Yesterday morning at 10am in the well-to-do area of Tokyo’s Nishi Azabu, a member of one Yakuza gang (the Yamaguchi-gumi, 山口組) shot and killed a very senior member (a 幹部 or kanbu, which roughly translates to “director”) of another Yakuza gang (the Sumiyoshi-kai, 住吉会) on the side of the main road between Roppongi and Shibuya, all in broad daylight. This has lit a match of dangerous and lethal proportions, escalating a rift that has been brewing in Tokyo for some time now, starting the much feared “Yakuza war” in central Tokyo, that many have been predicting since the end of 2005.
This is directly relevant for a few of us who write for Stippy, because it has all happened literally right on our doorstep. One of the things we all like and respect about Japan – it’s shiny reputation as a “safe” country – seems to have become tarnished and is somewhat crumbling at the sides. Many of us (and I suppose our avid readers) live around this lively and busy area of Tokyo, and the shock certainly hit home yesterday with the scene of the drive-by shooting being outside my local Seijo Ishii supermarket, a stone’s throw from where several of us live, and even more of us work. This is just not meant to happen in Japan – it seems so surreal.
The incident went as follows: Just after 10am, gun shots were heard along Roppongi Street in Nishi-Azabu 4 Chome. The fuzz arrived to find a rough looking, but well dressed guy inside a USD$110k black Toyota “Century” (pictured, the favoured car of the nationalistic Yakuza) dead. He had been shot three times in the head and stomach at point blank range, at 10am on a weekday morning on one of the busiest inner city thoroughfares of Tokyo in front of more than 50 or 60 onlookers (most who soon fled the scene for fear of being tangled in more than they can handle).
After investigation by the Central Anti-Organized Crime Unit (警視庁組織犯罪対策課）and the local police, they determined that the murdered man was a member of the well-known Sumiyoshi-kai Yakuza Gang (these gangs are more commonly referred to as 暴力団 , “boryokudan”, which means literally “violence gang” in Japanese). The eye witnesses that were brave enough to stick around for police and reporters that soon swarmed upon the area, said that 2 men wearing motorbike helmets had approached the parked car, and fired three rounds through the back window of the car, and killing the kanbu, who’s name was Ryoichi Sugiura (杉浦良一, 43 years old). The two assassins then fled, and soon after a handgun and their motorbike were found ditched very close to the crime scene, which was in between Kowa Building (a building that houses about 10 embassies of mainly South American nations) and the headquarters of Novartis Pharma. This highly prized living area is considered to be quite upper-class, and normally very quiet, despite it’s close proximity to Roppongi and Azabujyuban, both notorious for their pinnings to the Tokyo underworld (and both considered “dangerous” – or maybe just yabai – places to be by normal Japanese people.)
About two hours after the incident, I left our office building (near Novartis) and headed back toward Nishi Azabu crossing for lunch with a colleague, and by that time, the area was surrounded by TV cameras and flashing lights. There were at least 20 detective cars (unmarked with just the proverbial removable red light atop their roof), and at least as many news trucks, from every TV station I could think of, and more. Helicopters were circling the skies, trying to get scoop footage of the scene from above. The whole area was wrapped in yellow “Crime Scene – Keep Out” police tape, and while being generally under control, people were on a tight string, and the atmosphere was one of orderly mayhem.
Roppongi-dori closed off for all traffic by Police (click to enlarge)
The last time I saw a scene like that was the evening Takafumi Horie from Livedoor got arrested at Roppongi Hills, where I also happened to be walking past at the time. I was expecting this to be just a similar incident, maybe another big media arrest, or another company being raided by Police for yet another financial scandal – until a scattered and panicked Japanese guy ran up to us (2 gaijins) and proceeded to tell us that one of the Yamaguchi-gumi (Japan’s largest Yakuza group originating in Kansai), had shot a member of the Sumiyoshi-kai (the second largest group, based traditionally in Tokyo) and that there would “repercussions”, and that the whole neighbourhood was in danger. He scuttled on. We were next approached by a young guy from NHK, Japan’s national TV and radio network asking if we were from one of the the embassies in Kowa Building – nope, strike one. Did we live in the adjacent building – nope, strike two. Did we hear the shots – nope, strike three. Well, would we like to do an interview about how safe Nishi Azabu is? Nope, definitely not.
Gunmen fired from here at the parked car (click to enlarge)
Turf-wars（縄張り）between the Yamaguchi-gumi and the Sumiyoshi-kai gangs have been increasing in recent years. The whole story is actually quite complicated, and is much harder to understand than the American “gang warfare” that we see in Hollywood movies. Indeed, Yakuza is far flung from the breed of gangs that fight in other countries – a true underworld, where the public is rarely aware of what is actually going on, and even more rarely affected or dragged into their constant fighting. There is no racial tension (they are all as pure as Japanese people come) and unlike gang members in the west, these guys are rich, filthy rich, and run many questionable, but lucrative businesses in Japan, including Pachinko and many of the chains of Japan’s famous love hotels.
