The authorities in an industrial region have taken on Japan's
notorious crime syndicates, and the gangsters have hit back with
violence and threats.
Two years ago, the authorities in this gritty rust belt region
declared war on the yakuza, Japan's entrenched organized crime
syndicates. And that is exactly what they got.
Since this city and other local governments strengthened
regulations to confront the yakuza here -- making it a criminal
offense for companies and individuals to do business with them --
there has been a death threat against Kitakyushu's mayor and his
family, hand grenades tossed at the homes of corporate executives
and a construction company chairman gunned down in front of his
The police say these attacks, and many other lesser threats and
intimidation tactics, are the doing of the Kudokai, a gang with more
than 650 members that they call one of the most dangerous of the
yakuza. The attacks have prompted the National Police Agency to
propose giving law enforcement more powers to search and arrest gang
The yakuza remain a remarkably visible -- and durable -- presence
in Japan, as they have been for centuries. But law enforcement
officials say the violence in Kitakyushu may prove to be a turning
point, by shocking a public that has become increasingly fed up.
Any romantic aura that may have enveloped the gangsters in the
past is falling away, the authorities say. They say that the
Japanese increasingly see the yakuza simply as mobsters, much like
their counterparts in other countries, who make money from drugs,
gambling and extortion, particularly from their favorite target,
Japan's bloated construction industry.
"People are now seeing the reality that the yakuza are not
chivalrous, but just an antisocial force," said Kitakyushu's mayor,
Kenji Kitahashi, who said he was not intimidated by the death
threat. He said the violence had turned many residents against the
yakuza for hurting this former steel-making city's efforts to lure
new investment and jobs.
Since the early 1990s, Japan has tried four times to rein in the
yakuza and has failed to make more than a dent in their numbers, now
about 80,000 -- compared with estimates of 5,000 members of the
American mafia at its height in the early 1960s. Like many Japanese
gangs, the Kudokai maintains its own public headquarters, the
Kudokai Hall, a four-story fortress-like white building surrounded
by tall walls, barbed wire and security cameras that sits in the
center of Kitakyushu, a city of one million residents.
Until recently, the gangs were a quietly accepted fact of life.
The yakuza were tolerated because they helped Japan keep its streets
safe by imposing the same rigid rules and hierarchy on the criminal
world that are seen in the rest of Japanese society. But as Japan
has developed into a modern, middle-class nation, it has also
refashioned itself into a society that relies on courts and laws to
keep order, not medieval outlaws. The growing intolerance of the
underworld has been evident in recent scandals in which a top
television comedian and the national sport of sumo were forced to
cut ties with gangsters.
Still, many acknowledge, it has proved tough to cut ties
"Society has used the yakuza for so long that it is hard to just
get rid of them," said Chikashi Nakamura, 75, head of a Kitakyushu
residents' association that has campaigned to drive out the Kudokai.
Lawyers and anti-mob activists say that the nation still remains
reluctant to take the final step of outlawing the gangs outright, a
step many have called for. There are fears that a ban could lead to
what many call a mafia-ization of the gangs, driving them
underground and removing their last restraints on violence against
"It has taken 30 years to get this far, and Japan still hesitates
to crush these violent groups once and for all," said Naoyuki
Fukasawa, a lawyer who specializes in defending citizens against
organized crime. …