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Japan’s yakuza groups pay tribute to Yamaguchi-gumi’s Yoshinori Watanabe

Shukan Jitsuwa Dec. 28
Shukan Jitsuwa Dec. 28
Following the passing on December 1 of the fifth chairman of the Yamaguchi-gumi, Yoshinori Watanabe, 71, all eyes were on the memorial proceedings that followed, Shukan Jitsuwa (Dec. 27).

Watanabe’s body was transferred from his home in Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture to an unspecified funeral site in the city that evening. A formal vigil commenced the following day. On December 3, a private funeral service was held. On the latter two days, the attendees were close relatives only.

“There were no members of the Yamaguchi-gumi present,” says a local news reporter. “Everyone is watching, curious to see how the events unfold after the death of a former top boss.”

If a leader of the Kobe-based gang dies, it is standard practice for the leaders of Japan’s organized crime groups to pay their respects. However, with last year’s passing of anti-yakuza legislation, which prohibits ordinary citizens from facilitating the activities of gangsters, caution must be utilized.

Shukan Jitsuwa says, for example, the securing of the funeral location is very difficult. “In June, the funeral of an executive who was a direct affiliate of the Yamaguchi-gumi was cancelled on the same day it was scheduled to take place,” says the same reporter. “If the funeral for Watanabe is said to be private but a lot of other people (gangsters) arrive, there could be a problem given the existing laws.”

The scene and attendees then changed over the next three days. Members of various criminal syndicates began to arrive in Kobe on December 4 to pay tribute to Watanabe at an unnamed location, reports Shukan Asahi Geino (Dec. 20).

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.

Watanabe ascended to the top post of the Yamaguchi-gumi in 1989 and retired in 2005. Much of the credit for the gang’s current strength is due to the work of former chairman. Membership in the gang swelled by 5,000 men during his 16-year rule.

Watanabe’s ties to his early days remained strong to the end. The Yamaken-gumi’s Kunio Inoue, an upper member who visited the former leader’s home on the day of his death, arrived at Shin Kobe Station at 11:30 a.m.

Leaders of various Yamaguchi-gumi blocks throughout Japan and approximately 10 members of the Inagawa-kai yakuza gang, including top boss Jiro Kiyota, also arrived in the city.

In 1995, Watanabe established “brotherly” ties with the Inagawa-kai’s third-generation boss Toi Inagawa — a relationship that exists between the gangs to this day.

According to the National Police Agency, the Yamaguchi-gumi, the Japan’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.

The rise to power of Watanabe came at a time of crisis for the gang. 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.

Much of the group’s current strength is due to Watanabe. After the enactment of the Anti-Organized Crime Law in 1992, Watanabe 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.

The former chief 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.

Kiyoshi Takayama, the number-two member of the Yamaguchi-gumi, arrived at the funeral by car at 1:35 p.m. He was followed by the gang’s current boss, Shinobu Tsukasa, who appeared two hours later. Including former Hyogo prefectural police members, National Police Agency detectives, and journalists, the magazine estimates the attendance was approximately 100 people.

Shukan Asahi Geino describes the funeral as a scene of darkness. After one hour, the members of the Inagawa-kai departed, and Takayama is said to have expressed his gratitude for their attendance.

Another ceremony was held for family members on December 5. The following day, the Yamaguchi-gumi headquarters hosted another service, in which members of numerous criminal syndicates from around Japan — including the Matsuba-kai, Inagawa-kai, and Toa-kai — offered their respects to the gang’s former boss.

Source: “Oomono OB hoka dantai mo kaketsuketa Watanabe goyome no sogi ni micchaku ‘Yamaguchi-gumi naita,'” Shukan Jitsuwa (Dec. 27, pages 214-217)