A bloody dispute between two yakuza groups in a Japanese city has led to a historic fightback by local people, writes David McNeill in Kurume city

A REPUTATION for unpredictability and violence keeps journalists away from the yakuza, but a vicious turf battle between two rival gangs in this southern city has made them reluctant media fodder. The two-year war has produced seven deaths and over 20 shootings and bombings.

Now, in a remarkable act of collective courage that has electrified the fight against organised crime in Japan but divided this city, local people are taking the gangsters to court.

“The yakuza are using weapons like the kind you see in the Iraq war: grenades, bombs and guns that can shoot people from 500 metres away,” says lawyer Osamu Kabashima, who is representing the 1,500 plaintiffs. “My clients have had enough. They want to live in safety and peace.”

In the most notorious episode in the war, a gangster walked into a hospital and pumped two bullets into an innocent man mistaken for a rival.

In another, outside this, the head office of the 1,000-member Dojin-kai gang in a busy shopping area, a machine-gun ambush sprayed bullets in all directions.

Those attacks finally snapped the patience of locals, who have banded together to drive them out, using a civil law that allows them to challenge businesses that “infringe on their right to live peacefully”.

Win or lose, the legal fight will go down in history. “This is the first time that citizens are trying to expel the head office of a designated gangster organisation,” heralded the liberal Asahi newspaper, which called on local businesses and government leaders to support the plaintiffs and “drive the yakuza into extinction”.

That seems unlikely. Japan’s National Police Agency estimates that there are more than 84,000 gangsters in the country’s crime syndicates, many times the strength of the US Mafia at its violent peak.

A single group, the Yamaguchi- gumi, is the General Motors of organised crime, with nearly 40,000 members in affiliates across Japan and a high-walled central compound in one of the wealthiest parts of Kobe city.

Fan magazines, comic books and movies glamorise the yakuza, who operate in plain view in a way unthinkable to western observers.