Nancho Advisory: Originally published as "WHEN YAKUZA GET THE BLUES" (Kyoto Journal, Volume 21), this consultation proved we have odd bedfellows indeed in the battle against Big Bodies.
Movie-suave, sixtyish Takayama Tokutaro is the reigning don of Aizukotetsu-kai, Kyoto's local yakuza confederacy of 90 gangs with an estimated 4,500 members. Even before Aizukotetsu-kai became one of the first officially designated "violent gangs" under the 1992 gang-control law, Takayama had begun an articulate campaign against the law, including the publication of a book, Keisho (Warning Bell)
Violence, implied and sometimes actual, has up to now been the stock in trade or the competitive edge for most of Japan's 80,000-plus yakuza. Despite their numbers, upscale tastes and high-profile offices, they have for decades enjoyed immunity from media investigation and a pacific modus vivendi with local tax and police authorities. Gangs here engage in curiously few turf wars, and their parasitic rackets are now endured by the populace as business-as-usual. While their actual lives may not differ much from other corporate employees, members still like to trace them-selves back to 17th century Edo "end-of-the-roaders" - fugitive commoners who struck out against brutal samurai and were consequently loved and protected by the people. Yakuza activities since the war, however, have been much more sympathetic and useful to the powers-that-be: union-busting; policing stockholder meetings; loan sharking & debt collection; and regulating the mizu shobai shadow world of bars, entertainment and prostitution. Some gangs also dabble in drugs, pachinko, firearms and pornography, but the hottest growth sectors in underworld economics are eminently financial: speculative stock manipulations and real estate jiage services (evicting small-scale owners and tenants and repackaging their properties for tract developers).
Increasing yakuza expertise in mega-decimal corporate crime has made them egregiously rich, upgraded their sphere of influence from back streets to the halls of power, and set off alarm bells in ministries and executive suites across the country. The 1992 gang control law was framed during this latest alert, but to the foreign eye its provisions may appear mild to a fault. If 5% of your organization's executives are convicted felons; or it maintains Confucian-style oyabun/kobun (master/disciple) ranks and ceremonies; or resorts to guns and cutlery to settle business disputes, your benighted fraternity shall be:
The law also creates over two thousand new police positions at a National Violent Gang Information Center with expanded powers of investigation and surveillance.
- a) formally designated a boryokudan (violent gang) and its name will be entered on a "Published List;"
- b) legally enjoined from traditional forms of "solicitation" - i.e., soft extortion, protection or blackmail schemes wherein the victim is not overtly threatened, but prudently decides to pay anyway; and
- c) subject to searches, seizures and office closure upon the outbreak of violent inter-gang hostilities.
With such measures, the legislation confidently envisions the breakup of all criminal syndicates. However, since no credible rehab measures are specified and since Japanese employers, and society in general, are notoriously cool to born-again gangsters, nobody anticipates wholesale defections. And given that enforcement is, as always, left to police discretion, polls show few citizens expect any real change at all.
So what's really happening? Underworld ecology reminds us that mobs flourish best in the shadows of liberal capitalist democracies. Authoritarian governments have traditionally had little need for underworld proxies or tolerance for their competitive predations. Such regimes also cultivate fear of demonized enemies - foreign and/or domestic - to centralize control, unify their populations and justify 'temporary' sacrifices of civil rights. Whatever its intentions, Japan's ruling corporate/political/bureaucratic axis has recently seemed quite eager to strengthen various aspects of its control and authority.
Takayama, consulted at his palatial downtown headquarters, is one yakuza who sees in this gathering power a clear and present danger to freedom, capitalism and his kind.
TT: I've got 45 years of history in this life. I was young when I joined and you've got to remember it was a different world back then. Japan had just lost the war. The whole backdrop was defeat and destruction. And there weren't exactly great employment opportunities. Lots of ordinary people were up against the wall, and this world of ninkyo [the yakuza code of "chivalry"] that said you should "comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable" made a lot of righteous sense. Ever since I was a kid, I'd heard about this fraternity in books and stories - this world goes back over 400 years, you know - and I sort of dreamed of the life it offered.
Besides it was a world of the down-and-out, of people whose lives - for one reason or another - had gone to hell. It wasn't that you joined to make a lot of fast money. There was hardly any of that. Most of us joined because we were on hard times or were discriminated against and didn't have a hell of a lot of choices. We knew what it was to be weak and when we learned that this world was real, that it offered a way out, that it really did practice ninkyo, we knew we could find help there and we took it.
