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Thursday, Dec. 23, 2004

Gangland power vacuum leaves Kobe residents gasping

Staff writer

KOBE -- Nada Ward is one of Kobe's better neighborhoods, home to senior business executives and foreign diplomats, and known for its good schools and small, trendy shops and cafes.

But many in the ward are wondering if the peace and quiet will last.

That's because this upscale district is also home to the country's largest organized crime syndicate: the Yamaguchi-gumi.

The Yamaguchi-gumi has been thrown into chaos and uncertainty following leader Yoshinori Watanabe's announcement late last month that he would "take a break" from his responsibilities.

Police and yakuza-watchers in the media emphasize that Watanabe has not formally resigned -- at least not yet.

Police noted that he did not say how long his "break" would last, and said they do not expect a formal transfer of power anytime soon. But it has still prompted jitters among some Nada Ward residents.

"Normally, when gang members come to town, they show up and leave without causing a disturbance," said Yuka Higashida, 37, who lives a few doors away from Yamaguchi-gumi headquarters. "But a lot of us are now worried that Watanabe's (reported) de facto resignation will lead to violence whenever gang members gather."

Watanabe's announcement, made in a message faxed to leaders of affiliate groups nationwide, did not catch police and journalists who cover the Yamaguchi-gumi by complete surprise.

On Nov. 12, the Supreme Court ruled that Watanabe, as head of the Yamaguchi-gumi, was legally responsible for the actions of affiliated gangsters. The lawsuit had been filed by the family of a police officer who had been fatally shot in Kyoto by a Yamaguchi-gumi-linked mobster in 1995.

"The Supreme Court ruling was a great surprise to gang members, some of whom got angry at Watanabe for not doing more to defend the gang," a Hyogo Prefectural Police official said on condition of anonymity. "It was clear after the ruling that Watanabe was going to have do something."

If Watanabe does resign, the Yamaguchi-gumi will have lost a leader whose low-key approach and relatively quiet leadership style made him stand apart from many of his predecessors, according to yakuza-watchers.

Journalist Katsuhiro Yamada, who has written a three-volume history of the gang, has described Watanabe as something of a bookish intellectual who prefers reading to fighting.

Yamada said, "Watanabe is an avid reader of Chinese literature and reportedly has a strong interest in the performing arts."

Watanabe was officially made the fifth don of the Yamaguchi-gumi on July 20, 1989, during an elaborate ceremony at Kobe's Minatogawa Shrine.

In attendance were not only senior members of the underworld syndicate but also members of its rival, the Tokyo-based Inagawa-kai, which has a history of violent clashes with the Yamaguchi-gumi.

The ceremony took place nearly four years after Watanabe's predecessor, Masahisa Takenaka, was assassinated. At the time of Watanabe's accession, the Yamaguchi-gumi organization had 91 gangs and roughly 21,000 official members, plus an estimated 17,000 nonofficial members, according to police.

Watanabe led the syndicate through difficult times in the 1990s. The enactment of a law to crack down on organized crime in 1993 took a big bite out of the Yamaguchi-gumi's activities, and senior leader Masaru Takumi, considered by many to be Watanabe's heir apparent, was gunned down at a Kobe hotel in August 1997.

In a surprise move, Watanabe also won the gratitude of many Kobe residents following the January 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, when he ordered gang members to volunteer their services at homeless shelters.

Yamada estimates that the Yamaguchi-gumi also gave away nearly 1 billion yen worth of food, clothing, medicine and other goods to quake survivors.

"Although some refused the gang's aid, many elderly who lived alone and had nobody to care for them were particularly happy, going up to Watanabe when he visited the shelters and thanking him personally," Yamada said.

But the Yamaguchi-gumi continued to lose members throughout the 1990s due to the Antigang Law and the fact that many younger potential recruits balked at joining the conservative, rule-bound organization.

Police estimated the total number of official members at about 18,000 as of early this year, with an unknown number of unofficial members.

The exact number of affiliates is difficult to calculate, as there are often mergers, and smaller gangs split off from new ones. But the 2004 Yamaguchi-gumi telephone directory, issued by the syndicate itself, lists 101 gangs.

The strongest and most influential among them is the Kobe-based Yamaken-gumi, with roughly 6,000 members. This gang produced Watanabe. Insiders say it will be closely watched by police in the coming days.

"The Yamaken-gumi and its leader, Kaneyoshi Kuwata, will play a large role in selecting an eventual successor (to Watanabe), as they are one of the Yamaguchi-gumi's largest and wealthiest gangs," said a Tokyo-based freelance journalist who has followed the yakuza for more than a decade. He asked to remain anonymous.

The Osaka-based Hanabusa-gumi and its leader, Goro Hanabusa, are also expected to play an influential role in the selection of a new don, watchers say. Hanabusa is considered a good friend of Watanabe; he served as master of ceremonies at Watanabe's accession.

It is not an orderly, formal transfer of authority that worries police and residents, but violent street battles between rival gangs jostling for power in the absence of a strong leader -- the same kind of strife that killed Takenaka in 1985.

The journalist in Tokyo said: "Nobody really knows what is going to happen. The good news is that some of the Yamaguchi-gumi's rival gangs, like the Tokyo-based Inagawa-kai, have been quiet regarding Watanabe's recent announcement.

"But most senior leaders of the Yamaguchi-gumi are getting old, and the younger members might see this as a good opportunity to challenge their elders."

That possibility has Higashida and other Nada Ward residents on their guard.

Higashida said: "I haven't heard any residents complain about the elder members of the Yamaguchi-gumi, except when they arrive in their big luxury cars to attend meetings and block the road. They aren't as frightening as some of the younger members.

"Hopefully, the younger gang members will continue to respect the neighborhood's tranquillity."

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