Tokyo, Japan – Brutal gangsters or a force for social stability? That sums up the conundrum of Japan’s Yakuza.
Dating back to the Edo era (1603–1868), Yakuza groups were once viewed as mobsters with a code of chivalry; an organization that took in jobless outcasts to help police the criminal underworld. But their deadly firearm assaults, deep involvement in organised crime, and large numbers have become a serious problem for modern-day Japan.
“I hesitate to say this,” says Masaru Jo, head of the Kabukicho Shopping Center Promotion Union, pausing for effect. “But there is order where there are Yakuza territories. Where no one is in charge, people move freely and there is more customer harassment. But the Yakuza would say: ‘This is my patch, don’t mess with us.’ They expel troublemakers and keep order. I’m not sure if that’s a good or a bad thing.”
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jobs after being in prison [Chan Tau Chou/Al Jazeera]
Jo says Yakuza activity in Kabukicho – a red light district with more than 3,000 adult entertainment outlets in the heart of Tokyo – has become less visible, but that creates a different set of problems for authorities trying to police them.
Many Yakuza groups used to brazenly engage in drug and prostitution rings, acts of extortion and intimidation. Yet Al Jazeera’s 101 East has recently shown how anti-mobster laws have driven them underground. They’ve responded with clever schemes to generate revenue, quietly outwitting the police.
New legislation targets the Yakuza
In 2011, Tokyo joined all other prefectures in enforcing the Organised Crime Exclusion Ordinance – the toughest law yet against the Yakuza. Unlike previous measures that targeted only Yakuza activities, it criminalises businesses or individuals who have any dealings with the Yakuza, or those related to them.
The law is a tacit acknowledgement that the Yakuza’s existence has very much been fed by its ties with various levels of society. From the seedy back lanes of Kabukicho to large corporations; from professional sports, such as baseball and sumo wrestling, to deals with influential political figures, the Yakuza have prospered.
At the height of Japan’s bubble economy in 1989, the National Police Agency estimated the Yakuza’s revenue was about 1.3tn yen (estimated at a value of $9bn). Other experts believed the figure could be up to 7tn yen ($50bn), propped up by property speculation. About 100,000 Yakuza were members at the time.
Most estimates show their revenue in decline through the 1990s, as the bubble economy burst and as authorities introduced tighter anti-Yakuza regulations. Their current earnings are estimated at billions of dollars a year.
Called boryokudan, or “violent groups”, by police, there are about 80,000 members belonging to 22 divisions today.
“The police even thanked us for a job well done. They said there was a limit to what they could have done legally.“
– Hiroshi Kimura, Kudokai Yakuza
Business links to disaster clean-up
Following the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster in March 2011, major Yakuza groups were linked to the illegal supply of manpower for clean-up and reconstruction, landing lucrative contracts in disaster-hit areas. Even government-linked Tokyo Electric Power Company, owner of the Fukushima nuclear plant, has been implicated in engaging with the Yakuza, showing how far their powerful connections reach.
These high-level ties explain why it is so hard to enforce the new law.
Gang member Hiroshi Kimura of the Kudokai group says it was the Yakuza who provided emergency supplies to the Fukushima victims, even before aid groups arrived. He reminisces how it was only a few years ago when the police thanked his organisation for helping to wipe out “illegal” Chinese immigrant gangs who carried firearms, ran vice rings, and rigged gambling parlours.
“I say this with confidence, we got rid of them,” Kimura says at Kudokai’s headquarters in Fukuoka prefecture. “The police even thanked us for a job well done. They said there was a limit to what they could have done legally.”
A nuanced issue
In the southwestern Kyushu region, a hotbed of Yakuza violence, Atsuki Miyamoto’s husband Hiroshi was shot dead in his hospital bed by a Yakuza who mistook him for a rival gang member. The gunman, sentenced to 24 years in jail, expressed his remorse in court. His gang the Dojinkai turned up at Miyamoto’s doorstep to pay their respects, and offered the mother of two the equivalent of $1m in compensation. It was scant consolation, but at the same time, a kind gesture by hardened criminals.
“The police have effectively backed down from their role of protecting public safety.”
– Atsushi Mizoguchi, journalist
Atsuki Miyamoto wants the Yakuza removed. But it begs the question – where to? Japan seems to have no answer. Despite the laws against organised crime, the Yakuza still operate with impunity. The new law makes it an offence for citizens to deal with them.
Veteran journalist Atsushi Mizoguchi describes the situation: “Now citizens are responsible for denying the Yakuza … You put your life at stake when you encounter them. The police have effectively backed down from their role of protecting public safety.”
Mizoguchi, who has written extensively on the Yakuza, further explains why they are tolerated. With some 10,000 police officers retiring every year, he says the Yakuza provides them lucrative second careers.
“The police need them. Various industries tend to employ retired officers to counter Yakuza shareholders who influence corporate decisions. Retired officers provide them advice and protection,” he says.
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from the Yakuza [Chan Tau Chou/Al Jazeera]
Despite the new law, police have had limited success curtailing Yakuza violence in Fukuoka, where 18 gang-related shootings occurred last year out of 44 nationwide. This year, a former police officer survived two gunshot wounds. He was in charge of investigating organised crime in Fukuoka until he retired last year.
While filming an anti-Yakuza rally there, media minders from the police reminded Al Jazeera not to show the faces of government officials urging the public not to deal with the Yakuza, to avoid gang members identifying them. It was a stark reminder of the real fear even among the authorities.
While the new law has won much support for bringing gangland activities to the forefront of public consciousness, critics believe it is not enough to focus on the Yakuza when it comes to organised crime.
Mizoguchi says there’s an emergence of “gray groups” – non-Yakuza gangsters who are not on police radar. This appears to be the real challenge ahead. Such groups commit similar crimes as the Yakuza, but they operate in small numbers with loose connections among members, and are better able to avoid detection.
The Yakuza have existed for centuries in Japan by adapting to circumstances to survive, snaking between both sides of the law. Law enforcement authorities will need to show the same dexterity to win this ongoing battle against organised crime.