An Interview With a Yakuza Boss
COLUMN ONE : Japanese Wise Up to Gangsters : Yakuza have long been tolerated and even romanticized. But with financial scandals and violent tactics, lawmakers and residents are saying enough is enough.
TOKYO — The Boss is decked out in a batik shirt, plaid pants, gold medallion belt buckle, gem-studded Rolex and gold wristband. To his right is a wooden statue of a cobra ready to strike, a gold sake cup resting in its mouth as a charm.
The subject is the driver of The Boss’ white Mercedes, the man’s finger and how the driver sliced it off for having somehow failed his employer.
“As his oya (father), I think it was a stupid thing to do,” said The Boss, head of a family of less than a dozen Japanese yakuza or gangsters. But clearly he was moved by the old-fashioned gesture of loyalty. “He is very dear to me.”
Such gangster tales once touched a chord in tradition-minded Japan. But the stories are wearing thin.
The Japanese are awakening to the frightening reality that the yakuza have vastly expanded their activities. They now commit a majority of Japan’s murders. They chase families from their homes. They push uncooperative businesses into bankruptcy.
In the last few weeks, Japanese have been stunned and embarrassed by revelations that the Inagawakai and the Yamaguchigumi, Japan’s two largest crime syndicates, have borrowed hundreds of millions of dollars from major securities companies and banks in complex land and stock deals. The scandal has reached into the inner sanctums of Japan’s business elite, contributing to the recent resignations of the presidents of Nikko Securities Co. and Nomura Securities Co.
The new, more sober view of the yakuza is a sharp shift for many Japanese. The nation’s gangsters–of which The Boss’ Tokyo family is one of thousands nationwide–long have run gambling, prostitution, drug and extortion rings. The families, organized into crime syndicates, were considered a necessary evil.
Operating under strict, sometimes bizarre, rules and rituals–some of which protected ordinary citizens from their activities–the digit-missing, tattooed yakuza were believed to keep crime and disorder in check. The yakuza absorbed delinquents into well-disciplined organizations, it was said, and thus minimized street crime.
After World War II, police borrowed gangster forces to suppress riots by Koreans and Chinese, and they have continued to stay in close touch.
The yakuza now appear to be replicating the pattern of other organized crime groups, such as the Italian Mafia. “The yakuza are following the same path . . . , ” said Kanehiro Hoshino, a director at the National Research Institute of Police Science. Like the Mafia, the yakuzamoved from store-front protection rackets to illegal “victimless” crimes such as gambling and prostitution and are now setting up legitimate big businesses as fronts.
The financial and political clout of the yakuza emerges from police surveillance of the Inagawakai and Yamaguchigumi.
The Yamaguchigumi, Japan’s largest yakuza group, has grown five-fold in the last six years to 26,000 members. They have done this by swallowing smaller gangs, whose members have told police that the power of belonging to big-name organizations more than compensates for the large monthly payments they must make to their new leaders.
As for the Inagawakai, police investigations recently disclosed that their former leader, Susumi Ishii, had $250 million in such blue-chip holdings as Nomura Securities and Tokyu Corp., a private railway company.
Prescott Bush Helped
Local bosses also were impressed to learn that Hokusho Sangyo, one of Ishii’s investment companies, borrowed more than $250 million from Nikko and Nomura finance subsidiaries and used part of the money to buy two companies and a large piece of land in the United States with the help of Prescott Bush, President Bush’s brother.
“This is like Godfather Part III,” said Hiroshi Ishizuka, a chief superintendent in the National Police Agency’s Criminal Investigation Bureau. “They (yakuza) are using money to get into the mergers and acquisitions business.”
Police say Ishii, who retired last fall from the Inagawakai because he was ill, represents a new breed of financially savvy gangster who appears to be taking extortion to new heights by attacking Japan’s largest companies. Although it is unclear what Ishii’s interests were in the United States and in his stock holdings, Ishizuka said, “When it comes to yakuza we assume their intentions are evil.”
The Japanese are taking steps to tackle their organized crime problem. The Japanese legislature passed a new law this spring aimed atboryokudan (violent groups). Considered largely synonymous with yakuza, they are defined by law as groups in which a large proportion of members are ex-convicts.
Under the law, which takes effect next spring, police can, after one warning, arrest gangsters for doing little more than scaring away customers at a coffee shop by talking loudly, a tactic yakuza use to force shop owners to pay protection money. The law also forbids gangs to use their offices for three months after disturbances such as gang shootings. It seeks to bar gangs from recruiting minors and helps to set up centers for citizens to file complaints about yakuza activities.
