In part two of our Q&A series with Tokyo Vice author Jake Adelstein, we'll answer some basic questions about the yakuza: why people join, how they operate, and how much influence they have on mainstream Japanese culture. You will also find out why some parents might voluntarily send their kids to mobsters and how landing an innocent-seeming IT job could accidentally spiral you into a lifetime of crime.
If you haven't read part one, which is a more intimate look at Adelstein's own experience as a crime beat reporter in Japan, it's here.
Why do people join the yakuza?
They're usually misfits from Japanese society. The word yakuza itself comes from a losing hand in gambling. 893 (ya-ku-za). It's the worst hand you can have. So when they refer to themselves as yakuza, they're referring to themselves as losers. It's a very self-deprecating term.
In western Japan, there's still a lot of discrimination against burakumin, the outcast class. If you come from certain parts of the country, they might think you're inferior, dirty, and unclean. There are also a lot of Korean-Japanese yakuza because of the discrimination against them. It's getting better, but in the past, the job choices for Korean-Japanese were pretty much pachinko parlor, barbeque restaurant operator, sex club operator, or the yakuza.
Some of them are just normal people who are basically running a very small home security business. They collect money from bars and clubs in the neighborhood and in turn provide a service. If there's an unruly customer, they'll beat the shit out of him without calling the cops. If someone doesn't pay the tab, the yakuza will go to their door and politely ask for the money.
Do they come from broken families?
Not necessarily. A lot of them are from wealthy families — sons of cops, bureaucrats. [My bodyguard and ex-yakuza boss] Mochizuki-san's grandfather was a cop, and his father worked for a government institution his whole life.
Sometimes, if parents were worried about their kid's drug use, they would take him to the local yakuza and be like, beat some sense into this kid, get him off drugs, make him a man. And they would do it. And then the kid would join the yakuza afterwards.
But I'm sure that's not what the parents wanted!
Well at least their kid's not on drugs, right? And he has a job. In fact, lots of normal people go to the yakuza to solve problems. In Japan, civil lawsuits take forever to get resolved, and even if you win the lawsuit nobody will enforce it — if a guy owes you money but won't pay up, police officers aren't going to go out there to seize his assets. If someone owes you money or you're in a civil dispute, the yakuza will take half of whatever they can get out of the person who wronged you. But at last you get half, and it's fast.
Are there any misconceptions we have about the yakuza?
Mochizuki-san is a wonderful father to his child. He's incredibly patient and never yells at him. Some yakuza parents make sure their children don't become yakuza. Some of them actually do charity work and contribute funds to orphanages and things. It's rare, but it always surprises me.
The other thing that surprises me is that on their days off they're at home wearing Mickey Mouse t-shirts and sweatpants, and I'm like, wow. I never would have pictured you like this when you're off the job. I know one yakuza boss who is really into akachan play, where he gets diapered like a baby and sucks on a lactating woman's tits. I'm like, this is what this fearsome guy does for pleasure?
From what you've told me about him, he seems like a perfectly decent guy. What made him join the yakuza?
Excitement, thrills, the promise of women. He racked up huge debts in a Soapland — Japan's legal brothels. He kept putting it on his tab until he couldn't pay it back. He was trying to raise money when the yakuza Soapland owners were like, why don't you work for these guys and you can pay me back?
What happens a lot now is that people graduate college and go work for some IT startup, and then they realize it's being bankrolled by the yakuza. The yakuza go, hey, this guy's smart. He earns money. We could use him. So they'll say to him: how would you like to become a member? We'll make you a corporate associate so you don't have to spend two years cleaning the office and answering the phone. It's employment for life! Because of the reputation of the yakuza, most people would be scared and hesitant to refuse. When you're privy to knowledge of how a large front company works, it's kind of hard to back out.
Do yakuza kill random people?