From what I know of the situation in Kyoto, there seem to be an extraordinary number of Koreans and Burakumin in the gangs, people who are generally shunned and discriminated against in Japanese society. (TT: That's right.) So what does it mean that the yakuza are the country's only equal opportunity employers?
TT: Well, as I said, this is a world of drop-outs, and such people can understand other people's troubles better than most, and helping each other has become sort of second nature.
Right now, there is a big debate around the country about the new Gang Control Law? Why are the gangs so upset? How does it differ from all the previous laws?
TT: It most respects it doesn't differ, but it's obviously linked to a huge magnification of police power. If the police just wanted to arrest criminals they have plenty of existing laws to work with. But this law is part of a government publicity campaign - remember, in the old days Japanese were divided into castes: shi/no/ko/sho/eta & hinin (warriors/farmers/craftsmen/merchants/"polluted" trades and outcastes). The then Japanese government invented this system, invented this discrimination, to help it divide and rule the people. Which is to say this is a country fully capable of creating discrimination when it wants to. All right, in Meiji, during the Meiji restoration, they abolished the system. They did away with it on the premise that human beings were equal and should be treated so.
But when you look at this new law and the power it gives police, you see that they are starting all over again, creating new castes, new forms of prejudice. And the way they are treating our "societies" can't be called anything but discrimination. Just arbitrarily labelling them boryokudan (violent gangs) is prejudicial and discriminatory. It means that all the men and youth belonging to our groups no matter who they are or what they're doing are now officially blacklisted as "violent gangsters" - and I say this is a wholesale violation of basic human rights. These labels and definitions are decided entirely by the police, internally, secretly. Neither the evidence or the process is open to public review or appeal. The only open part of the process is when they publish their condemnations.
So you're bringing suit against this law?
TT: We are, we are. But it's just beginning. It will take time. All we're saying is that this one-sided abuse of police authority has to stop. There are supposed to be deliberations on these charges by the Public Safety Commission and Regional Administrative Commissions, but these police accusations against us are not based on public records or even records open to these commissions. So if the police start fabricating charges, who is going to contradict them? This way of blacklisting people, of designating them "criminals", is totally irresponsible.
This brings up a structural question. In Japan, unlike many other developed countries, there don't seem to be any independant bureaus or committees or commisions whatever to oversee the police. In other words, there are apparently no mechanisms here for investigating police abuses of power, brutality or corruption.
TT: None. Nothing. The so-called Public Safety Commission is supposed to supervise the police, but it has no real power and the politicians responsible for it are utterly spineless and just let them run wild. Besides the Commission doesn't have any records of its own or any way of gathering them independantly - they are just police puppets. So basically all we are saying is that in a system like this - where there is no oversight, where the police can fabricate evidence, blacklist you and destroy your life - where is the possiblity of justice?*
And while we're at it, look at our mass media. They are all useless, too. They have become huge money-first corporations, too enormous and fat to choose anything but the path of least resistance. Last week there were 50 reporters here and I told them all the same thing - you are lazy and frightened and useless. A real journalist doesn't just go to a police briefing and then regurgitate the police version as a "story." At the very least, if the police make an accusation against me they have a responsibility to come over here and say, "the police say this, what do you say?" But they don't - they don't ask questions, they don't investigate on their own, they don't do a damn thing but parrot unsubstantiated police claims. What the hell kind of journalism is that? You can't trust a damn thing they say.
OK, but from a foreign perspective at least, there still are some very basic questions about yakuza and their way of life. For example - and this is a police agency figure - yakuza income for the whole nation last year was estimated at over one trillion yen, yet almost all gangsters are registered with the tax office as "unemployed," and are therefore tax exempt. Now if you're making that much money and are working on behalf of society, why aren't you paying your share?
TT: Let me explain that. If we try to start legitimate businesses, the police harrass us, threaten our customers, bust us up. Now if we were in straight businesses, we'd be paying taxes, right? But everytime we try to start an ordinary enterprise the police find some way to ruin us. So what are they saying to us?
