• Sat. Apr 20th, 2024

Japan Subculture Research Center

A guide to the Japanese underworld, Japanese pop-culture, yakuza and everything dark under the sun.

The Tokyo Vice Vice-0-Pedia: Your Snarky Guide To The Japanese Underworld

Aptly named for its clandestine existence, the Japanese underworld thrives beneath the surface, weaving a subterranean society that infiltrates every corner of Japanese life. The Yakuza, Japan’s infamous mafia, proudly upholds age-old structures and rituals tracing back to the Edo era. In this series of articles, we’ll embark on an encyclopedia-style journey to unearth key elements of this hidden world: traditional customs, specialized professions, and a legendary figures, each intricately woven into the fabric of Japan’s shadowy underworld.

Kazuo Taoka (田岡一雄)

From Wikimedia Commons | Taoka in the center.

Kazuo Taoka, the legendary “godfather of godfathers,” led the Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s largest yakuza association, from 1946 to 1981. Taoka’s reign was rife with infamy, with tales of extortion, racketeering, gambling, prostitution, and murder. His legacy continues to stir fascination and controversy within the yakuza underworld. Taoka was born on March 28th, 1913. He shares the same birthday with the managing editor of the blog, Jake Adelstein, author of Tokyo Vice

Before his rise to infamy, Kazuo Taoka hailed from humble beginnings in a village of Shikoku, born into poverty and orphaned before the age of five. Raised by relatives, his path veered towards the yakuza world when he reconnected with an old school friend, the brother of Yamaguchi Toru, the second-generation leader of the Yamaguchi-gumi, around 1929. Still a teenager at the time, his determination and resolute character quickly set him apart from his peers. He earned the nickname “the Bear” for his strength in fights and his penchant for gouging out adversaries’ eyes with his fingers.  

After a brief apprenticeship, his official affiliation with the Yamaguchi clan began, and he started his ascent to the upper ranks. However, peace was short-lived, as 1936 saw his first deadly encounter when he fatally slashed a rival gang member. Serving half of World War II behind bars, he was released in 1943 after a seven-year stint. Returning to a Yamaguchi clan weakened by police crackdowns, he swiftly ascended to leadership following the boss’s demise from natural causes.

Driven by ambition, Kazuo Taoka climbed higher and higher in the underworld, seizing control and forging alliances with other criminal organizations nationwide to broaden his reach. His network grew stronger, particularly in Osaka’s bustling metropolis, where he even ventured into the entertainment industry by founding a talent agency. By 1964, the Yamaguchi-gumi had amassed control over 340 gangs. Taoka garnered praise and financial backing from political circles, admired for his adept management of labor dynamics, which kept leftist unions at bay, allowing rightists to operate freely.

Despite his triumphs, Kazuo Taoka’s life hung in the balance numerous times. In 1978, he narrowly survived an assassination attempt by the rival Matsuda clan at a Kyoto nightclub. True to his reputation, he sought revenge, and weeks later, his attacker met a fitting end, restoring Taoka’s honor. However, even the mighty Taoka couldn’t cheat death forever. In 1981, he succumbed to a heart attack. Though Masahisa Takenaka stepped into his shoes later on, many believe that Taoka’s legacy as the ultimate godfather could never be replicated.

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