The Yamaguchi family, based out of Kobe, is the largest yakuza family in Japan, and one of the most powerful organized crime syndicates in the world. The family boasts about 39,000 members, makes billions of dollars every year, and has operations overseas. The Yamaguchi is a force to be reckoned with.
But more importantly, the Yamaguchi family has basically had a yakuza monopoly for the last few decades, gobbling up more territory and profits than any other yakuza family in Japan.
In one interview with online magazine The Rumpus, yakuza expert Jake Adelstein compares the Yamaguchi to the house that Walton built:
Adelstein: They basically have a monopoly. You can't have a price war with Walmart.
Rumpus: The Yamaguchi-gumi is the Walmart of the yakuza.
Adelstein: It is. It occupies so much turf now.
How did the Yamaguchi get to be the Walmart of the yakuza, driving out all of the small, mom-and-pop yakuza families? Low, rollback prices? Big box stores? Elderly greeters at the front of every yakuza business?
It's easy to imagine that the Yamaguchi became a monopoly through some dramatic chain of events that culminated in a massive shootout, but the Yamaguchi's rise to power was a lot less cinematic.
A lot of it comes down to adaptation.
For a lot of Japanese history, the yakuza were more or less openly tolerated. A lot of what the yakuza did was obviously illegal, but the groups themselves weren't necessarily outlawed.
Yakuza groups were sort of seen as just another part of society. Members used to carry their very own yakuza business cards and be friendly with police.
But in the last couple of decades, the Japanese have passed more and more laws that make it harder for yakuza families to operate the way they used to. Nowadays, yakuza bosses bear some legal responsibility for the crimes of their underlings, and restaurants like Pizza Hut even refuse yakuza service.
So the Yamaguchi family, under the leadership of Yoshinori "Mr. Gorilla" Watanabe, adapted to these laws and toned down the stereotypical yakuza image.
You won't see a lot of the ornate, full-body tattoos that the yakuza are known for, and not many underlings are slicing their pinkies off, either.
And for a group of mobsters, the yakuza barely use guns. Because of Japan's strict gun laws, firing a gun at somebody violates so many laws that it's better to just forget about the whole thing.
The Yamaguchi and really, the yakuza as a whole, became more subdued and focused less on the tradition and pageantry that made them stand out, and more on the things that made them so incredibly rich and powerful.
The Future of the Yakuza
Even though the Yamaguchi has made it to the top of the yakuza ladder, it doesn't mean that they have it easy. Heavy is the head that wears the crown.
The Japanese government and foreign countries have continued to tighten the vice on the Yamaguchi and other yakuza groups. The #2 boss in the Yamaguchi was recently sentenced to six years in jail for extortion, and last year the US government froze all of the Yamaguchi's American assets.
But despite all of the hardships, there's no doubt that the Yamaguchi, and all yakuza groups in Japan, will continue to blackmail, extort, traffic, and generally terrorize Japan. It's hard to keep a good gangster down.