Those close to Japan's top syndicates say the bosses have distanced themselves from Shiroo, putting out word that he was acting alone. But there's reason to doubt this tidy narrative. The Japanese media reported that Shiroo had tried and failed to help a yakuza-linked company win government construction contracts. City officials excluded the company in a push to reduce yakuza influence in the construction sector. Shiroo may have murdered Itoh to intimidate other officials.
His real motive remains murky, but Shiroo's brazen act provides some insight into the shadowy world of the yakuza and the difficulties Japan's once mighty mafia faces as it struggles to adapt to the country's changing economic circumstances. Over the past several years, the mobsters' traditional revenue sources have been drying up, largely due to vastly reduced government spending on graft-prone public-works projects. With easy money harder to get, gangsters may be more likely to resort to strong-arm tactics as they fight for scraps. "The Nagasaki shooting is a harbinger of what's to come," says Mitsuhiro Suganuma, a former high-ranking agent with Japan's Public Security Intelligence Agency. "Their activities will become a lot more violent, and a lot more dangerous."
While it may seem odd that yakuza could be hit by budget cuts, they're not immune to government belt-tightening. The construction industry has always been the lifeblood of the yakuzathe gumi in Yamaguchi-gumi is also frequently used to denote construction companies. During Japan's bubble economy in the 1980s, crime lords feasted on the lucrative real estate sector. Yakuza made a mint by intimidating residents into selling their property at below-market prices. Many gangs plowed profits into real estate projectsespecially golf courses, which became one of the most mobbed-up industries in Japan. When the bubble popped and the government in the 1990s tried to spend the country back to fiscal health with massive public-works projects, the gangs siphoned off funds by delivering bribes to politicians to secure contracts for yakuza-linked construction firms. But in recent years, Japan's huge budget deficit has forced politicians to cut back on spending and crack down on bid rigging. "The construction industry is tight even for legitimate companies," says Takashi Kadokura, an independent researcher who specializes in the underground economy. "There's less money, and the pie is getting smallerespecially outside of major urban areas, where the yakuza still largely depend on traditional businesses."
The result is an underworld version of the rich/poor divide that plagues the rest of the country. Top echelons of major organizations like Yamaguchi-gumiwhich controls roughly half the estimated 80,000 gangsters in Japanare thriving due to booming economies in Tokyo and Osaka. They can make billions from gambling, loan-sharking, drugs and the protection racket. Meanwhile, smaller gangs in moribund regional cities like Nagasakiwhich are more dependent on government spending to fuel local growthare being squeezed. Increasingly desperate, they are turning up the heat on local officials to extort more money from a shrinking pool. "There are a lot of hidden tragedies involving yakuza-related organizations and bid rigging that never come out in the press," asserts Suganuma.
The top syndicates, with wide-ranging interests to protect, have no desire to see local violence get out of hand. But mob bosses may not be able to control their subordinates the way they once did. "If the lower-level yakuza aren't getting any money or any work, they won't listen as well to their bosses," says Benjamin Fulford, a Tokyo-based journalist who writes on the gangs. More than half of yakuza are now classified by police as "associates" rather than fully fledged members; in 1991, only 1 out of 3 yakuza were associates.
Weakening loyalty between employer and employee, the growing clout of Tokyo at the expense of outlying areasthese are trends most Japanese are experiencing. But just as the salaryman is far from an endangered species, the gangs aren't likely to disappear. Yukio Yamanouchi, an Osaka-based lawyer who represents Yamaguchi-gumi, says the yakuza "provide the services that Japanese society requires." As long as there's a market, the yakuza will exist. It's just good business.