The traditional yakuza value is: katagi ni meiwaku wo kakenai. We do not bother ordinary citizens. You can come to us for gambling, drugs, or sex, and that's our business. But we're going to leave ordinary citizens alone. We're not involved in robberies, thefts, or muggings, and we don't rape people. This doesn't hold true anymore. Now it's all about money. The ideals that held up the traditional system of meritocracy are gone. You can buy your way into power. The classic yakuza life scheme used to be that you started at the bottom doing whatever enterprises, loan-sharking or prostituion or drug-running or extortion blackmail, pretty standard yakuza stuff. Eventually there would be a gang war and you'd shoot up a member of a rival gang, go to jail, and come out after 10 years to a higher position with a better salary. But as gang wars have declined and the organizations have moved into financial crimes like stock market manipulation or running front companies that are listed companies, capital has become more valuable than honor. There used to be a premium paid on upholding codes of what was proper yakuza living, but nobody pays attention to them anymore.
How involved are the yakuza in the way business in Japan is run today?
In the financial markets, I'd say about 20% of listed companies are heavily connected to the yakuza. There's a hell of a lot more money to be made moving a million shares of stock than a hundred bags of speed on the streets.
How about in politics?
The Liberal Democratic Party was founded on yakuza money. Former prime minister Koizumi's grandfather was a member of the Inagawa-kai; he was tattooed all the way down to his wrists. According to magazine articles written in the nineties, the current minister of finance Kamei Shizuka received $400,000 from a yakuza stock speculator and certainly received donations from the emperor of loan sharks.
What about in pop culture?
A huge part of the entertainment industry is run by the yakuza. When a rather dumb cop accidentally leaked all the Metropolitan Police Department files on Goto-gumi in 2007, a company called Burning Productions — one of the most powerful production companies in the country — was listed as an organized crime front company. Nobody in the Japanese media will write that, though, because they'll lose have access to their stars. It's like Hollywood in the 50s when the mafia had a big share in everything.
Do you think that will ever change? Will Japan ever run as a non-yakuza society?
For this to happen, Japan needs a few things. There would have to be a criminal conspiracy law so you can prosecute people at the top for crimes committed by people below them. There would have to be plea bargaining so people at the bottom would rat out people above them, and a witness protection program so that the people who make plea bargains aren't killed as soon as they get out of jail. You need wiretapping laws that allow you to wiretap — the laws are so stringent now that they're almost never used. If you put all those things into place, then Japan could get rid of the yakuza groups. They'd probably go underground but they would never be this powerful again.
Part of the reason they are so powerful now is that they're so out in the open. You can look at the Yamaguchi-gumi headquarters on Google Maps. The Inagawa-kai office is across from the Ritz Carlton. Every year, the NPA releases a list of the 22 organized crime groups with their names and addresses. It's not a mystery who they are or where they are.
What's preventing change from taking place?
Polticians. They don't want a criminal conspiracy law in the books. I don't think there are any politicians who don't have any dirt of them. And if any politician starts coming down hard on organized crime — if they don't physcially kill him like they did the mayor of Nagasaki — they'll ruin his reputation.
Here's the thing: Japanese people kind of like the yakuza. They admire them. There are movies about them, comic books about them, there are fan magazines... they're part of the culture. They promote traditional values.
One of the reasons Japan has low street crime rates is because these guys are very good enforcers. In the neighborhoods where they're running businesses or collecting protection money, you won't see people getting mugged because the yakuza don't want people to be afraid to come there and spend money. They are a second police force and in that sense, and perform a valuable role in Japanese society.
Over the next few months, we'll be collaborating with Jake Adelstein to bring you a series of Boing Boing exclusive yakuza stories. In a few weeks, we'll go behind-the-scenes with Adelstein and his yakuza buddies to watch how they do ordinary things like play video games, use the computer, and chop off body parts. Stay tuned!
Photo by Ania Przeplasko; Model Lu Nagata, aerial performance artist and instructor
I'm a contributing editor here at Boing Boing. I also have a blog (TokyoMango), a book (Urawaza), and I freelance for Wired, Make, the NY Times Magazine, PRI's Studio360, etc. I'm @tokyomango on Twitter.