Feudal Crime Lords of Japan
May 12, 2008 4:45 PM   Subscribe

Among industrialized nations, Japan has a pretty low rate of violent crime, a relatively high number of police, and a virtually non-existent acquittal rate. Yet, somehow the Yakuza persists.
posted by absalom (54 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
An obvious nod to the inevitability of human nature?
posted by Senator at 4:53 PM on May 12, 2008

The Yakuza is the Voldemort of Japan: (That-Which)-Must-Not-Be-Named. It's a fairly taboo subject for your average Japanese to talk about the Yakuza in polite company, especially for older Japanese. Along with uyoku--right-wing militant groups that are closely connected to the Yakuza, they are subjects that many Japanese don't really want to think about too much. The Yakuza is just so entrenched in so many aspects of society.

I live in Tokyo, and my wife and I are moving this weekend. We called a couple of different moving companies, and finally decided on the cheapest one. My wife called to cancel one of the others and got an earful of borderline threats, promises that some lawyer would come down on us for cancelling, etc. That's Yakuza technique: start yelling at enough people angrily enough, and some people will pay up. We don't know if this company is connected to the mob, but the guy on the phone almost certainly is/was. Interestingly enough, the groups are rarely actually violent towards "normal" people, and save their violence for rival gangs.
posted by zardoz at 5:03 PM on May 12, 2008 [2 favorites]

I traveled in Japan for two weeks with my wife and brother-in-law last month- he's been teaching there for about 9 months. He suggested that the government turns an eye to the Yakuza to some extent- while they'll prosecute for really over the top stuff (the securities fraud mentioned in the last link is an example of where they're cracking down), the pretty typical run of the mill organized crime isn't really paid a lot of heed. He suggested that this was because if you have one organization running the crime in a country, you know who the players are, and you know that they'll regulate competition to a large extent. It's almost like the Thieves Guild in Terry Pratchett's Discworld series.
posted by baphomet at 5:05 PM on May 12, 2008 [2 favorites]

The police can't even manage their own no-smoking policy. What do you expect?

One night, while walking down the street in a seedier part of Kinshichō in eastern Tokyo, an old codger started harassing me about "coming upstairs to meet some nice girls." No matter how many times I told the guy to get lost, he wouldn't leave me alone; next thing I knew, some big dude who was clearly Yakuza stepped out of a doorway and gave him the stink eye. The old guy was gone before I knew it. Then, Mr. Yakuza looked me square in the eye, smiled, and said, "Have a good evening."

I made a mental note to avoid that street in the future.
posted by jal0021 at 5:11 PM on May 12, 2008 [4 favorites]

According to a friend of mine who attended the Shooto academy in Tokyo and also trained Judo with a number of Japanese cops "crime" statistics are only really accurately tracked for a certain class of crime against a certain class of people. And many of the crimes the Yakuza are involved in simply don't count. That's why crime appears to be so low and yet organized crime (like the rampant sex slavery etc) can exist in Japan.
posted by tkchrist at 5:11 PM on May 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

An example of what I mentioned above is Pachinko. It's basically a gambling/skill game, but players buy and win small metal balls that are used to play the game. It's technically illegal in Japan for establishments to pay winnings in cash, however the massive pachinko parlors just so happen to have a small shop next door that just so happen to exchange balls for cash. The yakuza have their hands in basically the entire pachinko racket, which is pervasive and extremely widespread. This kind of stuff could pretty easily be wiped out, but hey, it's a source of distraction for the masses and money for the government. Thus the yakuza's influence isn't really resisted by the government as a whole.
posted by baphomet at 5:13 PM on May 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

That last link is quite interesting. Thanks for posting this.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 5:16 PM on May 12, 2008

a virtually non-existent acquittal rate

This is not a good thing.
posted by Citizen Premier at 5:16 PM on May 12, 2008 [3 favorites]

Organized crime persists all over the world. In America organized crime remains far more prevalent than most people realize. And while many American intellectuals love to suppose organized crime is more endemic in Russia, Italy or Japan than it is in America, that may simply be a case of both "exocitizing" other cultures, and of being less than eager to look in the mirror, than it is reflective of any actual difference.
posted by ornate insect at 5:17 PM on May 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Organized crime doesn't persist equally over the world. It isn't some constant of human nature, it depends heavily on institutions. So for example the links say that Japan has 80,000 or more yakuza, while in the US -- a much larger country -- organized crime only employs about 20,000 total.
posted by grobstein at 5:24 PM on May 12, 2008 [2 favorites]

I made a mental note to avoid that street in the future.

