Leo Lewis in Tokyo
An attractive residential backstreet, a highly desirable postcode and a hugely provocative bit of corporate relocation could unleash a murderous gang war on the streets of Tokyo.
Veteran observers of Japanese organised crime are predicting a sharp increase in violence in the coming weeks as two rival yakuza crime syndicates threaten to battle it out for supremacy of the protection, prostitution and drugs rackets in the centre of the city.
The stakes are rising fast. With many of their business interests such as property and construction battered by the country’s deepening recession, the gangs are scrambling more aggressively for the profits from rackets such as blackmail and loan-sharking, which thrive in the more glamorous districts of Tokyo, according to one authority on the yakuza.
The immediate risk, said police sources, arises from a short strip of road in the glitzy Akasaka district of Tokyo and potentially explosive relations between the long-term residents and the new neighbours.
This week, however, new neighbours, the Inagawa-kai – the dominant force in Yokohama and the Tokyo suburbs – moved into a three-storey apartment block a couple of hundred metres away. Police say that the gang is calling the building its “Tokyo liaison office”.
The heightened tensions and risk of a bloody “land grab” for Tokyo rackets comes after the worst year for Japanese shares – investments to which the syndicates are said to be very exposed.
The brazen proximity of the two gang offices poses significant risks, police fear. The Inagawa-kai and Sumiyoshi-kai are evenly matched in terms of numbers – both have about 10,000 members – but the former has the backing of the western-Japan based Yamaguchi-gumi, which eclipses them all with 40,000 loyal followers.
Police also believe that crime groups have begun arming themselves more heavily, with weaponry such as hand-grenades and antipersonnel mines.
The theory among yakuza-watchers is that the Yamaguchi-gumi, in an attempt to gain a stronger foothold in Tokyo, may be using its ties with the Inagawa clan to spearhead a turf war with the Sumiyoshi-kai.
“If the Sumiyoshi look at this office move by the Inagawa as a move by the Yamaguchi-gumi, they are going to feel very threatened and will react,” said Joshua Adelstein, an expert on Japanese organised crime. “Financially there is a very big deal at stake in Akasaka because the rackets in central Tokyo make so much money; the Sumiyoshi-kai can be expected to fight very hard to hold on to its position.”
He added that the potential for things to get bloody in gangland was already beginning to show, with several killings in broad daylight last year, exposing the fragility of relations between the leading yakuza groups.
The Metropolitan Police Department has also expressed concerns about an increase in gang violence, posting permanent patrols around the Inagawa-kai’s building and forming a panel to examine ways of removing the rival gangs from the area completely.
Comment: The Inagawakai and the Yamaguchigumi have a very tight relationship. The Yamaguchigumi did a merger with a Tokyo based organized crime group, the Kokusuikai 国粋会 in November of 2005, and has been eating away at Sumiyoshikai territory ever since. In a way, the Sumiyoshikai is being nibbled on two fronts: by the Kokusuikai which is now part of the Yamaguchigumi and the Inagawakai, which is still independent but has one large faction, Yamakawaikka, which is essentially a front for the Kodokai, the largest faction of the Yamaguchigumi and the ruling faction at the moment. The Kodokai is based in Nagoya and has grown fat off the success of Toyota. That is not to say that the Kodokai and Toyota have a working relationship. Let’s just say Toyota brings a lot of money into the area. In any event, the Sumiyoshikai is not happy with the latest developments. One of their top executives､Sugiura of the Kobayashikai, was gunned down in the street in February of 2007, in front of the Venezuelan Embassy. It’s believed the assassination was the first volley in a turf war that has been smoldering ever since.
On the other hand, while gang wars used to be a chance for young yakuza to rise up in the organization–the number of conflicts has diminished in recent years. It used to be: kill a rival gang member, do your time, and come out a boss. However, court decisions in the last few years have made crime bosses liable for damages inflicted by their soldiers. This has discouraged skirmishes. It can be very expensive if your soldier kills the wrong person. And in the modern day yakuza, (for the most part) it’s money before honor every time.