Also there are all kinds of ways to make a living - take pachinko. You know about pachinko professionals? They play well enough to make a living from it, but would you call them employed? Is that a profession? We're people that have pulled ourselves up from the bottom of society, and we helped society pull itself up along the way. If you remember the havoc that was going on right after the war when we were still stumbling around in the ruins of defeat. Who do you think kept the streets safe and society in order in those days. It wasn't the police. It was us. But who bothers to remember that today, I ask you? So we started like that and now that we've gotten bigger - we've made some money from gambling. Basically that's how most us lived - from gambling. But now our gambling forbidden, illegal. Public gambling - horse and bicycle races and all - of course is ok, but our gambling is evil. And when they come around and bust up our places, some us go out and try other kinds of work or start other kinds of businesses. And then the police come around and get us fired or destroy our businesses. If we're starting companies and doing honest work and paying taxes why shouldn't they leave us alone? And all those lost jobs and income, all the lost investment - now who is going to pay that back to us? And half the time when they bust up our companies, particularly the security companies, the police basically just force us out and hand them over to their friends, to their old boy network of retired police. They steal our companies, our customers, but it's all right because they are police, they are "legitimate."
What about your brother, Sasegawa Ryoichi? He's made gambling a legitimate business here...
TT: It's called legitimate, but look at what he's really done. On the grounds of doing "volunteer work" he got permission from the tax office to set up 24 boat racing parks around the country and he takes one day's receipts a month from each of these races as his share. It's a huge take and that's all his, and because he's doing "volunteer work" he doesn't pay a cent in taxes on it either. Now since this is all done with tax office approval, you'd think they would take an interest in what he actually does with all that money, maybe even investigate a little. But no, all he has to do is file his own report and they say thank you and put it in the drawer - finished. That being said, he's still a damn impressive figure...
Anyway, when we try to shift to straight operations, we get busted up. So what are the police saying to us - forget going straight, commit more crimes, stay illegal. They're not in the least bit serious about solving our "problem". Look at this new law that went into force with so much hoopla March 1st. OK, it's been almost 5 months now. Has there been any effect? Is anything different? Has anything changed?
What about this hypothesis - the new law really doesn't have anything to do with restricting gangs' "normal" assortment of crimes or harrassment of ordinary citizens. It is merely a warning shot to gangs that have grown hugely rich from real estate and investment swindles, that have started to play billion dollar games on their masters' turf, that have suborned the stock market and even involved President Bush's brother in their scams. In other words, this law is just a gentle warning to the boys not to get uppity, not to fuck around with Establishment games...
TT: It's not quite like that. The worst guy in all these scandals is Ishii, Inagawakai's ex-boss Ishii. Now, he resigned his position, withdrew from the gang before most of this wheeling and dealing went down. He was "straight" at the time, but every time there was a new revelation the mass media and prosecutors' office were quick to tie his name back to Inagawa-kai. They never mentioned his withdrawal. It's the same all the time - if somebody does pull out of this life, he's still branded forever. The fact that he gave up this career, tried to do something else doesn't mean a damn thing.
In America if someone quits the Mafia, the government and society try to protect him. If his name appears in the media for some other reason later on, they sure as hell don't write "ex-Mafiosa" or "former mobster" behind his name. In Japanese media that is standard practice - they won't ever let anyone forget. That's where basic human rights are affected. That's how far apart Japan and America still are. This is supposed to be a democracy, but where are our democratic rights? Japan is not a democracy, it's a state-ruled nationalist society.
Supposing you wanted democratize Japan, what are the most necessary reforms?
TT: Get rid of discrimination. Root it out. Then take on the Ministry of Education. The Ministry of Education is absolutely rotten. I've talked about this before, but take the American basecamp issue. We've got American bases all over Japan. They were set up after the war as part of the Allied defense strategy viz China and North & South Korea. Those bases protected Japan too. Because America was here we were safe. We could have easily been attacked and overrun without them. That's the background, the history of those bases - but while we enjoy the benefits of that protection, do you think ordinary people know how much we have profited from it? Do you think they are ever even told about it? Look at the peoples' mood around the country today - it's "America Go Home!" Where's that attitude, that ignorance coming from? From our education system, for one.
Look at Korea. America lost how many lives protecting the south in the Korean War. Korea and Japan both owe America a hell of lot for that war. It was the most important battle against the spread of communist tyranny in Asia. It not only protected us, it helped Japan rebuild. We got all kinds of benefits from that war, but who thinks about that now? Who cares how we got where we are?
Why can't we have politics here that reflect our real history - Americans did this for us, now it's our turn to do something for them - not because of pressure but from a sense of fairness and gratitude. Besides, what if America pulled out tomorrow? We're hardly in a position to defend ourselves. When Secretary of State Baker was just here he heard peacenik protests about the bases and said, "Fine, any time you don't want us, we'll go home." The American economy's on a slide anyway, who needs this expense? But if America leaves, what then?
