On the 21st of January 2019, the Shinjuku area of Tokyo was thrown into turmoil. Had you been wandering past a certain karaoke bar in the entertainment and red-light district of Kabukicho that afternoon, you might have heard the unmistakable sound of a gunshot! This was the sound of a yakuza assassination that dominated headlines for weeks after.
Although the fact that this shooting occurred answers our main question — do the yakuza have guns? Yes, the yakuza do use guns — the shock and fascination of the Japanese public showed that this was no common occurrence. While some countries of Japan’s size expect dozens if not hundreds of shootings per day, Japan has such strict firearm controls that they’re virtually unheard of.
As we’ll see, this has an effect on the tactics used by its gangsters while they jostle (and battle) for position in the Japanese underworld.
Yakuza Shootings (Stabbings, and Bombings)
When we described gun crime as virtually unheard of in Japan, that’s as a factor of the population, and in comparison to countries where guns are far more prolific; there are still a notable number of shootings which occur each year. In 2002, this meant 158 shootings with 24 being fatal. Ten years later, those stats had fallen to 45 and 8.
It’s also very unlikely that the average civilian will fall victim to one of these crime, as around 75% of 2012’s shootings were purely yakuza-on-yakuza violence. Speaking to the Japan Times on the 6th of January 2019, a former detective of the Kanto police force said “We fire our guns less, so most of the shootings in Japan are yakuza versus yakuza — and as long as the yakuza are killing each other, the general public and the police didn’t seem to mind."
This was the state of affairs for much of the 20th century. In the yakuza heyday the 1960s they enjoyed a certain level of impunity, provided they kept their business strictly between the clans and out of public view. This often meant clubs, knives, and swords were favored for certain jobs, but guns were relatively prolific too. Much of the guns used then and over the following decades were smuggled from America, where the larger clans maintained a presence.
As the stats show though, things have been changing rapidly. Japan’s already strict gun laws have tightened the noose on illicit gun owners even further in response to some very loud, very public yakuza shootings, and what the Kanto detective described as “stray bullets”.
One victim of a very intentional bullet was the former mayor of Nagasaki, Iccho Itoh. While on the campaign trail in 2007, he was shot twice in the back by a member of the Yamaguchi-gumi, the biggest yakuza clan in Japan. Down in Kyushu in 2013, the chairman of a fishing co-operative fell similarly foul of the local yakuza and their firearms.
After shooting dead the chairman, the clan then targeted his grandson (a dentist) and an ex-member of the co-op with knife attacks. These attacks on civilians aren’t par for the course among most of the 850 yakuza clans of Japan, but these Kudo-kai of Fukuoka are famously vicious — known to use grenades and molotov cocktails in highly public attacks.
It’s indiscretions like these that have brought the iron fist of the law pounding down on weapon ownership in Japan ever harder in the past two or three decades. Understandably, many yakuza are now starting to question whether the risk of owning a gun is worth the power it affords them (the answer is an overwhelming “no”).
Tight Weapon Controls
Japan has a long precedent of restricting weapon ownership, dating back to the 16th century when warlord Oda Nobunaga banned commoners from owning swords for fear of revolt. Even the samurai lost their right to carry blades in the sword hunts of 1876. That’s why, despite the image portrayed by Quentin Tarantino, you won’t find the yakuza running around with katana.
In fact, any knife with a blade longer than 8cm is banned from being carried in public. If a criminal is caught with a longer one on their person, it’s not considered a serious offense and very rarely results in any jail time. Even if they use it, the maximum term is 2 years.
Compare that to the penalties for carrying a gun and you’ll quickly see why the idea of going about their daily criminal business with a box cutter instead of a pistol is a much more appealing prospect. The Firearms and Swords Control Law banned handguns in 1965, and there have been many revisions since which upped the level of punishment and tightened restrictions.
Owning an illicit gun is of course a crime, but so is owning even a single bullet. If a young upstart enforcer were found with both at once, the charge would be raised to ‘aggravated ownership of a firearm’, and he’d be heading to prison for around 7 years. God forbid he shoots the thing — that would land him 3 to 20 years just for pulling the trigger (on top of the charges for whatever unlucky target he hits). That’s just how hostile the Japanese authorities are towards gun ownership.
Perhaps their greatest idea yet was incentivizing the yakuza bosses to clamp down on guns internally. In 1997 a man by the name of Kaneyoshi Kuwata — a high-ranking boss in the Yamaguchi-gumi — was traveling through Tokyo’s Roppongi district in a convoy. Police surrounded the vehicles, and after finding a handgun inside one of them charged not only the foot soldier with possession but the boss himself as an accomplice.
This meant seven years in prison for Kuwata-san, despite he himself having not been in the same car as the gun. When faced with their own imprisonment rather than only that of their expendable troops, the bosses started to heavily restrict the exchange and carrying of weapons within the gangs themselves.
All of this has led to some very strange stories of replica gun use among the yakuza. In 2016, a Yamaguchi-gumi boss from the Kobe branch threatened a rival gang member by holding a replica up against him and making gun noises, which was... probably nowhere near as intimidating as he had hoped.
With all of these restrictions around gun ownership, police searching your convoys for handguns, and the media breathing down your neck every time you execute a trade union leader, how’s a yakuza supposed to earn an honest living!? Well, the trick which some clans are turning to is by earning an honest living.
In fact, much of the revenue of the yakuza clans come from legitimate businesses that operate fully within the bounds of the law. An offshoot of Japan’s biggest syndicate, calling itself the Ninkyo Yamaguchi-gumi, is moving to future-proof itself by running a fully legitimate operation. Their plan is to establish a private security firm to redirect the macho skillset of their associates towards above-the-board, legal violence.
With the movement towards legitimization as a result of government clampdowns (glacial though they might often be), it seems that shootouts and turf wars might become a thing of the past. Because the more karaoke bars and security firms you’re running, the less you want to draw the ire of the authorities with loud bangs and bloodied streets. With its already limited number of yakuza shootings dwindling further, Japan's already impressively low crime rate looks set to fall too!
Stay Safe Out There
Thanks to centuries of restrictions around weapon ownership, and ever-tightening additions to the laws to combat modern gun problems, the benefits of gun ownership are now heavily outweighed by the costs in Japan. With harsher sentences than ever, coupled with strong legal and financial incentives for literally giving up the gun, it’s likely that the gun crime stats of Japan will continue to drop as their prime users move on to other businesses and other weapons.