A Tense, Sake-Fuelled Afternoon With Japan's Yakuza
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Inside Outsider

A Tense, Sake-Fuelled Afternoon With Japan's Yakuza

We talked police crackdowns and severed fingers with Japan's most famous underworld organisation.
31 August 2017, 5:41am

I was distracted by the ox skull behind legendary tebori tattooist Horiyoshi III, as he meditated on the bleeding koi fish that was sprawled across the thigh of his latest canvas. The grinding hum from his needle was interrupted by a couple of rowdy Yakuza members who toppled into the room play-fighting. When asked why so many Yakuza favor Horiyoshi's studio, the artist removed his gold Cartier glasses before replying, "They drink at first class bars, keep first class women, and wear first class tattoos." They straightened up and bowed toward Horiyoshi until he whispered something.

To distill the angsty air I nodded towards the Yakuza and made a self deprecating joke about sitting cross legged for so long. They politely asked me if I'd heard of oicho-kabu cards, or if I was into gambling. I told them I'd stopped playing the piano a long time ago—a crook reference to pachinko slot machines. They laughed. I wasn't sure if they were mocking me, or if they genuinely enjoyed the reference. The juggling act, of anxiety, mispronunciations and gestures lost in translation, would intermittently plague our conversations. They offered to teach me oicho-kabu because card games are a universal language for crims. The young Yakuza lay the cards out beside a steel tray of HOPE cigarette packets, diamond studded rings, and Japanese tile games.

The Yakuza are a lot more than severed fingers, Beat Takeshi films, and extortion rackets. Their history harks back over a hundred years to the Meiji period, where street hustlers were divided into either—tekiya: those who peddled stolen goods—or bakuto: those who were involved in gambling rackets.

As we flipped the cards over, we talked about the Yakuza and their popular but misguided public image. Known in Japan as Gokudō, they are often labelled a transnational organised crime syndicate, likened to the Italian Mafia. I'd heard stories of young Yakuza ruffians—suit-clad, their hair dyed blonde—dishing out beatings in nightclubs and standing over gaijin or foreigners, to foot ridiculous bills in back-alley hostess bars. Their cutthroat laws are mythic, even amongst international underworld circles—a ruthless reputation that is entrenched in archaic samurai ideals, the most horrific being seppuku, a ritual act of suicide by disembowelment that looms over the head of members that bring shame or disgrace to the family.

It all reminded me of my experiences of being the sergeant-at-arms of an outlaw motorcycle club in Australia, where the old-school codes of honour and pride had been corrupted by senseless violence and greed.

"Respect" is a virtue that has been corrupted around the world, but it's one the Yakuza is notoriously vehement about.

After a few cigarettes and frustrated attempts at tile games, I opened up to them about the Finks motorcycle club, and that being declared a criminal organisation in Australia meant outlaw bikers could no longer run tattoo parlours; a trade that's been perpetuated by the biker subculture since its inception in the 70s.

In turn, the Yakuza members told me about the government persecution they have been facing, which bans them from construction contracts and trades that have been their wheelhouse for centuries. I asked if they'd be open to a formal interview discussing the role of the Yakuza in contemporary Japan. They slipped back into their formal mannerisms, whispered to each other and told me someone might call me with a time and address. Later that night, I received a call from Horiyoshi, he told me he was too sick to work but he would like to meet me at Yokohama station the following day.

Young Yakuza members at Horiyoshi's studio

As I exited the Yokohama subway, a blacked-out van abruptly pulled up beside me. The door slid open revealing a hand and an iced-out Rolex, slowly revealing a silhouetted man in a white collared shirt. I was told his name was Mr S, and that he would need to "hear me out" before his boss approved our interview. Mr S was nodding without moving his head from the television screen inside his van. There was a news report, Japanese ultra-nationalists had joined anti-korean protesters for a demonstration in Shinjuku. He stared at the screen deadpan while stroking his goatee with a severed thumb. "Coffee?" he asked.

I bowed and anxiously agreed, knowing caffeine would spiral me into an even deeper web of paranoia.

The modern day Yakuza proudly refer to themselves as spiritual descendants of ronin, masterless samurai from the 17th century. Echoes of these warrior customs and outcast traditions are often displayed in the initiation ceremonies and speeches of the Yakuza, as well as glimpses of tekiya and bakuto sake drinking rituals and songs.

These days, the Yakuza are a quiet taboo. The fearful respect that once possessed the streets of Yokohama whenever the Yakuza passed, has been replaced with scornful neglect. Many believe them to be a stain on the proud legacy of Japanese morals and decency. People don't want to talk about the Yakuza or acknowledge their existence. Whenever I asked, I was met with diversions and bitter resentment. Or, as one bartender put it, "Japan has much better qualities."