Well, there are certain circles here that would be quite happy with full-scale Japanese rearmament...
TT: Precisely, that's part of this PKO thing, too. But what I'm talking about here is this country's complacency, its self-satisfied attitude, if we're ok now, why worry - and the hell with everybody else. And while we're congratulating ourselves, who's watching what's happening in this bureaucratically-ruled nationalist state we've got? The elite keeps trying increase its power - one way is to build up the army, another is to cut down our civil rights. And it's happening - hell, they passed this new gang control law in eight hours! We lost important freedoms in just eight hours. And look at what's going on in the world - socialism is collapsing everywhere. The Cold War's virtually over. The public is safer, the threat of war, of political upheaval is less than ever before. We should be able to cut way back on our security forces. But, oh no, that would reduce police power so bam! they invent this new law, this new threat, and now they're once again increasing their budgets and beefing up manpower as fast as they can.
And the Self Defense Force PKO thing - in a world where countries all over are talking disarmament, are actually slashing defense budgets, here's Japan using the "need for peace-keeping forces" to change our laws, and start pumping thousands of new bodies into the army. What's that going to lead to?
And I'm saying this isn't all happening by accident. It's being very well planned out behind the scenes. Citizens are losing control of this country. Who is really watching over the police in Japan, let alone controlling them? When they abuse their power, commit crimes, invent crimes - what recourse to do we have? That's why I say this is the most frightening nation in the world today. The police are totally, literally, out of control.
So how can you change this?
TT: Get the politicians off their asses, get to them to start creating private, independant oversight mechanisms...
Realistically, do you see that ever happening?
TT: Hell, no. People here are used to being lied to. They don't mind it. They will take any kind of bullshit as long as their bellies are full. If things get tough, though, and they get hungry, they might start standing up for their rights - like blacks in the States. But when their bellies are full you won't hear a peep out of them.
Nobody cares that all this talk about the new law is just camoflage. This goddamn law is not really about gangs or yakuza at all. It's just a way to build a powerful new information & detention network, a way to further consolidate police authority and centralized government control over the people. There's no question about this. You are watching the birth of a new KGB here. Remember we're not talking about a real democratic country here in the first place. We're talking about an already methodically controlled society.
So the yakuza are just scapegoats?
TT: They've set us up as the embodiment of evil, we're sort of their kagemusha for all that's wrong in Japan. But it's all going going to come down on ordianry citizens soon enough. Anybody that comes in contact with us, does business with us - and there are a lot of us and we do all kinds of business - can be pulled in by the police and intimidated: "What are you doing associating with gangsters? If you know what's good for you, you better start 'cooperating' with us right now!" And even if nothing is at all 'wrong', if the connection is just an ordinary straight business deal, they can coerce people into false testimony. They can build phony cases like that. People are terrified of being named "accomplises" here - it's an easy charge for police to bring and difficult to disprove or live down. So in the face of that threat, people will write whatever charges or confessions police want.
This is happening now?
TT: Hell, yes. You know about all capital crime verdicts that have been overturned recently. Cases that went to court with evidence the police fabricated, where defendents were found guilty on the basis of that evidence and were sentenced to death. Finally years and years later, the Supreme Court reviews the evidence and throws out the conviction. Lots of cases have come out like that where people were almost, yes, murdered on the basis of false police charges. So the police are fully capable of that. They've done the similar things against us and now this new law just makes it easier. Somebody asks me for a favor and say I help them - the police can pull them for complicity with gangsters and force them to write most anything about me - which they then use as evidence to arrest me.
OK, but you look at the history of yakuza in Kyoto, and unlike Kobe and Osaka, you and the police seem to coexist very, very peacefully.
TT: It's not peaceful coexistence, it's that we're not doing anything wrong. Why should they bother us?
Wait a minute, in Kyoto there are how many Aizu Kotetsu-kai members?
TT: About 2000.
And what, you have about sixty-five individual gang offices in town?
TT: No, we've got ninety now.
Ninety? And if you count all their members?
TT: Why don't you just use the police figures. There's no need to talk much about this. [Laughs]
So we're talking about 4,500 to 5,000 yakuza in this one city...
Four-thousand five-hundred yakuza - that's more than 4 times the number of Mafioso in the entire US - all unemployed yet living an upscale life off a city of this size without doing anything 'wrong'?