While the law falls far short of America’s strong anti-racketeering statutes, Japanese officials see it as a way to turn off the yakuzas ‘ money and to crack down on crime syndicates.
“In the past, there was a symbiotic relationship between the police and the yakuza ,” said Kuniko Inoguchi, a Sophia University professor and police advisory committee member. “Many argued that yakuza control over young delinquents contributed to the low crime rate on Japan’s city streets. Now the yakuza are going international by connecting with the Mafia and Asian gangs. The police have decided that unorganized crime is easier to control than organized crime.”
But Yukio Yamanouchi, a lawyer for the Yamaguchigumi who recently spent a short time in jail for extortion, predicts that the main effect of the law will be to drive hard-core gangsters underground. And without yakuza families, he said, juvenile street crime may soar.
Tatsuya Suzuki, a former policeman and a commentator on yakuza , questions how serious the police are about breaking the gangs. “You go to Kabutocho (entertainment district) and you will see policemen saying ‘yes, sir’ to gangsters,” Suzuki said. “The yakuza’s roots in society are too deep to easily pull out.”
Ran Gambling Dens
Historians trace the yakuza to the 17th Century, when disciplined gangs ran gambling dens along highways. Today, police count 88,600 gangsters, all neatly organized in pyramid syndicates with each yakuza tied to a “father figure” through rituals involving ceremonial drinking of sake. While their number had been falling sharply since 1964, when membership in the syndicates peaked at 184,000, it inexplicably has been growing again.
Police regularly visit gang offices and have detailed organization charts of the syndicates. They have conducted surveys on their habits and activities.
Who are the yakuza ? Many come from communities that the Japanese historically have discriminated against, such as the Korean minority and the burakumin, social outcasts whose work–such as butchering and leather-tanning–was considered unclean for religious or cultural reasons. Younger gangsters are often supported by girlfriends or wives who work as prostitutes to launch their lovers’ careers.
Police said that 75% of yakuza have tattoos across their torsos; almost 50% have lost part of their little finger. Most say they were attracted to their work by the “cool” life of gambling and women. Gangsters don’t try to hide their loyalties. Of 453 imprisoned yakuzasurveyed by police last fall, 65% said they planned to rejoin their gang once freed.
The yakuza draw their strength from a society that operates on two levels: a surface level on which form is crucial and most adhere to strict social standards, and a hidden level on which almost anything goes. When conduct from the hidden level is revealed, it can ruin careers. Yakuza take advantage of this social duplicity to extort money.
One gangster tentacle that reveals the power of this kind of extortion are the sokaiya, shady characters who work with yakuza and take payoffs from corporations for controlling shareholder meetings.
Sokaiya pressure companies to hire them by threatening to reveal dirty secrets they have uncovered through their extensive contacts. After Japanese legislators passed a law in 1981 to address the sokaiya problem, the number of these operators fell from 10,000 to less than a tenth of that number. But many have continued to find other ways to extract money from companies with something to hide.
Satoshi Yamamoto–a leader of the Rondan Doyukai, a sokaiya group–said the sokaiya have survived, for example, by publishing magazines that threaten to print negative stories if companies don’t pay up.
In a poll conducted last fall by the national police agency, 40% of 2,000 companies surveyed said they had been contacted by extortion groups; 33% of those contacted said they paid amounts ranging from $1,000 to $724,000.
Although not all sokaiya are also yakuza, Yamamoto said both groups function by “doing the dirty things that companies can’t do themselves.” The groups, for example, may “persuade” a customer not to complain about a product.
Yakuza have also diversified. Many work for real estate developers who want to get rid of tenants who are viewed as obstacles to new building projects.
Many of those activities will be illegal under the new anti-gang law. But The Boss, bejeweled in his Tokyo unit, is unfazed, saying, “I have a lawyer to guide me” on the legality of any new ventures. And, he added, his tactics are now more subtle: He won’t run bulldozers into people’s homes to force them out as gangs once did. “I get friendly with them and persuade them to negotiate.”
Business opportunities remain abundant. The Boss, who asked not to be identified, said many borrowers have been forced into his arms by the current state of tight money. He said that he will lend as much as $1 million with the right introductions. But his men will wait days in front of a borrower’s home to collect, and he warned that there is nowhere in Japan that debtors can flee to escape his gang.
$10 Billion a Year
Police estimate total gangster earnings at $10 billion a year, an average of $115,000 annually per yakuza. Some observers put the total as high as $30 billion. Local gang families send in as much as $4,000 a month to bosses, who, in turn, pass much of that sum up the line.
