Yakuza gangs are as active as ever despite a law passed 15 years ago to crack down on organized crime. The number of gangsters, which ostensibly dropped somewhat after the anti-organized crime law took effect in 1992, has hardly changed, say sources close to both police and gangster groups. And gang-related crimes continue. Gangs are teaming up with foreign criminal elements to run theft rings and drug deals. They are even gunning down rival gang members in turf wars — as happened in broad daylight in central Tokyo in February.

Police seem powerless. According to police estimates, Japan has 21 recognized organized crime syndicates, with roughly 85,000 full-fledged and loosely affiliated members nationwide. The largest is the Kobe-based Yamaguchi-gumi, with about 39,700. Its membership has doubled in the past two decades. Yamaguchi-gumi is three times larger than its Tokyo-based rival, Sumiyoshi-kai, and four times bigger than Inagawa-kai, also in Tokyo. These groups are organized in hierarchical structures.

After the law was enacted, police cracked down in the Kansai region, Yamaguchi-gumi’s home base, and the gang broke with a long tradition of sticking to Kansai turf and extended its tentacles into Tokyo. “There is much more money to be made in real estate and other transactions in Tokyo,” according to a senior Yamaguchi-gumi member who moved to Tokyo several years ago. “Fierce competition within the syndicate has triggered new ways of making money, and this is the way we expand.”

Today, Yamaguchi-gumi has more than 3,000 members and affiliated members in Tokyo, twice as many as it had five years ago, according to police estimates.

From 2005 to 2006, the syndicate also formed tie-ups with eight independent gangster groups in Kyoto, Hiroshima and elsewhere. The smaller groups were apparently looking for protection from the bigger organization. In September 2005, the Yamaguchi-gumi absorbed the Kokusui-kai, which along with the Sumiyoshi-kai and Inagawa-kai groups, had long fought to keep Yamaguchi-gumi out of the capital. One insider, who had predicted Yamaguchi-gumi advances into Tokyo would trigger a gang war, said his fears came true 18 months later. On Feb. 5, a senior affiliated Sumiyoshi-kai gangster was gunned down, apparently by a Kokusui-kai member.

Police sources say one unintended effect of the anti-organized crime law is that gangs are now smaller only “on paper.” In effect, the yakuza gangs have downsized their organizations by having members leave to support gang activities from outside the group.

Police define a “syndicate” as a group with a certain percentage of mobsters with criminal records, and keep close tabs on them. Now police are having a harder time tracing murky connections to decide which gangs to pin the crimes on. At the end of last year, police estimates showed about 41,500 “official” gang members nationwide, with an additional 43,200 loosely affiliated members. That’s not much less than the total 96,000 in 1992 when the anti-crime law took effect.

If a full-fledged gang member is caught for a crime, the gang’s top leader can be held responsible.

Nichi Bei Times Weekly March 22, 2007