The most important thing is helping the weak. Duty
and kindness are second. Then the third would be: don’t betray others.
– Matsuyama Shinichi, chairman of the Kyokuto-kai yakuza
organisation, on what it means to be a yakuza member.
For the yakuza helping the relief effort, it’s partly
about living up to the slogans they profess. It’s also about getting a stake in
the reconstruction of Japan. Construction is big business.
– Tomohiko Suzuki, author of I’ve Met 1,200 Yakuza,
investigative journalist and former editor of the yakuza fan magazine Jitsuwa
ON MARCH 11 at 2.46pm a devastating earthquake in the Tohoku region of Japan and the
resultant tidal waves killed thousands of people and left thousands missing.
The earthquake shook the country on every level: political, economic and
social. The slow reaction of the Japanese government and the woefully inept
response of the Tokyo Electric Power Company to potential nuclear meltdown made
the nation shake also with anger.
While the cabinet of Prime Minister Naoto Kan was
wrestling with what to do, spurning help from the United States and failing to
mobilise the Japan Self-Defense Forces swiftly, there was one group of Japanese
citizens who reacted rapidly and effectively to the crisis: Japan’s organised
crime groups, also known as the yakuza.
Japan is home to 78,000 yakuza, according to Japan’s
National Police Agency (NPA) and when you take into consideration the thousands
of front companies they own, affiliated industries and associated members, they
constitute almost a second army. As unlikely as it may seem they were among
Japan’s first responders.
On the night of the earthquake, 25
trucks carrying roughly 50 tons of supplies arrived at Hitachinaka City Hall in
Hitachinaka, Ibaraki Prefecture. One hundred men in long-sleeved shirts and
coats immediately began unloading the boxes.
These men weren’t from the Red Cross. They were members of
Japan’s third-largest organised crime group, the Inagawa-kai, a fact they took
great care to disguise: sleeves were rolled down to hide ornate tattoos of
dragons and protective Buddhist deities, and gang badges with the
organisation’s symbol (and corporate emblem) – bushels of rice with Mount Fuji
in the background – were not on display. Those missing fingers wore gloves.
According to Inagawa-kai members, they arrived at night
because they didn’t want their donations to be rejected out of hand. Since
September 30, 2009, when the head of the NPA, the courageous Ando Takaharu, declared
war on organised crime in a public statement to the press and in a directive to
all Japanese police departments, life for Japan’s regulated – but not illegal –
organised crime groups has been hard.
No one wants to be associated with them in public and the Inagawa-kai was well
aware that any high-profile operation, even one with charitable intent, could
invite police crackdowns.
Hitachinaka City Hall employees understood who they were,
however, one of them showing me footage of the operation shot on his mobile
phone that night. It wasn’t a time to turn down aid when no one else seemed
ready to provide it, he explained.
Gangsters unloaded boxes of blankets, water, instant
ramen, bean sprouts, flashlights, batteries, paper nappies and toilet paper.
They were noisy but fast and efficient. When they had finished they nodded to
the officials keeping watch, and left. On the next day another group, this time
of 200 Inagawa-kai members in a convoy of 30 trucks, returned to the same
prefecture, with 100 tons of food and supplies, as well as twice as many
blankets as the first trip. It took them two hours to unload the supplies,
after which they promptly left.
While covering the earthquake for
various local and international media outlets I spent weeks tracking the yakuza
and the role they played in the post-quake recovery efforts. Despite my long
familiarity with these gangsters, I was surprised by what I found.
I came to Japan in 1988 and was the first American hired
as a full-time reporter for a major Japanese newspaper. From 1993 to 2005 I
worked for the Yomiuri Shimbun, spending most of that time on the police
beat and writing articles in Japanese. The luck of the draw had me assigned to
cover the organised-crime control division during my cub-reporter days, which
is how I became good friends with the police busting the yakuza and some of the
mobsters themselves. Although it can be hard maintaining a rapport with
criminals, in fairness some of them live by a code of honour and are simply
unlicensed bodyguards and/or merchants selling goods and food at the many
festivals in Japan. Not all yakuza are criminals and not all criminals are
yakuza. However, most yakuza make a living through illegal means and the use of
Sometimes, the worst of times brings out the best of the
worst and this was one of those occasions – although the cynical have cast
doubts on the reasons behind their humanitarian efforts. To understand why the
yakuza would perform a useful role in preserving the peace and providing disaster
relief, however, one needs to fathom the role they play in Japanese society.