It is this money, in part, that Ishii of the Inagawakai appears to have used to buy stock in large firms as a wedge for extortion efforts. Police investigations may have halted Ishii’s attempts to use this tactic via his huge investment in Tokyu Corp.–using money borrowed from Nomura and Nikko in 1989, observers believe. (When Nomura was recently accused of lending money to Ishii without following proper procedures, its defense was that Ishii received special consideration because he was an important longtime customer).
Hokusho Sangyo, a company controlled by Ishii, hired Prescott Bush as adviser through its investment arm, West Tsusho. Munenobu Shoji, Hokusho’s president, told the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest daily, that he made the U.S. investments through Bush because the company’s gangster ties limited the company’s expansion potential in Japan. He believed that Bush would make a good adviser because “Bush is a financial consultant and knows many influential people such as the presidents of South Korea and the Philippines,” Shoji said. (Yakuza have extensive business activities in both those countries.)
Many believe that Ishii, besides involving the Inagawakai, also initiated the Yamaguchigumi into the world of high finance, as he helped the current leader of the Yamaguchigumi attain his post and has since worked closely with the rival gang.
While the expanded role of gangsters has alarmed police, it is the yakuza treatment of ordinary Japanese that has the public up in arms–with many turning to local officials and the courts in their campaigns against mobsters.
For centuries, the gangsters’ code forbade them to injure bystanders. But battles between yakuza groups increasingly have ended in casualties. In Okinawa alone, there were 28 incidents of gang shootings last fall. One proved fatal to a high school student repairing the fence at a gang headquarters. In December, the locals banded together and persuaded police to shut that office.
In another neighborhood, where residents used spotlights and video cameras to track visitors at a gang office, the targeted yakuza leader sued residents for infringing on his civil rights.
In Kyoto, the gang boss of the Kawamuragumi set up his office in an apartment only to begin blasting out walls, digging to build a new basement and using neighbors’ parking spaces. When residents complained, they were roughed up; one was taken hostage for days. Angry apartment dwellers finally fought back, filing a lawsuit to force the gangsters to give up ownership of the complex.
“For a long time, residents were too scared to speak up, (but now) we won’t feel safe until they leave,” said Mitsuko Mochizuki, an English literature professor at a nearby university. She owns one of the apartments and helped organize the residents late last year.
To encourage its residents to pursue legal action against gangsters, the town of Tokorosawa in Saitama prefecture recently offered to lend them up to $7,000.
The yakuza have countered with some moves of their own.
The Yamaguchigumi, for example, has sought to improve its image by advertising that its members have no involvement with illegal drugs. This campaign, however, flies in the face of police figures showing that a third of their drug arrests are of Yamaguchigumi members, who authorities insist are progressing from dealing in amphetamines to the business of importing cocaine.
Other gangster groups, meantime, have tried to gain greater public acceptance by making large donations to disaster victims. A Yamaguchigumi branch, for example, donated to relief efforts for a town damaged by the volcanic eruption of Mt. Unzen.
Signs Coming Down
The yakuza also appear to have recognized that they no longer can operate openly by displaying their names at their office entrances or sporting gang pins on their lapels.
“In Japan, the gangs put their mark on their offices as if it were a McDonald’s,” Yamanouchi, the Yamaguchigumi lawyer once said. Now, he said, signs are coming down and police will have a tougher time tracking the gangs.
Senior police insist they will destroy the yakuza. “We won’t get rid of them immediately, but we will gradually cut off their sources of income,” said Ishizuka of the national police. He said the next step is to introduce a money-laundering law much like that in the United States.
As for The Boss in Tokyo, he figures there will always be yakuza as long as people demand their services. He takes his greatest pride, he said, in having “persuaded” an uninsured driver who killed another motorist to support the dead man’s family. “These are things that can’t be handled by law or by the police,” he said.
The Boss added that the yakuza also will remain a part of Japanese society because there are always social misfits looking for a place to belong.
“Isn’t it true?” he called out to his driver with the missing pinkie.
“Yeah, I like it better when I’m with everybody!” the driver responded.
About the Author
Leslie Helm was born and raised in Yokohama, Japan, where his family has lived since 1869. He has worked as Tokyo correspondent for Business Week and the Los Angeles Times. It was during his years abroad that he adopted two Japanese children and began the research that would result in Yokohama Yankee. Helm is currently editor of Seattle Business magazine. Leslie graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a B.A. in political science and an M.A. in Asian studies. He attended the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism on a U.S. Japan Friendship Commission fellowship. Helm is currently editor of Seattle Business magazine.