According to the Economist, crime rates in Japan have actually been falling significantly over the past 13 years. Its murder rate, 0.3 deaths per 100,000 people, is among the lowest in the world. In this increasingly safe modern Japan, claims have been made that the Yakuza are either becoming passé, defeated by tough new laws or are simply fading away from a lack of new membership.

Interviewing Mr S inside the Yakuza office

In the van, Mr S finally broke his silence by quietly telling his interpreter that I looked "very sweet." We kept driving, without any clues about where we were heading. We eventually arrived at a corporate building, the driver pointed towards a set of offices, “these are our headquarters,” he muttered in broken English. Four heavily tattooed men were in the courtyard laughing with a jovial locker-room hysteria, when they noticed Mr. S, everyone simultaneously straightened up and bowed.

All the guys outside the offices were in their late 20s or older. I watched as one of the men zipped up his bright red Champion tracksuit, as his hand ran up the zip I noticed two of his fingers were missing. He confronted my gaze, held his hand infront of my face and cracked a joke in Japanese. The translator told me that he made his fingers fly away. "Yubitsume!" another yelled, referring to the ritual act of finger shortening as a means of atonement—the yakuza demand a physical demonstration of an apology.

The Yakuza are the only criminal organisation that interpret self-mutilation as an emblem of courage and punishment. If a member does anything that brings shame to the family, where the family “loses face,” they will be expected to immediately cut off their own finger as a redemptive offering. The fingers are cut off with a dagger or small samurai sword, a sentiment that reflects the relationship between a samurai and his sword—with each mistake and missing finger, the samurai’s grip of his sword is weakened and he is forced to rely on the band of samurai he belongs to.

Given the Yakuza’s ruthless repercussions, I asked Mr S what attracted him to the organisation. "I think there are usually two patterns of entering the group," he said, via the interpreter. "One is someone who has had a troubled youth and is wild from a young age and wants to jump into the Yakuza community to create street fame. And the other guys are adolescents who join through a member for financial gain, someone who is looking for work. Like me."

Mr S was born in Japan but his family is Korean. In 2005, United Nations independent investigator Doudou Diene produced a rapporteur on racism and xenophobia in Japan toward Korean minorities, in which he detailed, “deep and profound racism in Japan and insufficient government recognition of the problem.” Mr S told me about the discrimination and difficulties he faced trying to find work in rural Japan. I described my place in Australia as a Muslim and an Afghan migrant, and how joining a motorcycle club made sense to suburban outcasts by offering them anarchy and a persona.

And with that he jumped out of the van and courteously opened the back door for us.

A Yakuza member shows me his koi fish tattoo.

As we approached the foyer, I watched an elderly Yakuza arrange cherry blossoms in a black vase that looked like an ashtray, they were sprawled beneath a gold portrait of the family emblem. Clearly, they were expecting us. Mr S told us we could take as many photos as we wanted, as long as we didn't photograph any members in the picture frames, Yakuza of a bygone era, passed away and idolized in wood grain picture frames.

In the foyer, I asked him why he felt the violent reputation of the Yakuza was necessary. "The Yakuza keep everyone in line. If the young kids didn't have anything to be scared of, they would do whatever they want and there would be nothing anybody could do to stop them," he said. "They'll fight on the street and create chaos. But when Yakuza people come and drag them out from the club, and beat them. They can stop the chaos."

We passed through the boardroom where several men sat at a table discussing the protests over a cup of tea. I noticed a few familiar faces from the night before at Horiyoshi's studio. They rose to their feet and offered us their seats. Two of them asked for my email address, they wanted to see the photos I had taken of their tattoos at Horiyoshi’s studio.

These tattoos signify loyalty to their bosses, as do the severed fingers

This year, Japan passed an anti-terror conspiracy bill, which states that an entire group can be charged if a single member of the group plots to commit a crime. It's been controversial—criticised for elevating "crimes" such as copying music and mushroom picking in protected forests to the same level as actual terrorist threats.

Mr S also believes the law is an outrage. "[It] states that, 'Human rights are even under the constitutions' but it's not fair for us at all. We can't even play golf," he said. "The people making laws are making it convenient just for themselves. If politicians do bad things, they always find a way to escape. They might be much worse than the Yakuza."

I told him about a similar loss of human rights my motorcycle club faced under the Vicious Lawless Association Disestablishment (VLAD) act in Australia, members of outlaw motorcycle clubs in Queensland and South Australia are not allowed to associate in groups of more than two people because it is a criminal offense under the consorting laws. We were banned from riding bikes together, banned from wearing club insignia and in some states banned from all licensed venues. I was stripped of the only thing that held me together, an identity.

