Every year, the Yamaguchi-gumi (an organization belonging to Japan’s largest crime syndicate, the Yakuza) hands out treats to the costumed grade-schoolers of Kobe, Japan. After the organization split into two earlier this year, fear has abounded that gang violence may break out between the two factions. The Yakuza seem to share these concerns. In response to the rift, the Yamaguchi-gumi cancelled its Halloween celebration in an effort to keep the children out of harm’s way.
Speaking with the Daily Beast, a member of the gang stated that the Yamaguchi-gumi did not "want to take a chance that some innocent child is embroiled in violence." Such an occurrence "would be unforgivable.”
The Yamaguchi-gumi posted a letter of apology on the door of its headquarters informing the public of the last-minute change. The note reads:
Every year on October 31st, as per custom, we have held a Halloween [event], but this year, due to various circumstances, the event has been called off. We realize this is causing great regret to those parents and children who looked forward to this, but next year we absolutely will hold the event, so please look forward to it. In great haste, we humbly inform you of this.
The 6th Generation Yamaguchi-gumi headquarters.
The trick-or-treating is all part of the Yamaguchi-gumi’s longstanding public relations campaign. In an effort to present itself as a legitimate business and foster communal support, the organization hosts various civic events.
For the country’s New Year's, for example, gangsters invite members of the community to join them in making traditional Japanese dishes in honor of the celebration.
The gangsters are also known for their humanitarian efforts. When the tsunami of 2011 left 27,000 dead or missing, it was the Yakuza who were among the first to provide some of the first aid. The Yakuza sent trucks packed with food, blankets and toiletries to evacuation centers in Kobe and Tokyo.
Further, in 1995, after an earthquake rattled Kobe, the Yakuza traveled by boat, helicopter and even scooter to deliver aid to the masses.
Of course, there are many who are dubious about the Yakuza’s purported altruism.
"If they help citizens, it's hard for the police to say anything bad," said Tomohiko Suzuki, a local journalist.
It bears mentioning, however, that the gang’s charity has its basis in the Yakuza’s "ninkyo" code. The “ninkyo” code places emphasis on justice, duty, and prohibits sitting idly by as others suffer.
One writer and organized crime expert and critic, Atsushi Mizoguchi believes that the Yakuza’s community service efforts are based on “good intentions.”
Mizoguchi has never been shy about maligning the organization either. He has been stabbed twice by gang members for speaking out against their criminal activity. The Yakuza have typically refused publicity for their humanitarian efforts but their results have been felt.
Best-selling Japanese author, social critic and son of a former Yakuza boss, Manabu Miyazaki, did offer the following, however:
"Yakuza are dropouts from society. . . They've suffered, and they're just trying to help other people who are in trouble.
"What they seek most is self-satisfaction. . . It's not for pay, but for pride.”
Trouble on the Horizon?
Plagued by internal dissension, the Yamaguchi-gumi fractured last month when 13 of the 72 faction-conglomerate broke away to form their own group. Relations amid the gang were soured when disgruntled members accused the organization’s leader, Shinobi Tsukasa, of favoritism.
Appointed to the leadership role in 2005, the now 73-year-old Tsukasa (born Kenichi Shinoda) is losing popularity amongst his constituency for (ostensibly) increasing “loyalty payments” for members. Tsukasa was also accused of showing special treatment toward the Kodo-kai, an affiliate group he founded in 1984.
The last time the organization splintered was in the 1980s and the result was not pretty. The bloodiest gang war in the country’s history swept its streets.
The war came to an end three years, 300 shootings, 29 casualties (among the gangsters) and 500 arrests later.
A Brief History
The Yamaguchi-gumi was founded in 1915. The organization was created as a temporary staffing agency by Harukichi Yamaguchi, a local fisherman.
In 1946, the organization was inherited by its third don, Kazuo Taoka. At the time, the organization had little more than a few dozen members. Under Taoka's leadership the organization grew to become one of the largest criminal organizations in the world; by 1963, the organization had an estimated 184,100 members.
The government has been successful in driving down membership through anti-gang ordinances. Membership is currently at a new low, but with 23,400 active members and 18,600 associate members, the Yamaguchi-gumi still comprises 45% of the total Yakuza (86,300 members).
According to Fortune magazine, the organization rakes in a whopping 6.6 billion dollars per year.