Tokutaro Takayama, godfather of one of Japan's most powerful yakuza crime families, hardly recognizes his beloved mob anymore.

"It's not going in a good direction; I would never want to join the yakuza of today," said Takayama, 71, in a rare interview at his private office just outside Kyoto, surrounded by security cameras and the bodyguards missing pinkies and shiny-suited lieutenants who have been his "family" for almost 50 years.

Takayama's full head of white hair is combed straight back above full, Elvis-style sideburns. In a gravelly voice, Takayama said that, in his day, the yakuza was a bastion of traditional Japanese values -- he proudly noted that he spent 10 years in prison for, among other things, attacking a communist with his samurai sword.

"Today, they don't care anymore about obligations, tradition, respect and dignity," said Takayama, who recently gave up day-to-day control of his Aizu-Kotetsu crime family but remains its undisputed patriarch. "There are no rules anymore. In America's pioneer days, there were rules that you should never shoot a man in the back. Today in Japan, that kind of rule is dying."

For decades, the yakuza operated largely on society's margins, wearing cartoonish, look-at-me-I'm-a-gangster black pinstriped suits, sunglasses and knee-to-neck tattoos. The public -- and to a large extent, the police -- ignored the gangs as they profited from gambling, prostitution, loan-sharking and corrupt ties to Japan's booming construction industry.

But in the past decade, organized crime families used Japan's deepening recession to their advantage, exploiting national economic weakness as an opportunity to expand. Bad times have allowed the yakuza to bully their way into real estate, bank-lending and credit-collection businesses, earning billions in the process. With profits they call "juicy steak," gangsters are entrenching themselves in legitimate businesses, even buying sushi restaurants in New York and Hawaii.

"They have spread their power to every corner of society," said Raisuke Miyawaki, a former top police official and a leading expert on the yakuza. "Wherever there is money, there is yakuza."

It used to be that citizens encountered the yakuza only if they ventured into society's seedy fringes. But now, "business-suit yakuza" -- gangsters carrying briefcases instead of handguns -- are a nerve-jangling fact of life for bankers, stockbrokers, corporate chiefs and others in the law-abiding mainstream. Police estimate that "business-suit yakuza" now account for about 30,000 of the nation's 73,000 gang members, and the number is growing.

American companies buying distressed Japanese properties -- whose market values have dropped as much as 70 percent since 1990 -- have even written clauses that nullify deals if they discover yakuza involvement.

The rise of white-collar gangsters, who are perceived as typical businessmen until they threaten violence, is the "most important change this decade" in yakuza tactics, said Naoki Tani, a deputy director for organized crime at the National Police Agency.

Yakuza growth means that gangs are making money and influencing lives on an unprecedented scale. It is now virtually impossible to understand many aspects of life here, from politics to the economy to sumo wrestling, without understanding how the yakuza is involved.

"These are the golden days for gangsters," said Hiroshi Yamada, of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations.

Japan's trillion-dollar banking crisis, which has cost taxpayers dearly, is also linked to the yakuza. A government-funded survey released last week -- the first of its kind here -- investigated more than 100 cases of loans uncollected by credit agencies and found that nearly half were linked to gangsters. Typically, once gangsters threaten a bank it drops efforts to collect on loans, especially since a Sumitomo Bank executive was slain in 1994 in what was said to be a mob contract killing.

Yamada said most analysts agree that the 23 major crime syndicates have combined annual income of about $45 billion. The yakuza are "a major part of the economy," said Tani.

One way gangsters earn cash is by squatting on delinquent property that a bank wants to seize. Sometimes they are paid by the property's owner, sometimes their aim is to acquire the land. At foreclosure auctions, gangsters arrive and join the bidding, scaring away others and buying the property for a song.

Yakuza also force prominent companies to pay them under the table to keep quiet about, for instance, a company's true losses in the recession. And as Japan spends billions to stimulate its lagging economy, the mob profits handsomely by working its long-established political connections to steer public works contracts to mob-affiliated construction companies.

As the yakuza has exploited Japan's misfortune, it has become more sinister and violent. Police say there has been an alarming increase in yakuza smuggling of aliens and drugs into Japan. Much of it is done with violent Chinese "snakehead" crime gangs. Through March,, police confiscated more drugs, mostly stimulants from China, than in any full year.

Few understand the intertwined worlds of politics and crime as well as Eitaro Itoyama, who spent 20 years in parliament before retiring three years ago. Itoyama, 56, is a wealthy businessman who describes himself as a "fixer" between the two worlds. He said, to be clear, that he is not yakuza, and that after he left politics he severed his relations with gangsters. But he said he leaves open some channels of communication -- sometimes attending crime family funerals.

"Among Japanese politicians with the most influence with the yakuza, I have to say it's me," said Itoyama, who agreed to an interview at the 17th-floor penthouse suite of an elegant new Tokyo office building that bears his name. Itoyama said yakuza bosses view elections as business opportunities. Gangsters, he said, make unsolicited visits to promising candidates -- often a conservative figure in the majority Liberal Democratic Party, whose hawkish traditional views are admired by yakuza members -- and leave a "donation," perhaps tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The "gift" comes with no formal strings, Itoyama said, but the unwritten rule is clear: If the candidate wins, he must return twice the amount received. Usually, a few months after the candidate is elected, he is expected to show up at a wedding or party that is connected to the crime family that gave him the "donation" and leave twice that amount behind.

Itoyama said that he returned "tens of millions of yen" -- hundreds of thousands of dollars -- to gangsters after he won elections. To flout the custom is not wise, he said. On his right forearm is a clear reason people pay attention to the yakuza -- a six-inch scar left by a gangster who attacked him with a knife during a speech. He offered no definitive answer to why he was attacked. "There are countless explanations," he said.

Itoyama, the largest individual shareholder in Japan Airlines, the biggest airline in Asia, made headlines recently by revealing that a large chunk of JAL stock had been purchased by a well-known gangster. Itoyama threatened to sell his 60 million shares because, he said, a million shares had been purchased by the head of the crime family that gave him the scar on his arm 13 years ago. This public revelation of mob stock ownership in one of Japan's most prominent companies offered a glimpse of how far the yakuza's tentacles have reached into legitimate business.

Japanese law enforcement officials have been trying to clamp down on the yakuza in earnest since 1992, when parliament passed a tough new "anti-gangster law." The yakuza is staunchly anti-communist, and some analysts believe that the 1992 law and resultant police crackdown was a natural consequence of the end of the Cold War, when the gangsters' anti-communist stance was no longer important.

Takayama, the mob godfather, said the crackdown was a key reason why the yakuza branched out. Once content to run the "gray area" businesses of prostitution and gambling, police pressure forced the yakuza to seek new opportunities at the same time the recession was providing them, he said.

When the interview ended, Takayama posed for pictures and walked his visitors to a smoked-glass Mercedes-Benz sedan idling in the alley next to his office. Nine men who had been waiting for him to emerge from the interview attended his every move. As he walked, he repeated a point he had made over and over during the previous two hours. He said the yakuza has always played an important role in Japanese society but that police are even asking the local hospital and other local charities to stop accepting his donations. He's unhappy that the yakuza has been forced to trade tradition for new, uglier ways of earning money.

But, he said, fixing his guests with a dark stare, "We have to live."

Special correspondent Shigehiko Togo contributed to this report.

CAPTION: Tokutaro Takayama, 71, head of one of Japan's most powerful yakuza families, feels shamed by the lack of honor among today's gangsters.