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And that is exactly what they got. The attacks have prompted the National Police Agency to propose giving law enforcement more powers to search and arrest gang members. The yakuza remain a remarkably visible presence in Japan, as they have been for centuries.
But law enforcement officials say the violence in Kitakyushu may prove a turning point, by shocking a public that has become increasingly fed up.
Any romantic aura that may have enveloped the gangsters in the past is falling away, the authorities say. Japan has tried four times since the early s to rein in the yakuza and has failed to make more than a dent in their numbers, currently about 80, compared with estimates of 5, members of the American mafia at its height in the early s. Like many Japanese gangs, the Kudokai even maintains its own public headquarters, the Kudokai Hall — a four-story, fortresslike white building surrounded by tall walls, barbed wire and security cameras — that sits in the center of Kitakyushu, a city of one million residents.
Until recently, the gangs were a quietly accepted fact of life. The yakuza were tolerated because they helped Japan keep its streets safe by imposing the same rigid rules and hierarchy on the criminal world that are seen in the rest of Japanese society. But as Japan has developed into a modern, middle-class nation, it has also refashioned itself into a society that relies on courts and lawyers to keep order, not medieval outlaws. The growing intolerance of the underworld has been evident in recent scandals in which a top television comedian and the national sport of sumo were forced to cut ties with gangsters.
Still, many admit, it has proven tough to completely cut ties. Indeed, lawyers and antimob activists say the nation remains reluctant to take the final step of outlawing the gangs outright, a step many here have called for. There are fears that a ban could lead to what many here call a mafia-ization of the gangs, driving them underground and removing their last restraints on violence against regular civilians.