Los Angeles Times, March 18, 1988, Friday
Citizens Stand Up
Yakuza -- Japan Mobs under Fire
By KARL SCHOENBERGER, Times Staff Writer
-- Beneath the orderly surface of this coastal city is the tale of an
extraordinary gang war, one that pitted an entire neighborhood against the
The neighbors won. After nearly two years of noisy confrontation, they drove
a gang of yakuza from their midst, forcing the swaggering, tattooed
men to abandon a fortress-like office building that they had constructed,
and painted black, just down the street from an elementary school.
Victory, however, came only after area residents mounted a campaign of
harassment so tenacious that the yakuza sued them for "mental
anguish." The neighbors countersued, seeking eviction on the grounds that
their "personal rights" to a yakuza-free environment outweighed the
gang's ownership rights and its constitutionally guaranteed freedom of
By the time the two sides reached an out-of-court settlement last month, the
battle of nerves had already exploded in violence. Members of the Ichiriki
Ikka gang had confessed to slashing a taxi driver on the neck, attacking a
neighborhood home with a baseball bat and stabbing a lawyer in the back with
a fruit knife.
The yakuza, rough characters from Japan's feudal underworld, have
thrived among ordinary people for more than a century, operating gambling
dens and brothels and selling protection to small merchants. They are as
Japanese as Kabuki actors and sumo wrestlers -- often characterized
as chivalrous underdogs or romantic anti-heroes.
At the very least, they have been fixtures in society who traditionally
received patronage from politicians and grudging respect from community
leaders. They operate above ground here in a way that would be unthinkable
in most Western countries.
"In Japan, yakuza are a
necessary evil," says Nobuo Kounoike, one of the leaders of the Ichiriki
Ikka gang. "We have a long history and a great heritage."
Fingers Chopped Off
That heritage involves elaborate ceremonies to bind relationships and such
rituals as chopping off part of one's little finger to atone for misdeeds. A
yakuza often will demonstrate manliness by etching his body with
colorful tattoos, which he displays at the neighborhood public bath.
The symbiotic relationship between yakuza and citizenry, however, has
undergone a drastic change over the past several years. Local organized
crime families have evolved into huge syndicates that traffic in drugs and
increasingly delve into mainstream business interests, both at home and
Their Japanese neighbors, however, are now saying they will no longer
tolerate the menace. Last year alone, gangs were forced to abandon 187
rented offices across Japan, police say. As many as 38 of those groups were
the targets of anti-yakuza campaigns by residents similar to the one
in Hamamatsu, according to a recent survey by the Yomiuri newspaper. Other
cases involved evictions by irate landlords and court injunctions instigated
The showdown in Hamamatsu was a benchmark case because Ichiriki Ikka, one of
three crime families in the city affiliated with the Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan's
largest crime syndicate, actually owned the building being contested. Had
there been a formal court ruling supporting the neighbors' claim, it might
have spelled disaster for the yakuza.
"I don't have any sympathy for the Ichiriki Ikka," says a ranking official
in one of Japan's major organized crime syndicates, a 61-year-old man
wearing a tailored three-piece suit and Italian shoes who agreed to be
interviewed on the condition that his name was not published. "They were in
the wrong from the start -- they went too far. But we were really afraid
this would go all the way to the Supreme Court and set a bad precedent."
He argues that the police manipulated the Hamamatsu neighbors from the
beginning in a scheme to harass and discriminate against yakuza
throughout Japan. The case has ominous potential for civil rights, he says,
because the same tactics could be used against unpopular political groups.
"Japan is heading toward becoming a police state," the yakuza captain
Trouble came to Hamamatsu in 1985 when residents in the Ebizuka section of
town learned that a building under construction about 70 yards from the
local elementary school would be owned by Tetsuya Aono, the
seventh-generation boss of the Ichiriki Ikka. Neighbors' fears were
reinforced when they noticed the walls were being made of unusually thick
concrete. The architecture was that of a six-story pillbox, with a narrow
entrance and small windows covered by metal lattice. Once completed the
following year, it was painted black.
Sporadic neighborhood protests against the "black building" turned into a
well-organized campaign after Aono and members of his gang moved in under
cover of darkness one night in August, 1986. As if to underscore a potential
for menace to the community, the gang mounted the diamond-shaped symbol of
the powerful Yamaguchi-gumi at the entrance.