Although the authorities describe the yakuza as
“anti-social forces” and “violent groups”, they are not secret societies. The
Japanese government tacitly recognises their existence: they are classified,
designated and regulated, but membership is not outlawed. These designated
crime groups, of course, do not refer to themselves that way. They claim they
are ninkyo-dantai (“humanitarian groups”) following the ninkyodo humanitarian
philosophy that dictates those following the code should protect the weak and
oppressed, provide help to the needy and sacrifice themselves for the greater
Ninkyodo is a philosophy believed to have originated in
China during the Chunqiu shiqi period (from 770BC to 476BC). The philosophy
espouses that one should honour all kindnesses bestowed and repay them in full,
protect the weak and oppressed and stand up against the powers that be. Like
its counterparts, the Yamaguchi-gumi, the largest of Japan’s organised-crime
groups, abides by a creed stating that members will honour the spirit of this
philosophy and contribute to the prosperity of the nation.
The Tokyo offices of the
Inagawa-kai, which claims 10,000 members, are opposite the opulent Ritz-Carlton
Hotel in the Roppongi midtown area. The second-largest crime group, the
Sumiyoshi-kai (12,000 members), under the name Hama Enterprises, occupies an
office building in the luxurious Ginza district. The Yamaguchi-gumi, the
Walmart of organised crime (40,000 members), has an entire city block in Kobe
for its operations.
These white-collar yakuza have workplaces. If you want to
know the addresses of the headquarters of the 22 major designated crime groups,
just peruse the NPA website. Yakuza make their money from extortion, blackmail,
construction, property, debt-collection services, financial-market
manipulation, protection rackets, fraud and a labyrinth of front companies,
including labour-dispatch firms, database servers and private-detective
agencies. Tokyo alone has more than 800 of these front companies. The police
know who and where the yakuza are. And so do many ordinary people
The names of the yakuza elite, the bosses of bosses, are
in yakuza fanzines available at major bookshops. In addition to the six titles
(three weekly, three monthly), there are many yakuza comic-book biographies of
bosses present and past. (The National Police Agency versus the
Yamaguchi-gumi Kodo-kai comic book, published in March, chronicles five
decades of attempts by the police to destroy the Yamaguchi-gumi.)
The origins of the yakuza are
murky. The name comes from a losing hand in a traditional Japanese gambling
game, played with cards, called hanafuda. The losing hand consisted of an eight
(ya), nine (ku) and three (za), totalling 20, which, according to the rules,
was the worst possible combination. The name is a self-effacing reference to
the groups’ provenance, many having originally been loose federations of
Some, such as the
Aizukotetsu-kai, founded in Kyoto in about 1868 at the beginning of the Meiji
period, have been around for more than a century. In fact, the Aizukotetsu-kai
were originally the primary customers of gaming giant Nintendo, which started
in business by making hanafuda cards. Some yakuza even suggest Nintendo’s name
was chosen out of respect for the “ninkyo” ideals of the yakuza. The “nin” in
“ninkyo” is the same Japanese character as the “nin” in “Nintendo”. As late as
the 1960s Nintendo employees had to check the card machines dispensing hanafuda
decks to make sure no defective cards were being sold. Complaints from yakuza
would often ensue if even the slightest flaws were found.
The word yakuza refers
to two types of gangster. In addition to the federations of gamblers known as
bakuto, there were groups of merchants called tekiya, who were also considered
yakuza. The tekiya, itinerant traders who sold their wares and food at Japanese
festivals, sometimes ran carnival games and dealt in stolen goods.
The yakuza really came
to power during the chaotic years after the end of World War II. Then, joining
the mob appealed particularly to those pushed to the fringes of society:
disenfranchised returning soldiers; burakumin, the country’s outcast class;
orphans; and, possibly the largest sub-population, the many Korean-Japanese who
had been taken to Japan as slave labourers.
During the lawless
years after Japan’s 1945 defeat the Korean-Japanese, who had been oppressed by
the Imperial government, made inroads into the underworld. American occupying
forces designated them “third-party nationals” and bestowed preferential
treatment compared to that imposed on the defeated Japanese. This allowed them
access to US military supplies and enabled them to run black markets.