Yakuza member waiting for Horiyoshi

I could empathise with how the Yakuza felt. The government is trying to unpick the thread the Yakuza has embedded from Japan’s history into the economy of the present day. But according to Mr S, the reasons behind the Japanese government's crackdown could be a little more complex than simply taking a "tough on crime" stance.

"It could be due to influences from American corporations as much as the Japanese government," he said. "There are some conflicts between government affiliated organisations that try to set up initiatives, such as running pinball industries (pachinko legal gambling halls) and construction industries, which have historically been run by the Yakuza. The government are trying to take over our industries, and hiring people like retired police officers through the revolving-door. The Pachinko machines are a multi billion dollar industry so it's a big deal.

"This is because the corporations are connected to the government and they work together. So politicians and police have a very dark side as well. I don't mean that they shouldn't exist, but why are the Yakuza the only ones who are controlled, monitored and regulated? Why are we shackled? When we have had these businesses all along and stayed out of their way."

The room above the office, reserved for rituals and offerings

I suggested it also might have something to do with their history of violence. And he agreed. "Of course we do bad things as well. But there's also a necessary evil in our society we can't shy away from. Japan is not one dimensional and their flaws are caught up in bureaucracy. For example, we have contracts between bars and clubs to take care of them when they're in trouble. Imagine if you were running a bar, and there was a fight between customers and you call the police for help, but by the time they get there, take names, find evidence, take statements, tick the boxes, the night is totally screwed, the party is over and you're out of business.

"But if they called us, we can just focus on the guy who started the fight and everyone can enjoy the rest of their night. We can drag him out and warn him to keep out of the bar if he keeps messing around. So it's much quicker and easier to turn the fire off when we take care of this kind of trouble."

Mr S assured me the Yakuza's principal interests were about protecting people. "We are trying to be responsible for local people, whether they are in our group or not. If we know some of the younger guys are having trouble with abusing drugs, we are responsible and have to help them get out of it. Basically you have to take care of the younger generation and show them what's right or wrong, without the politics. Whether they are in our hierarchy or not."

Young Yakuza shows off his Horiyoshi piece

To prove his point Mr S alluded to the tsunami that rocked Japan in 2011. It was reported that the Yakuza responded with aid faster than the government—a feat they are still extremely proud of.

"After the quake, our group drove 10 vans full of supplies for the people in Fukushima. The highways were in total panic and gas stations were super crowded. But we put big stickers on our vans that read 'relief supplies,'" Mr S said. "At the time the gas stations were saying each car could only have 20 litres [petrol] maximum, but we told them, 'We are not listening to your bullshit! It's an emergency, people need our help.' So we cut the queue and stormed the patrol, because we look scary and they were afraid. We took advantage of being Yakuza, this was not a publicity stunt, the people needed help and all this bureaucracy was getting in the way of delivering aid."

Mr S

The advantages of life on the underside are like a mirage. When I was invited to prospect for the Finks motorcycle club, that eventually patched-over to the Mongols MC, the president was quick to diffuse our starry eyed misconceptions about what the bikie lifestyle was all about, "If you are here for financial gain, your pockets will soon be empty, if you have a girlfriend she will probably leave you, and the only holidays you'll go on will be on a bus, in cuffs until you're behind bars." A very different image to the outlaw stereotype of gold chains, custom choppers, drugs and jacuzzis littered with models.

Outlaw motorcycle clubs can’t keep up with the number of young recruits desperate to be welcomed into the fold as “1%ers.” I asked Mr S about the vetting period and why there weren’t many young Yakuza members. "There aren't that many young kids trying to get in," he admitted. "To be honest, there's a lot of inconvenience once you join the Yakuza. The young kids know that we are very strict and the government is very strict with us. The government doesn't let us open our own bank accounts, we can't buy apartments, we can't buy cars or play golf. We can't put our kids through school because we don't have anything in our name. All the bad kids prefer to get into fraud groups and street gangs instead of becoming Yakuza."

When we finished talking, Mr S took me to his favourite soba restaurant. The owner swiftly came over with sake and we proceeded to drink round after round. We were showered in Japanese delicacies from the menu. I've had my fair share of nights out with high profile underworld figures. But eating dinner with Mr S didn't feel like an exercise in bravado, status or decorum. It was a passionate presentation of their virtues and an invitation into the remnants of their legacy.

I attempted to discreetly pay the bill. The owner stopped me immediately and called him over. Mr S fiercely raised his hand toward me and smiled, “I would sooner cut off another finger before letting a guest of the Yakuza pay.”

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