"This is right down the street from a school, where children pass every
day," says Eiichiro Mizuno, one of the leaders of the campaign to oust the
yakuza. "That's no place for people with tattoos to hang out."
The neighbors started peppering Aono and his cohorts with angry letters and
phone calls, urging them to move out. They held sit-ins and set up an
observation post on a vacant lot kitty-corner to the black building,
eventually replacing tents with a two-story prefabricated hut that
sympathetic city officials helped pay for with a $15,000 grant. Police
stationed officers on the first floor of the hut to protect the neighbors,
who kept a 24-hour vigil on the second floor, monitoring the comings and
goings of the yakuza with video cameras and floodlights.
Local merchants banded together in a blockade aimed at starving out the
yakuza. Shop owners refused service to members of the gang and
restaurants rejected requests that they deliver take-out food to the black
building. Garbage collectors also joined the embargo. Aono responded by
suing community leaders, seeking some $78,000 in damages for the mental
anguish that had been inflicted upon him and the gang.
Some Favored Easier Line
Mizuno, who owns an automobile repair shop next to the school, says some
neighbors advocated taking a softer line against the yakuza after the
confrontation had dragged on for many months.
"A lot of the older folks around here were a lot more sympathetic with the
gang. They remember the old days when Ichiriki Ikka could be helpful," says
the 45-year-old mechanic. "But my generation thinks of drugs and violence
when we hear the word 'yakuza.' "
A taste of danger came to Mizuno's home one night last June, he says, when
he discovered his dog chewing on razor blades concealed in a chunk of
hamburger meat that someone threw over the fence to his yard. A week later,
he looked out the window one morning to see a man smashing the windows of
his car and garage office with a metal baseball bat.
Confirmed Gang Member
Mizuno recalls with excitement a terrifying scene in which he cowered in the
foyer of his house as the assailant started smashing the panes on the front
door. Fearing the man would try to enter and harm his wife and sons, he
grabbed a golf club, a No. 5 iron, and was poised to meet the intruder when
police arrived and arrested him. The attacker was later confirmed to be a
member of Ichiriki Ikka.
Punctured a Lung
Later that day, a gang member sneaked up behind Yoshihiro Mitsui, a local
lawyer representing the neighbors, as he was attending a legal seminar in a
coffee shop across town. The man stabbed Mitsui in the back with a 3
1/2-inch fruit knife, puncturing a lung. The assailant turned himself in a
"He says he didn't plan to kill me, but it all depended on where the knife
went in -- it was long enough," says Mitsui, who stands 6 feet 3 inches tall
and weighs more than 220 pounds. "The doctor told me my flab saved me."
Last fall, Ichiriki Ikka withdrew its mental anguish suit and struck an
agreement with a faction of neighbors stipulating that they would repaint
the building white, enter through a rear door and limit gang presence at the
office to no more than seven members at once. Failure to abide by the
agreement would trigger $7,800-a-day in fines.
But a group of 150 neighbors, aided by a nationwide team of lawyers who were
outraged by the attack on Mitsui, came back with an eviction suit. The
number of plaintiffs later increased to 573, including the taxi driver whose
neck was slashed by a gang member in January. Although Aono had appeared in
court asserting, "Yakuza have rights too," pressure from other
yakuza organizations eventually forced the gang to negotiate a
face-saving settlement last month.
The agreement allows Aono and his family to live in the building but
requires the gang to stop using it as an office. Down came the Yamaguchi-gumi
logo from the door and the metal lattice from the windows. The building is
now abandoned; Aono became a fugitive in January after police in Osaka
issued a warrant for his arrest on weapons charges.
"It feels like we've returned to the old Ebizuka neighborhood," says Mizuno,
the mechanic. "But it won't be completely over until Aono surfaces and
publicly states he'll abide by the agreement."
The story is not finished for the rest of Hamamatsu, either. Ichiriki Ikka,
which has about 120 members, has not said where it will establish its new
"The gang is now going to move to another neighborhood, where there'll be
the same problem all over again," says author Joji Abe, a former yakuza
bookmaker who began writing novels after his release from prison seven years
ago. "It's like putting your garbage out in front of someone else's house.
We need a law that says the yakuza have no right to exist."
