The Treasury Department has imposed sanctions on Japan’s biggest yakuza group, an organized-crime syndicate that operates with relative impunity there and whose far-ranging criminal activity has become a significant concern in Washington.
In an announcement on Thursday, the department said it would freeze the American-based assets of the group, the Yamaguchi-gumi, and two of its leaders. It will also bar any transactions between Americans and members of the penalized crime syndicate. Yakuza have been tied todrug trafficking and other crimes in the United States, with particular prominence in Hawaii and California. The Treasury did not elaborate on the dollar value of United States-based accounts that might be frozen under the new sanctions.
In a statement, the Treasury said the group made “billions of dollars” every year around the world. Its criminal activity includes prostitution, money laundering, fraud and trafficking in humans, weapons and drugs.
The action “casts a spotlight on key members of criminal organizations that have engaged in a wide range of serious crimes,” David S. Cohen, under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in a statement.
“We will continue to work with our international partners to target those who deal in violence, narcotics, money laundering and the exploitation of women and children,” Mr. Cohen said.
The Treasury is using sanctions authority created by a 2011 executive order. In the order, President Obama said he had determined that criminal organizations — including the yakuza, the Camorra crime syndicate in Italy and Mexico’s Zetas drug cartel — “constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy and economy of the United States.”
Yamaguchi-gumi; its reputed “godfather,” Kenichi Shinoda; and its “deputy godfather,” Kiyoshi Takayama, are the first to be penalized under the order.
The Treasury also announced sanctions against a major crime syndicate called the Brothers’ Circle, along with several of its top members. The Brothers’ Circle, formerly known as the Family of Eleven or the Twenty, is a multiethnic umbrella organization for criminal groups operating across Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
The yakuza gangs, which boast about 80,000 members, have deep historical roots in Japan and have operated for more than a century. They recently have been tied to a wide range of businesses, including the nuclear industry and Olympus, the Japanese camera manufacturer mired in a major accounting scandal.
According to a 2009 report by Japan’s National Police Agency, the Yamaguchi-gumi had 19,000 members and 17,400 associates, making it the biggest yakuza group. Recently, Japanese authorities have been cracking down on the yakuza, with citizens becomingincreasingly intolerant of the criminal underworld. But local authorities have struggled to scrub the groups from industries where they hold considerable influence, like construction.