The Yama-Ichi War was a yakuza war fought in the Kansai region of Japan from 1985 to 1989 between the Yamaguchi-gumi and Ichiwa-kai gangs. Originating as a succession dispute following the death of the yakuza "boss of bosses" Kazuo Taoka from a heart attack in 1981, the war resulted in 220 shootouts and the deaths of 36 gangsters. Ultimately, the Yamaguchi-gumi emerged victorious, but the war led to a police crackdown which crippled the declining syndicate.
The Yamaguchi-gumi was founded in 1915 as a union of Kobe's dockworkers; over the next few decades, it evolved into Japan's leading yakuza organization. By the 1970s, the Yamaguchi-gumi dominated the Japanese entertainment industry, boxing, wrestling, sumo games, 100 production companies, talent agencies, booking firms, baseball games, auctions, and horse races, while also selling methamphetamine, heroin, and speed, engaging in high-stake gambling events, smuggling contraband, racketeering, and loansharking. By the 1980s, the multibillion dollar network of the Yamaguchi-gumi had spread to 36 of Japan's 47 prefectures, and they controlled over 2,500 businesses from education and health to the gaming and adult industries.
In July 1981, the Yamaguchi-gumi godfather Kazuo Taoka suddenly died of a heart attack, and a Buddhist state funeral was held in the ex-boss' honor, with 1,300 yakuza from 200 gangs attending the funeral and 800 riot police standing guard. Takenaka's successor was to be Kenichi Yamamoto, the the founder of the Yamaken-gumi gang during the 1960s. Kenichi had previously served as Yamamoto's right-hand man, but he was arrested for extortion and sentenced to jail and was not due to be released in 1982. He died seven months after Taoka, and the police took advantage of the disarray to crack down on the Yamaguchi-gumi, arresting 900 gang members and seizing 102 guns, 192 swords, and 2 pounds of amphetamines. At the same time, rival gangs capitalized on the disorder to ramp up their influence, and the generation gap of the Yamaguchi-gumi's members led to factional rivalries forming within the gang.
Taoka's 62-year-old widow Fumiko Taoka became acting head of the Yamaguchi-gumi, an unheard-of role for a woman, and Hiroshi Yamamoto of the Yamaken-gumi and Masahisa Takenaka (a personal favorite of Fumiko) competed for the position of boss. Fumiko had Masahisa voted in as kumicho after a troubled election, but Yamamoto never accepted the results. He refused to serve as Takenaka's underboss and led a schism of yakuza from the Yamaguchi-gumi. On 19 June 1982, Hiroshi met with 18 top syndicate figures at a Kobe restaurant, and they agreed to secede from the Yamaguchi-gumi and form the Ichiwa-kai syndicate. This group took half of the Yamaguchi-gumi's manpower and most of its arsenal, rallying 13,000 yakuza and becoming one of the top three criminal networks in Japan.
The Yamaguchi-gumi offered amnesty and generous retirement pay to all the Ichiwa-kai who wished to return, and many of the defectors ultimately agreed to return. By the end of 1984, the Ichiwa-kai was down to only 2,800 men, and Takenaka was becoming more powerful. On 26 January 1985, 4 Ichiwa-kai yakuza murdered Takenaka at his mistress' apartment, killing him and two of his underbosses in an elevator, wiping out the Yamaguchi-gumi leadership. A few days later, 1,000 yakuza gathered to mourn Takenaka's death. In February, the Yamaguchi-gumi bosses declared Kazuo Nakanishi as their new boss and declared war on the Ichiwa-kai. Japanese civilians were forced to close their shops, end their tenancy leases, avoid backstreets and criminal hotspots, and stay indoors after dark, fearing that the feud would explode.
Over the next few months, 1,000 yakuza were arrested and hundreds of weapons confiscated. However, 200 armed attacks and 26 deaths had occurred by February 1986. In September 1985, Masahisa's brother Masashi Takenaka flew to Hawaii to strike a deal with the American Mafia, promising to sell them drugs in exchange for three rocket launchers, 5 machine guns, and 100 handguns to attack the Ichiwa-kai headquarters. They also requested a private assassin to kill Hiroshi. However, the mafiosi revealed themselves to be undercover agents, and the Yamaguchi-gumi bosses were arrested. Over the next few months, several civilians were killed in the crossfire, and scorecards began to appear on Japanese newspapers listing daily death rates. The Inagawa-kai tried to mediate, but, in February 1986, an Ichiwa-kai businessman, Hideo Shiragami, was found dead in the sea, his body mutilated. The Yamaguchi leadership denounced Shiragami's death and announced an end to hostilities six days later, ending the two-year war. The Yamaguchi-gumi had emerged as the victory, looming over the Ichiwa-kai by 1989; by then, the Ichiwa-kai were only a few hundred strong, and they disbanded shortly after. Yoshinori Watanabe was elected kumicho of the Yamaguchi-gumi that same year. Soon, the Yamaguchi-gumi membership rolls topped 20,000, and the Yamaguchi-gumi appeared more formidable than before. By 2000, the gang would have 34,000 members and close associates, making it by far the largest syndicate in Japan, comprising half of all yakuza identified by police.