The gang war that erupted five years ago when a group of members bolted from the Yamaguchi-gumi crime syndicate over its practice of demanding a large cut of their earnings has deepened.

Those that left are now fighting each other as well as their former gang.

The internal turmoil in the splinter group, the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi, could lead to its implosion, some suggest.

“The Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi could end up just breaking up if it loses its power and money,” one investigative source said.

The cause of the conflict is familiar: infighting over money the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi demands in tribute, compounded by the current lack of gang bosses.

Police are carefully watching the gang's moves in the event of another war breaking out between elements of the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi that mirror the series of armed encounters between it and the Yamaguchi-gumi over the past five years.

The main cause of the current trouble within the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi is the Yamaken-gumi, to which Kunio Inoue, 72, boss of Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi, once belonged, according to investigative sources.

The Yamaken-gumi is a core element of the Kobe Yamaguchi-guchi, accounting for about half its 1,500 or so gang members.

But from July, bosses of affiliated gangs have been meeting periodically, and some of the gangs have shown signs of wanting to leave the Yamaken-gumi.

One reason for the lack of solidarity is that Yamaken-gumi boss Hiroji Nakata, 61, is in prison on suspicion of attempted murder in connection with the shooting of members of a gang affiliated with the Yamaguchi-gumi.

With Nakata absent, gangs affiliated with the Yamaken-gumi have split into those wanting to remain in it and those who want out.

Another gang affiliated with the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi that has also bolted is the Ikeda-gumi, headquartered in Okayama city. In late July, the gang sent “messages” to other gangs announcing its departure from the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi.

The apparent wealth of Ikeda-gumi is one reason behind its exit, despite its boss being a supreme adviser of the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi.

Police are warily watching out for a possible merger with another group that split from the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi in April 2017.

The moves by the Yamaken-gumi and the Ikeda-gumi do not bode well for the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi.

The Yamaken-gumi provided the manpower while the Ikeda-gumi had the financial resources to prop up the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi.

Meanwhile, the Yamaguchi-gumi has problems of its own.

After second-in-command Kiyoshi Takayama, 72, was released from prison in October 2019, war intensified with the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi.

Eight days before his release, two members of a gang affiliated with the Yamaken-gumi were shot to death on the streets of Kobe.

Police arrested a member of a gang affiliated with the Kodo-kai, a core gang within the Yamaguchi-gumi and to which Kenichi Tsunoda, 78, Yamaguchi-gumi boss, once belonged. Tsunoda is also known as Shinobu Tsukasa.

In November 2019, a high-ranking member of the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi was gunned down with an assault rifle in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture.

In the five years since the Yamaguchi-gumi splintered, there have been a total of 127 incidents as of Aug. 26 connected to armed conflict between the two gangs, according to the National Police Agency. 

In January, the public safety commissions of six prefectures in central and western Japan designated the two major gangs as being involved in a turf war and greatly restricted activities of gang members, such as banning any gathering of five or more members.


Like many other aspects of Japanese society, yakuza gangs have also taken a financial beating from the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“We can't demand protection money from businesses that have closed their doors (due to the pandemic),” said a high-ranking member of a gang affiliated with the Yamaguchi-gumi.

The cancellation of fireworks and summer festivals where small food outlets linked with gangs do lucrative business has also cut into profits.

“All events in which we would normally have earned about 10 million yen ($94,200) in two or three days were canceled,” the gang member said.

While the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi's internal strife stems from financial strains, the Yamaguchi-gumi also faces a different problem of members leaving the criminal world.

At the end of 2015, before the breakup, the Yamaguchi-gumi had about 10,000 gang members around Japan, according to the National Police Agency.

But a year later, that figure had shrunk to 6,000. At the end of 2019, it sank to 4,100.

“The age when a gang grew in size after winning a turf war is over," said journalist Atsushi Mizoguchi, who has long covered yakuza gangs.

"Even though the Yamaguchi-gumi looks to be in a dominant position now, there is no change in the long-term trend of its weakening power.”

But innocent civilians are still at risk of getting hurt in turf warfare, said a lawyer who has worked to eliminate organized gangs. 

“Even if the number of gang members and revenue sources decline, organized gangs still constitute a dangerous existence to residents," said Motoo Kakizoe, a lawyer in Hyogo Prefecture.

"As long as such gangs continue to exist, turf wars will break out and ordinary citizens will suffer the damage.”

Noting that the Yamaguchi-gumi and the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi are still active in other prefectures outside the six designated as involved in the turf war, Kakizoe said there is a need for comprehensive measures that limit the very existence of such gangs and their activities.