World News

03.09.14

Where Have Japan’s Yakuza Gone?

Japan’s feared and resilient crime syndicates the yakuza have seen their numbers decline for the first time in years, but is that because of stricter laws or are they just going underground? By Jake Adelstein and Nathalie-Kyoko Stucky

The number of yakuza, Japan’s organized crime group members, hit its lowest record since the country’s first anti-organized crime laws passed in 1992, the National Police Agency announced this week. The number of yakuza had hovered around 80,000 for almost 18 years up to 2011 but the nationwide criminalization of paying the yakuza or doing business with them has dealt a blow to these quasi-legal organizations. However, like many things in Japan, the statistics and the reality are always slightly askew.

According to the National Police Agency, yakuza membership peaked in 1963, at approximately 184,100 members. Since the implementation of the anti-organized crime laws in 1992, the number of active members “has been approximately at the same level” of roughly 80,000. But by the end of 2011 membership was starting to seriously decline down to 70,300 members. (32,700 regular members and 37,600 associates.)

The NPA says about 4,600 members retired from regulated organized crime activities within a year, bringing the total numbers of registered members and associates to about 58,600 in 2013 down from 63,200 in 2012. Unlike most organized crime groups in the world, the Japanese mafia is recognized and regulated by the police under the organized crime control laws, but not outlawed. The groups still have offices and fort-like headquarters, business cards, corporate logos, badges and fan magazines. The Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s largest organized crime group even has their own internal newspaper and has a website in development, perhaps hoping to recruit younger members and shore up PR.

Their primary sources of revenue are extortion, racketeering, financial fraud, blackmail, stock market manipulation, drugs, the entertainment business, sports industry, film and television production, and providing labor and security to the nuclear industry. The yakuza were traditionally federations of gamblers (bakuto) and street merchants (tekiya). They acted as a second police force in the chaos after the Second World War, gaining some legitimacy. They are called boryokudan, 暴力団 (violent groups) by the police but they refer themselves “yakuza” “gokudo” and as ninkyodantai 仁侠団体 (humanitarian groups) and claim that they contribute to preserving peace in Japan, and emergency aid when natural catastrophes hit the country.

The Yakuza Code Is Fading

The NPA reportedly explained the decline in yakuza membership as due to the police crackdown on organized crime syndicates. However it is unclear where all the former yakuza members and associates have gone. It is also possible that some defected to join groups less well known to the police. Experts say petty crime rate in Japan may possibly increase when organized crime members go underground and unregulated. Traditionally, most yakuza groups followed a primitive code of ethics, which forbid theft, robbery, sexual assault, dealing in and/or using drugs, & fraud. Blackmail, extortion, and racketeering were considered acceptable. As one former yakuza boss says, “If you’ve done something so bad that we are blackmailing you, you probably deserve to be paying. That’s social justice.”

“The numbers are definitely down but the yakuza are also moving underground. We can’t just go and have tea with the bosses and get a list of members like we used to years ago.

According to the Ministry of Justice over the last ten years, the numbers of yakuza arrested for traditionally frowned up crimes such as theft, robbery and fraud have continued to rise by year.

The Yakuza Corporate Logo Has Lost Its Brand Power

According to the NPA figures, the Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s largest yakuza group lost 2,000 members in 2013 from 25,700 the previous year, and its rival gang, the Sumiyoshi-kai, lost 1,100 members in 2013 from 9,500. Tougher laws throughout the years increasingly made it difficult for Japanese mobsters to stay in business. Collecting protection money used to be a stable yakuza business until the boryokudan haijojorei  (暴力団排除条例) or organized crime exclusionary laws that went into effect in 2011 criminalized sharing profits with the yakuza or paying them off. The increasing involvement of organized crime in Japan’s financial system forced the police, and abroad, the U.S. Treasury Department to blacklist certain senior members within the largest Japanese criminal network.

