After serving in an affiliate gang, Watanabe ascended to the top post of the Yamaguchi-gumi in 1989 and retired in 2005 — a period that proved to be one of the most important reigns in the gang’s 97-year history.
According to the National Police Agency, the Yamaguchi-gumi, the nation’s largest gang, has 15,000 official members and 16,000 affiliate members. Of the 47 administrative divisions in Japan, the gang maintains offices in 45, with Hiroshima and Okinawa prefectures being the two exceptions.
Much of the credit for the gang’s current strength is due to the work of Watanabe. Membership in the gang swelled by 5,000 men during his 16-year rule.
Following the enactment of the Anti-Organized Crime Law of 1992, he divided the gang into smaller regional groups to reduce law enforcement’s ability to monitor their businesses, which include trafficking in drugs, prostitution, pornography, and construction.
Watanabe will likely be most remembered for the Yamaguchi-gumi’s relief activities following the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995, when the gang provided 20,000 meals to survivors in Kobe. In the post-quake redevelopment, the gang prospered tremendously, primarily due to its dealings in construction and real estate.
The rise to power of Watanabe came at a time of crisis. Following the death of the Yamaguchi-gumi’s third-generation boss, Kazuo Taoka, in 1981. Taoka’s wife served as chairman until 1984, when Masahisa Takenaka was selected to lead the gang. However, he was shot and killed by a member of the Ichiwa-kai criminal syndicate one year later, during a war between the two underworld groups. The appointment of Watanabe four years later ended this decade-long period of instability.
Born in Tochigi Prefecture in 1941, Watanabe first entered organized crime at the age of 17, after graduating from junior-high school. Soon after he entered the Yamaken-gumi, a Yamaguchi-gumi affiliate. During a gang war in 1960, Watanabe proved to be skilled in mitigating disputes and slowly began his ascent within the organization.