Los Angeles Times, March 18, 1988, Friday


Citizens Stand Up
Yakuza -- Japan Mobs under Fire

By KARL SCHOENBERGER, Times Staff Writer

HAMAMATSU, Japan -- Beneath the orderly surface of this coastal city is the tale of an extraordinary gang war, one that pitted an entire neighborhood against the local mob.

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 association.
Confessions Emerge

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 abroad.

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 by police.

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."
Ominous Potential

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 complains.

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.
Diamond-Shaped Symbol

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 week later.

"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.
Face-Saving Settlement

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 office.

"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 credit collection.

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 Times