When we go a little further into history of the Yakuza in the Roppongi-Azabu area of Tokyo, until quite recently, this whole area was originally controlled by the 国粋会 (Kokusui-kai) gang. The Kokusui-kai was on relatively good terms with the Sumiyoshi-kai (and it’s subset, the Kobayashi-kai), and were “lending” the turf in this area for them to control. In September 2005 however, Kokusui-kai was absorbed by the Yamaguchi-gumi, starting the current turf war for the areas between Roppongi and Shibuya. The Yamaguchi-gumi thought it was high time the whole area was returned to Kokusui-Yamaguchi control, and this is when things started to get interesting.
In August 2005, part of the nightclub region of Roppongi come under the control of Yamaguchi-gumi. They also succeeded around the same time, in acquiring some lucrative areas around Ginza, the famous shopping district of Tokyo. All this was, as mentioned above, while they were in the process of absorbing the 500 member strong Tokyo-based gang Kokusui-kai. Since then, the Kokusui-kai under Yamaguchi-gumi has been in a number of tussles with the Kobayashi-kai of the Sumiyoshi-kai over Nishi-Azabu and Roppongi turf rights. One of the explanations floating around is that the kanbu who was shot yesterday (Sugiura) was in charge of negotiations of turf boundaries for the Sumiyoshi-kai, and that he drew the wrong line in the sand with the Yamaguchi people. The media is reporting that this will turn into a long running「血のバランスシート」(a “Blood Balance Sheet”), claiming that the battle to claim back turf and pride is measured in how much blood of the rival’s top level kanbu is split, and are warning that the war could span over many years to come.
Police outside the Yamaguchi-gumi headquarters (click to enlarge)
The Yamaguchi-gumi is one of the largest criminal organization in the world. Estimates put the number of active members at just over 39,000, with thousands more having strong associations. It is, by far, the largest of the Yakuza group, and its membership encompasses roughly 45% of the 87,000 Yakuza in the Japanese underworld. However, the Yamaguchi-gumi are from the Kansai region, having their headquarters in Kobe. The current kumi-cho（組長） or Godfather of the Yamaguchi-gumi is known as Shinobu Tsukasa. He became the 6th boss of this group in 2005, and under his leadership the Yamaguchi-gumi has undertaken an expansionist policy into Tokyo, which is not traditionally a Yamaguchi-gumi stronghold. And their actions are upsetting the tradition Tokyo local gangs.
The Sumiyoshi-kai, is the second-largest Yakuza gang in Japan with an estimated 10,000 members. It is a confederation of smaller gangs, and its current sosai (総裁), or leader, is Shigeo Nishiguchi. Structurally, the Sumiyoshi-kai differs from its main rival, the Yamaguchi-gumi as it is more of a federation, has a looser chain of command and although Nishiguchi is still the supreme Godfather, he shares some powers with several other men.
Yamaguchi-gumi repercussion shooting in Shibuya (click to enlarge)
Unfortunately it seems like the scattered and panicked Japanese guy that stumbled into us was right – there would be repercussions, and they have been occurring constantly since the initial shooting. Merely one hour later at just after 11am, the Yamaguchi-gumi’s main Tokyo office in Azabu-Juban 1, about 1.5 kilometers from Nishi-Azabu, was riddled with bullets in retaliation. Also, at 6am this morning, shots were heard in a Yamaguchi-related apartment building in Shibuya, and police arrived to find 3 holes in the door of one of the apartments. Around the same time, the door of a Yamaguchi-gumi member’s apartment in Toshima-ku was also sprayed with bullets. However there were no casualties in any of these attacks.
In should be noted that guns are illegal in Japan. In 2006, in the entire country, there were only 53 incidents involving guns, and only 2 deaths, the least in recorded history. And last year, 2006 was the only year on police record in which no one had been killed in Yakuza turf wars. 2007 has already failed at maintaining that record.
It remains to see what the outcome of this war will be, and how large it will become. But there are definitely more long black cars with tinted-black windows carrying bad-ass looking dudes with black glasses, and short blue and white cars with flashing red lights carrying not-so-bad-ass looking dudes with yellow armbands around Nishi Azabu than I have seen before. The chef over lunch said yesterday, 俺たち関係ないよ (“this doesn’t concern us, it has nothing to do with us”) – Good.
If you have any more Yakuza details, or insights (or corrections) regarding the Yakuza groups mentioned in the article, please share them in the comments!
Stippy has added a follow-up article about the ongoing Yakuza Wars. For the latest update, click to read “Big Boss Falls on Sword in Tokyo Yakuza Wars”.
Other stippy.com articles possibly of interest:
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