TOKYO—Japan’s yakuza may finally be changing. After years in the shadows, degenerating into purely criminal organizations, one yakuza group formed this April looks like it’s trying to go legitimate—and more. It wants to become a “humanitarian organization” that keeps the peace and at least limits its criminal activity to the traditional tacitly socially approved rackets. Publicly, at least, it’s aiming for a rep as the Boy Scouts of the underworld.
The new group has adopted the name Ninkyo Yamaguchi-gum, which loosely translates as “Chivalrous Humanitarian Yamaguchi-gumi.” And it is doing all this with a very high profile: a press conference, scores of magazine interviews, and a PR blitz. The savvy yakuza, it seems, wants to be a good guy.
How did we get here?
If you haven’t followed the annals of the Japanese mafia, aka “the yakuza” per the years, you need to understand that these are not secret societies. Japan’s oldest extant yakuza group has existed for over 147 years. The Japanese police only launched the first serious crackdown on them in 1964. And 53 years later…
Membership is down but the yakuza are still very much a part of Japan’s social fabric. There are 22 organizations that are regulated—but not banned. They have office buildings. Japan’s National Police Agency lists the addresses and the name of each organization’s top boss on its webpage (PDF).
Each group has a corporate emblem known as a daimon. The Yamaguchi-gumi has a diamond-shaped insignia; the Sumiyoshi-kai is represented by the Japanese character for “dwelling in a place.” Some members get the corporate logos tattooed on their bodies—corporal branding, you might say.
Each yakuza group is an all-male family structure, with the top boss being the oyabun (father figure) and relationships forged over elaborate sake rituals which cement ties between the oyabun and his kobun (children). The oyabun has absolute power and the saying goes: “If the oyabun says the passing crow is white, it’s white.” Within the family there are “older brothers” and “younger brothers” and “cousins.” There are no female yakuza in any major group, because the members are mostly sexist sociopaths.
The top three groups operate as franchises with monthly dues anywhere between $10,000 to $50,000 required to stay on as a top executive, sometimes plus additional payments from the group itself. Each group is a pyramid with association dues rising as members rise in the organization.
The Yamaguchi-gumi in particular has friendly alliances with 18 or more other yakuza groups and holds semi-annual “get togethers” as well as other events. According to police sources, at these little parties the bosses of other groups usually bring a minimum $100,000 in cash as a sign of respect.
The yakuza make the bulk of their money from extortion, real estate fraud, blackmail, insider trading, loan sharking, entertainment business management, drugs, and illegal gambling. They have powerful political connections, including Japan’s former minister of education, and there have been allegations, denied, that the vice president of Japan’s Olympic Committee has associated with them. The Yamaguchi-gumi, however, does say it bans dealing or using drugs.
Top yakuza members carry business cards, fan magazines cover their exploits, comic books are sold in convenience stores about the lives of living bosses and gang conflicts. The video game series by Sega, Ryu Ga Gotoku (known as Yakuza 1, 2, 3 etc. in the West) has sold millions of copies. There is even a sort of Walking Dead version, Yakuza Dead Souls which had the yakuza taking on bands of zombies in a fictional version of the red-light district Kabukicho. I was torn between rooting for the zombies or the yakuza, but picked the yakuza—because they’re nominally human.
The gangs, which still run many Japanese talent agencies, make their own videos to document the succession of power. If there was ever an Italian mafia-like code-of-silence, it’s long gone. FBI snitch Tadamasa Goto released a semi-autobiography and tell-all tome in 2010, Habakarinagara (“Pardon me but…”) which became a national best-seller in Japan. Several other yakuza bosses have followed with detailed books about their lives in the mob; the books tend to gloss over the harm the bosses have done to society and individuals. Some, as in Goto’s case, even use their books to justify the harm they’ve done and revel in it.
The general public fears the yakuza, but there is always fascination and indeed, among some, admiration. You can now buy platinum yakuza badges, name cards, tea cups, and hand towels on auction websites in Japan.
