KURUME, Fukuoka Pref. — The yakuza's reputation for unpredictability and violence keeps journalists away, but a deadly turf war between two rival gangs in Kyushu has made the mob reluctant media fodder.
The two-year war has resulted in seven deaths and more than 20 shootings and bombings.
Now, in an unprecedented act of collective courage, 1,500 Kurume residents are taking the mob to court to force their ouster.
"The yakuza are using weapons like the kind you see in the Iraq war: grenades, bombs and guns that can shoot people from 500 meters away," said lawyer Osamu Kabashima, who is representing the plaintiffs.
"My clients have had enough. They want to live in safety and peace."
In the most notorious episode in the war, a gangster walked into a hospital and pumped two bullets into an innocent man mistaken for a rival.
In another, the 1,000-member Dojin-kai gang's headquarters, in a busy shopping district in the city, came under a sub-machinegun attack.
Those attacks finally snapped the patience of locals, who have banded together to drive the mob out, using a civil law that allows them to challenge businesses that "infringe on their right to live peacefully."
Win or lose, the legal fight will go down in history. "This is the first time that citizens are trying to expel the head office of a designated gangster organization," heralded the liberal Asahi newspaper, which called on local businesses and government leaders to support the plaintiffs and "drive the yakuza into extinction."
That seems unlikely. The National Police Agency estimates there are more than 84,000 gangsters in the country's underworld syndicates, many times the strength of the U.S. Mafia at its violent peak. A single group, Yamaguchi-gumi, is the General Motors of organized crime, with nearly 40,000 members in affiliates across Japan and a walled central compound in one of the wealthiest parts of Kobe.
Fan magazines, comic books and movies glamorize the yakuza, who operate in plain view in a way unthinkable to American or European observers. Dojin-kai's headquarters is public and known to any Kurume taxi driver.
Signs pasted on the doors of the six-story building politely explain that the organization has temporarily moved and provides its new address on the other side of the train station.
The tangled relationships between the yakuza and legitimate businesses, particularly real estate, show how the mob has metastasized into the economy and society at large, and will not easily be removed.
In March, Suruga Corp., a once listed company, was revealed to have paid over ¥15 billion to Koyo Jitsugyo, an Osaka firm linked to a Yamaguchi-gumi affiliate. In return, from 2003 to 2007, Koyo gangsters removed tenants from five properties Suruga wished to acquire, taking on average 12 to 18 months to empty a building.
"We cannot make profits unless we sell land quickly," Takeo Okawa, director of Suruga's general affairs department, told the Asahi newspaper. "Speed is our lifeline. Koyo proved that it had the speed." Suruga reportedly made ¥27 billion in profit by selling the property.
Dojin-kai's new headquarters, immediately identifiable by its business nameplate, is a two-story compound in one of Kurume's better neighborhoods. The acting boss sits in a conference room dominated by portraits of deceased Chairman Yoshikazu Matsuo in ceremonial kimono. Matsuo was murdered last year.
"We have always had a strong relationship with local people, so this is a bad situation for us," he said. "It is obvious that they are being manipulated by the cops who want to crush us."
Police, who declined to go on record, denied this, as did lawyer Kabashima. "No ordinary person wants to live beside these gangs," he said. "There is a school close to the site of the machinegun attack. What if the bullets had hit children?"
Kabashima and his family have lived in fear since he was outed in the media last year, but he says his foes are "not stupid enough" to attack him. "They cannot move against me without severe consequences."
The yakuza have long occupied an ambiguous position. Like their Italian cousins, they have murky historical links with political power, in the yakuza's case with the Liberal Democratic Party. A reputation for keeping disputes between themselves and not harming "non-combatants" protected them from the ire of citizens and the attention of police.
That ambiguity was supposed to have ended in 1992 when the government introduced the toughest anti-mob legislation in a generation — punishment for yakuza excesses during the booming 1980s when they shifted into real estate and other legitimate businesses.
But the state still hasn't made membership of a criminal organization illegal or given police the mob-fighting tools long considered crucial in other countries: wiretapping, plea bargaining and witness protection.
The authorities and the yakuza "have achieved a kind of balance where they basically accept each other's existence but pretend otherwise," said Tomohiko Suzuki, a journalist who specializes in crime writing. "It's very Japanese. The 1992 law was a kind of performance for the public."
A new police white paper warns that the yakuza have moved into securities trading and infected hundreds of Japan's listed companies, a "disease that will shake the foundations of the economy." Experts say Yamaguchi-gumi in particular has become a behemoth with resources to rival Japan's larger corporations.
The lack of legal tools to fight the yakuza is painfully obvious in Kyushu, where the law only allows the plaintiffs to challenge thugs within a 500-meter radius of their homes. "It's not easy to kick them out of town," lamented one, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "We're demanding that they stop using the building as a gathering place. They own the building; it's their property and we can't make them give it up."
Even if they move, the mob will simply pop up somewhere else in Kurume, a senior city official admitted on condition of anonymity. The city is backing the plaintiffs. "I guess it is correct to say that Japanese people have learned to live with the yakuza," the official said.
Unchallenged, Dojin-kai will invest huge untaxed profits in real estate, eventually taking over whole blocks. "We have to hope that even if they relocate, the residents of the new area will challenge them again," the official said. "The yakuza are strong on a one-to-one basis, but they are extremely weak in the face of collective action."
Kurume's latest problems began in May 2006 when longtime Dojin-kai boss Seijiro Matsuo suddenly announced his resignation, sparking a war of succession with splinter group Kyushu Seido-kai that erupted in front of Dojin-kai's Kurume headquarters with an AK-47 attack.
Not everyone is rooting for the plaintiffs. "We're not against the people going to court, but if they win, the yakuza might relocate close to us and that would cause problems for my business," said Yuichiro Okamura, who owns a small restaurant next to Kurume Station.
The owner of a vegetable shop next to the Dojin-kai building said the plaintiffs should let sleeping dogs lie. "The yakuza have never done anything to me. But the people in that building have much better manners than some of the youngsters around here today."
- An extended version of this article can be found here.
Editor's note: David McNeill completed his PhD on the Japanese information society at Napier University, Edinburgh in 1998. He went on to teach at universities in Ireland, England and China before taking up his current position with Sophia University in Tokyo. I'd like to thank to Dr. McNeill for his kind permission to republish the above article here in Japan Perspectives.