Updated: Apr 10, 2020
We are only two months in 2020, but plenty of things are going on for the yakuza. A bit of backstory: the Rokudaime Yamaguchi-gumi (the 6th generation Yamaguchi-gumi led by Tsukasa Shinobu) has long been the uncontested top group within the yakuza. Their capillary presences in each prefecture, their high numbers of membership, their wide range of activities, and their charismatic leaders secured them the leadership of the underworld. But for the past five years things have not been going great for the Rokudaime Yamaguchi-gumi: in 2015, a coalition of groups split from the main organisation and formed the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi, led by Inoue Kunio. The split was caused by many reasons: rising fees to pay to the top in a context of declining revenues, the long-lasting internal conflict between the Kōdōkai (group of origin of Tsukasa Shinobu) and the Yamaken (group of origin of Inoue Kunio), related disagreements on activities and policies, and the fact that Tsukasa Shinobu, wanted to move the headquarter of the head organisation from Kōbe to his hometown, Nagoya. The Kōbe Yamaguchi-gumi managed to gather a considerable number of groups in their organisation; generally groups based in East Japan aligned with the original Yamaguchi-gumi, and groups in the East with Kōbe Yamaguchi-gumi. However, in 2017 a new coalition of groups splintered from the Kōbe Yamaguchi, forming the Ninkyō Dantai ('Chivalrous Groups') Yamaguchi-gumi, and leaving a three-way standoff. The newly formed group tried to play it smart to avoid the restrictions that had been enacted against organised crime in Japan, starting from the name: they chose a name that echoes what the yakuza have traditionally prided themselves on, the past. Ninkyō Dantai is a name dear to the yakuza, as they have always liked to be known as groups of chivalrous fighters. The group leader, Oda Yoshinori, did not take up the role of oyabun, or kumichō, but opted for the title of 'daihyo', representative, in order to give a veneer of legitimacy to the group. Indeed, he tried to get the group registered as an NPO. However, the nature of the organisation was clear to the police, and the group soon became a designated yakuza group.
After three years of activity, on 12 January 2020 the Ninkyō Dantai Yamaguchi-gumi released a statement, announcing that they would change their name to Kizunakai (kizuna means ties, bonds) and also change their daimon (logo), which until that moment had been the traditional Yamaguchi-gumi daimon. At the same time, they released the news through their social network services (such as LINE). The message read:
'Since our formation, we aimed at returning to the real way of chivalry, we strove to remove our label of 'antisocial groups'. To do so, we have been trying to reunite the Yamaguchi-gumi, while at the same time renovating it. But in the light of the past few months, we understood that the current situation is excessively complicated, and after thorough consideration by bosses and members, we took the decision to change the name and logo to 'Kizunakai', and head towards a fresh start'.
In a world like that of the yakuza, where the group's brand is fundamental to carry out business and to uphold the group's reputation, such an important decision cannot have been taken lightly. More likely, a long series of consultations must have taken place and strategical decisions must have been carefully considered. It is important to note that since April 2019 the then-Ninkyō Dantai Yamaguchi-gumi had held all their meetings behind closed-doors, and avoided all official ceremonies. The low-intensity warfare within the three Yamaguchi-gumi groups that began with the first split in 2015 has not settled down as of yet, and may also have been at the base of this change of name. The intensification of the turmoil that followed the release of Takayama Kiyoshi, number two of the Rokudaime Yamaguchi-gumi, may be one of the main reasons that led to the adoption of a new name and brand for the Kizunakai, which supposedly aims to put a distance between themselves and the two other Yamaguchi-gumi groups. Although this name change reveals indicatively what direction the group aims to follow (an independent road), it is not clear what the 'fresh start' mentioned in the above message concretely entails for the group. What is certain is that, like the two remaining Yamaguchi-gumi, the Kizunakai will have to deal with a declining membership, shrinking opportunities for business, harsher law-enforcement, and on the top of that, a continuing turmoil in the yakuza underworld that cannot seem to be easily solved. Especially not by a simple rebranding move.