Ramblings & ephemera

The Yakuza’s influence in Japan

From Jake Adelstein’s “This Mob Is Big in Japan” (The Washington Post: 11 May 2008):

Most Americans think of Japan as a law-abiding and peaceful place, as well as our staunch ally, but reporting on the underworld gave me a different perspective. Mobs are legal entities here. Their fan magazines and comic books are sold in convenience stores, and bosses socialize with prime ministers and politicians. …

I loved my job. The cops fighting organized crime are hard-drinking iconoclasts — many look like their mobster foes, with their black suits and slicked-back hair. They’re outsiders in Japanese society, and perhaps because I was an outsider too, we got along well. The yakuza’s tribal features are also compelling, like those of an alien life form: the full-body tattoos, missing digits and pseudo-family structure. …

The Japanese National Police Agency (NPA) estimates that the yakuza have almost 80,000 members. The most powerful faction, the Yamaguchi-gumi, is known as “the Wal-Mart of the yakuza” and reportedly has close to 40,000 members. In Tokyo alone, the police have identified more than 800 yakuza front companies: investment and auditing firms, construction companies and pastry shops. The mobsters even set up their own bank in California, according to underworld sources.

Over the last seven years, the yakuza have moved into finance. Japan’s Securities and Exchange Surveillance Commission has an index of more than 50 listed companies with ties to organized crime.

In the good old days, the yakuza made most of their money from sleaze: prostitution, drugs, protection money and child pornography. Kiddie porn is still part of their base income — and another area where Japan isn’t acting like America’s friend.

In 1999, my editors assigned me to cover the Tokyo neighborhood that includes Kabukicho, Japan’s largest red-light district. Japan had recently outlawed child pornography — reluctantly, after international pressure left officials no choice. But the ban, which is still in effect, had a major flaw: It criminalized producing and selling child pornography, not owning it. So the big-money industry goes on, unabated.

I’m not entirely objective on the issue of the yakuza in my adopted homeland. Three years ago, [Tadamasa Goto, a notorious Japanese gang boss, the one that some federal agents call the “John Gotti of Japan”] got word that I was reporting an article about his liver transplant. A few days later, his underlings obliquely threatened me. Then came a formal meeting. The offer was straightforward. “Erase the story or be erased,” one of them said. “Your family too.”

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