In some ways, the 20th-century
rebirth of the yakuza in Japan was a response to the domination of black
markets by the Koreans, who had formed small gangs that would steal Japanese
goods, then sell them. Because of General Douglas MacArthur’s decentralisation
of the police force it was difficult to keep that kind of crime under control.
In February 1946
foreign nationals beat to death a senior police officer in Kobe. In April the
same year a police captain was shot dead, also in Kobe. The police asked
Yamaguchi-gumi members to keep the peace and take over some of their duties.
For decades afterwards the police and the yakuza had friendly relations.
In some cases the
police explicitly backed the Japanese yakuza in an effort to restore order and
limit the power and breadth of the Korean gangs. In the post-war years Japanese
syndicates fighting Koreans for black-market turf began reviving the old yakuza
structure and incorporated many Korean-Japanese into their ranks; rather than
wage direct war, they began a successful policy of assimilation.
By the late 1950s the
Yamaguchi-gumi had absorbed the most vicious of the Korean gangs, the
Yanagawa-gumi, gaining rapidly in power and prestige. The Yanagawa-gumi ran
proficient rackets, controlling food prices and even setting up a talent agency
and a front company to legitimise its operations. The Yamaguchi-gumi, which
learned from its Korean allies, established front companies that ran Kobe’s
ports and controlled the entertainment industry, managing the top singers and
pop-culture stars of the era.
In post-war Tokyo, the
Kyokuto-kai, a yakuza federation of merchants and black-market dealers, used
Japanese-Korean members to recruit from among the Koreans, eventually gaining
partial control of the city. In western Japan the Yamaguchi-gumi played both
sides, promising to restore order and suppress the violent Korean gangs. While
the Yamaguchi-gumi was consolidating power in Tokyo with the aid of the
Korean-Japanese, the legendary Korean gangster, Hisayuki Machii, exploited
American fears of a Communist takeover to build his own criminal organisation;
some of this background is documented in Robert Whiting’s seminal book,
In 1948 Machii created
the Tosei-kai in Ginza, then Japan’s largest entertainment district. The group
took over the gambling dens, bars, cabaret clubs and sex trade. The Tosei-kai
grew rapidly, elbowing into post-war reconstruction. (Even today it is
estimated that three per cent to five per cent of all construction revenue goes
into the pockets of the yakuza, according to the National Centre for the
Elimination of Boryokudan.)
The yakuza grew even
richer and more powerful as a result of the national ban on methamphetamines in
1951. Japan was one of the first countries to manufacture amphetamines on a
large scale, under the brand name Hiropon (“hiro” meaning fatigue and “pon”
being the sound of something hopping away). Amphetamines were distributed
widely to the Japanese Army at the close of the war when food was in short
supply. Demand for Hiropon did not diminish after it was banned and the yakuza
stepped in to fill the gap.
reputation for keeping disputes among themselves and not harming citizens has
protected them from public ire and police attention. One reason they are
tolerated is that, although they are criminals, they share standards and
practices that keep them in check.
Failure to observe
these rules results in expulsion. In theory, if not in fact, yakuza are banned
from theft (including looting), robbery (taking things by force), using or
selling drugs, rape and anything else not in harmony with the “noble way” –
ninkyodo. And although it may not be written, the prevailing rule of thumb for
yakuza is “katagi ni meiwaku wo kakenai” (not causing ordinary citizens
In effect, yakuza are
banned from committing street crimes.
As well as the above, that includes purse snatching, break-ins, muggings – any
offence that makes the populace uneasy. On their own turf, yakuza are brutal
enforcers when keeping the peace. This is in their own interests. If people
don’t feel safe visiting the areas in which they have their sex shops, illegal
gambling parlours and strip and hostess clubs they lose money.
the night of March 11, in Tokyo, Fukushima, Miyagi, Chiba and elsewhere in
Japan, local yakuza “soldiers” were patrolling the streets, keeping an eye out
for looters, thieves and profiteers. In the sparsely populated towns in parts
of Miyagi and Ibaraki prefectures, the yakuza were the most visible “police
Many yakuza had
friends and relatives in the stricken areas. A mid-level crime boss told me: “I
have family in Miyagi. They lost their homes. Our members went missing. We’re
people too. We love our birthplaces. Of course we couldn’t stand by and not do
anything, especially when the government was so slow to step up to the plate.”
