Yamaguchi Gumi, Japan's Largest Organized Crime Syndicate, Nearing Gang War, Japanese Police Fear Unprecedented Bloodshed

Aaron Homer

Yamaguchi Gumi, one of Japan's largest and most powerful criminal gangs, will likely be splitting soon, resulting in a bloody gang war that has Japanese police on edge, MSN is reporting.

At issue are competing factions within the group and their divided loyalties to current boss, 73-year-old Shinobu Tsukasa (also known as Kenichi Shinoda), who has been the head of Yamaguchi Gumi since 2005. Tsukasa has been alienating the heads of different families within his own gang syndicate, favoring some over others, focusing business in western Japan instead of the more lucrative Tokyo market, and imposing rules described by the Daily Beast as "puritanical."

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The last major Yamaguchi Gumi split took place in 1984, when nearly half of the organization severed ties. The fallout from that split played out over the next five years, with gang violence erupting throughout Japan, resulting in nearly 30 deaths and gunfire erupting in the streets. As the Daily Beast writer Jake Adelstein notes, "Guns being fired in the streets may seem trivial in to people in the U.S. but Japan has incredibly strict gun control laws. Last year in this nation of over 120 million people there were fewer than 10 gun-related homicides."

Founded nearly a hundred years ago as a sort-of union for fishermen and dock workers, according to Japan Visitor, Yamaguchi Gumi now claims over 23,000 members, making it the largest and most powerful of Japan's crime families. The Japanese Yakuza, unlike American mafiosi or street gangs like Bloods or Crips, operate within Japan with a sense of almost-legitimacy. The 21 different crime organizations are regulated by Japan's government, and you can drive right by their headquarters -- featuring their names and emblems -- on the streets of Tokyo and other Japanese cities.

Yamaguchi Gumi, not unlike other crime syndicates in Japan, operates in much the same way. Top bosses carry business cards. The organization's members pay taxes and are offered generous compensation plans. Some of its activities are legitimate businesses. Others -- prostitution, gun-running, extortion -- are not.

As of this post, Japanese police are hoping that the Yamaguchi Gumi split will be peacefully resolved.

[Image courtesy of: Getty Images / Junko Kimura]