But in recent years a large number of yakuza have left the groups, at least formally. New ordinances passed nationwide in October 2011 made it a crime to do business with the yakuza or pay them off. That makes it difficult for your low-level thug to have a phone, a bank account, or rent an apartment. So official numbers are down.
The Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s largest organized crime group, has been in business over a hundred years and on Aug. 27, 2015—the group’s centennial year—a group of high-ranking bosses split away to create a new group—The Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi.
The police provided security for the splinter group when it had its launch party. Eventually the split led to a period of bloody battles and the police were forced to recognize that there was, in fact, a gang war going on. There were brutal assassinations, cars rammed into buildings, street fights—and the Yamaguchi-gumi headquarters even had to cancel its annual Halloween party for the kids.
Fortunately, there have been no civilian casualties yet and that’s one reason the police and general public seem to regard the gang wars as a spectator sport. Gradually “the sea of blood” has turned into a trickle of red. But there’s been a new flood—of books about the split: at least 15 by last count.
Last October, the Yamaguchi-gumi once again opened their doors to the kids living close to their compound in Kobe, and let them come trick-or-treating in their scary masks and costumes. The gang members didn’t dress up; they’re built-in scary 24/7. It was a good sign.
Another annual event: Every year a group of lawyers has an anti-yakuza protest march demanding the Japanese government ban the yakuza outright rather than allowing the groups to exist; 190 attorneys have protested in front of Yamaguchi-gumi HQ but that seems unlikely to change anything. The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe isn’t serious about getting rid of them and with his political cronies in bed with them, he has reasons not to stir the pot.
The Japanese government has passed odious conspiracy laws, which are dangerous to everyone’s freedom. But it’s unlikely they’ll curb the yakuza. The Yamaguchi-gumi Kodo-kai even prepared a manual to evade the laws; it’s a great read.
What really is shaking up the yakuza world now is this third group emerging from the Yamaguchi-gumi split, taking members from both the Yamaguchi-gumi and the Kobe-Yamaguchi-gumi.
On April 30, Yoshinori Oda, formerly an underboss in the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi, held a press conference—yes a press conference—to announce that he and a group of other like-minded yakuza, were forming a new yakuza group, that would live up to the traditional principles expounded by the Godfather of Godfathers, Kazuo Taoka (1913-1981). Taoka is the legendary third-generation leader of the group who told his minions, “Every yakuza needs to have a legit job as well.” Oda’s new group was joined by a formerly high-ranking member of the Yamaguchi-gumi and there were defecting groups as well.
In a July interview with Japan’s soft porn/entertainment/news weekly magazine Flash, Oda lamented, “After Japan’s economic bubble, we became a bunch of money worshipping thugs, no better than common mafia across the world. Yakuza are engaging in ‘wire-me-the-money’ fraud (which preys on the elderly) and I’d like to make them stop. It’s these things that have made the public dub us ‘anti-social forces.’ We want to break away from anti-social activities and put our talents to good use, possibly in private security.” The organization is even setting up “peace patrols” to prevent street crime on their turf, just like the yakuza of old.
The yakuza are capable of doing public service, even coming to the rescue during natural disasters, as they demonstrated after the tsunami and nuclear disaster in March of 2011.
So, the Ninkyo Yamaguchi-gumi rebellion boils down to this—and for the yakuza world, it’s truly revolutionary:
1) Everyone is expected to uphold the moral code laid out by the Third Generation Leader.
2) In addition to banning theft, robbery, drug dealing, they will also ban fraud, which is now a principal revenue stream for most groups.
3) The structure is not a pyramid, with no tiers, and all groups are on equal footing.
4) There is no Oyabun (Supreme Leader). Oda is the representative not the boss.
5) No bonds are formed via the traditional sake ceremony.
6) Members can have legitimate jobs and are encouraged to do so.
