By David Amoruso
Posted in 2001
Updated in 2005
Yoshinori Watanabe was born in 1941 in the Tochigi prefecture north of Tokyo. Watanabe was born into a big farming family and had a pretty good life. After finishing middle school he moved to Tokyo and worked in restaurants making noodles. After a couple of years he had had enough and moved to Kobe where he joined the Yamaken Gumi a gang that is part of the Yamaguchi Gumi Clan. When Watanabe joined the Yamaguchi Gumi, somewhere around 1960, they were embroiled in a series of deadly turf wars. And according to the underworld legends it was in these wars that Watanabe showed his skills as a leader. He proved to be tough and smart and was, besides a hard worker, lethally efficient in resolving disputes. The bosses recognized his talent and after the wars Watanabe quickly rose through the ranks.
By the early 1980s the Yamaguchi Gumi Clan was in chaos. They had lost their 3rd Boss in 1981 due to a heart attack, his successor to liver failure and his eventual successor to assassins. Then in 1988, it was Watanabes turn. He became the 5th boss in the history of the Yamaguchi Gumi Clan. By now the Yamaguchi Gumi were the biggest Yakuza Clan in Japan but during the 1980s they were split into 2 rival factions and lost power during the war that followed, which left 26 members dead. To many people the Yamaguchi Gumi was done for and would probably be taken over by another Yakuza Clan. At first they seemed to be right. Watanabe didn't do much in his first months as top boss but then as the 1990s began law enforcement began to see dramatic changes in the Yamaguchi Gumi Clan. Watanabe started to bring the Yamaguchi Gumi back to the top of Japanese Organized Crime. He abandoned the centralized power structure, and split it into 7 semi-autonomous regional groups, making it harder for police to keep tabs on, and easier to control internal and external friction. He forged new alliances and cemented existing ones with rival Clans nationwide, and he rekindled an earlier leader's dream of making the gang a nationwide power. When Watanabe swept to power, the Clan had offices in 39 of Japan's 47 prefectures. Today, that's up to 43. At the same time, Watanabe added 5,000 full-time men to the Clan. By 1999, according to police statistics, the Yamaguchi Gumi had 165000 full time members more than 5 times the size of the entire American Mafia at it's peak in the 1950s. Thanks to Watanabe the membership was up a third since he took over in 1988.
Under Watanabe the Yamaguchi Gumi also survived the major crackdown on Organized Crime and the Japanese recession. Where other Yakuza Clans were decimated by the police crackdown that jailed there leadership, and the recession that made members decide it was time for a new job, the Yamaguchi Gumi grabbed what was left and managed to muscle in on the new economy. It wasn't all good times for Watanabe though: 2 of his underbosses were jailed and a third was murdered but all in all you could say Watanabe is enjoying a lot of good times for a Yakuza boss. But because he is the most powerful Yakuza boss of the moment police forces are aiming all their ammo at him and are doing all they can to get him behind bars. But this might not be so easy, not just because Watanabe is well isolated from the actual crimes but also because the Yamaguchi Gumi have a strong hold on politics. During the House Election the Yamaguchi Gumi helped raise money and get out the vote for scores of politicians. Exactly what such relationships yield is unclear. But they suggest that short of taking on Watanabe's political allies, the police stand little chance of bringing him to his knees. Equally unnerving, in a recent issue of Shukan Taishu, a magazine closely read by police and Yakuza alike, an unnamed Yamaguchi Gumi underboss warned that if the police ever threatened the Clan in earnest it would not hesitate to retaliate.
Watanabe currently lives in a palatial home in one of Kobe's old-money neighbourhoods, he is a simple man, say people who know him. He avoids rich food. He lifts weights. He jogs. He hikes in the Kobe hills. He has a single-digit golf handicap. He skis in winter, and jet-skis in summer. He is an avid student of Chinese history and Japanese law. He enjoys karaoke. (His repertoire includes a Japanese ballad set to the music from The Godfather.) Those who know him say he sees himself first and foremost as an unorthodox public servant. To his mind, there will always be losers, people incapable of holding down regular jobs. Since the Yakuza provides work for such people, and helps keep their aggression and frustrations in check, or at least directed mainly at one another, he thinks of it as a pragmatic solution to an intractable problem. He admits it may not be ideal. But he believes the Yakuza is far better than the alternative--disorganized crime characterized by random attacks such as those that plague other developed nations. He may have a point. Since Japan launched its Yakuza crackdown a decade ago, serious crime has soared by 70%, the arrest rate for such crimes has fallen to 70% from 90%, and the police have been plagued by a snowballing series of cover-ups and scandals.
"If a gang of young thugs turns up and starts causing trouble, the Yakuza go out and sort them out because it's bad for business," says Ichiro Senda, a former mid-ranking Yamaguchi Gumi boss who once worked under Watanabe. "But if the Yakuza are gone who'll there be to make sure punks don't terrorize ordinary people. The police? I wouldn't count on it."
UPDATE JULY 30, 2005: On Friday July 29, 2005 Yoshinori Watanabe stepped down as boss of the Yamaguchi-gumi, according to police. He was replaced by by his second-in-command Kenichi Shinoda. A source familiar with the Japanese underworld said Watanabe was thought to be in poor health.
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