Shootings trigger mob clampdown

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Tokyo - Six hundred police raided gangster premises all over Japan yesterday in a show of force designed to calm fears of a violent mob war which appears to be escalating between the members of the country's yakuza crime syndicates.

Eighty offices were raided, including the Kobe headquarters of the biggest yakuza syndicate, the Yamaguchi-gumi, whose second-in-command was murdered last month by rival gangsters. Since then there have been half a dozen shootings all over Japan, although no more casualties.

At a meeting in Tokyo yesterday, the metropolitan police department decided to mobilise 2,000 officers to prevent further trouble. "We are concerned about the possibility of the power struggle being prolonged," the deputy superintendent of the Tokyo police, Koji Takito, said. "It is a good opportunity to dissolve and demolish the Yamaguchi-gumi."

The shootings began two weeks ago when four men in overalls appeared in Kobe's grandest hotel, the Oriental, and fired 10 pistol shots at a 61-year-old man who was drinking coffee in the lounge. The victim, who died in hospital of wounds to the head, was Masaru Takumi, second in command of the Yamaguchi-gumi.

Even between gangsters, open gun battles in Japan are generally seen only in yakuza films, and the attack was made all the more shocking by the fact that an innocent bystander, a 69-year-old dentist, was also mortally wounded. Mr Takumi, in any case, had a reputation for being something of a moderate among yakuza. He was known admiringly as "the economic gangster" for the role he played in restructuring the Yamaguchi-gumi's flabby finances after the collapse of the property market in the early 1990s.

Until Mr Takumi's accession to the number two spot eight years ago under his patron, the Yamaguchi-gumi "godfather" Yoshonori Watanabe, the syndicate had been dogged by constant feuding. Its 18,600 members make up 40 per cent of yakuza, but they are spread across 110 gangs with varying degrees of loyalty to the central leadership. According to press accounts, based on police briefings, the present trouble is the consequence of a feud between Takumi and Taro Nakano, the head of the Nakano-kai sub-group, who was expelled from the Yamaguchi-gumi three days after the killing.

However, police talk about "demolishing" the Yamaguchi-gumi should probably be treated sceptically for, in many ways, the cops and the mob complement one another very effectively. The yakuza have been tolerated for decades and even encouraged for their job in controlling and channelling the activities of small-time crooks.

Perhaps that explains the scale of the police reaction to the latest violence: in harming innocent bystanders, the yakuza have broken the rules by allowing organised crime to become disorganised.