In Japan, the yakuza have some control over the entertainment industry — many major talent agencies have yakuza ties and rule over their empires ruthlessly. The head of the National Police Agency on August 31, 2011 publicly stated: “We will do what is necessary to aid the entertainment industry in cutting their ties to organized crime.”

The Yamaguchi-gumi has even been linked to the funding of one of Japan’s ubiquitous, super-cute teen girl bands. The band’s management has not publicly commented on the claim, which has been reported in Japanese weekly magazines.

They have a huge hand in the construction, real estate, currency exchange, labor dispatch, and the IT and financial industries, according to the National Police Agency. They also supply much of the labor for Japan’s nuclear industry and have had influence in the neverending cleanup of the Fukushima disaster, according to Japanese and English media reports and books like Tomohiko Suzuki’s “Yakuza and The Nuclear Industry.”

When we speak of yakuza in the west, we tend to think of heavily-tattooed thugs and noble gangsters with missing pinkies.

The older generation of yakuza did favor tattoos, but this has fallen out of favor as they were first used as identifiers by the authorities, and latterly have gained popularity with an expanding subset of Japanese.

The traditional tattoo was extremely painful to have done and showed that the individual was tough, had turned his back on society, and that he had money to spend.

Last month, Japan’s largest crime group, the Yamaguchi-gumi, split into two main factions, potentially creating a gang war that may ultimately involve all 21 designated crime groups in Japan.

The new group, which was formally created in early September, is calling themselves the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi and is already setting up alliances with other organized crime groups. The National Police Agency says they have had an emergency meeting to discuss how to handle the crisis, and police nationwide are on alert.

In the Japanese underworld, the 21 other organized crime groups are trying to decide which way the wind blows and who to align themselves with. The last split in the Yamaguchi-gumi, which began in 1984, resulted in several years of epic warfare marked with assassinations, attempted bombings and gun battles that terrified and enthralled the nation.

The yakuza is a blanket term for Japan’s organized crime groups: The country’s mafia. They were traditionally federations of gamblers and street merchants, but while the yakuza like to tout their history as going back hundreds of years, the oldest continuous group is, author Kazuhiko Murakami estimates, probably the Aizukotetsu-kai in Kyoto, founded in the 1870s.

While many yakuza groups started as loosely run gambling associations, they really came into their own in the chaos after World War II, first running the black markets, providing gambling, and entertainment  even managing some of Japan’s top post-war stars and singers — before moving into construction, real estate, and engaging in extortion, blackmail, and fraud. And then of course, politics.

There are 21 major groups with more than 53,000 members, according to the National Police Agency. The three largest groups are the Yamaguchi-gumi (23,400), The Inagawa-kai, (6,600), and the Sumiyoshi-kai (8,500). The yakuza are not outlawed; they are regulated and monitored.

The Yamaguchi-gumi split into two groups at the end of August could spark gang wars in Japan.
The Yamaguchi-gumi had 72 factions before the split. The other 21 organized crime groups in Japan will have to decide which group to support: the old guard or the rebels. That may cause groups such as the Inagawa-kai, the third largest group, to split apart as their own factions decide loyalty.


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