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Japanese police mobilize to avert gang war after murder of mob boss

September 6, 1997 GMT

TOKYO (AP) _ Masaru Takumi and two other bosses of Japan’s largest underworld gang were relaxing in a crowded hotel lounge in the port city of Kobe when four men dressed in dark blue work clothes and baseball hats strode toward their table.

About an hour later, Takumi - second-in-command of the Yamaguchi-gumi crime syndicate - was pronounced dead, his head and chest riddled by seven bullets. Another victim, a dentist hit by a stray round, died after six days in a coma.

Now, after what has already been an unusually bloody summer in Japan, police across the country are mobilizing to stop a major gang war from breaking out in response to Takumi’s shooting, the country’s biggest mob hit in more than a decade.

Roughly 1,000 police, many wearing bulletproof vests and riot gear, were deployed for his funeral in nearby Osaka last Sunday and nearly 100 offices used by the gang across the country have been raided over the past week.

The men who shot Takumi, however, remain at large.

Fears of a gang war have prompted concern all the way up to Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, who told reporters he was particularly angered by the death of the bystander and vowed to keep the unrest from generating more bloodshed.

Since the murders, warning gunshots have been fired into the doors and windows of about half a dozen buildings allegedly owned by Yamaguchi-gumi, presumably in retaliation for Takumi’s death. No injuries have been reported, but the attacks have unsettled the public.

Japanese organized crime syndicates are among the most sophisticated and wealthy in the world.

Police say the number of gangsters nationwide is about 80,000 and estimate their total income at $108 billion.

Their activities range from gambling, drugs and prostitution to money laundering and various extortion and real estate scams. Their operations are believed to stretch to Southeast Asia, Australia, Russia, Hawaii and the west coast of the United States.

But several years of crackdowns accompanied by tougher anti-crime laws enacted in 1992, as well as a slowdown of Japan’s economy, have cut into the ranks of organized crime and intensified competition for shrinking profits.

Authorities believe such pressures may have been a factor in Takumi’s death.

According to authorities, 33,600 gangsters either belong to or are loosely affiliated with the Yamaguchi-gumi. Takumi was the gang’s ``Young Leader,″ and headed one of its largest affiliates with about 900 gangsters under his direct control.

During his tenure, he had been adept at avoiding costly turf wars. At the same time, however, he made enemies within the gang by kicking out weaker members to streamline the group’s operations.

``People wanted him out,″ said Atsushi Mizoguchi, a leading authority on organized crime in Japan and biographer of the Yamaguchi-gumi’s current boss, Yoshinori Watanabe.

Mizoguchi said that shortly after the killing, Taro Nakano, who ranked just below Takumi in the organization’s hierarchy, was suddenly expelled from the group along with his followers.

Police reportedly believe Nakano’s supporters may have been angry with Takumi for making peace with a gang that tried to kill Nakano last year. Nakano’s bodyguards killed the two assailants as they attacked Nakano while he was receiving a haircut.

Deaths from fighting between rival gangs had declined from 16 in 1990 to just two last year, according to the National Police Agency. Twenty people were killed in a major gang war that erupted after the Yamaguchi-gumi’s top two bosses were murdered in 1985.

``This could be a prolonged battle,″ Mizoguchi said. ``It won’t end until Nakano leaves the underworld.″

One of the only ways to do that, he said, is by dying.