By Jake Adelstein
Sunday, May 11, 2008
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.
Goto is alive today because of that operation -- a source of resentment among Japanese law enforcement officials because the FBI organized it without consulting them. From the U.S. point of view, it was a necessary evil. The FBI had long suspected the yakuza of laundering money in the United States, and Japanese and U.S. law enforcement officials confirm that Goto offered to tip them off to Yamaguchi-gumi front companies and mobsters in exchange for the transplant. James Moynihan, then the FBI representative in Tokyo who brokered the deal, still defends the operation. "You can't monitor the activities of the yakuza in the United States if you don't know who they are," he said in 2007. "Goto only gave us a fraction of what he promised, but it was better than nothing."
The suspicions about the Yamaguchi-gumi were confirmed in the fall of 2003, when special agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), whom I've interviewed, tracked down several million dollars deposited in U.S. casino accounts and banks by Susumu Kajiyama, a boss known as "the Emperor of Loan Sharks." The agents said they had not received a lead from the Tokyo police; they got some of the information while looking back at the Goto case.
Unlike their Japanese counterparts, U.S. law enforcement officers are sharing tips with Japan. Officials from both countries confirm that, in November 2003, the Tokyo police used information from ICE and the Nevada Gaming Control Board to seize $2 million dollars in cash from a safe-deposit box in Japan, which was leased to Kajiyama by a firm affiliated with a major Las Vegas casino. According to ICE Special Agent Mike Cox, the Kajiyama saga was probably not an isolated incident. "If we had some more information from the Japan side," he told me last year, "I'm sure we'd find other cases like it."
I'm not entirely objective on the issue of the yakuza in my adopted homeland. Three years ago, Goto got word that I was reporting an article about his liver transplant. A few days later, his underlings obliquely threatened me. Then came a formal meeting. The offer was straightforward. "Erase the story or be erased," one of them said. "Your family too."
I knew enough to take the threat seriously. So I took some advice from a senior Japanese detective, abandoned the scoop and resigned from the Yomiuri Shimbun two months later. But I never forgot the story. I planned to write about it in a book, figuring that, with Goto's poor health, he'd be dead by the time it came out. Otherwise, I planned to clip out the business of his operation at the last minute.
I didn't bargain on the contents leaking out before my book was released, which is what happened last November. Now the FBI and local law enforcement are watching over my family in the States, while the Tokyo police and the NPA look out for me in Japan. I would like to go home, but Goto has a reputation for taking out his target and anyone else in the vicinity.
In early March, in my presence, an FBI agent asked the NPA to provide a list of all the members of Goto's organization so that they could stop them from coming into the country and killing my family. The NPA was reluctant at first, citing "privacy concerns," but after much soul-searching handed over about 50 names. But the Tokyo police file lists more than 900 members. I know this because someone posted the file online in the summer of 2007; a Japanese detective was fired because of the leak.
Of course, I'm a little biased. I don't think it's selfish of me to value the safety of my family more than the personal privacy of crooks. And as a crime reporter, I'm baffled that the Japanese don't share intelligence on the yakuza with the United States.
Then again, perhaps I'm being unreasonable. Maybe some powerful Japanese are simply ashamed of how strong the yakuza have become. And if they're not ashamed, they should be.
Jake Adelstein is the author of the forthcoming "Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan."