The decline of Japan’s yakuza

The fortunes of Japan’s mafia have suffered along with the economy. Are they now in terminal decline? Simon Wilson reports.

Why are the yakuza tolerated?

For decades, many Japanese clung to a romantic myth that the crime syndicates with their intricate hierarchies, pseudo-familial relationships and codes of honour retained something of the samurai spirit. Although they claim links to 16th-century castes of peddlers and gamblers, the modern yakuza grew up in the late 19th century and flourished in the construction boom following World War II. In the modern era defenders say they played a useful role in containing violent crime.

How so?

Yakuza were supposed to own up to certain violent crimes, refrain from dealing in hard drugs, and avoid involving innocent civilians in turf battles (which were not especially violent anyway). And it is true that yakuza protection rackets are not always bogus. According to Andrew Rankin in the Asia-Pacific Journal, "the custom among Japanese business owners of forming monopolistic guilds or entering into collusive price-fixing agreements can easily generate a demand for unofficial enforcers". Japanese society is a much safer society than most. The "institutionalisation" of crime in the form of about 80,000 registered gang members may play a role in that.

How has economic stagnation affected things?

The yakuza are suffering along with everyone else. According to figures cited by Rankin, the yakuza have slashed their protection fees (mikajime). In the mid-1990s it was not unusual for brothels and mahjong parlours to pay 1m a month; these days, a small hostess club or karaoke bar will be paying more like 150,000, and larger clubs up to 500,000. In part, that's because of the proliferation of online call-girl agencies (a service known in Japanese as "delivery health"), which are harder for the mobsters to control. Plus business owners are now more likely to call the police.

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Attitudes towards the yakuza have hardened; more people see them as extortionists. The yakuza have also downsized. Twenty years ago, Japanese police put the number of gangsters at 88,000, belonging to 3,200 gangs. Now the figure is below 80,000 and falling; the Yamaguchi-gumi gang has laid off 2,000 members a year since 2008.

What are the yakuza involved in?

Illegal gambling, prostitution, and racketeering remain their main concerns. During the 1980s boom, yakuza became famed as corporate blackmailers, and in the 1990s helped poison Japan's toxic banking sector. These days they are more often financial backers for teams of predatory speculators and fraudsters. Their power is particularly strong in the construction industry (hence their keenness to get involved in the earthquake relief in 2011).

A police survey of 3,000 construction firms in Japan found that 34% had received demands from the yakuza within the last year; about a fifth of firms are believed to pay bribes to the gangs. And in Tokyo alone, police have identified more than 800 yakuza front companies, from investment and auditing firms to construction companies and pastry shops.

Are the yakuza moving underground?

Since 2008, a move towards "invisibility" has gathered pace in part to avoid lawsuits. Under Japan's criminal law, gang bosses cannot be tried for criminal acts they might have ordered or planned but not actually committed themselves. But under a 2008 amendment to the Anti-Yakuza Law (see below), they can be sued in the civil courts for damages resulting from criminal acts committed by subordinates.

In a landmark case in 2009, the owner of a Thai bar in Tokyo, whose premises were trashed after she refused to pay off the local branch of the Yamaguchi-gumi, personally sued Shinobu Tsukasa, its boss. The court ordered him to pay damages of 15m, resulting in a crop of similar cases: 4m to a bar owner in Gifu; 42m to a taxi firm in Hyogo.

Aren't these people frightened?

It seems safe to assume the most powerful yakuza boss in Japan, who once served prison time for killing a rival with a samurai sword, could silence potential litigators with a mix of intimidation and payoffs. But apparently he cannot.

In the latest court case, reported last month, a Nagoya restaurant owner is suing Shinobu Tsukasa for 17.35m in protection money she paid between 1998 and 2010, plus compensation. This underlines the paradoxical status of the modern yakuza as "legitimate crime gangs". Many yakuza now complain of unfair competition from foreign crime gangs and non-yakuza criminals are not subject to the Anti-Yakuza Law. In today's tough climate, being a yakuza is almost a competitive disadvantage.

Are the yakuza illegal?

No. The yakuza's existence is perfectly legal. Over the past 20 years, Japanese governments have taken a harder line, starting with the Anti-Yakuza Law of 1991, which followed a wave of scandals in the 1980s concerning links between yakuza, politics and business. Last October, a cabinet minister, Keishu Tanaka, was forced to resign after weeks in the job after admitting that in the 1980s he acted as a matchmaker a traditional ceremonial role at a gangster's wedding. And yet membership of the yakuza is not illegal.

The addresses and phone numbers of the major gang headquarters are publicly available (the largest syndicate is the Yamaguchi-gumi, headquartered in Kobe, but comprising several hundred gangs around Japan with a membership in excess of 30,000). And yakuza-related gossip is a staple of the Japanese media.

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Simon Wilson’s first career was in book publishing, as an economics editor at Routledge, and as a publisher of non-fiction at Random House, specialising in popular business and management books. While there, he published, a bestselling classic of the early days of e-commerce, and The Money or Your Life: Reuniting Work and Joy, an inspirational book that helped inspire its publisher towards a post-corporate, portfolio life.   

Since 2001, he has been a writer for MoneyWeek, a financial copywriter, and a long-time contributing editor at The Week. Simon also works as an actor and corporate trainer; current and past clients include investment banks, the Bank of England, the UK government, several Magic Circle law firms and all of the Big Four accountancy firms. He has a degree in languages (German and Spanish) and social and political sciences from the University of Cambridge.