A Tense, Sake-Fuelled Afternoon With Japan's Yakuza
We talked police crackdowns and severed fingers with Japan's most famous underworld organisation.
All images by the author
It all started with a visit to the tattoo parlour of legendary tebori artist Horiyoshi III. One of the best tattooists on the planet and a Yakuza favourite. When asked why so many Yakuza visit his studio he confidently replied, "They drink at first class bars, keep first class women, and wear first class tattoos." So it wasn't really a surprise when a couple of young members showed up in his shop, asking me whether 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. They offered to teach me oicho-kabu, laying out the cards beside a steel tray of HOPE cigarette packets, lighters, and Japanese tile games.
As we played, 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. Basically, the Japanese version of the Mafia. I'd heard stories of young Yakuza ruffians—suit-clad, their hair dyed blonde—dishing out beatings in nightclubs and standing over foreigners to foot ridiculous bills in hostess bars. Their cutthroat rules are also the stuff of legend—designed to protect their ideas of honour and glory. It all reminded me of my experiences of being an outlaw biker back home, where respect is everything.
"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 failed attempts at tile games, I opened up to them about my club, and about how being declared a criminal organisation in Australia meant outlaw bikers could no longer run tattoo parlours; a trade that's been part of biker culture since its inception in the 70s.
In turn, the Yakuza members told me about the government persecution they face, which banned them from construction contracts and trades that have been their wheelhouse for centuries. I asked if they'd be open to an interview to discuss this and the role of the Yakuza in contemporary Japan. They all slipped back into their formal quiet mannerisms, whispered to each other and told me someone would call with a time and address.
Young Yakuza members at Horiyoshi's place
The next day, as I exited the Tokyo metro, a blacked-out van abruptly pulled up beside me. The door slid open revealing a hand and an iced-out Rolex, and then 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 meeting. He stared at me deadpan while stroking his goatee with a severed thumb. "Coffee?" he asked.
I bowed and anxiously agreed, knowing caffeine would just spiral me into an even deeper web of paranoia.
The Yakuza are a lot more than severed fingers, Beat Takeshi films, and swift violence. Their history harks back over a hundred years to the Meiji period, where outlaw hustlers were divided into either tekiya—those who peddled stolen goods—or bakuto: those who were involved in gambling rackets.
The modern day Yakuza prefer to be see themselves as spiritual descendants of outlaw ronin (masterless samurai) from the 17th century. Echoes of these classes are often displayed in the initiation ceremonies of the Yakuza which incorporate glimpses of tekiya and bakuto sake drinking rituals.
These days, the Yakuza are a quiet taboo. Many believe them a stain on the proud legacy of Japanese decency. People don't want to talk about them. Whenever I asked, I was met with diversions and bitter resentment. 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 where we were headed, but eventually arrived at a corporate building that was apparently their headquarters. It was a two-storey office, with four heavily tattooed men out front, watching as our van pulled up. Immediately they all straightened up and bowed.
The first thing I noticed was the age of the guys out front—they were all in their late 20s or older. I watched as one of the men zipped up his Champion tracksuit jacket and saw two of his fingers were severed at the second knuckle. He looked at me and cracked a joke in Japanese, holding his hand up. The translator told me he said he made his fingers fly away. "Yubitsume!" another yelled, referring to the ritual act of finger shortening as a means of atonement—a physical demonstration of an apology.
The Yakuza are the only criminal organisation that expect self-mutilation to simultaneously serve as an emblem of courage and punishment. If a member does anything to bring trouble or shame to the organisation, 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 tradition that reflects the reliance of a samurai gripping their sword—with each mistake and missing finger, the soldier is forced to rely less on his weakened grip and more on the group that he belongs to.
Given its brutal reputation, I asked Mr S what attracted him to the Yakuza. "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."
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.
Two men opened the doors to the office. Clearly, they were expecting us. Mr S explained we were allowed to take as many photos as we wanted, as long as they didn't show the people in picture frames or any Yakuza members' faces.
In the foyer, I asked him why he felt the staunch image 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 talking 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 smiled. Two of them asked for my email address, they wanted to see the photos of their tattoos I'd taken the night before.
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 terror 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 VLAD consorting laws in Australia, members of outlaw motorcycle clubs in certain states were not allowed to associate in groups of more than two people in public. We aren't even allowed to ride bikes in groups—the main purpose of our club—let alone play a few rounds of golf.
Yakuza member waiting for Horiyoshi
I could empathise with how the Yakuza felt. Like the government is trying to wipe out their voices. 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?"
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. 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, 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. Whether they are in our hierarchy or not."
Young Yakuza shows off his Horiyoshi piece
To prove his point Mr S pointed 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."
I asked Mr S where all the Yakuza's young prospective members were. "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 even 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."
It all sounded very familiar. I remembered what my president told me when I was first made prospect for my motorcycle club. If you are here for financial gain, your pockets will soon be empty. Also, if I had a girlfriend she would probably leave me. The only holidays I'd go on would be time spent in jail. Not really the most glamorous life.
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 showing status or influence. It was a passionate invitation into their culture, and their world.
I attempted to pay the bill discretely because Mr S had been generously drowning us in coffee, food, and cigarettes all day. The owner stopped me immediately and called him over. Mr S raised his hand with its severed fingers and quietly said, "I would cut off another finger before letting a guest of the Yakuza pay."
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