The Yakuza Godfathers
In the years following World War II, yakuza membership increased dramatically to 184,000 members divided into 5,200 gangs throughout the country, making it larger than the Japanese army at the time. Inevitably these gangs encroached on one another's territories, which resulted in bitter and bloody gang wars. The man who brought peace to the warring factions and unified the yakuza was the group's first 20th-century godfather, Yoshio Kodama.
Kodama's gift was his ability to balance his affiliations to both right-wing political groups and criminal gangs, using each to keep the other in check. He was a political fixer who served his government through corruption, espionage and other dirty dealings, which the Japanese simply call kuroi kiri (black mist). In the 1930s and 1940s, he maintained an extensive network of spies in China, feeding information back to the Japanese government. He procured large shipments of materials, such as nickel, cobalt, copper, and radium, for the mounting war effort, sometimes bartering for these supplies with heroin. A grateful Japanese government awarded him the title of rear admiral for his patriotic efforts, and by the time the war was over in 1945, Kodama was worth the equivalent of $175 million.
After the Japanese surrendered to the Allied powers, he was classified a Class A war criminal—a distinction reserved only for cabinet ministers, ultra-nationalists and high-ranking military leaders—and served two years in prison before being released as part of a general amnesty. A fervent anti-Communist with access to valuable information regarding Communist movements in China and Japan and an army of street criminals at his disposal, Kodama became an attractive asset for the occupying forces. Just as Lucky Luciano provided the Mafia's services to the invading Allied forces in Sicily during World War II, Kodama acted as go-between for the G-2 section of the occupational forces and the yakuza, and was able to mobilize battalions of gangsters to carry out his political will. The CIA paid him $150,000 in 1949 to use his underworld connections to smuggle a shipload of tungsten out of China, a shipment that never arrived, although Kodama kept his fee.
Taoka first came to power in the port city of Kobe, where his gangs rounded up unskilled laborers and sold their services cheaply to shipping companies. Other yakuza clans competed for this lucrative racket, but under Taoka's guidance, the Yamaguchi-gumi took the lion's share of the labor business.
Unlike Yoshio Kodama, who disdained street-level violence, Taoka had lived with it all his life and had no problem using it to his advantage. Orphaned as a boy, Taoka was forced to work on the Kobe docks where he was taken in by a local gang leader named Noburu Yamaguchi. As a young man, Taoka proved to be a fierce street fighter. His signature move was to claw his opponents eyes with his fingers, which earned him the nickname Kuma (The Bear). In 1936, at the age of 23, he was sentenced to eight years in prison for murdering a gang rival.
Upon his release in 1943, he was welcomed back into his old gang, and in 1946, at the age of 33, he became the new oyabun after the death of Yamaguchi. Police arrests and the military draft had reduced the Yamaguchi-gumi to just 25 loyal kobun, but under Taoka the gang's ranks would soon swell. His organizational genius and natural aggressiveness helped to make the Yamaguchi-gumi Japan's premier yakuza clan. The cunning Bear made a pact with Kobe's largest bakuto gang, the Honda-kai, but in fact he was uncomfortable with sharing power. The traditional gamblers were no match for his soldiers, and soon the Honda-kai was devoured by the Yamaguchi-gumi.
A Korean gang from Osaka, the Meiyu-kai, was Taoka's next target, and its defeat gave the Yamaguchi-gumi a controlling share of the Osaka rackets. Operating like a wartime commanding general, Taoka moved in on the Miyamoto-gumi next and swallowed their ranks into his own. In the 1960s even the great Kodama had to negotiate with Taoka to keep the Yamaguchi-gumi from muscling into Yokohama
In 1972 Kodama brokered a historic pact between the Yamaguchi-gumi and Tokyo's powerful Inagawa-kai. The deal was sealed at Taoka's home in a traditional sakazuki ceremony in which blood brotherhood was sworn over elaborately poured cups of sake. After the sake was consumed, the empty ceremonial cups were wrapped in paper and put away inside the representatives' kimonos. The men then clasped one another's hands, and a go-between declared the ceremony completed. The Yamaguchi-Inagawa alliance created a yakuza behemoth with only four of Japan's prefectures free of their control.
In July 1978, at the age of 65, Taoka survived an attempt on his life. He was enjoying a limbo performance at the Bel Ami nightclub in historic Kyoto when a young man named Kiyoshi Narumi walked up to the godfather's table, pulled out a .38-caliber pistol, and started shooting. Despite the presence of five bodyguards, Taoka was hit in the neck, and the assassin managed to escape. Taoka was rushed to the hospital in his bulletproof black Cadillac.
Narumi was a member of the Matsuda syndicate, whose boss had previously been killed in a skirmish with the Yamaguchi-gumi. Several members of the Matsuda gang, including Narumi, had eaten their oyabun's ashes, vowing to avenge his murder. Taoka eventually recovered from his gunshot wound, but his attacker was found dead several weeks later in the woods near Kobe.
Three years later Taoka succumbed to a heart attack. His funeral was a grand affair attended by high-ranking Yamaguchi-gumi members from all over the country, as well as a number of well-known celebrity entertainers. Thirteen hundred police officers were on hand to maintain order. The National Police Agency took advantage of the customary three-month mourning period and arrested 900 Yamaguchi-gumi members in the hope of weakening the gang after the godfather's death. Taoka had chosen a successor before he died, a man named Yakamen, but he was in prison at the time of Taoka's death. In the chaos created by the power void, Taoka's widow Fumiko grabbed the reigns and prevented a divisive power struggle within the gang. She was mainly a figurehead, as one would expect in a male-dominated society, but her strong presence nevertheless maintained order until a permanent successor was selected.
The Korean yakuza are a powerful presence in Japan, despite the fact that Koreans suffer discrimination in Japanese society. Although Japanese-born people of Korean ancestry are a significant segment of the Japanese population, they are still considered resident aliens. But Koreans, who are often shunned in legitimate trades, are embraced by the Japanese yakuza precisely because they fit the group's "outsider" image. The man who paved the way for Koreans in Japanese organized crime was the Korean yakuza godfather Hisayuki Machii.
Born Chong Gwon Yong in 1923 in Japanese-occupied Korea, Machii was an ambitious street hood who saw opportunity in Japan and seized it. After the Japanese surrender, Machii worked with the United States Counter Intelligence Corps, which valued his staunch anticommunist beliefs. While leaders of the Japanese yakuza were imprisoned or under close scrutiny by the American occupying forces, the Korean yakuza were free to take over the lucrative black markets. But rather than trying to rival the Japanese godfathers, Machii made alliances with them, and throughout his career, he remained close to both Kodama and Taoka.