Most of the modern yakuza have bakuto (gambler) roots. The exclusionary ordinances have most impacted the tekiya (street merchants), who contributed and still play an important cultural role in Japan’s Shinto and Buddhist festivals. The exclusionary laws also target them. Officials in Buddhist temples & shrines increasingly refuse to admit the tekiya in doing business inside their temples’ territory. Street food and toy stands are being replaced by professional entertainment companies’ stands. Japanese street festivals and cherry blossom scenery may come closer to resembling Disney Land in the near future, rather than a quaint gathering of tattooed merchants and traditional Japanese food and wares.

Japanese law enforcement uses all the laws available to crack down on the yakuza. Most banks, real estate, insurance, and even golf club contracts have an organized crime exclusionary clause built into them. If an organized crime member signs the contract, perhaps say to open a bank account, the financial institution can unilaterally close the account if they confirm organized crime connections with the police. The yakuza member can then be arrested on fraud charges. A mid-level yakuza member, A. Kobayashi, left his organization in 2013. “I couldn’t get insurance, have a bank account, or join a sports gym. It was like being a non-person. My girlfriend dumped me; I couldn’t pay my association dues. I couldn’t collect protection money. I got out. It’s hard to find a job. The Centers for The Elimination Of Organized Crime are supposed to help us re-enter society, but there aren’t any good jobs.”

Crime Doesn’t Pay; In Civil Court

The other factor that has contributed to a decline in membership and increasing departures are laws on “employer liability” which make the yakuza bosses responsible for any damages committed by lower members. Revisions made to Japan's Organized Crime Countermeasures Law, boryokudan taisakuho, (暴力団対策法) in 2008 now hold organized crime bosses responsible for the actions of their underlings in civil court.

In October of 2012, Tadamasa Goto, former boss of the Yamaguchi-gumi Goto-gumi crime group, agreed to pay ¥110 million, or $1.2 million, to settle a lawsuit filed by the family of Kazuoki Nozaki, who was murdered by members of Goto’s organization in 2006 over a real estate dispute. Goto has never faced criminal charges for the killing.

While the yakuza fan magazines still exist, the numbers have dwindled from three monthly magazines to two and the yakuza comic books such “The Yamaguchi-Kodo-Kai Versus The National Police Agency: Never Ending Battle To The Death Without Victory” and manga biographies of living yakuza bosses are now rarely sold in convenience stores or even regular bookstores.

There is increasing dissatisfaction among lower ranking yakuza bosses who pay anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000 dollars a month in tribute to the organization above, in the yakuza pyramid.

One boss based in the Kanto area has seen his organization drop from 120 people to 20 full-time members since 2008. He explains his frustration as follows:

“Can you imagine running a McDonald’s without being able to use the golden arches? The yakuza are like a franchise of fear. You pay your dues, you get to use the name, the symbol, and the force that comes with it—you make money. That’s how it used to be. It’s a dishonest living—but it used to be a good dishonest living. You shake down some assholes, you loan money, you collect protection fees from the local bars, love hotels, car dealers. And you could do that when you had your badge and your business card. But since 2012 or so, you can’t even carry a business card. You know, it’s not very intimidating to be a nameless yakuza. So what are you paying for? You don’t even get to wear the badge anymore. You might as well just be a common criminal.”

Fading out or just turning invisible

A veteran organized crime detective says, “The numbers are definitely down but the yakuza are also moving underground. We can’t just go and have tea with the bosses and get a list of members like we used to years ago. There are increasing fake expulsions, giso hamon, (偽装破門), where a yakuza member is technically kicked out of a group but continues to do business with them. The tattoos, the missing fingers, they are becoming cultural anachronisms. There are fewer yakuza on the bottom end of the underworld economy. But in the entertainment industry, sports, construction, real estate and nuclear business, they are still very much a real presence. In politics as well.”

The yakuza numbers are going down but how much of it is real and how much of it is a failure to track them as they adapt is the great unknown. And they are not all going quietly. In Kyushu, where the yakuza are deeply rooted, they are not leaving with a whimper, they are leaving with a bang. Gang war there continues on a frightening scale. The yakuza are dwindling from public view: it will be a long time before they are really gone---if ever.