With the stereotypical, commonly proliferated images of gangsters of the ’50s of America and the Corleone family of Hollywood, it’s a sin to be unaware of the deep roots of the mafia throughout the rest of the world. Our Gangster of the Week focuses on Yakuza Godfather, Kenichi Shinoda. As the figurehead of a multi-billion dollar crime ring that flirts seamlessly with the Japanese government, Kenichi Shinoda is undoubtedly one of the most feared and respected men to ever walk the earth.
Yakuza history traces its origins to the Tokugawa era, the time of the shogunate, when Ieyasu Tokugawa unified the country of Japan. Japan had made rather notable progression from its period of civil war, but was not yet a stable nation. The newfound era of peace left as many as 500,000 samurai unemployed, and there were not enough jobs to support their numbers. Many of these samurai joined the merchant class, but those who didn’t – the ronin – had to find other means of support, and many turned to thievery and criminal methods to support themselves.
A True Gangster
Insisting on taking a train rather than a limo to his induction ceremony, he cancelled the lavish banquet arranged in his honour for a nosh-up at a street noodle restaurant. The mayor of Nagasaki’s murder in 2007 highlighted Yamaguchi-gumi’s new “hardline approach”.
Shinoda began his career in 1962 in Nagoya, founding the Kodo-kai gang in 1984 and making it the Yamaguchi-gumi’s most successful branch of its crime operation. He became embroiled in numerous feuds shortly thereafter – most notably a war with the rival Dojin-kai gang in the 1980s, which saw him kidnapped and tortured. That established his credentials with the parent syndicate, and he was soon ensconced in its Kobe HQ.
Operating openly out of a wealthy Kobe, the Yamaguchi-gumi gang has a reputation for being remarkably “civic-minded”, says Eric Johnston in The Japan Times. As one neighbour says: “Gang members sometimes clean up the rain gutters around my house, and I’ve seen them sprucing up the area around a local temple.”
When the Kobe earthquake struck in 1995, the Yakuza were the first on the scene helping out. The same blurring of lines applies to business, where gang-leaders touting business cards mix freely with corporate executives, says Bloomberg. In recent years, the Yakuza have increasingly turned to conventional businesses to supplement “more traditional income sources”.
Goldman Sachs with Guns
Still, he is no ordinary thug. As leader, even behind bars, Shinoda was pivotal in moving the syndicate into the lucrative world of corporate finance (see below). As Yakuza expert Jake Adelstein observes: “People think of the Yakuza as wielding swords and having tattoos and missing fingers. What you should be thinking is…Goldman Sachs with guns.”
Japan’s ambiguous relationship with its mafia gangs is a mystery to most Westerners, steeped in the Chicago tradition of all-out mob warfare. While some Yakuza activities are illegal, the syndicates enjoy a “semi-legitimate standing in society”, says Justin Currie in The Guardian.
Shinoda heads the 35,000-strong Yamaguchi-gumi group, which earns “billions of dollars” a year from crimes in Japan and abroad – “including drug and human trafficking, prostitution, money laundering and fraud”, claims the US Treasury. He is feared and admired, says The Daily Telegraph.
One of the things that these organizations do is use the wealth they earn from illegal activities to try and infiltrate legitimate markets … That creates distortion in the market that we are trying to address,” David Cohen, the U.S. Treasury’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, told Reuters.
A Traditionally Ruthless Leader
Masterminding “an aggressive expansion” of the 100-year-old organisation when he became its sixth kumicho (supreme godfather) seven years ago, Shinoda has been to prison for “killing a rival with a samurai sword” in the 1970s and for firearms offences.
This reputation was first established in 1969 by his activities during a gang war between the expanding Hirota-gumi and local rivals belonging to the Dai Nippon Heiwa-Kai. culminating in his murder of a boss in the traditional way, using a katana
According to the U.S. Department of the Treasury, the Yakuza’s criminal activity in the U.S. primarily involves drug trafficking and money
Kenichi Shinoda, the group’s 70-year-old “godfather,” and his deputy, Kiyoshi Takayama, 64, will have their U.S. assets frozen in a move that one Tokyo-based journalist called “a slap in the face of the Japanese government” for taking a lenient stance toward organized crime, according to Bloomberg.
According to Reuters, the Yakuza alone rakes in “billions of dollars” per year in illicit profits from a range of criminal activity including weapons trafficking, sex tourism, prostitution, money laundering and more.