As reports of violence
and sexual assault started to drift in from the shelters, the NPA dispatched 30
female police officers. The Yamaguchi-gumi, in contrast, sent out 960 members
across the nation to keep order within the shelters and devastated areas,
particularly Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures. Internally they were
called “The Yamaguchi-gumi Peace-Keeping Forces”. Bosses ordered members to
walk around the shelters displaying their tattoos, knowing this would have a
deterrent effect on petty criminals and sexual miscreants. One of the
foot-soldiers who was living at a shelter proudly said, “Our tattoos are 100
times more intimidating than a police badge. The police can’t administer
punishment right there on the spot. We can and we will.”
Until March 21 the Yamaguchi-gumi presence at the shelters
was greater than that of the police. By the beginning of April, officers from
the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department and elsewhere were being dispatched to
the disaster areas.
It is ironic that the first role of the yakuza was that of
maintaining security, although they have a history of providing disaster
relief. The response of the Sumiyoshi-kai in Tokyo to the Tohoku upheavals was
fast and furious. The group opened its offices to people stranded in Tokyo
after all major forms of transport shut down. In a surprising gesture of
civility, members even reached out to the foreign community, offering shelter
to Chinese and Americans and futon on which to sleep. Traditionally, the yakuza
have defended their existence by claiming that if they were removed from
society, foreigners would run amok. One yakuza fanzine has a section devoted to
crimes committed by foreigners, the point being that Japanese thugs are better
than those from elsewhere.
In Saitama Prefecture the Sumiyoshi-kai loaded trucks with
food and other supplies immediately after the earthquake and tsunami and sent
them to Ibaraki Prefecture. Within a week, the group had mobilised more than
100 drivers to take 60 cars and trucks carrying necessities to the devastated
areas. In Sendai 100 of the group’s toughest thugs patrolled the streets and
stayed at shelters to keep the peace, according to Sumiyoshi-kai members.
Similarly, the Matsuba-kai, which has a strong presence in
the ravaged zones, rounded up 100 trucks and 121 drivers to deliver water,
blankets and other essentials.
The response of the Kyokuto-kai was what might have been
expected from a group with tekiya roots. Former itinerant merchants and food
vendors, they sent foodstuff to places in need, with some members providing hot
meals. By April 14 they had dispatched 2,000 kilograms of sugar, 15,000 bottles
of water, 700 boxes of cooking oil, 80 portable generators, 600 light bulbs,
1,000 flashlights, 400 boxes of batteries, 250 boxes of miso for soup and
seasoning, 30 tons of food and 80 portable cooking stands. To do that they
mobilised 110 trucks, minibuses and cars. They travelled on roads where they
still existed and made their own way where they couldn’t find them, driving
through fields or having members carry supplies into areas where vehicles no
longer had access. Members cooked meals at some shelters and left supplies at
city halls, then returned to the Kanto region.
The chairman of the Kyokuto-kai, Matsuyama Shinichi, once
said about the rules of being a yakuza: “The most important thing is to help
the weak. The second is to fulfil your duties and obligations and be true to
your feelings. The last thing is not to betray anyone.”
One Kyokuto-kai member who has made three trips to the
earthquake-affected areas echoed those words, saying, “We can only do what we
know how to do. We’re the guys cooking yakisoba at the festivals. There’s
something tragic about taking equipment and foodstuff we use on happy occasions
like the Sanja Festival and setting up shop for those mourning the loss of
their loved ones and their homes. Hardly a joyous occasion … If we were to
shout out a hearty welcome, the way people do at an izakaya, it would be odd. But
silence is odd too.”
Of course, the most efficient and fast-moving group in the
relief effort was the Yamaguchi-gumi, which has an admirable record of
post-disaster humanitarian work. In 1964, in the aftermath of the savage
Niigata earthquake, Kazuo Taoka, leader of the Yamaguchi-gumi at the time,
allegedly mobilised a third of the organisation to deliver food, water, radios
and medical supplies to the area.
After the Kobe earthquake in 1995, the Yamaguchi-gumi,
whose headquarters in the city are fortress like, gathered supplies countrywide
and took them to the needy, dispensing hot food from its offices and patrolling
the streets to limit looting. The organisation was lauded for being faster and
more efficient than the government in delivering provisions.