TT: Look, I told you - you have people like these pachinko pros who don't have jobs but they get by. There are a lot of people that have communication with us, people we help and get a little from. There are all sorts of ways of making a living. And you are going to call them all 'wrong'?
Yeah, that's all fine, but there's a bit of a difference between eking out a living at pachinko and driving Mercedes around town...
TT: OK, but say you help out some pachinko operators and then they give some compensation for your efforts, what's wrong with that. All these boys making a living downtown have some special kinds of 'communication', special relationships, people they help. Where's the harm?
Six years ago, I tried to start up a straight company in my neighborhood in Otsu to hire some of our youth, give them some income, teach them some skills and discipline, and straighten them out. Anyway, the company started to turn a little money and again, bam, the police show up and close us down. That's why I'm saying all their posturing is bullshit. What the hell do they want us to do?
After that I even tried to get a bunch of our boys into the Self Defense Forces. I thought that it would teach them something worthwhile and clean up their lives a little. You think our great military bureaucrats would even look at these kids? They saw a few were missing fingers and they wouldn't even let them apply. Threw them right out. In the military too, it's a sealed elite. Ordinary people, especially the down-and-out, can hardly even get in, let alone move up in those worlds. So when you start off wrong, make a few mistakes, where are you supposed to start over? Where in this society do they offer you a second chance? We spend a hell of a lot of our time helping out ordinary people, but when some of our people need a hand everybody slams the door.
This ninkyo business all sounds very noble and your populist motto ["comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable"] was even a big slogan among American media once upon a time, but look at the reality. When yakuza start doing jiage dirty work and evicting ordinary people for developers, where's your populist compassion then?
TT: Let me tell you about that. Number one, who caused this "bubble economy" and crazy speculation in the first place? It was the Japanese Finance Ministry, the Finance Ministry and the big banks. And one step further down you find all these banks starting their own finance companies, dummy companies to support their speculation. And when you look behind any big jiage project you always find some fat ass corporation. Are you following this? These corporations don't care how they get the land - bribes, swindles, threats - anything is ok as far they are concerned. They just want the land. Now some local yakuza may help them get some of the land they need, but they're just small fish helpers. When the project or development goes up, who is making the real money here? It's the banks and big corporations. But from mass media reports, it looks like this is all yakuza business - like we thought this stuff up for our own profit. Nobody wants to look at the real situation, what's going on behind the scenes, at the big outfits that are really running the show.
It's the same with the stock scandals. Who got compensated when the bubble burst and the market crashed? It wasn't individual investors. It wasn't unions or pension funds. It was only the big banks and corporations. The little guys got screwed right across the board, and what did the government do for them? Nothing! This has become a country that doesn't think twice about pulling this kind of shit, and nobody calls them on it. That's what it's come to.
But with the jiage charges, if you didn't cooperate with them in the first place, they couldn't blame you at all, could they?
TT: Look, suppose you're a local yakuza and some big corporations come in from outside - 90% of these outfits are from Tokyo or Osaka. They've zeroed in on some area and are starting to buy up the pieces and they hire you to help 'mediate'. Now we're locals here too, and when we offer our services, we negotiate on behalf of the landowner too. And most of the time we get him a better price than he would have gotten on his own. OK, so we make a little money in the middle but it's nothing, really nothing compared to what the big guys make. Hell, these projects cost tens of billions of yen. Yakuza have never had that kind of money. That's big bank money, big corporate money - but they are, after all, "legitimate." More to the point, they're establishment - they're the big political contributors, the mass media stockholders and advertisers. So it's much easier to blame everything on us than report on what's really going on.
You've got to remember the big corporations and the bureaucracy, the officials here, they're the real ruling class. And they guarantee their position at the top by making sure there is a permanent crowd down at the bottom. Hell, they want outlaws, criminals, desperate people out there on the streets. It frightens the wits out of the middle class and keeps them quiet. And then when the government says they need more money for security, more police, more sacrifice of your rights and more interference in your life, nobody says a word.
Let's put it this way - yakuza may frighten some people who don't understand who we really are. I do understand the powers that are running things here now, though, and what they are up to, and they scare the hell out of me. So if stupid yakuza movies give a few citizens bad dreams, that's unfortunate, but these big establishment types are not fictional. They are very much for real. And if this country doesn't wake up pretty damn soon they are going to cause real nightmares for us all.
- End -
Nancho Rep: W. David Kubiak