Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Tuesday, May 30, 2006


What follows is an excerpt from an article on the modern Yakuza in Japan. If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to the full article.

Former Gangster Details Yamaguchi - Gumi

Published: May 27, 2006
Filed at 4:12 p.m. ET

TOKYO (AP) -- Shinji Ishihara's story, as he tells it, starts with a murder.

It was the summer of 1970. Though the Yamaguchi-gumi was easily the biggest gangster syndicate in Japan, with tens of thousands of members, it was still trying to crack the huge Tokyo market for vice, which was tightly controlled by smaller but deeply entrenched gangs.
Ishihara was one of the first Yamaguchi-gumi bosses to try to break their monopoly. With several underlings, he rented a small apartment near a popular red-light district and started a series of scams aimed at cheating the competition out of its profits.

''We'd target other gangs,'' he recalled, ''mainly because they had money and they weren't going to run off and complain to the police.''

Often, he would deliberately arrange a violent confrontation with a local gang that would lead to a negotiated truce, and then an alliance. If that didn't work, he had an array of other options that usually had a common result -- money in his pocket.

Those were simpler times, when the most fertile racket was gambling. Nowadays the code of Japanese organized crime is wilting under the onslaught of drug trafficking, cybercrime, tougher policing and inroads by gangsters from neighboring China. Japanese crime remains as organized as it gets, but today, Ishihara says, ''It's more wild than it used to be.''

Still, even back in the supposedly more orderly 1970s, it didn't take long for Ishihara's operation to get out of hand.

One August night, Ishihara drove up to a club where he heard a rival gang -- the Kokusui-kai, or Japan Purity League -- was running a high-stakes card game. He waited with two fellow gangsters until one of the rivals came outside. Ishihara signaled for him to get in their car, but he panicked and fled. Ishihara chased him down, they fought, and Ishihara slashed his thigh with a short samurai sword. With a major vein cut clean through, the gangster quickly bled to death.

''I hadn't intended to kill him, I just wanted to shake him down,'' said Ishihara. At 32, he was sentenced to eight years for the murder. It wasn't the first time -- or the last -- that he would go to jail.

And every time he got out, the Yamaguchi-gumi was there waiting for him. And each time, it had grown bigger, stronger and richer.
Japanese gangs -- called yakuza, which refers to a bad hand in cards -- generally have a simple, pyramid-style structure.

Atop the Yamaguchi-gumi is Kenichi Shinoda, aka Shinobu Tsukasa. He assumed the helm on July 29 last year, but started serving a six-year sentence for gun possession four months later.
Ishihara had met Shinoda in prison. Shinoda, too, had just killed a man with a sword.

''I never imagined he would rise so high,'' Ishihara said. ''But there was something about him.''

Below Shinoda are 100 or so bosses who control the ''direct affiliates.'' Each of these, in turn, has its own network, often creating as many as six or seven layers. The lowliest gangs claim membership in just the dozens, if that.

Shinoda's post is largely ceremonial. Most day-to-day decisions are made by the gang's 15 or 20 strongest bosses, who have titles such as ''supreme adviser'' or ''young leader.''

The National Police Agency estimates the Yamaguchi-gumi has roughly 40,000 active members, plus thousands who are associated with it but have not taken formal vows. It's among the world's biggest criminal organizations, with annual revenues estimated at over a billion dollars.

Though still based in the western Japan city of Kobe, where it was founded by Harukichi Yamaguchi in 1915, the Yamaguchi-gumi (the ''gumi'' means gang, or group) is now a major force in Tokyo. Last year, it even swallowed up the rival gang Ishihara tried to shake down decades ago, which itself had been one of Japan's biggest.

Nearly half of all gangsters in Japan belong to the Yamaguchi-gumi, a trend police fear will continue.

Operating a small, independent gang is risky. The Yamaguchi-gumi offers protection and a nationwide network, crucial in running black-market and drug operations. Equally important, however, is the scare value of the gang's name. Just dropping the Yamaguchi-gumi name is enough to make an extortion victim pay up.

Ishihara said each gang must pay monthly dues to the next gang up -- an estimated $85,000 for each of the top 100 gangs, translating into an estimated $100 million a year or more in dues alone.

''Failing to pay isn't taken lightly,'' he said.

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