Tokyo, Japan - When news broke that Japan's most powerful yakuza crime syndicate - the Kobe-based Yamaguchi-gumi - was about to split into two groups, police departments around the country braced themselves for the gang war that was expected to follow.

There was precedent for such fears.

A similar factional split among the Yamaguchi-gumi in the mid-1980s "led to Japan's bloodiest gang war ever, with more than 300 shootings, 25 dead and a fortune wasted on firearms, legal fees, security, and funerals", wrote David Kaplan and Alec Durbo, authors of Yakuza: Japan's Criminal Underworld, the definitive reference on the subject.

No surprise then that the first related killing came just a week later, on September 6.

A member of the breakaway group, the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi (KYG), was shot dead at a hot springs in Nagano prefecture.

Two days later, the police arrested a senior member of a gang affiliated with the main Yamaguchi-gumi, also based in Kobe, for the killing, the Asahi newspaper reported.

Yet, since then, there has been no further trouble reported and the headlines remain bloodless. One explanation for the standoff is that implementation of tough anti-yakuza laws introduced since the last big gang war has hindered the power of the yakuza to act violently.

Veteran writer Atsushi Mizoguchi, a leading expert on organised crime in Japan, explained that anti-gang ordinances now hold crime bosses responsible for violent acts committed by their members. Consequently, they face the possibility of prosecution and paying indemnities if these laws are violated by their underlings.

"So the bosses will be reluctant to get into a struggle," said Mizoguchi during a recent press conference for foreign journalists in Tokyo.


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Hideaki Kubori, a lawyer and professor at Toin University law school in Yokohama, added that prefectural police departments have also begun to use tax laws to pressure the gangs.

Lawyer Hideaki Kubori [John Boyd] 

"The use of the judicial arm and use of taxation laws could well prove to be effective means for suppressing violent criminal organisations," said Kubori.

As to why the split occurred, Mizoguchi proffered two main reasons. Like most yakuza syndicates, the Yamaguchi-gumi and KYG are run on the oya-bun/ko-bun - big brother/little brother - familial principle.

Various dues are paid by underlings to bosses immediately above them and so on up a pyramid-style organisation, which in the case of the two opposing groups are headed by overlords Shinobu Tsukasa, 73, and Kunio Inoue, 67, respectively.

Before the split, affiliated gang bosses in the Yamaguchi-gumi paid monthly dues of about $10,000 to the Yamaguchi-gumi headquarters. In addition, other payments such as seasonal gifts and contributions for Tsukasa's birthday were also expected and totalled more than $2m a year. 

Mizoguchi estimated Tsukasa's personal cut, after these payments were divvied out, amounted to about $8m annually.

Traditionally, such dues have been considered non-taxable, but that is changing. In June, the Fukuoka Prefectural Police, using a new interpretation of the tax laws, arrested Satoru Nomura, head of the Kudo-kai, a brutal crime syndicate operating on the island of Kyushu, in southwest Japan, for tax evasion.

"These dues were now considered subject to taxation," said Mizoguchi. "This was the first time such an interpretation had been made. And the National Police Agency has instructed prefectural police departments to try and prosecute crime bosses for tax evasion."

If greed played a major part in the split, favouritism was not far behind. Tsukasa, whose Kudo-kai gang - just one of scores that make up the Yamaguchi syndicate - hails from Nagoya, and he placed Kudo-kai members in the top three leadership positions of the Yamaguchi-gumi.

"So it is suspected that the Kudo-kai will provide the [leadership] for the sixth generation, seventh generation and eighth generation of the Yamaguchi-gumi," Mizoguchi explained.


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Kubori and Mizoguchi both say the split will see a further decline of the Yamaguchi-gumi. Its numbers have dropped from about 20,000 members at its peak, to 10,300 before the separation, and now that figure is further reduced to 7,000 for the main group, with some 3,000 members giving their allegiance to the KYG.

As well as the implementation of anti-crime and tax laws, Kubori suggested that an increase in the number of lawyers in Japan has also dealt a blow to the yakuza, who have made a lucrative income from settling civil disputes, as well as from traditional sources such as gambling, prostitution, and extortion.

Encouraged by new organised-crime exclusion laws, companies that once asked the quasi-legal yakuza to intercede in areas such as disputed land claims and the collection of debts are now seeking to hire lawyers.

"As the number of lawyers has increased, they have been depriving the yakuza of work," said Kubori. "I've taken a lot of work away from the yakuza myself."

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As a result of all these changes, Kubori and Mizoguchi say that overall yakuza power will continue to decline in the coming years. Such thinking is given credence by statistics compiled by the National Police Agency.

"Membership including Associate Members in Boryokudan [yakuza] peaked in 1963 at approximately 184,100… With the implementation of the Anti-Boryokudan Act in 1992 … the number of Boryokudan members began to decline… As of the end of 2013, Boryokudan membership stands at approximately 58,600, which is an all-time low."

"But let's not get carried away," Brett Bull, editor of the Japan subculture news site The Tokyo Reporter, told Al Jazeera. "Anti-gang laws have been on the books for decades, and yet gangsters in the tens of thousands are still here."

However, Bull added: "The image of the yakuza stereotype as the tough guy with tattoos and a missing pinkie is slowly fading."

The modern gangster, he suggested, "is more likely to favour the role of a conventional businessman, one who will choose bank fraud over extortion or illegal drug sales. And he is more likely to carry an iPad than a gun".

Source: Al Jazeera