This Mob Is Big in Japan
I have spent most of the past 15 years in the dark side of the rising sun. Until three years ago, I was a crime reporter for the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest newspaper, and covered a roster of characters that included serial killers who doubled as pet breeders, child pornographers who abducted junior high-school girls, and the John Gotti of Japan.
I came to Japan in 1988 at age 19, spent most of college living in a Zen Buddhist temple, and then became the first U.S. citizen hired as a regular staff writer for a Japanese newspaper in Japanese. If you know anything about Japan, you'll realize how bizarre this is -- a gaijin, or foreigner, covering Japanese cops. When I started the beat in the early 1990s, I knew nothing about the yakuza, a.k.a. the Japanese mafia. But following their prostitution rings and extortion rackets became my life.
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. And as far as the United States is concerned, Japan may be refueling U.S. warships at sea, but it's not helping us fight our own battles against organized crime -- a realization that led to my biggest scoop.
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. I became so fascinated that, like someone staring at a wild animal, I got too close and now am worried for my life. But more on that later.
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. The market is so infested that Osaka Securities Exchange officials decided in March that they would review all listed companies and expel those found to have links with the yakuza. If you think this has nothing to do with the United States, think again. Americans have billions of dollars in the Japanese stock market. So U.S. investors could be funding the Japanese mob.
I once asked a detective from Osaka why, if Japanese law enforcement knows so much about the yakuza, the police don't just take them down. "We don't have a RICO Act," he explained. "We don't have plea-bargaining, a witness-protection program or witness-relocation program. So what we end up doing most of the time is just clipping the branches. . . . If the government would give us the tools, we'd shut them down, but we don't have 'em."
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. Last month's issue of a widely available porn magazine proclaimed, "Our Cover Girl Is Our Youngest Yet: 14!" Kabukicho remains loaded with the stuff, and teenage sex workers are readily available. I've even seen specialty stores that sell the underwear worn by teenage strippers.
The ban is so weak that investigating yakuza who peddle child pornography is practically impossible. "The United States has referred hundreds of . . . cases to Japanese law enforcement authorities," a U.S. embassy spokesman recently told me. "Without exception, U.S. officials have been told that the Japanese police cannot open an investigation because possession is legal." In 2007, the Internet Hotline Center in Japan identified more than 500 local sites displaying child pornography.
There's talk in Japan of criminalizing simple possession, but some political parties (and publishers, who are raking in millions) oppose the idea. U.S. law enforcement officers want to stop the flow of yakuza-produced child porn into the United States and would support such a law. But they can't even keep the yakuza themselves out of the country. Why? Because the national police refuse to share intelligence. Last year, a former FBI agent told me that, in a decade of conferences, the NPA had turned over the names and birthdates of about 50 yakuza members. "Fifty out of 80,000," he said.
This lack of cooperation was partly responsible for an astonishing deal made with the yakuza, and for the story that changed my life. On May 18, 2001, the FBI arranged for Tadamasa Goto -- a notorious Japanese gang boss, the one that some federal agents call the "John Gotti of Japan" -- to be flown to the United States for a liver transplant.