Photo/IllutrationInvestigators search the headquarters of Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan's largest yakuza syndicate, in Kobe in February 2017. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Yakuza numbers suffered a steep decline last year, suggesting that making a living as a gangster is becoming increasingly difficult with the introduction of stricter legislation and police crackdowns in recent years.

The National Police Agency announced March 16 that the number of organized crime gangsters across Japan was at 39,100 at the end of 2016, the first time it has fallen below the 40,000 mark since the government starting keeping track of yakuza in 1958.

The total, 7,800 fewer members compared to the previous year, was the 12th year in a row for their numbers to decline.

“Mobs are losing further strength, as the spread of anti-organized crime ordinances and movements, as well as police crackdowns, are making it increasingly difficult for them to earn money,” an NPA official said.

At 18,100 last year, the number of registered yakuza members fell short of 20,000 for the first time. The figure was 2,000 less than the previous year.

The number of those classified as semi-registered members, who do not comprise yakuza families but are affiliated with their activities from the outside, fell 5,900 since 2015 and was at 20,900 last year.

Authorities have continued to tighten their grip on organized crime in recent times, with Tokyo and all prefectural governments across the nation adopting anti-yakuza ordinances by 2011. Under these laws, gangsters are banned from even basic needs, including acquiring housing and opening bank accounts.

These measures seem to have been effective, as the overall number of mobsters last year was less than half the 90,600 recorded 25 years ago, when the anti-organized crime law was enacted.

At the same time, the latest statistics by the NPA unveiled a darker side of yakuza crackdowns.

Of the 9,195 people who were recognized to have left the yakuza through officially submitted forms or other measures from 2011-2015, 2,660 were caught involved in criminal activity within two years of retiring from their gangs. Many of the cases involved theft.

“There is a tendency for former yakuza to turn to crime as they are unable to make a living,” the NPA said. “We must support these people through employment assistance programs among other measures.”

Kobe-based Yamaguchi-gumi, the largest crime syndicate in Japan, split in two in August 2015, forming the splinter group Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi, headquartered in Awaji, Hyogo Prefecture.

Yamaguchi-gumi lost 2,300 members since 2015 and was at 11,800 people last year. The breakaway gang was at 5,500 members in 2016, a 600-head drop from the previous year.

Since the NPA officially deemed the two gangs to be in a state of all-out war a year ago, 44 incidents connected to the hostilities occurred in Tokyo and 18 prefectures across the nation, as of March 6.