Abe, whose 1986 novel on life in Japanese prison has sold 1.2 million
copies, attributes the recent movement to purge communities of yakuza
to the basic changes in the structure of organized crime groups, which have
kept pace with Japan's economic growth.
"Yakuza used to operate on a small scale on a limited turf, providing
useful services to the people around them," he says. "But gradually they've
shifted their attention to the corporations. That's where the money is.
Their ties to the community have faded."
Aided Small Businessmen
In Hamamatsu's Ebizuka district, which was a prosperous center for small
textile manufacturers in the early 1900s, the Ichiriki Ikka's antecedents
were credited with defending small proprietors against roving gangs of
brigands, in addition to running popular gambling dens.
Yakuza lore celebrates an archetypal Robin Hood and gambling kingpin named
Jirocho, who lived in the town of Shimizu, about 50 miles east of Hamamatsu
near the foot of Mt. Fuji, in the latter part of the 19th
Century. Jirocho, legend has it, performed such civic deeds as improving
farm technology and building an English school. He is said to have been
worshiped after his death at a Shinto shrine erected in his honor.
The modern yakuza gangs are hardly perceived as do-gooders, but their
alleged ties to patrons in the political and business worlds are taken for
granted. Corporations are believed to hire them as thugs to silence
dissidents at general shareholders meetings and serve as arbitrators in
civil disputes as an alternative to lengthy lawsuits. Real estate companies
and trust banks are accused of using them to oust stubborn tenants as
property values soar.
Takeo Miyama, director of the National Police Agency's organized crime
control office, says the turning point in public attitudes about the
yakuza came when a bloody gang war erupted between the Yamaguchi-gumi
and a splinter group, the Ichiwa-kai, following the 1984 death of godfather
Kazuo Taoka. As many as 25 gangsters were killed in shoot-outs during the
first six months of 1985 alone, an alarming carnage in a country where
murders are rare. The public reacted with indignation over the stray bullets
that suddenly lodged in their kitchen walls.
A time-honored yakuza code of not harming or causing disturbances --
"keeping hands off the decent citizens" -- seemed no longer applicable as
the shootings between rivals continued. At the same time, Japan's estimated
90,000 yakuza have become increasingly conspicuous in their
involvement in mainstream occupations, such as real estate, construction and
Despite police vows to eradicate the yakuza, Miyama concedes that the
largest syndicates -- Yamaguchi-gumi, Inagawa-kai and Sumiyoshi-Rengo
-- are becoming more difficult to control as they gain sophistication. The
yakuza have taken on international scope in recent years, having been
implicated in drug trafficking, prostitution and gun-smuggling schemes from
Southeast Asia to Hawaii and California. Now that the strong yen is sending
unprecedented throngs of Japanese tourists abroad, the yakuza follow
to put the squeeze on their countrymen.
Blackmail and Extortion
"There's no such thing as yakuza keeping their hands off decent
citizens anymore," Miyama says. "We arrest tens of thousands of them every
year for blackmail and extortion. Who do you think their victims are?"
Kounoike, the No. 3 man in the Ichiriki Ikka, argues that the roles were
reversed in the Hamamatsu case -- the neighbors broke the code first.
"The decent citizens were the ones who couldn't keep their hands off us," he
says. "We just reacted."
Ironically, the romance of the yakuza world is enjoying a renaissance
at the same time that the public seems to be denying them legitimacy. While
pro golfers and entertainers are chastised by the news media for socializing
with yakuza, books, such as those written by Abe, the ex-convict, are
selling well. Dramatic motion pictures about the yakuza world, such
as the recent film "Gokudo No Tsumatachi" -- "Wives of the Degenerate" --
are box office hits. Behind the recent trend in righteous indignation there
remains an attitude of tolerance and acceptance.
"I think it's mysterious that Japan is the only country in the world where
you can hang out a shingle that says you're in organized crime and do
business," says the captain from the major syndicate. "It's because there
have always been politicians and businessmen who have a need for us."
GRAPHIC: Photo, Eiichiro Mizuno, one of the leaders of the effort to
oust gang from neighborhood of Hamamatsu, Japan. Behind him is the gang's
fortress-like headquarters, which was formerly painted black. KARL
SCHOENBERGER / Los Angeles Times; Map, JAPAN, Los Angeles