I was the cat herder at a very high priced strip bar for a friends bachelor party in Vancouver once and I noticed one whole section of the VIP tables was roped off for small group very young Asian guys wearing very, very nice tailored suits (with $20K Rolexs watches). They had fives tables but they were only sitting at one. I also saw they were drinking some pretty expensive liquor. And oddly not even looking at the stage and no dancers were going near them. I assumed they were executives of some sort. I walked over to ask how much they paid for the tables and maybe we could buy one from them for my buddies bachelor party. They just smiled and said they didn't pay anything for them. But if we wanted we could take one. He claps me on the shoulder and makes a marriage joke and then another guy says something in Japanese and everybody laughs. I laugh. Nice guys. That's when I noticed how in shape these guys were... and... the neck tattoos. Hmmm. Now what corporation has an executive team with matching neck tattoos?

Anyway I move all my drunk friends over there when my one friend, who lives in Vancouver and is Asian, just leans over and says very quietly..."You better buy those guys a bottle of Dom or some expensive shit right now or you are gonna owe them a favor. You don't want to ow guys like that a favor." "Guys like what?" "Are you some sort of idiot? Those are fucking serious gangsters, man."

Really? But they seemed so nice, I thought. I wondered why all the dancers suddenly avoided us like the plague.
posted by tkchrist at 5:26 PM on May 12, 2008 [28 favorites]

I read somewhere that the Yakuza actually register with the police!
posted by msalt at 5:28 PM on May 12, 2008

a virtually non-existent acquittal rate

This is not a good thing.

Actually, there isn't enough information given to determine if this is good or bad.
posted by DU at 5:32 PM on May 12, 2008 [2 favorites]

Citizen Premier : I did not suggest it was.
posted by absalom at 5:34 PM on May 12, 2008

Its all fun and games until someone mentions the Chinese or American heritage of their leader as a negative.
posted by CautionToTheWind at 5:35 PM on May 12, 2008 [4 favorites]

I read somewhere that the Yakuza actually register with the police!

You would be surprised at how much you "read" or "hear" about Japan in the English-speaking press is utter bullshit. Same thing is happening with China reportage too, I might add...
posted by KokuRyu at 5:40 PM on May 12, 2008 [2 favorites]

a virtually non-existent acquittal rate

This is not a good thing.

Yeah, did you happen to catch this a little while ago?
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 5:42 PM on May 12, 2008

grobstein--the level with which organized crime permeates a society is not always easy to gauge. That is, estimating how many people are directly or indirectly "employed" is not only extremely difficult, but ultimately perhaps less important than the level of power that is held by elements of organized crime. One "made" judge in a Cook County circuit court is worth more to the Chicago Outfit than ten low level wise guys shaking down liquor store owners on the South Side.

I would argue that the it permeates Russia, Italy and Japan in a way that makes it easier perhaps to spot than it is in America circa 2008. And, incidentally, regarding the Yakuza, I've heard this book is good.

When I saw this documentary, about the Sicilian mob wars of the 1980s, early 1990s, and which I highly recommend, I was struck by two things: first, the extent to which the connections seemed to be pointing not just to the infrastructure of Italian politics, but also internationally (the drug trade seems to support this), and second, the extent to which the low-level mafia to some degree serves as a great time-consuming distraction for the police that high-level mafia no doubt enjoy.

