21st Century Yakuza

The image of the punch-permed yakuza, with his missing pinky finger and Yamaguchi-gumi pin on his lapel is a stereotype that is quickly becoming as outdated as the geisha and samurai. The 1990’s were a time of enormous change for the denizens of Japan’s underworld, and yakuza have changed more in the last ten years than they did in the entire post-war period.

The biggest change is that criminals are going deep, deep, deep under-cover. They’re doing their best to blend in with the local population and your average yakuza today probably looks more like a salariman or freeter than a character from a Beat Takeshi movie, they are finding new sources of income, gangs are restructuring, and they are operating in a legal and economic environment that is radically different from that of ten years ago.

The bursting of Japan’s economic bubble affected Japan’s criminal gangs just as much as it did the business world and ordinary people. A lot of yakuza lost just as much money in the stock and real estate market as regular investors did, and corporate blackmailing and securities manipulation is becoming increasingly difficult.

The anti-boryokudan law passed in 1991 has had a huge effect on gang structures and membership. The law made it illegal to belong to an organization which had a certain percentage of people with criminal records, or engaged in designated activities which were not technically crimes and so had been difficult to prosecute in the past. Activities such as demanding hush money, coercing businesses into using sub-contractors affiliated with yakuza, and even forcing members to get tattoos or cut off their fingers are now prohibited. Gang membership is decreasing steadily, and recruitment is becoming more and more difficult.

That said, the yakuzas’ situation is not as dire as some media reports would make out. The Japanese police love to boast about how greatly the number of yakuza has decreased, but never seem to point out that it reflects a change in gang structure as much as it does a real decline in the number of gangsters. Many members have officially left gangs, but still maintain ties with their former gangs and continue to engage in illegal activities. There are a lot of different kinds of groups affiliated with the yakuza, from tekiya (street vendors) to sokaiya (corporate racketeers) to bosozoku (biker gangs) and almost all of their members have at least some connection with the mainstream gangs.

To combat the anti-boryokudan law, many gangs have set up front-companies that appear to be completely legitimate. ‘Business suit yakuza’ now make up approximately one-third of total gang membership in Japan. The number of gangs affiliated with the Yamaguchi-gumi has fallen from 120 to about 100 but they have made alliances with other gangs that have actually increased their power and income. Gang crests have been taken off the doors and new business cards printed up that do not have the gang’s name on them. A new category of ‘quasi-gangsters’ has appeared in police reports and their number has grown from 14000 to 41000 in the past decade.

The twenty-first century yak is a kinder gentler criminal. Gang war-related shootings and deaths are down by 50%. A trend towards public service is also gaining momentum. Having realised the importance of PR and spin doctoring, Japanese gangs are making an effort to improve their image and ingratiate themselves with Japanese politicians. They handed out food after the Hanshin earthquake, and are said to have done a lot of work in supporting the LDP’ campaign during the last election. Of course this had the added advantage of making politicians indebted to them as well.

There are many social changes occurring in the Japanese underworld too. The big black foreign cars that were once a symbol of the yakuza are becoming a thing of the past, and have been replaced with Toyotas and Nissans. Tattoos are less common and the practice of yubizume (finger cutting) is also gradually becoming a thing of the past.

A fascinating article in a ‘Mook’ (magazine/book) called Yamaguchi Gumi vs. Keisatsusho describes how a very modern-sounding woman discusses her old-fashioned irezumi (tattoos) cause problems as she tries to be a good mother to her son. The article is called, ‘Mama’s got a picture on her butt that won’t wash off with soap” and describes how her son began asking difficult questions during bath-time one day and picked up a piece of soap to scrub the tattoo off her skin. The mother, terribly embarrassed, wonders how she will explain that his father is not really the construction company president that he seems to be. Writing about how every day there is some little worry like when she has to turn down another invitation to go swimming, we see how yakuza traditions are becoming increasingly incompatible with life in the modern world.

The biggest, and perhaps most disturbing change, is the loss of the samurai ideals that were once such an important part of the culture of Japan’s crime syndicates. Loyalty to the gang is decreasing, and a surprising number of criminals are taking advantage anti-boryokudan associations programs which help them to leave their gangs and re-enter society. Ritualistic sake drinking is becoming less common as an entrance ceremony, and money is becoming more important than the traditional family ties that once held the syndicates together.

Taboos against interfering with the general public are being broken more and more often, and the image of the yakuza is diminished every time an innocent bystander is gunned down during a gang war. The cozy relationship that the yakuza once enjoyed with the police is becoming increasingly strained partly because of a series of corruption scandals that are forcing the police to act in a more socially upstanding manner and partly by police reluctance to deal with individuals involved in the drug trade.

This change is reflected in a shift in public opinion. Newspapers and police now refer to them as Boryokudan (violent gangs) and many shop-owners are taking advantage of seminars and public programs that help them to fight back against organised crime.

If the yakuza of today are not as colourful of those of the past, and if their future is not as certain as it once was, it does not mean that they are any less significant a force in Japanese society.

Read here how yakuza control 70% of Sanja Festival, or how life is for a wife of a yak.