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Friday, Aug. 19, 2005

Police wary as Yamaguchi-gumi prepares to fete sixth don


Staff writer

OSAKA -- With the late July emergence of Kenichi Shinoda -- also known as Shinobu Tsukasa -- as Yamaguchi-gumi's sixth don, Japan's largest and most notorious mob syndicate now has a boss with a violent past but a reputation as an organized leader and diplomat with strong connections to rival gangs, especially in Tokyo.

Hyogo Prefectural Police warn that the leadership situation in the mob remains unknown, and that the public should still be vigilant against gangland warfare.

The new don is appealing a prison term for a firearms-related offense, and instability could emerge, depending on the Supreme Court's decision on the case.

For more than a decade, Yamaguchi-gumi's don had been Yoshinori Watanabe, who became its fifth boss in July 1989 at an elaborate ceremony in Kobe attended by over 100 affiliated gang kingpins. A reputed expert on Chinese literature, Watanabe's leadership style was described by journalists who cover the gang as "low-key."

"It became even more low-key after the 1992 introduction of the law allowing crack downs on organized gangs," said an Osaka-based freelance writer who has covered the underworld for two decades, speaking on condition of anonymity. "From then on, Watanabe ordered affiliated gang leaders to lie low, and to not speak to the media. Unofficial cooperation with police was also curtailed."

Watanabe also ordered mobsters to pitch in and distribute food and other goods after the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995, winning the gratitude of survivors.

The gang claimed in local media reports that it eventually gave away nearly 1 billion yen worth of goods and 20,000 free boxed lunches, although there were also accusations some members engaged in price-gouging.

Initially, Watanabe's designated successor was Masaru Takumi, the No. 2 man in the gang. But Takumi was gunned down in August 1997 at a Kobe hotel by members of Nakano-kai, a rival gang, in an attack that also killed a bystander.

Takumi's death was considered a major blow to the gang because it left it without a designated successor.

In the meantime, in Nagoya, Shinoda's gang, Kodo-kai, expanded its influence, setting up gangs in the Kanto and Tohoku regions.

Yamaguchi-gumi has always been stronger in western Japan, especially the Kansai region, than in Tokyo and northern Japan, where two other major mob syndicates -- Inagawa-kai and Sumiyoshi-kai -- are based. But Shinoda managed to stake out new territory for Yamaguchi-gumi.

According to police estimates, Kodo-kai had expanded to 18 prefectures as of April and has a membership of somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000, making it the second-largest Yamaguchi-gumi affiliate after Yamaken-gumi, which is believed to have around 6,000 members.

Yamaguchi-gumi as a whole has about 39,200 members, nearly half of Japan's estimated 80,000 gangsters, police say.

In April, Shinoda was promoted to Yamaguchi-gumi's No. 2 position, mostly, yakuza watchers say, for his command over affiliates in the Hokuriku and Chubu regions.

By then, though, Yamaguchi-gumi was facing tough times.

Last November, the Supreme Court ruled that Watanabe, as don, was legally responsible for his subordinates' acts in the accidental fatal shooting of a police officer in Kyoto in 1995. Immediately after the ruling, the gang announced to police and a few journalists that Watanabe was "taking a rest" from his duties.

"Shinoda's promotion to the No. 2 spot this spring, and then to don in July, was not unexpected because he had long been considered a likely successor to Watanabe," the Osaka-based writer said.

Police and court records show Shinoda was born in Oita Prefecture in 1942. After graduating from high school and working for a short time at a local firm, he drifted to Osaka in 1962, where he hooked up with Kodo-kai, a Yamaguchi-gumi affiliate.

Shinoda and Kodo-kai then gained a reputation as one of the more violent gangs in the Yamaguchi-gumi organization. In 1969, Shinoda murdered a rival mob boss with a sword and spent the next 13 years in prison.

After his release in 1982, Shinoda and Kodo-kai expanded their influence in Nagoya through the rest of the 1980s. When Watanabe, then head of Yamaken-gumi, became the fifth don in 1989, Shinoda was rewarded for his loyalty with an appointment as a top lieutenant.

"Shinoda has gone out of his way to build better relations with rival gangs like Sumiyoshi-kai and Inagawa-kai. His organizational and diplomatic skills are said to be top notch. He's aware of the current legal and social climate in which Yamaguchi-gumi is operating," the freelance journalist said.

At some point in the coming months, Shinoda will likely be installed as sixth don in a formal, elaborate ceremony at a shrine in Kobe, with the 100 major affiliated gang leaders, as well as representatives from rival gangs like Inagawa-kai and Sumiyoshi-kai, all present in formal kimono.

In the past, residents in Kobe expressed concern over possible violence before -- or after -- the ceremony. But Hyogo police say things at the moment are quiet.

"Since the announcement (that Shinoda was going to become sixth don), we've not heard residents who live near the gang's headquarters express much concern about possible violence," said Ryoichi Nishida of the Hyogo police force's underworld division.

While security has not been beefed up due to Shinoda's promotion, Nishida said a special task force in the department keeps an eye on the gang. Among its responsibilities are to be present at Yamaguchi-gumi headquarters on the fifth and 20th of each month -- when senior gang leaders hold regular conferences.

As gang kingpins from around the country and their bodyguards arrive, task force members keep tabs on those who enter and exit the building, which is located in an upscale neighborhood. Yet despite the quiet so far, Nishida warns that it's still too early to tell whether the formal transition of power from Watanabe to Shinoda will take place without incident.

"All we can really do at this point is be vigilant, and wait and see what happens," he said.



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