He Was a Yakuza. Now He Wants to Govern.

“Someone has to change Japan,” the former gangster told VICE World News.

Nov 5 2021, 10:30am

Among the colorful election posters in Tokyo, one painted in yellow and red stood out. 

Magomi Hashimoto, his blond hair parted on his left, wore a shadow of a smile as he looked directly at the camera. Printed parallel to his profile are the words, “Break down the 38th parallel.” This referred not just to the latitude that demarcates North and South Korea—two countries that are technically still at war—but also to the frigid relations between ethnic Koreans and Japanese in Japan.

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“Someone has to change Japan. Someone has to dissolve the misunderstandings about Zainichi Koreans (ethnic Koreans living in Japan),” he told VICE World News. He makes the same points on his YouTube channel, where he speaks openly about his unlikely path to politics as a former Yakuza. 

The 44-year-old did not win a seat in Sunday’s election for Japan’s House of Representatives, but his campaign broached a topic many in the ethnically homogeneous country would rather not talk about.

In the past, Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party has been openly supported by and associated with Zaitokukai, an ultra-nationalist anti-Zainichi group. Eriko Yamatani, the current chairperson of the National Public Safety Commission, received financial support from Zaitokukai and when asked if she condemned such obviously discriminatory groups, she said, “It is not appropriate to give comments on various organizations.” The group has also held rallies for former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to support his political campaign.

Magomi Hashimoto talks openly about his past as Yakuza and better relations between Ethnic Koreans and Japanese. Photo: Courtesy of Sebastian Stein

As a minority group in a country where 98 percent of the population is ethnic Japanese, Zainichi have been targets of discrimination. 

In December, the chairman of the global cosmetics company DHC used anti-Zainichi slurs to brag how ethically “pure Japanese” his corporation was. In another case, a Zainichi employee sued her workplace Fuji Corps, a manufacturing company, after it refused to stop distributing pamphlets that featured anti-Zainichi phrases like “die Zainichi.” Though Japan passed an anti-hate speech law in 2016, anti-Zainichi groups, such as Zaitokukai, routinely and openly hold demonstrations campaigning for ethnic Koreans to leave Japan. 

Those cases highlight how some still treat them as unwelcome “foreigners,” despite the fact that ethnic Koreans have lived in Japan since the Japanese empire annexed the nation in 1910 and governed it until the end of WWII. Many still aren’t even considered citizens and do not have voting rights unless they naturalize, which they have the option to do so. 

As the country grapples with a shrinking population and a stagnant economy, Japanese policymakers have attempted to relax its stance on ethnic and racial foreigners to resolve its critical labor shortage. In 2018, Japan passed legislation that would allow international workers in its foreign technical trainee program to work and live in the country for up to five years. 

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But Hashimoto, a Japanese man whose mother is Zainichi, sees such actions as largely ineffective. He’s seeking to create his own political party and pass laws that would grant citizenship rights to Zainichi Koreans. 

Born to a Japanese Yakuza father and a third generation North Korean mother, Hashimoto is used to bridging the divide between the Zainichi and Japanese communities. He attended Tokyo’s North Korean Junior and Senior High School, where he said he witnessed discrimination. 

“When I was a student, girls used to wear the traditional Korean garment Jeogori as part of the school uniform. There were incidents when, while riding the train, their uniforms were cut, or they had spit or gum spat on them,” he said. 

Hashimoto ran for a seat in Japan's House of Representatives, but lost to a candidate from the country's ruling party. Photo: Courtesy of Sebastian Stein

Out of 1,051 candidates in the election, Hashimoto was the only one who made Zainichi rights central to their policies. But his lack of experience and affiliation with a political party, especially important as the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is known to have a strong grip on Japan’s political landscape, meant he had almost no chance of winning. The LDP held on to its single-party majority, though some notable party members did lose seats to smaller opposition parties. 

The topic of Zainichi rights is so niche that his campaign received little media coverage. Around 365,000 Zainichi live in Japan, though some scholars say there are more who use Japanese names to avoid discrimination and as a result were not counted by researchers.

