The head of Japan's largest underworld gang, the Yamaguchi-gumi, stepped down yesterday after 16 years as its leader, reports and a police official said.
The retirement of Yoshinori Watanabe, 64, was made official during a meeting of the gang's leaders at its headquarters in the western Japanese city of Kobe, according to a local police official who demanded he not be further identified. Dozens of police were deployed around the headquarters and at local train stations.
Watanabe will be replaced by the current No. 2 leader, Kenichi Shinoda, who is 63, Japan's Kyodo News service reported. Watanabe will continue to hold a senior advisory post, it said.
It was not immediately clear why Watanabe was stepping down.
Despite more than a decade of police crackdowns, the number of gangsters in Japan has been growing.
At the end of last year, there were 87,000 gangsters in the country, according to the National Police Agency. The Yamaguchi-gumi, already Japan's largest syndicate, grew by 1,100 to 39,200 last year and comprised 45.1 percent of Japan's total underworld members.
Japanese gangsters -- commonly called the yakuza -- are among the world's wealthiest, bringing in billions of dollars a year from extortion, gambling, the sex industry, guns, drugs, and real estate and construction kickbacks schemes. They are also involved in stock market manipulation and Internet pornography.
Police embarked on a major crackdown in 1992, when the murder of an officer led to tougher anti-mob laws. But the results have been mixed.
Gangsters who had previously made no secret of their mob affiliations were forced underground, and many also diversified their operations in hard-to-prosecute gray areas in the stock and real estate markets.
The NPA has vowed to crack down on those operations and plans to post 10,000 more policemen around Japan over the next three years.
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