It had all the trappings of a religious ritual.
A simple wooden altar stood at the front of the banquet hall, laden with rice wine in porcelain decanters, fish, apples and other offerings to the gods of Shinto, Japan’s native religion.
Prominently displayed behind the altar were banners with the names of the sun goddess, the patron god of warriors and another god closely associated with the imperial family.
There was no priest for this rite, only gangsters. Instead of witnessing a marriage or funeral, the gods of Japan’s pantheon were called upon to view the promotion of a mob leader.
The Japanese underworld thrives on tradition like this ceremony for the new No. 2 boss of the Nippon Kokusui-kai syndicate, which has thousands of members in and around Tokyo.
Such rites foster loyalty and devotion. The mobsters see themselves as modern-day samurai warriors, although their fight is over territorial rights in extortion and prostitution.
Gangs operate publicly in Japan and authorities keep close track of them, but did not try to break up the ceremony. Police think driving the syndicates underground would make investigating violent crime more difficult.
About 70 gangsters, wearing black kimonos or formal black suits, began arriving at an expensive downtown restaurant just after dawn. Several limousines, including the cream-colored Rolls-Royce of the syndicate chief, were parked conspicuously outside.
Each guest was led to a purple mat imprinted with the syndicate’s name, which means Japan Purification Society, in old-style Chinese characters.
As the guests entered the room, they were introduced by a member who stood at a podium with a microphone. The gang hired a video crew to tape the event.
At the beginning of the hourlong ritual, a barefoot assistant in a white cotton robe brought items from the altar to the leader of the ritual, who sat at the end of a length of white cotton cloth, facing the gang’s four top leaders.
In a stylized ritual of purification, the ceremony leader swept his hand, with two fingers outstretched, over sake cups in a motion reminiscent of someone cutting through cobwebs.
After further “cleaning” the rice-wine cups with ceremonial paper, he used a pair of long wooden chopsticks to touch the fish, salt and other offerings. When this was done, his assistant took a cup of sake to the syndicate’s retiring No. 2 boss.
“This cup represents the generations. Drink of it as much as you will,” intoned the ceremony leader, who wore a traditional black kimono dotted at the shoulders with the “family crest” of his own sub-gang.
“With this cup of sake you become the new boss,” he barked to the incoming second-in-command, a stout man in his 40s with brown sunglasses and a fresh crewcut, who had not been among the top four bosses.
The new No. 2 took two sips from the small cup. To complete the ascension, he was given his “regalia"--a sword, a map of the gang’s turf, a “family tree,” seals and some swaths of cotton.
A short closing address followed, then the gangsters retired for some less formal drinking, complete with kimono-clad female companions.
Yakuza, as Japanese gangsters are known, claim that obedience to the customs of their trade distinguishes them from common criminals. Among those customs are wearing jumbo tattoos and chopping off sections of their fingers to atone for mistakes or disloyalty.
After the promotion ritual, one of the bosses said: “These ceremonies are very important to us. Without them, we wouldn’t be yakuza.”
The top halves of both his little fingers were missing and a tattoo covered most of his torso.
Syndicate gangsters say such crimes as petty theft, bank robbery and rape are below them, and view themselves as the spiritual descendants of the samurai, who were loyal retainers of feudal lords.
Japanese movies and books often reflect that romanticized image. Several popular magazines devote considerable space to gangster-related news each week.
Gangsters are quick to acknowledge that their code does not bar them from the usual activities associated with organized crime: extortion, prostitution, gambling and dealing in illegal drugs. Some talk freely of murders they have committed.
The number of gangsters in Japan is estimated at 90,000, up to one-third of them members of the Yamaguchi-gumi syndicate, which is not connected to the Nippon Kokusui-kai.
A recent National Police Agency report put total yakuza income at roughly 1.4 trillion yen ($10.6 billion) a year, which observers believe is far too low. The Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s largest syndicate, is believed to take in nearly that much by itself.
Membership in a gang is not illegal, so yakuza freely hold parties, meetings or whatever ceremonies they choose, contributing to their high profile.
After a recent burst of violence among rival gangs, a government committee began considering revisions in the laws on organized crime to include stiffer penalties for gun or drug possession.
Police acknowledge the yakuza public bravado is an annoyance, but say it helps them keep track of who belongs to what gang and makes the investigation of violent crime easier.
BACKGROUND Tradition and ceremony are as important to the yakuza, Japan’s organized gangsters, as to the rest of Japanese society. Recently the Associated Press received a rare invitation to a leadership succession rite, with the condition that none of the participants would be identified by name.