A handful of Yakuza bosses have used their criminal empires to gain political power. In fact, a few Yakuza have played major roles in the history of Japan. Yoshio Kodama made a fortune during World War II by selling war materials. He bought these materials from China -- China sold them under duress.
Initially imprisoned as a war criminal, Kodama made several key underworld connections before his release by American occupying forces. Using his own espionage network, a small army of loyal Yakuza followers and several shady deals with the CIA, Kodama consolidated his political power. A fierce right-wing nationalist, Kodama used his money and influence to shape Japanese politics and business in ways that will probably never fully see the light of day. He was eventually accused of various financial crimes but died of illness before he could stand trial [Sources: Kaplan and Crime Library]. Ryoichi Sasakawa was a contemporary of Kodama's and had a similar career.
Kazuo Taoka was another influential Yakuza boss. He was the leader of the largest clan, the Yamaguchi-gumi. He wielded his power from the end of World War II to the early 1980s, when he died of a heart attack. His wife, Fumiko Taoka, stepped into the power vacuum and held the clan together for a period of several months. Not only was Fumiko Taoka one of the only women to ever act as oyabun, she did so for the largest, most powerful Yakuza gang in Japan [source: Kaplan].
In modern Japan, there is not as much tolerance for the blatant demonstrations of power that the Yakuza once displayed. In 1992, the Japanese government passed a law much like the U.S.'s RICO law. This law added penalties for crimes conducted to further gang goals and allowed gang leaders to be held responsible for the crimes of their members. However, the law did not significantly reduce gang membership in the long term -- analysts estimate that Yakuza membership across all of Japan tops 80,000, and the Yamaguchi-gumi clan, now six generations old, has roughly 20,000 members across many affiliated gangs [Sources: Asahi and Japan Times].
The law also led to the restructuring of some clans, which may have caused more harm than good. Police pressure led some gangs to move to new areas, provoking bloody gang wars. Critics also contend that the law makes it harder for police to get reliable information from Yakuza informants
Massive amounts of money also continue to move in and out of Yakuza coffers every year, with some estimates exceeding more than a trillion and a half yen (more than $13 billion U.S.) for 2004 alone [source: Japan Times]. That much money will always yield influence, so there is little doubt that the Yakuza are still a powerful force in Japanese business and politics.
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