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Mika Lee, a third-generation Zainichi living in Seoul who asked to use a pseudonym citing fears of being attacked online, said she’s noticed distrust of Koreans among Japanese conservatives has increased in recent years. 

“The political problems between Japan and Korea have decreased how much Japanese people approve and trust Koreans,” she told VICE World News. 

Among the problems plaguing Japan and the Korean peninsula’s relations is the comfort women issue. Korean women and girls were forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army during WWII, and some survivors have filed lawsuits. But the Japanese government has dismissed such lawsuits, claiming sovereign immunity—a principle within international law that grants nations protection from foreign courts. Additionally, since North Korea admitted to abducting Japanese nationals in the 70s and 80s, the Japanese government has been demanding they be returned.

But, she said, Hashimoto was likely spared from being scrutinized in Japan, given his Japanese father.

“I think it is easier to gain the trust of Japanese people at first glance if you are half-Japanese like Hashimoto, who is at least half-Japanese, than if you are a Zainichi like me, whose blood is 100% naturalized Korean,” she said. 

And Lee did not mind at all that Hashimoto was a Yakuza. “It is important to gain the trust of the Japanese people, or rather the conservatives who are the current majority in Japan. So I think it’s good he’s proudly showing his past, and not hiding it,” she said.“It is important to gain the trust of the Japanese people, or rather the conservatives who are the current majority in Japan. So I think it’s good he’s proudly showing his past, and not hiding it,” she said.

Days before the election, nearly a dozen of Hashimoto’s posters were torn up. Following the first incident, he immediately filed a damage report with the police, but no one has been arrested for the vandalism.

Throughout his campaign, Hashimoto noticed several of his posters were torn up. Photo: Courtesy of Sebastian Stein

In addition to being fiercely vocal on Zainichi rights, Hashimoto also openly shares his unconventional background in violent crime. Though this background helped set him apart from other candidates, it was generally received coolly by voters. 

In the late 20th century, Yakuza were still tied to a number of Japanese politicians. Perhaps most famous was Koichi Hamada, an LDP politician known for being an ex-Yakuza and a central figure in a bribery scandal in the ‘70s. Scandals that revealed politicians were backed by Yakuza continued into the 2000s, but as local governments introduced laws to limit the gangs’ powers, politicians with criminal affiliations have largely been shunned. 

Yoko Wataya, a resident of the ward Hashimoto was running in, said she was startled that a man with his past could enter the election. 

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“Politicians shouldn’t have criminal backgrounds. Otherwise, how can we trust that they will pass policies that benefit the entire country?” she told VICE World News. 

As a member of the Yakuza for 15 years, Hashimoto said there was nothing he wouldn’t have done for his boss. “In Japan, we say being a member of the Yakuza isn’t a job—it’s a way of life. I saw it that way too.”  

Unlike other factions within the Yakuza, Hashimoto said his group didn’t respect traditional morals. “During weddings and other celebrations of happiness, the Yakuza don’t fight, out of respect. But we couldn’t observe that,” he said. Of the crimes he served time for, Hashimoto said, “We took money from weak people.” 

“We’d steal from them, or get businesses to pay us in exchange for protection—extortion. We’d also get into fights with other gangs and take money from them, too,” he said. He declined to elaborate on other crimes he did, citing potential legal ramifications.

Hashimoto only left the Yakuza once his boss died from liver cancer. His faction dissolved soon afterwards and by the time Hashimoto left prison—he served time for corporate extortion—he had no place to return to. “It took me a while to find a place where I belong, and in the 10 years since I got out of prison, I’m still finding that,” he said. 

He eventually turned to politics. “In addition to making YouTube videos as I have been doing, I eventually want to make my own political party,” he said. 

“From the beginning, I had doubts about winning. But I wanted to see how far I could get as an independent candidate, without the backing of any major political party,” he said. 

The future Hashimoto envisions for his political party is an embodiment of “two sides of the same coin,” he said. 

“Like we saw in the Showa era [1926-1989], I’m going to maintain my identity as a politician and ex-Yakuza, not either-or. Above all, I will be a fixer in our society,” he said.

Follow Hanako Montgomery on Twitter and Instagram.

Tagged:

Politics, YAKUZA, zainichi, worldnews

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