7) The association dues are clearly set at $1000 a month for underbosses.
8) The group does not have formal relations with other yakuza groups, thus no money required for “inter-yakuza group diplomacy.”
9) Members are encouraged to make social contributions to the area they live in.
Oda says he wants to root out the lawless gangs known as the “half-greys” and also “lawless foreigners” that have arisen in the void left as the yakuza vanish; his organization wants to turn the yakuza into valuable members of society.
Oda has broken a number of taboos in the yakuza world with what he is proposing and his flaunting of a long-held tacit agreement between the cops and mobsters that active yakuza wouldn’t give interviews to the mainstream press. He has also done something else that shocked the underworld community.
It’s well known that up to 20 percent of the yakuza population are Korean-Japanese, some of whom ended up here after their family members were conscripted as slave labor by Imperial Japan. However, there are few yakuza bosses who will talk about it openly and even fewer who will talk about their own experiences as a Korean-Japanese.
Korean-Japanese are blamed erroneously for most crime in Japan along with the foreign population. Oda admitted his Korean roots in a lengthy interview with yakuza expert and journalist Atsushi Mizoguchi. He is a third-generation Korean and when questioned as to why he would care about Japan’s public order and peace, he responded, “Korea is like the parent that gave birth to me and Japan is the parent that raised me. The parent who raises you is the one that matters.” He has preached his new vision of the yakuza to whoever will listen.
It’s gutsy to admit to his Korean ancestry but risky for many reasons. The Abe administration has turned a blind eye to the rise in anti-Korean Japanese racism, even appointing a supporter of the virulent Zaitoku-kai to oversee the Japanese police force. The governor of Tokyo, Yuriko Koike, broke tradition this year and declined to express condolences for the Koreans slaughtered by Japanese mobs in the aftermath of the 1923 Kanto earthquake. Oda’s admission of his Korean roots is likely to invite crackdowns.
The Japanese police are still skeptical about the new group’s purported aims and reasonably so. They are refusing even to recognize it as a new organization but are trying to classify it as a branch of the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi. If they recognize it as a new group, it could take several months to legally designate it as one and apply all relevant laws.
One veteran detective from Osaka said, “If you knew Oda’s criminal record, you’d hardly think he was a saint. All of this may be camouflage to coordinate an attack on the Yamaguchi-gumi with the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi backing it in the wings. Or because we can only seriously crackdown on yakuza groups that have officially been designated organized crime groups, which can take months—maybe NY [Ninkyo Yamguchi-gumi] is hoping to gain time to earn cash without being under restrictions.”
The police are still puzzled. They’re dealing with a yakuza group that isn’t like anything they’ve seen in some time.
And speaking of appearances, one of the last revolutions Oda and his soldiers have put in place is in fashion. Goodbye to the mandatory black suits for meetings.
If you read the yakuza fanzines and/or report on the groups, which I’ve been doing since 1993, you know that the monthly meetings at headquarters consist of men driving Mercedes Benz or Lexus cars, all wearing expensive tailored black suits, white dress shirts, and moderately tasteful neckties. For funerals and succession ceremonies, they sometimes wear traditional Japanese garb but black suits are the norm.
I have never felt more underdressed than when photographing the big bosses arriving at a board meeting. In fact, once I ran into an Inagawa-kai boss at the Ritz Carlton Tokyo—which is across the street from the group’s headquarters. He looked me up and down and said with barely masked distaste, “Don’t you own a real suit?” And hey, I was wearing the nicest one I have.
So the idea of holding meetings where yakuza bosses can show up in jeans, sunglasses, and polo shirts—unprecedented. Oda has successfully introduced “casual Friday” to the underworld.
However, considering all the bad blood and violence brewing beneath the surface of the gang splits—there is no telling when his well-intentioned “casual Friday” turns into “casualty Friday.”
Going legit isn’t going to be easy or bloodless, if it can be done at all.