Split in Japan's biggest yakuza crime syndicate; police warn of wave of violence

TOKYO (AFP) - A rift has emerged in Japan's largest yakuza organised crime syndicate, the government has said, with police warning that the split could lead to a wave of gang violence.

Like the Italian Mafia and Chinese triads, the yakuza engage in everything from gambling, drugs and prostitution to loan sharking, protection rackets and white-collar crime.

But unlike their foreign counterparts, they are not illegal and each of the designated groups have their own headquarters.

"The government is aware that some member factions of the Yamaguchi-gumi, regarded as Japan's biggest crime syndicate, are showing moves toward secession," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said on Friday.

"Police are working to collect information. We hope police will use this opportunity to take measures to weaken the organisation," Suga said.

The syndicate boasts 23,000 members and associates.

Periodic crackdowns and police efforts to choke off Yamaguchi-gumi's sources of funding have gained momentum, while a poor public image and Japan's flaccid economy have made life difficult for the gangsters and made membership less attractive for potential recruits, experts say.

Local reports said the Yamaguchi-gumi kicked out 13 leaders of its member factions and that 11 were moving to form a new group, which could ally with other mobsters to build a new syndicate, the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper said.

Police were on high alert expecting inter-gang conflict to turn violent, Kyodo News said.

The National Police Agency would hold an emergency meeting on Wednesday to discuss the development, the Nikkei newspaper said.

Police officials could not be reached for comment on Saturday.