If one reads about J. Edgar Hoover and his apparent ties to the mob, as brought to light by Jack Anderson and others, and if one reads about the extent to which organized crime penetrated officialdom and helped shape this country's history, one sees that we still don't fully grasp what became of it all. The assumption seems to be that, despite a few holdouts, organized crime in America is long past its golden era. The assumption may be wrong.
posted by ornate insect at 5:45 PM on May 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

I highly recommend Juzo Itami's film Minbo. It is a sequel to A Taxing Woman and A Taxing Woman 2.
posted by neuron at 5:46 PM on May 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Young Yakuza is a pretty interesting documentary, if you ever happen to catch it in a rental place or on tv.

The boss (or some level of sub-boss, actually) comes off as a rather nice guy, despite being a cold and slightly scary SOB.

The run-of-the-mill everyday duties and events were almost comical against the backdrop of yakuza-ness: their 'office' new year's meeting/celebration was as dry and boring as probably any other corporate meeting/celebration. At one point a couple of newbies had to go buy underwear for their boss, and were in a shopping stalemate over what brand and style. Something like...

"I think these would suit [Boss]-san."

"Those would provide freedom, but these here would provide more support. Do you think he wants freedom or support?"

"Hmm... True. Maybe get both, and let him choose. Then we can bring the others back for exchange. We should get him some matching undershirts while we're here... Hey! These are in a value-pack!"
posted by CKmtl at 5:51 PM on May 12, 2008

however the massive pachinko parlors just so happen to have a small shop next door that just so happen to exchange balls for cash

just to clarify this, winning players don't have to schlep 80lbs+ of ball bearings down the street; they exchange them for trinkets in the parlor's prize section which are then redeemed for cash at an innocuous window at some store-front nearby.
posted by tachikaze at 5:57 PM on May 12, 2008

neuron: I am glad you mentioned Itami. One of the world's great directors, beaten and possibly murdered by Yakuza. Japan is shamed by these criminals.

Years ago, I read an article in the Annals of the Academy that flatly asserted: organized crime cannot exist without a corrupt government and/or law enforcement branch. There may be exceptions (biker gangs, for instance) but the assertion is largely true.
posted by CCBC at 6:02 PM on May 12, 2008

Crime is a business. It's just sometimes a very lucrative business, and those are the businesses that attract the most talented people for the job. When your business is not at all legal, part of "most talented" includes the ability to appear terrifying or harmless or somewhere in between as needed, in an instant.

So I understand the fascination with the whole thing, but as you can intuit from CKmtl's summary above, it's run-of-the-mill for the most part, kind of like drug dealing is.
posted by davejay at 6:16 PM on May 12, 2008

I tend to think one of the reasons that the violent crime rate is so low is because there is a single, organized crime monopoly. I bet if a rival gang tried to get a foothold or fight the Yakuza, the government would come down hard. Any disagreements between criminals can be handled within the organization, so there is no reason to resort to violence.

Contrast that with the U.S, and you'll see most violence is the result of rival gangs fighting over disputes. That's one reason why I think all vice crimes should be legalized and regulated.
posted by delmoi at 6:41 PM on May 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

If anyone has access to lexisnexis, I recommend Curtis Milhaupt's legal/economic analysis of of Yakuza behavior, briefly summarized here.
posted by subtle-t at 6:46 PM on May 12, 2008 [2 favorites]

The saying goes in Japan that, for some people with marginal skills, there are only two career choices: the yakuza or the army (JSDF). Both provide the rigid structure needed by some types to survive in society.

I think one of the most interesting things about the Japanese mafia (the taboo against saying the word "yakuza" in public is pretty strong, BTW) is that it provides opportunities for ethnic Koreans and even buraku (another taboo word) untouchables, who, in the past, were prevented from entering the civil service or even the business world.

Eric Johnston, who is the Japan Times' Kansai bureau chief, had done a lot of great writing on the yakuza.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:46 PM on May 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm currently three movies in to The Yakuza Papers: Battles Without Honour or Humanity which is the Japanese equivalent of The Godfather, I suppose. Apparently, it's grounded in the reporting of Koichi Iboshi, a journalist and former Yakuza, so presumably it bears some reference to reality. But it's a great series. Probably available on a torrent tracker near you.

I'm also currently reading Karl Taro Greenfield's Speed Tribes, which is a fascinating look at the current Japan underworld subculture, and the ways in which it is and isn't tied to the Yakuza. That's also well worth a read.

