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Japan's Yakuza Are in Decline — But They're Going Down Fighting

Societal changes, gang infighting, and reduced tolerance has eroded the power of Japan's famous crime syndicates. But their downturn has also unleashed an outpouring of violence.

by John Dyer
Apr 8 2016, 11:15am

Un membre des Yamaguchi-gumi s'incline devant les leaders de l'organisation criminelle qui quittent leur QG à Kobe, dans l'ouest du Japon, en 2005. Photo de Franck Robichon/EPA

The yakuza, Japan's notorious organized crime syndicates, are on the decline. While they still wield influence, their numbers have dwindled to around 53,000 members last year from a height of more than 180,000 in the 1960s, according to a recent report in the French newspaper Les Echos that cited data from Japan's National Police Agency.

A constellation of modern developments has eroded the power of the crime syndicates, whose origins go back around four centuries.

"The role of the yakuza in society is being reduced," said Curtis Milhaupt, director of Columbia Law School's Center for Japanese Legal Studies. "It's changes in society in general. It's changes in social expectations in how government should operate, and reduced tolerance of the yakuza."

The downturn has unleashed an outpouring of violence. Last year, a schism within the Yamaguchi-gumi gang, Japan's largest yakuza organization, resulted in a faction splitting off to form the rival Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi gang. The two are now shooting, firebombing, and ramming cars into each other's homes in an escalating turf war.

"Generally when you see crime groups splintering and infighting, it suggests they are under stress," said Milhaupt.

Related: A Yakuza War Is Brewing in Japan — And the Police Are Taking Sides

One of the reasons the breakup occurred was that members in the 100-year-old Yamaguchi-gumi decided it was time to shed some of the old yakuza ways, according to yakuza expert and Tokyo-based VICE contributor Jake Adelstein.

"Shinobu Tsukasa, the head of the Yamaguchi-gumi, is a puritan in the sense that he doesn't approve of making money by engaging in selling drugs or swindling old people," Adelstein said. "The Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi may not approve of these things but seems more willing to tolerate them."

The infamous colorful tattoos that formerly marked the gangsters are also increasingly less common.

"The smarter yakuza have been 'clean skins' for years now," said Adelstein. "There's no advantage."

Yakuza gangs have long functioned as quasi-legal organizations in Japan, operating legitimate as well as black market businesses like loansharking, extortion, prostitution, and gambling, often with the knowledge of police. But seemingly mundane legal changes beginning in the early 1990s have undercut the yakuza.

In the early 1990s, Japan passed a law that allowed police to label yakuza as violent organizations. The law criminalized their activities, allowed the police to hold yakuza bosses responsible for their underlings' actions. Other laws clamped down on companies that knowingly worked with the yakuza.

"The goal is to make them disappear completely," National Police Agency Lieutenant Tetsuya Yamamoto told Les Echos.

'Generally when you see crime groups splintering and infighting, it suggests they are under stress'

The new laws are working. In 2012, former yakuza boss Tadamasa Goto paid $1.4 million to settle a lawsuit brought by the family members of one of his henchmen's victims. He also expressed his condolences as part of the settlement, a significant move for a Japanese gangster.

Then, around 10 years ago, the Japanese Supreme Court lowered the amount of interest creditors could charge their customers. That put pressure on lenders, Milhaupt said, hurting the yakuza's legitimate moneylending businesses as well as its loansharking.

Lastly, in the same way residents of Little Italy in New York no longer hold mafia dons in high esteem, regular Japanese folks aren't turning to yakuza toughs for help like in the old days. Japan has instituted a series of modernizing reforms over the past few decades that have undercut those customs.

"One of the traditional roles of the yakuza was to serve as fixers," said Milhaupt. "They were in effect an alternative to the courts, because the courts were slow. It was easier and expeditious in some ways to use these illegal fixers. The Japanese courts are now efficient by any standard. The market for the yakuza has declined."

But the gangsters still have some influence.

In 2012, one in five Japanese companies succumbed to yakuza extortion schemes, according to a study by the National Police Agency. The yakuza have also reportedly cornered the sensitive market on nuclear industry workers and are suspected of having infiltrated Japan's Olympic committee ahead of the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

Four years ago, a Japanese tabloid newspaper published a photograph of Shinzo Abe, who at the time was between stints as prime minister, alongside Icchu Nagamoto, a Yamaguchi-gumi financier known as the "Blackmarket King." The photo was snapped in June 2008, almost a year after Abe had resigned from office, and released shortly before he was re-elected in 2012. Nagamoto was arrested on violations of moneylending laws a few months before the photo's release.

Related: This May Be the Most Dangerous — and Most Costly — Photo in Japan

Abe denied the connections. But Abe's grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi — who was imprisoned by the Allied powers as a war crimes suspect before becoming prime minister — was known for being pals with yakuza.

According to the Tokyo Reporter, an Abe aide later suggested that Nagamoto might have visited the then-former prime minister with a delegation that included the third man in the 2008 photograph: Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas and an ex-Republican candidate for president of the United States, who at the time was coincidentally visiting the Land of the Rising Sun.

Follow John Dyer on Twitter: @johnjdyerjr