Yakuza gangsters get into festive spirit with gifts for local children


Kobe’s mob syndicate used an end-of-year party to distribute cash gifts worth up to €227 each, writes DAVID McNEILLin Tokyo

TATTOOED GANGSTERS bearing end-of-year gifts may not be everyone’s image of Christmas spirit but that’s what greeted residents in Japan’s port city of Kobe during the holiday season.

Kobe city police has confirmed that Japan’s largest Yakuza syndicate, the Yamaguchi-gumi, distributed cash gifts of up to 30,000 yen (about €227) to hundreds of local kids.

Local media say the children were among about 1,200 people invited into the syndicate’s national headquarters in a middle-class Kobe neighbourhood on Monday to take part in a year-end party. The locals made rice cakes and were given snacks, toys and cash in envelopes – a Japanese tradition known as otoshi-dama.

“It’s not the first time this has happened,” said a spokesman for Kobe police, who claimed he was unaware of the party. “There’s nothing illegal in giving people gifts, so we have no reason to intervene.”

The 40,000-strong Yamaguchi-gumi operates from behind a high-walled compound occupying a single block in one of the wealthiest parts of Kobe. A sign outside identifies the group and warns would-be local troublemakers that it does not tolerate lawlessness, petty crime or littering. “It’s probably difficult for people outside Kobe to understand, but locals say that Kobe is one of the safer cities in Japan because of the Yamaguchi- gumi,” said a Kobe journalist who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“They have a reputation for keeping order.”

The syndicate famously filled the gap left by the fumbling authorities during the 1995 Kobe earthquake when it distributed tons of lunchboxes, water and other supplies to stricken residents. In return, Yakuza watchers say the group received lucrative construction contracts to rebuild the city.

Witnesses to Monday’s giveaway told the local press that the cash envelopes bore the name of the syndicate’s godfather, Kenichi Shinoda, who has been in prison since 2005 for gun possession. He previously served 13 years for killing a rival mob boss with a sword.

Although the cake-making ceremony has been a mob fixture in Kobe for at least two decades, police say the size of this week’s party and the cash gifts suggest it is a PR move designed to smooth the way for Shinoda’s imminent release. Some locals fear the don’s reappearance after five years behind bars could spark violence or even gang warfare.

Witnesses say hundreds of parents accompanying children were seen arriving for the gifts, which some newspapers estimate cost the group about €132,000.

Some predicted at the stunt might backfire.

“Local people were probably delighted, but among the lower ranks of the Yakuza times are tough, and some can barely scrape together 10,000 yen,” mob watcher Atsushi Mizoguchi told the Sankei newspaper. “Some of them may not be happy at their bosses giving away cash.”