Actually, there isn't enough information given to determine if this is good or bad.

If you're in any doubt whatsoever, then I'd recommend that you watch I Just Didn't Do It, an exploration of the Japanese Criminal Justice System from the point of view of somebody who is wrongly accused. Once they've actually laid the charge, the whole panoply of the law is devoted to ensuring a conviction, as an aquittal is seen as a loss of face for the prosecutors, the judges, and the state itself. Like my previous two links, this is also highly recommended.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 7:17 PM on May 12, 2008 [9 favorites]

Another fascinating Japanese movie that I've watched recently has been Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osaka Love Thief. This documentary features a bar in which attractive young men are paid to act as male hostesses, who encourage young women to 'financially worship them'.

The majority of these young women, who can spend upwards of $1000 in an evening, appear to work in the sex industry themselves, in order to make the sort of money it takes to get the attention of these young men. (I think all the women in the movie were sex workers.) But while watching the film, I was struck by the idea that such a bar would almost certainly be inconceivable without some degree of Yakuza involvement. And it just struck me as profoundly sad that the Yakuza are probably milking these women of half of their earnings in the hostess bars and massage parlours where they earn their money, and then milking them of the other half through their control of the places where they spend it.

Again, a fascinating documentary. Maybe the most interesting that I've seen in several years.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 7:35 PM on May 12, 2008 [2 favorites]

What msalt said about the yakuza registering with the police is absolutely correct. I heard about it in a radio interview with the author of McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld last night.
posted by vronsky at 7:52 PM on May 12, 2008

Just to clarify what was reported here (I have my doubts about the legitimacy of the Japanese press) about Itami Juzo: yes, he did a film about the Yakuza, Minbo no Onna which was well researched and as critical of the organized crime syndicate as he had been previously of the tax ministry. Yes, he was subsequently attacked and had his throat cut open by members of said syndicate. He recovered during a long hospital stay (which inspired Daibyonin, a critique of the medical "industry") and 5 years later, jumped to his death in an apparent suicide. At the time, his name had been attached to some tabloid sex scandal and the suicide note denied any wrongdoing. Everyone here said suicide was the action of a guilty man, and yes, there were rumours that the whole thing had been faked by grudge-holding Yakuza, but their involvement was never proven.

I live in the heartland of Japan and the Yakuza are particularly visible. My husband and I have had tenuous friendships with members of that society and spent a few years under a sort of employment to a local middleman. He was a highly respected tattoo artist and had a crew of his own, but as a member of the syndicate, he was unable to receive packages from overseas. The Yakuza is above the law in many ways, but they are tightly reigned in others. It is incredibly hard for Yakuza with criminal records to travel internationally, and everyone I met had a record of some sort, often for crimes committed by someone higher up, for which the underling must take the fall. We learned about this method of passing the buck while we placed orders and took delivery of tattoo guns and ink otherwise unavailable in Japan.

There is an unspoken agreement among locals that you have as few dealings as possible with the Yakuza, but when you find yourself forced into an obligation, you simply perform the tasks required of you as quickly as possible. In this, I suppose, I have assimilated.
posted by squasha at 8:12 PM on May 12, 2008 [3 favorites]

If you can read Japanese (and can get to Book Off) you should read 'Naniwa Kin'yuudo' (The Way of the Osaka Loan Shark - sorry, I'm typing this on a Blackberry, so supplying a link is tough).

Anyway, Naniwa Kin'yuudo is a brilliant manga series from the 90s that explains the grey area between mafia loan sharking and banking - consumer loans.

Anyway, the manga explains that the women who work in the sex industry make pretty decent money - perhaps four or five thousand dollars a money. The pink salon (brothel) takes its cut up front, so the girls clear this money. Since a 40 minute session can typicall cost about the equivalent of 100 dollars, and each woman works eight hours a day, the brothel makes a lot of cash.

The brothel pays out to the yakuza - there is no contact between the mafia and the sex workers per se.

