The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Japan’s yakuza aren’t disappearing. They’re getting smarter.

Tokyo. (Matt McClain/ The Washington Post)

Jake Adelstein is a journalist and author of “Tokyo Vice.”

Contrary to recent news reports, Japan’s organized crimes groups, “the yakuza” aren’t vanishing — they’re transforming. They are finding ways to morph from honor-bound tribal outlaws into common criminals who will do anything for money. The shrewder ones are simply turning less visible. That isn’t necessarily a plus for Japan or the world.

The longest existing yakuza group is the Aizu Kotetsu-Kai in Kyoto, which was founded around 1870. The Yamaguchi-gumi celebrated 100 years in business in 2015 and then split apart the same year. Their traditional revenue came from gambling, racketeering and labor dispatch. For a long time, the goal  of the Japanese government has not been the elimination of the yakuza but rather keeping the some 22 organized-crime groups under control and out of sight. It’s all about “balance.” Even as the United States deemed the yakuza as a threat, issuing sanctions last year against the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi syndicate.

The yakuza are not secret societies, and aren’t banned by the government. In fact,  you can find the address of each group’s headquarters on the National Police Agency website. They are regulated. They have offices, business cards and corporate emblems. There are two monthly yakuza fan magazines reporting on the groups.. One of them, Jitsuwa Document, announced their “final issue” this month, despite still operating in the black. The publishers won’t say why. Comic books about their exploits are sold in convenience stores.

The National Police Agency, which gives guidance to Japan’s prefecture police forces but has no powers of investigation or arrest, has trumpeted the fall of full-fledged yakuza members to below 20,000 as evidence of successful law enforcement. Certainly, yakuza membership will never again reach the peak of 1963 (184,100). People are leaving the groups, but are they really leaving the underworld?

What has changed is how the yakuza earn their money — what they call “shinogi.” They are moving into cybercrime and are diversifying their revenue streams. The yakuza’s top dogs now discourage their men from violence and restrict who can put the gang logo on their business cards. In a 2011 interview, Tsukasa Shinobu, the head of the Yamaguchi-gumi noted that his men were forbidden from selling drugs, engaging in fraud, theft and armed robbery. This was the norm years ago although, Kenji Sakurai, a retired Yamaguchi-gumi boss, says, “Fraud is a grey area but extortion has always been okay. It’s our bread and butter! If you were being blackmailed, you deserved it. But common theft? Unacceptable.” A decade ago, 10 percent of the yakuza arrested each year faced extortion charges. That has now been eclipsed by charges of fraud and theft. TheNational Police Agency notes that increasingly the yakuza gravitate towards crime that do not rely on violence or force. Last May, yakuza members from six groups were involved in the heist of $17.3 million from cash machines across Japan on a single day.

The big change in the approach to the yakuza began in September 2009, when National Police Agency Chief Takaharu Ando publicly vowed to destroy the Yamaguchi-gumi leading faction, the Kodo-kai — not the entire organization but that faction. Why? Because the Kodo-kai were parading themselves in front of TV cameras, uncooperative with the police and belligerent towards investigators. They set a bad example. That led to the creation of the anti-organized crime ordinances which finally went into effect nationally in October 2011. The ordinances criminalized paying off the yakuza or doing business with them. It also encouraged businesses to put clauses into all contracts which excluded yakuza. The ordinances and changes in most contracts over time have made it hard for yakuza to rent a car, open a bank account and have a cellphone.

A yakuza boss formerly affiliated with the Sumiyoshi-kai explains, “The yakuza are a franchise. You pay your association dues to borrow the power and menace of the group — fear makes people pay you. But if you can’t use the name or the symbol, why even stay? It’s like running a McDonald’s without being able to use the golden arches. Better to cut expenses and leave. We’re not vanishing. We’re restructuring.”

A veteran organized crime control division detective told me, “It used to be that every police station had a yakuza office in their turf. And our job was to keep tabs on them. But since protection money is hard to earn and more companies refuse to pay them, the major groups have restructured. There are now areas with no offices. So we have to hustle to find work. The smart yakuza are hiding and surviving.”

When the head of theNational Police Agency declared war on the yakuza in 2009, his exact words were, “We will remove them from public view.” In that they are succeeding. The yakuza are abandoning their codes, their honor and their emblems. But they are still doing the dirty work they do best: nuclear industry staffing, international human trafficking, loan sharking, defrauding retirees of their life savings. As they go underground, they become more vicious. They are not really vanishing but they are less visible — just like the aftermath of 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, which Prime Minister Shinzo Abe infamously assured the world was “under control.” Yes, the yakuza are also “under control.”

In Japan, where hiding a problem is often considered as good or better than actually solving it, the yakuza are certainly harder to spot these days.  For the yakuza, that’s a victory.