Gang hit prompts fears of mob war in Tokyo
· Murder of senior yakuza spawns series of shootings
· Japan's biggest syndicates in feud over territory
Justin McCurry in Tokyo
Thursday February 8, 2007
Three men show off their tattoos, heavily associated with Japanese gangsters, or yakuza. Photograph: Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP
The fatal shooting of a top gangster in Tokyo has prompted fears of an all-out turf war between two of Japan's fiercest underworld organisations.
Police have arrested two members of a gang affiliated to the Sumiyoshi-kai, Japan's second-biggest crime syndicate. Both men are being held on suspicion of shooting at a rival gang's offices.
Officers quoted one suspect as saying that he and his accomplice had targeted a group linked to the Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan's most powerful crime syndicate, in apparent retaliation for the killing this week of Ryoichi Sugiura, a senior member of a Sumiyoshi affiliate, the Mainichi newspaper reported.
Two further shootings at properties also linked to the Yamaguchi-gumi were reported on Tuesday as police struggled to prevent open warfare.
Sugiura was believed to have been negotiating a settlement to a territorial dispute in Tokyo's seedy Roppongi district with the Kokusui-kai, a smaller Tokyo-based gang that joined the Yamaguchi-gumi in 2005, just as the latter began extending its influence in the capital and other parts of eastern Japan.
The Yamaguchi-gumi is based in the west of Japan, where the economy is still struggling to emerge from the recession. The gang's expansion plans were hatched when Kenichi Shinoda replaced Yoshinori Watanabe as the gang's godfather in a peaceful handover of power in July 2005, making him Japan's top yakuza don. He is now directing operations from prison, where he has been serving a six-year sentence for firearms possession since December 2005.
Shinoda, who was jailed for 13 years in the 1970s for killing a rival with a sword, immediately joined forces with the Kokusui-kai, which had leased territory to the Yamaguchi-gumi's fiercest enemies, including the Sumiyoshi-kai. There are fears that this week's shootings could be the result of the Yamaguchi-gumi's attempts to seize back the leases.
Yakuza watchers said that if negotiations continued to falter, there could be more bloodletting.
"It could get a lot worse before it gets better," Benjamin Fulford, author of several books on Japan's crime syndicates, told the Guardian. "It's hard to say. Generally speaking, the yakuza don't like wars because they end up dead or in prison. My guess is that it could be full-on war, which could be spectacular as they're both pretty aggressive gangs."
Despite increasing police crackdowns, yakuza membership is rising amid richer pickings from extortion, prostitution, drug smuggling, property deals and even stock market transactions as the Japanese economy emerges from the doldrums.
There were about 87,000 gangsters active in Japan at the end of 2005, according to the National Police Agency.
Nearly 40,000 belong to the Yamaguchi-gumi, which has had much more success at attracting members from smaller gangs which are increasingly under pressure from police investigations