However, foreign sex workers (technically, traffic women who enter Japan on entertainment visas) are in a much more precarious position. Many work 'illegally' in the sex industry and, if caught will be deported and barred from Japan, a big problem if you have familial ties in that country, and also have few skills to make ends meet in your home country.

On the other hand, 'hostesses' have it a lot easier. They don't normally have sex with their guests, but the girls working in mid or lower tier hostess bars may be able to bring home $3000 a month.

In a country where most women don't work, and those that do earn about $1700 a month, this is good money.

And, once again, the mafia deals with the hostess bar, not the hostesses.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:15 PM on May 12, 2008

delmoi writes "I tend to think one of the reasons that the violent crime rate is so low is because there is a single, organized crime monopoly."

This is a not uncommon train of thought in Japan as well. I don't mean to say it's the majority; I don't know, I haven't polled people. Yakuza are definitely depicted as all bad in the media (often "cool", in movies, but never really "good"). However, I've heard from a few people here that the most dangerous areas are the areas with no yakuza.

ornate insect writes "And while many American intellectuals love to suppose organized crime is more endemic in Russia, Italy or Japan than it is in America, that may simply be a case of both 'exocitizing' other cultures, and of being less than eager to look in the mirror, than it is reflective of any actual difference."

I dunno how you define endemicity (I don't mean that in the "I don't know how you define it, but..." sense, but the pure "I really don't know how to measure stuff like that" sense), but in the decade I've lived here in Japan I've known many people who have dealt with yakuza (being forced to pay protection money to run a bar, being kicked out of a park for DJing (since the yakuza said he needed their permission), being beat up for leaning on a yakuza car (and then being told by the police to apologize to the guys who beat him up), etc.) than I've known people who have dealt with the mafia back in the US (precisely zero, actually). Perhaps monetarily the mafia and the yakuza are equal. Perhaps militarily they are. But in terms of both population (including all the chinpira underlings) and visibility, I don't think it's a matter of exoticizing cultures.

As a further reflection on that, if it were a matter of exoticizing, one would expect Japanese to consider mafia to be more widespread, and downplay the size of the yakuza, but every police station in Japan seems to have big banners promoting expelling organized crime from their respective area, there are also frequently placards on stores saying "Anti-Organized Crime Establishment" (暴力団追放協力店), neighborhood watch signs against the yakuza, etc. etc. etc. So, if the yakuza ARE only equally or less endemic than the mafia in the US, I don't think Americans considering the yakuza more endemic is an issue of exocitization, but of taking the Japanese at their word.

(Oh, and if this seems to conflict with what has been said about avoiding the mention of yakuza in Japan, I should point out that the word "yakuza" is avoided, but "boryokudan" (暴力団), literally "violent groups", but actually meaning "organized crime", is used frequently.)
posted by Bugbread at 8:21 PM on May 12, 2008

Regarding the crime rate being low, I don't believe that for a second. In fact it's not losing face that causes police to press hard for conviction, it's losing money. In probably one of the most idiotic systems worldwide, Japanese police promotions are based on having a low crime rate and having a high conviction rate. As a result, many MANY crimes go unreported because the police adamantly refuse to do anything upon receiving a complaint. I have heard stories of people who have gone in to report cases of assault (sexual or otherwise) and been told "Well, you shouldn't have been walking around there at night anyway. Go away."
posted by GoingToShopping at 9:19 PM on May 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

You would be surprised at how much you "read" or "hear" about Japan in the English-speaking press is utter bullshit. Same thing is happening with China reportage too, I might add...

Actually I would not be surprised at that. Perhaps because I lived in China for a while. Now, do you have any specific knowledge about whether the Yakuza register with the police or not? Because otherwise your comment seems pretty lumpable-together with English-speaking press coverage.

These sources seem pretty respectable and think there is Yakuza registration: a BBC article, a Reuters article quoting the police for precise statistics; and an expat discussion on Japan Today, with many claiming first hand knowledge.
posted by msalt at 9:50 PM on May 12, 2008

bugbread--points well taken.

