved.

Yamaguchi men wear a diamond-shaped badge, and Masuda likens this to a brand name that signifies prestige. Until now, Yamaguchi has been "a super first-class brand in Japanese gangland," Masuda said. "Whether it will continue to be so depends on how successful it is in taking revenge."

According to Akio Tanaka, a police reporter for the newspaper Yomiuri, "If they don't retaliate, the value of their diamond badge won't mean a thing in gangland."

The police hope that the split in Yamaguchi ranks, plus the reported weakness of Yamaguchi's acting leaders, will make it possible to deliver a knockout blow to the syndicate, which has affiliate gangs in 35 of Japan's 47 prefectures.

Past experience, however, suggests that this will not be easy, even though the police profess to know every gangster in the country. Unlike their counterparts elsewhere, Japanese gangsters make no effort to hide their identity. Gang bosses drive expensive foreign cars and operate out of undisguised offices. From time to time, they allow themselves to be interviewed by the press.

After an earlier gang war, in the late 1970s, a Yamaguchi spokesman issued the syndicate's "declaration of peace" at a televised press conference. Reporters in attendance were issued a "press kit" dealing with the issues involved.

At Yamaguchi headquarters here (three doors down from the Kobe District Court), the names of the leaders of all the member gangs are displayed on boards on the walls. The names of jailed gang leaders appear in red. The telephone numbers of all member gang offices are listed at a desk, under a glass cover.

Members lean toward flashy clothes and sunglasses, and the gang badge is normally displayed on the lapel. The badge bears the Japanese characters yama (mountain) and guchi (mouth), artistically formed in a diamond pattern.

The syndicate also publishes a magazine. It sometimes contains verse written by gangsters, along with notices dealing with gangsters who have been jailed or are about to be released.

Charts with the names and photographs of gang leaders are posted in the offices of police departments around the country.

"Police in every prefecture know the names of every single gangster," said Toshio Yokoo, head of the National Police Agency's countermeasures branch. Yet, despite more than two decades of what police describe as intensive attacks on the gangs, the core elements of gangland remain virtually intact.

The police say the number of gangsters has declined sharply, from a peak of 184,091 in 1963 to 98,771 at the end of 1983, but Yokoo acknowledges that this has been accomplished mostly at the expense of penny-ante gangsters.

In the past 10 years, the number of gangsters has remained constant at around 100,000. The stronger gangs, among them the Yamaguchi and the Sumiyoshi Rengo-kai in Tokyo, have grown stronger.

They are "eating up the weaker ones," Yokoo said. "That is the problem."

Police estimate that Japan's 2,330 gangs take in more than $4 billion a year, nearly half of it from narcotics (mostly stimulant drugs). Other activities include gambling, prostitution, protection and usury.

Novels and films tend to portray the gangster as an upholder of romantic tradition. But according to the police, the only thing the modern gangster finds romantic is money.

Traditionally, gangsters make no claim to respectability. The call themselves yakuza , which means "absolute bottom."

"They recognize themselves as lower-level people," Yokoo said.

Takenaka, the late head of the Yamaguchi, once told a television interviewer he would be happy to disband the syndicate if it would be beneficial for the country, and he then asked, "But if that were done, who would look out for the welfare of these 10,000 people?"

The gangsters often justify their existence by saying that they are society's outcasts, victims of Japanese discrimination. A striking number are Koreans, a group subjected to widespread discrimination throughout Japan. Gangs are also known to include the descendants of so-called buraku, the outcasts who in feudal times were ranked as untouchables beneath all four social classes--warriors, farmers, artisans and merchants.

But Fumio Mugishima, a Police Scientific Institute psychologist, rejects the claims that the buraku stigma induces young men to join the underworld. He told the newspaper Asahi that most of the 5,000 youths who join the gangs every year--roughly the same number who "wash their feet" and leave--are juvenile delinquents and graduates of motorcycle gangs.

The police deny it, but some authorities say there was a time when the police and the gangs had close ties. Tatsuya Suzuki, a former high official of the National Police Agency, says in his book, "The Indestructible Yamaguchi," that just after World War II the "gangs were a cat's paw of the police."

"Chiefs of police stations attended ceremonies of the Yamaguchi-gumi," he says, "and when crimes involving gangsters occurred, gangsters turned themselves in within the day a police chief asked for help."

In a 1978 bulletin issued by the Japan Society of New York, Walter L. Ames, then with the East Asia Legal Studies Program of Harvard University, wrote that gang leaders and police chiefs once made a regular practice of exchanging social courtesies. He said police chiefs sent wreaths to gangsters' funerals, and gangsters gave police chiefs going-away presents when they were transferred.

Only two years ago, 15 Kobe policemen were arrested in connection with crimes said to have grown out of illicit gangland ties.

Yukio Yamanouchi, a member of the Osaka Bar Assn. and legal adviser to the Yamaguchi syndicate, charged in the magazine Gendai that the police are still making deals with gangsters. He cited what he said were instances of gang leaders pleading guilty to fictitious minor charges in exchange for the dropping of more serious charges.

Businessmen used to use gangsters as strike-breakers, debt collectors and "managers" of stockholders' meetings to discourage complaints.

"There is a limit," Yokoo said, "to how far we can go to reduce the power of gangs. One part of society still feels it needs the services of gangs."

The courts seem to be of little help. Gangsters arrested in annual police roundups are soon released on bail, then remain free for years while their cases move sluggishly through the courts.

Convictions, when finally obtained, rarely put a gangster away for long. Nearly a third of the 1,789 suspects arrested in 1983 in connection with 1,745 homicides were gangsters, but few of them were sentenced to more than 10 years.

"Judges are not empowered to impose 100-year sentences, as in the United States," Masuda, the detective chief, said.

Only rarely do the authorities prosecute a gangster for tax evasion. According to Yokoo, this is partly because evidence is hard to obtain and partly because the authorities think it is too much trouble unless an enormous amount of money is involved.

It was Takenaka who faced the first major tax evasion charge brought against a gangster--for allegedly paying no tax on $28 million. But he was killed before the case could be taken to trial.

In the cases taken up by the tax authorities, most of the gangsters have been allowed to pay the back taxes and a fine, often after generous deductions. According to Ames, they have been allowed to deduct as "necessary expenses" such things as the rent for rooms used for illegal gambling, the cost of sending men out to collect unpaid gambling debts and payments to lookouts.

The gangland lawyer Yamanouchi agrees with the police that it will not be easy to wipe out the gangs--but for reasons not mentioned by the police.

In the underworld, a young man can find new friends, men with whom he can form a strong bond, Yamanouchi said, and added:

"Any youth can rise to the top by his own ability, even if he joins a gang without any specific qualifications. He needs only a good body, willpower and guts. Wealth, power and honor lie buried there, to be unearthed by one's own efforts.

"There is no heredity system or any seniority system in this society. (It is run) completely on the merit system, and if one has a firm will, one can rise without limit.

"Neither nationality nor the status of one's parents is ever questioned. Whether one is educated or not and whether the social standing of one's family is good or bad have no relation at all."

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