Owing their origins to the yakuza, Japan’s native organized crime group, Japanese ultranationalist societies gained strength in the ex-samurai class during the reign of Emperor Meiji. The purpose of one such society, organized in 1901, was the expansion of Japanese control past the Amur River, the border between northeastern China (Manchuria) and Russia. The river, named Amur in Russian, has a Chinese name that translates as the Black Dragon River, hence the name for the society.
The Black Dragon Society and other new types of yakuza organizations considered themselves righteous gangsters who worked for the rights of the people, reverence for the imperial institution, and total Japanese domination of Asia. By the beginning of the 20th century, the reign of Emperor Meiji had turned Japan into a world power with a growing economy and a population of around 45 million people. Commerce fl ourished in Japan. As the economy grew and the priorities of the population shifted toward consumerism, gangs grew in power as they organized laborers in businesses such as construction, gambling, building the new metal-wheeled rickshaw, and running street stalls. Gang bosses often opened legitimate businesses to act as covers for underground work. Often they paid off local police to keep their activities quiet.
As their power grew, the yakuza increased their presence in politics. Eventually, close ties to influential offi cials developed, and many gangs worked under government sanction that protected them from persecution. Since both sides were motivated by opportunism, ideology played only a small part at this time, and cooperation between the gangs and the government resulted. There was always a conservative slant to the yakuza, but as the Japanese increased their international military presence and some Japanese sought greater democracy, the new yakuza became more conservative and ultranationalist.
First erupting on the southernmost Japanese island of Kyushu, ultranationalism became the defi ning force behind Japan’s move to extreme conservativism. The island served as the home to a large number of discontented ex-samurai. Many of these samurai had already been taken advantage of by charismatic patriots and politicians who fought against the perceived disregard for tradition among the modern sector. The city of Fukuoka, located closest to mainland Asia, had developed into a center of xenophobic ultranationalism.
From this center of antigovernment ideology, Mitsuru Toyama emerged as a strong leader who effected lasting change in Japanese organized crime. During his 20s, Toyama’s political activities sent him to jail for three years, and upon his release he joined his fi rst nationalist society, called the Kyoshisha, the Pride and Patriotism Society. Toyama handed out money to his followers on the streets in the manner of those before him, earning him the moniker Emperor of the Slums. Next he began enlisting the disgruntled youth of Fukuoka and created a workforce of disciplined and dedicated fi ghters.
Toyama made a move in 1881 upon the founding of the Genyosha, the Dark Ocean Society. According to the tenets of its charter, the Dark Ocean Society vowed to revere the imperial institution, love and respect the nation, and defend the people’s rights. Even with such vague intentions, Toyama exploited the passion of the ex-samurai for Japanese expansion and total rule. Toyama was able to successfully tap into this sentiment and create a strong political, paramilitary force. The work of the Dark Ocean Society, whose very name indicated expansion across the small divide of ocean between Japan and mainland Asia, was a campaign of strength.
Using blackmail, assassination, and other forms of terror as a catalyst, the Dark Ocean Society was successful in exerting infl uence over government offi cials and ultimately played a critical role in pushing Japan into mainland Asia and war with the United States. An offshoot of the Dark Ocean Society, the Black Dragon Society was known for their espionage, sabotage, and assassination methods in Japan, China (especially in Manchuria), Russia, and Korea. The ultimate objective of the Black Dragon Society was domination of Asia. The natural successor of the Dark Ocean Society, the Black Dragon Society took over Dark Ocean followers along with Dark Ocean policies and goals.
Under the patronage and guidance of the Dark Ocean Society’s Toyama, the Black Dragons pushed Japan into a victorious war with Russia, committed political assassinations, and helped create the conditions for a Japanese invasion of Asia. For 30 years, the Black Dragon Society flourished. They discouraged Japanese involvement in capitalism, democracy, and anything associated with the West.
In the 1920s, even during the Taisho democracy and the increase in Japan’s liberalism, the Black Dragons grew. As a result the Japanese polity was overwhelmed by assassination, police repression, and an increasingly renegade military. Ultranationalist groups increased in power, even receiving money from the imperial family. The Black Dragon Society evolved into the paramilitary arm of a dominant political party.