Putting Japan aside for a moment (and I apologize for the derail that follows, but this is really fascinating stuff), to re-articulate my larger point, that there is visible (street-level) component and invisible (international) component to organized crime, one might consider a story taken literally from today's headlines about the brutal gang wars now occuring on the Mexican side of the U.S.-Mexico border:

All told, the death toll eclipsed 2,500 last year. And 2008, with more than 1,000 killed so far, is on track to match or surpass that record, according to published reports. At least 10 federal police officers have been killed in the past three weeks, and pitched shootouts have raged from the Pacific Coast to central Zacatecas, where three died in clashes Wednesday morning, including a young girl believed to have caught a stray bullet, authorities said. It has been a particularly violent year in Ciudad Juarez. Once the undisputed turf of the Juarez Cartel, the city of 1.3 million people has become the scene of an epic turf battle, as elements of the powerful Sinaloa Cartel try to muscle their way in. Nearly 300 have died in the violence so far this year, some of their bodies dumped in mass graves.

In other words, from the perspective of the streets, to be south of the border right now is akin to being in Baghdad. And yet we all know that this battle is occuring amid a trade that is almost entirely designed to move its goods northwards into America. But in order for all those drugs to pass over the border, there have to be some very efficient people on the American side who are part of the business. Just like the traffic of illegal immigrants, perhaps even more so, this is a tide that does not effect the two sides equally. But the drug trade cannot be blamed on Mexican cartels alone. Thus if one said "there is more organized crime in Mexico than the U.S.," what one might really mean is "there is more visible organized crime in Mexico than the U.S."
posted by ornate insect at 9:51 PM on May 12, 2008

This is an excellent thread, everyone. Thanks.
posted by painquale at 11:38 PM on May 12, 2008 [3 favorites]

I have tiptoed around the topic with many of my students and they seem to agree with the idea that the visible criminal is somehow less frightening than the insidious, random one. Those I met with this morning had no idea if there was a compulsive registration, but they agreed that so many of the gangsters have records (and privacy laws are a relatively new concept, here) that the police no doubt are aware of where they are. Regardless, these students emphasized that the visibility of the Yakuza is largely due to the fact that they are almost caricatures. Stylistically, it's pretty damned easy to pick a gangster out on the basis of attire and hair. They do not wear quiet clothes. They are not understated in their accessorizing. Their cars are blatantly customized, windows tinted, and I have even seen vanity plates denoting Yakuza membership (and trust me, unlike all the hip-hop gansta wannabes, you simply do not pose as a Yakuza.)

One of the local leaders has a fortress of a house, surrounded by cameras and guarded by two massive dobermans and an everpresent gauntlet of patrolling underlings. Everyone knows it's a Yakuza house, and it is minutes away from the largest police station in the city. A fellow expat lives on the same street and while he's had some complications (he wanted to get some work done on his house, and it took several weeks to find a carpenter who was connected, and therefore *allowed* to work on the house) I think the odds of having a break-in on that block are slim to none.

My own firsthand knowledge of the violence used within these groups is that it is largely internal...that is to say, I saw targets being intimidated with the *threat* of violence but the only violence I witnessed was amongst the Yakuza themselves. To reprimand, punish, and "toughen-up" their brethren. And let us not forget the pinkie sacrifice. The gun battles which do occur (almost annually) are always the result of hierarchical struggle.

I hope I do not come across as supportive of their methodology. The anthropologist in me is somewhat pragmatic where the Yakuza are concerned. The police here are often worse offenders because they are pretenders to the throne of righteousness and use similar strong-arm tactics to these gangsters. I think the Yakuza are bullies and I hate it when they intimidate my friends within the club and bar community, but I just feel it's a very human tendency to form these groups/gangs/armies and pick on those who can be picked on. I don't think it's right...it just is.
posted by squasha at 12:42 AM on May 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

try also this. The high conviction rate is mostly due to a) lax rules on "interrogation" b) lax rules on how long police can keep you locked up without being charged (almost indefinitely) and perhaps most importantly - pleading not-guilty is just not done.
posted by Dillonlikescookies at 1:15 AM on May 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

Japan has 80,000 or more yakuza, while in the US -- a much larger country -- organized crime only employs about 20,000 total.

