Yamaguchi-gumi : the past and the present of Yakuza

The Sixth Yamaguchi-gumi is Japan’s largest and most infamous yakuza organization.

It is named after its founder Harukichi Yamaguchi. Its origins can be traced back to a loose labor union for dockworkers in Kobe pre-WWII.

It is one of the largest criminal organizations in the world. Estimates put the number of active members at just over 55,000, with thousands more having strong associations. It is, by far, the largest of the boryokudan groups, and its membership encompasses roughly 45% of the 86,300 yakuza in the Japanese underworld. Formal members of the Yamaguchi-gumi number 102 people in total; 1 kumicho, 15 shatei (younger brother) and 86 wakachu (child) as of November 2005.

Yakuza members with tatoos on their back

The Yamaguchi-gumi are among the world’s wealthiest gangsters, bringing in billions of dollars a year from extortion, gambling, the sex industry, guns, drugs, and real estate and construction kickback schemes. They are also involved in stock market manipulation and Internet pornography.

The Yamaguchi-gumi has its headquarters in Kobe, Japan, but it operates all across Japan and has overseas operations in Asia and the United States.

Despite more than a decade of police crackdowns, their numbers have been growing. Its current kumicho (Boss), Shinobu Tsukasa, has declared an expansionist policy – even making inroads into Tokyo, traditionally not Yamaguchi turf. They also have multiple groups working overseas.

The history of six Kumicho

1st kumicho (1915–1925): Harukichi Yamaguchi

2nd kumicho (1925–1942): Noboru Yamaguchi — son of Harukichi Yamaguchi

3rd kumicho (1946–1981): Kazuo Taoka

Yamaguchi-gumi logo

When Taoka inherited the title of kumicho, it was merely a local family with only a few dozen members. It was Taoka who made Yamaguchi-gumi the world’s largest criminal organization. He urged his underlings to have legitimate businesses and allowed them to have their own family, which became a kind of subsidiary family of Yamaguchi-gumi. He also created a structural system in the family. Wakagashira were elected as underbosses to the kumicho and some of powerful members were elected as wakagashira-hosa (deputy underbosses).

4th kumicho (1984–1985): Masahisa Takenaka

After the death of Taoka, the heir apparent wakagashira Kenichi Yamamoto (kumicho of the Yamaken-gumi) was serving a prison sentence. He died of liver failure shortly afterward. Fumiko Taoka, Kazuo Taoka’s wife, stepped forward to fill the leadership void until a new kumicho could be selected by a council of eight top-level bosses.

Yakuza man with tatoos

In 1984, the elders chose Masahisa Takenaka (kumicho of the Takenaka-gumi) to be the fourth kumicho of Yamaguchi-gumi. One of the other contenders, Hiroshi Yamamoto (kumicho of the Yamahiro-gumi), broke away from Yamaguchi-gumi with many of its powerful members and more than 3,000 of its soldiers to form the Ichiwa-kai. A bitter rivalry existed between the two groups, which led to an all-out war (the Yama-Ichi War) after the Ichiwa-kai’s 1985 assassination of Takenaka and wakahashira Katsumasa Nakayama. During the war, acting-kumicho Kazuo Nakanishi (kumicho of the Nakanishi-gumi) and wakagashira Yoshinori Watanabe (kumicho of the Yamaken-gumi) briefly took the leadership role until 1989.

5th kumicho (1989–2005): Yoshinori Watanabe

The Yama-Ichi War ended with retirement of Hiroshi Yamamoto which was arbitrated by one of the most respected bosses Seijo Inagawa. After that, the clan elected wakagashira Yoshinori Watanabe as 5th kumicho of the organization. Masaru Takumi (kumicho of Takumi-gumi) was elected as wakagashira. He was so powerful and respected within the organization that his influence overshadowed that of kumicho to some extent.

Nude Yakuza tatooed girls

6th kumicho (2005–present): Shinobu Tsukasa (real name: Kenichi Shinoda)

In 1997, then powerful wakagashira Masaru Takumi was assassinated by underlings of then wakagashira-hosa (deputy underboss) Taro Nakano. After this assassination, they were unable to choose a new wakagashira for more than eight years. As a result, leadership of the organization became weaker. Finally, in 2005, wakagashira-hosa Shinobu Tsukasa (then kumicho of Hirota-gumi) was chosen as new wakagashira and shortly afterward, in August 2005, Tsukasa inherited the position of the 6th kumicho of the Yamaguchi-gumi.

Watanabe has retired to private life — rather uncommon in Yakuza circles, as bosses usually do not retire until their death.

Under Tsukasa’s leadership, the 6th Yamaguchi-gumi has resumed expansion. Seiji Takayama, kumicho of Kodo-kai, was elected as wakagashira. They absorbed the Tokyo-based gang Kokusui-kai, thus acquiring lucrative turf in the capital. Tsukasa was imprisoned in December 2005, and is serving a six-year sentence.

 

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