The stories surrounding the biggest and most flamboyant yakuza bosses of that time are legendary.
In Kobe, gambling on bare-knuckled street fights was a major source of income for the gang that controlled the city’s waterfront – the Yamaguchi-gumi. One of the professional fighters of the time, Kazuo Taoka, caught the eye of the gang’s kumicho.
Taoka’s ferociousness during bouts earned him the nickname of The Bear, because he went for his opponent’s face and tried to scratch out his eyes. The Boss took the young brawler under his wing, and Taoka rose from enforcer to his wakagashira. In 1937, Taoka was charged with murder and spent six years in prison. He became the third kumicho soon after his release.
When he took over the Yamaguchi-gumi, it was a small and local dockland gang. He moved it off the docks into loan sharking, gambling and into legitimate business investment, especially in the world of sport and entertainment.
Baseball and laughter.
About the only laughter the people of Osaka got in those hard, post-war days came from the vaudeville shows, the stand-up comics and the burlesques. All of these were controlled by the Yamaguchi-gumi.
If you went to a baseball game in the Osaka/Kobe area, part of the entrance fee and part of the cash you paid for the beer you drank went into the gang’s coffers. They also controlled the wide-spread and illegal baseball gambling that went on, which meant they controlled the players and the outcome of the games.
Taoka ruled the Yamaguchi-gumi for more than thirty years and saw it grow into the biggest underworld gang in the country. Despite many attempts on his life, a heart attack took him, in 1981.
Kakuji Inagawa’s father had been a graduate of Meiji University. The young man himself found his vocation in gambling and in judo. Like Taoka in Kobe, Inagawa’s physical strength and fighting skills brought him to the attention of a Tokyo gang boss, and he was hired as an enforcer. Like Taoka, he, too, rose to become the kumicho. The Inagawa-gumi eventually became the biggest organized crime syndicate in eastern Japan.
It was built around gambling.
Inagawa formed relationships with the bosses of big business interests in the coal, construction and transport industries. Their workers gambled in dens run by Inagawa. Through the skill of his gamblers, Inagawa was able to retrieve a big percentage of the workers’ wages and return them to the bosses, after taking his cut.
The name of Chong Gwon Yong, the “Ginza Tiger”, has already appeared in these pages. He arrived in Tokyo from Korea with The Occupation forces, moved into the Ginza and established there a gang which controlled that classy entertainment district for a generation. His soldiers were called the “Ginza Police” and enforced law and order in its streets more effectively than the Tokyo Met was able to do.
There are many stories, too, about the less well-known but equally brutal Yoshio Fujimi, kumicho of the Fujimi-gumi, to which Ishigaki’sgang belonged. As it was this man that GHQ soon found itself in direct confrontation with, I think an anecdote is in order.
It was told to me many years later by a retired detective acquaintance from my Occupation days over bourbon in a seedy Tokyo bar.
It goes back to the explosion in the meth laboratory.
Three of Ishigaki’s soldiers were dead and his wakagashira was in hospital, badly burned, and would eventually be imprisoned. On top of that, the Tokyo Prosecutor’s Office had been under recent pressure from GHQ to put an end to the illegal manufacture and sales of stimulant drugs, so it had decided to target Ishigaki.
Those things left him in a weakened position. The boss of a gang in nearby Sumida Ward decided to take advantage of his weakness by moving in and snatching the profitable methamphetamine business for himself.
This thug, called Nishioka, was a loose-cannon; loud-mouthed and dumb. He started with skirmishes against bars, clubs and brothels that Ishigaki controlled in Yashio, warning the owners that soon Ishigaki would be in jail and that he, Nishioka, would be in charge.
Fujimi was watching the situation closely; so was the Boss of The Sumida Cooperative Association, the gang to which Nishioka’s crew owed allegiance. His name was Degawa, and Fujimi crossed the river to see him and offer to act as go-between, to sit down with both Ishigaki and Nishioka and work something out. Degawa accepted the offer, and ordered Nishioka to meet with them.
Nishioka insisted that the sit-down would be on his own terms – a place, day and time of his choosing, which he would reveal to Fujimi in a telephone call only immediately before the meeting itself. He feared that he would be set up if any advance notice were given.
For the venue, he chose a big and busy izakaya pub, down an alley in the Kabukicho entertainment district. It was a Friday night, and the place was crowded with a mixture of business men, university students and their girlfriends and factory workers.
Nishioka sent five of his men inside first to settle down as customers and check the place out for any suspicious activity before entering himself, with two additional bodyguards, taking a table against the rear wall and ordering beer.
Only then were Fujimi and Ishigaki summoned.
Fujimi was a large man, weather-beaten by his hard life, stooped and slow. Ishigaki was younger, slighter of build and puny in the shadow of his Boss. The empty sleeve of his right arm was pinned up to the shoulder.
They sat down, and three waiters approached. But before Nishioka could order anything, the waiters pulling revolvers out from under their aprons and aimed them at his head and the heads of his two bodyguards.
When they saw this, the other bodyguards sprang from their various places to go to the Boss’ assistance, bringing out their own weapons as they moved. But the customers themselves overpowered them.
They, the waiters and the kitchen staff were all members of the Fujimi-gumi.
Heavy-duty rice sacks were pulled down over Nishioka’s head and the heads of his men – to prevent blood staining the floor – and they were beaten to death with wooden mallets.
The corpses were zipped up into US military body bags, carried by truck to the docklands, weighed down with chains and dumped from a trawler into Sagami Bay, far from shore.
Nishioka had told no one the location of the venue for the sit-down, except, of course, Degawa, for the Boss must know everything; otherwise he isn’t the boss anymore. And Degawa was uncomfortable with this stupid, unstable and unreliable thug. So he had come to an agreement with Fujimi to get rid of him, and let him know the name and address of the izakaya in advance.
Fujimi had had the manager kidnapped. The staff were intercepted as they showed up for work and hustled into a truck that was parked in back of the premises. Fujimi replaced them with cooks and waiters from establishments he owned. The customers, too, were all part of his organization; some brought along their wives and girlfriends. Three tough guys patrolled the alley to turn away anyone trying to enter, saying the place had been rented that night for a private party.
Only the guest of honor and his bodyguards were allowed in.
Five minutes after Fujimi came through the door with Ishigaki, Nishioka and his thugs were dead. Nothing was ever heard of them again.The manager and his staff were rewarded for their cooperation and released.
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