Experts estimate that 76.3% of all statistics are made up.
posted by fixedgear at 2:41 AM on May 13, 2008

Probably 3/4 (another made-up number) of those 80,000 are chinpira, who wouldn't really be counted as members by anyone who wasn't looking to pump up their statistics. I know a bunch of guys like that, although they never seem to do anything organized at all; they are usually just hanging around somewhere looking conspicuous.
posted by donkeymon at 3:36 AM on May 13, 2008

Probably 3/4 (another made-up number) of those 80,000 are chinpira

Many of the characters in Speed Tribes appear to be chinpira (translation: little pricks), and it suggests that the Yakuza will select the smarter/braver ones to act as messenger boys and run minor errands. If they prove themselves over time, there's a possibility that they get to graduate to real Yakuza, but that only seems to happen to a tiny fraction of them.

As you said, the book describes them as mostly hanging out near bars or Pachinko parlours, looking conspicuous, and doing nothing much criminal at all, most of the time.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 4:29 AM on May 13, 2008

He was a highly respected tattoo artist and had a crew of his own, but as a member of the syndicate, he was unable to receive packages from overseas.

Could you elaborate on this, please? Too interesting a comment to just stand alone.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:25 AM on May 13, 2008

That wapo article is something else. Thanks.
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 7:24 AM on May 13, 2008

Yeah Peter, that's what they do! They just hang out in front of the Gaia and do nothing! They don't even intimidate people. They kinda half-heartedly hit on girls, but that's about it.
posted by donkeymon at 7:46 AM on May 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

The argument in the second article is particularly interesting to me: the yakuza have taken on their present role primarily because of the power vacuum in Japan during the American occupation. To some extent, the yakuza were a shadow local government with the monopoly on violence and the distribution of public goods in a nation otherwise prevented from arming its police. There are some interesting parallels with Iraq here.

Great post, great thread. Thanks.
posted by anotherpanacea at 9:42 AM on May 13, 2008

Now, do you have any specific knowledge about whether the Yakuza register with the police or not? Because otherwise your comment seems pretty lumpable-together with English-speaking press coverage.

These sources seem pretty respectable and think there is Yakuza registration

Heh. Pissing contests between Asia hands are alway fun, eh?

"I've been here longer, so I know more!"

"I think you're an idiot, because I *really* know what's going on."

I think I'm reacting to the fact that every single news article out there seems to paint Japan as a perverted dystopia populated by suicidal salarymen, that is slowly sliding towards some sort of right-wing fascist technocracy. Western media tends to paint Japan and China in broad strokes, but it's the contextual details that count. Although Norimitsu Onishi writes some great stuff, I have yet to read (or watch) a Western news source that gets Japan *right*.

Anyway, as bugbread pointed out, nobody says the word "yakuza" in polite conversation, and there certainly is no "yakuza" wicket at the local police station.

Sure, members of a "borokudantai" may register at the police station, but it's not the same thing as the mafia or the Hell's Angels signing up for an "organized crime" license or whatever.

More likely, crime syndicates are run as businesses. Businesses must apply for business licenses. So while the links you refer to may be literally correct, they are not technically correct. As you snidely pointed out, I don't know much about criminal law. But I do know that often it is hard to compare cultural practices. It doesn't always make sense. Which is why so much reporting on Japan is wrong.

But there's no doubt about it. The Japanese mafia has always enjoyed quasi legitimacy. Toda employed mafiosi to control Korean slave laborers in the mines and the shipyards. The Japanese mafia often ran construction projects in the "southern areas" during the war. Hell, in the Edo period the mafia was employed to keep a lid on the criminal underworld.

But it is foolish to assume that the mafia enjoy any sort of real legitimacy or respect. They are a useful tool and a means to an end.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:32 PM on May 13, 2008

Completely off-topic.

I really want to get a rabbit or goat and name it 'Pachinko'. Just because it would leave little balls all over the floor when it was done being fed, and that would kind of amuse me.

posted by quin at 3:47 PM on May 13, 2008 [3 favorites]

Great post, great thread. Thanks, everybody.
posted by rtha at 3:48 PM on May 13, 2008

I heard about it in a radio interview with the author of McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld

I just finished "McMafia" the other day and two things surprised me about the Yakuza, the fact that they "outsource" much of the violence to Chinese or Korean criminals and that they seem to be experiencing many of the same demographic issues (aging membership, fewer replacement "workers") as Japan in general. With the virtual pass they get from the government you'd think organized crime would be fairly attractive career path in Japan.
posted by MikeMc at 4:30 PM on May 13, 2008

Kokuyru -- I didn't intend to come off so pissy, though I can sure see it re-reading. Sorry, I guessed I sensed condescension in your response. Nor would I ever call myself an Asia hand. I was just a backpacker who got a job teaching English to extend my travels when I ran out of money. But I do have a sense of what you mean about the press distortions. That's why I couched my comment so tentatively ("read somewhere").

I do think there must be some kind of semi-official counting by the authorities. I haven't found a solid Japanese source to confirm what I heard, but announcing that the number of Yakuza has dropped from 43,000 to 41,500 over 12 months seems pretty precise for a guesstimate. (They also said that the number of "hangers-on", presumably the chinpira mentioned above, rose to 43,200.)
posted by msalt at 10:03 PM on May 13, 2008

they "outsource" much of the violence to Chinese or Korean criminals

This interesting article by Nicholas Kristof and Cheryl Wu Dunn talks about a lot of direct competition between the Yakuza and Chinese gangs, parallelling the general business competition between Japan and China.
posted by msalt at 10:14 PM on May 13, 2008

The outsourcing mentioned in McMafia achieves an additional goal: the news reports refer to high levels of crimes committed by foreign nationals, with no acknowledgment of the native gangsters who do the recruiting. More money spent on immigration protectionism, less on organized crime prosecution.

To elaborate, IndigoJones, the man in question is a Horishi: a well-known master of tebori technique. Yakuza members are almost always tattooed, but their tattoo artists are not always Yakuza. He, however, was. He had a crew of about six guys collecting intimidation money for him and two disciple artists working beneath him. He had done two prison terms before we met him, and was incarcerated a third and final time when we finally stopped ordering tattoo supplies. I think he was in his late 60s at the time. The supplies themselves were the issue: when I first came to Japan archaic tattoo laws were still enforced in Gifu. Tattooing has been illegal on and off throughout Japan's history, and the laws still used here in the 90's dated back to the pre-war period.

In 1936. when fighting broke out in China, almost all the — young men were drafted into the Army. But people with lots of tattoos were thought to be potential discipline problems, so they weren't drafted. Then a lot of people got tattooed just to avoid the draft, and the government passed a law against tattooing. After that the tattooers had to work in secret. After World War II, General MacArthur liberalized the Japanese laws, and tattooing was legal again. But the tattoo artists continued to work privately by appointment, on customers who were introduced by someone who knew them, and this tradition is still followed today. (via...an excellent bit of history.)

Anyway, the tebori (traditional bamboo and steel instrument) was made locally, but this artist wanted to import the latest inks and technologically advanced guns available in Europe and America, even though they were considered contraband. They are also considered "beneath" most Horishi, but he had this insatiable curiosity about the artform as a whole and wanted to master all aspects of it. We admired that immensely enough to take the chance of having them shipped to our address...packages from foreign companies are de rigeur for us, and we figured there was no reason for the postal service to open every single box, whereas he said his mail was subject to almost constant search and seizure (see aforementioned lack of privacy for convicted felons.) He'd attempted several orders, but all were confiscated before we met and took over. Of course, he had no financial recourse. The laws are more lax these days and we even have two tattoo studios in town with signs out front and everything. I heard that he was supposed to make an appearance last fall at a tattoo convention (he would have been the biggest draw...it would have been a thrill to see him surrounded by adoring artists) but I was out of the country at the time and could not attend.
posted by squasha at 10:38 PM on May 13, 2008 [3 favorites]

Thank you, squasha, I love details like that.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:13 AM on May 21, 2008

There was an article in the LA Times with more info on the Goto liver transplant.
posted by yeoz at 7:33 PM on May 29, 2008

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