Members set up hot-food stands in their headquarters and
distributed daily essentials to all who arrived. One of the group’s most
bizarre efforts saw members drill a well in the grounds of their premises to
provide fresh water. It was a remarkable gesture that gained the goodwill of
the people of Kobe. It was also wonderful publicity.
Several decades of coping with emergencies have made the
yakuza excellent first responders. Unlike many government agencies in which the
constant rotation of staff destroys continuity or the accumulation of
knowledge, the Yamaguchi-gumi is able to learn.
One boss, who led a convoy of trucks to Ibaraki Prefecture
carrying two tons of water bottles and enough food supplies for 800 people for
a week, proudly showed me pictures of him cooking yakisoba for the refugees
near one of the shelters. “You have to know what the people need,” he said.
“Things that were lacking: infant formula, nappies – for babies and adults.
There is a huge elderly population there.”
The organisation, taking a cue from previous disasters,
quickly listed the essentials it should provide: food, water, warm clothing,
tampons and not only normal powdered milk but also special brands for children
with allergies. Because the Tohoku region can be extremely cold, members also
gathered for distribution raincoats, down jackets and kerosene heaters, plus
the fuel to power them.
Under heavy police scrutiny, the Yamaguchi-gumi has done
much of its work since the quake via civilian allies, called kyoseisha
(cooperative entities) in police lingo. The acting leader at the time of the
earthquake, Irie Tadashi of the Takumi-gumi faction, organised most of the
support. Yamaguchi-gumi associates distributed cushions, first-aid kits, shoes,
socks and rubbish bags. The leader of the Okuura-gumi, an Osaka-based wing of
the Yamaguchi-gumi, chartered several trucks and sent all 200 of his
subordinates into disaster areas with supplies, reportedly even setting up
temporary bathing facilities in Miyagi Prefecture and making sure victims
received hot meals.
Their efforts impressed a senior police officer from
Ibaraki. “I have to hand it to the yakuza,” he said, speaking on condition of
anonymity. “They have been on the ground from day one providing aid where
others did not or could not. Laws can be like a double-edged sword and
sometimes they hamper relief efforts. Sometimes outlaws are faster than the
law. This is one of those times.” The Japanese government is hampered by red
tape and requirements to account for all supplies and inspect materials.
Other police officers see a different side. “There’s an
aspect of this which is girikake, or fund-raising,” said one Osaka detective in
the organised-crime control division. “The yakuza do this for funerals and
other events. They ask all the lower members of the franchise to chip in funds
and thus collect large chunks of cash. They’ve been doing it this time as well.
It’s a great cover for collecting huge funds right under our noses. I don’t
think all the payments they are collecting are going to aid relief. Maybe 10
per cent or more is staying in the headquarters’ accounts or in the pockets of
Some yakuza mid-level executives agree, although none is
willing to criticise their superiors on the record. Suzuki Tomohiko, who has written
several books on the yakuza, points out that, “after the earthquake in Kobe,
the Yamaguchi-gumi moved in very fast for the reconstruction money. Their front
companies cleared away debris and their construction companies were awarded
rebuilding contracts. It helps to have a good public image when conducting
business anywhere. By building goodwill now, there are certainly yakuza groups
calculating that the authorities will look the other way when their affiliated
companies get a chunk of the reconstruction funding.”
Senior detectives in the Tokyo Metropolitan Police
Department share that view. “We’ve been trying to push the yakuza out of the
construction industry for a long time but they know that, with the rush to
rebuild housing and homes, the local police won’t be able – or perhaps willing
– to screen the companies involved.”
No doubt there is truth in these claims, but some genuine
goodwill is undeniably involved. A Sumiyoshi-kai executive, a full-time
gangster adept at extortion, explains the efforts simply:
“In times like this, the usual societal divisions are
meaningless. There aren’t yakuza and civilians or foreigners and Japanese.
We’re all Japanese now. We all live here. Down the road, there is money to be
made, for sure. Right now, it’s about saving lives and helping each other out.
Ninety-five per cent of all yakuza are human garbage. Maybe five per cent
uphold the rules. Right now we’re all doing our best. It’s one of the few times
we can be better than we normally are.”
 Organised crime groups in Japan fall
into “designated” and “non-designated” categories. The police have criteria
that are applied to determine an organisation’s status. By keeping the number
of members with criminal convictions low, syndicates are able to avoid
Boryokudan means, literally, “violence groups”.
In response to the question, “Why aren’t
blackmail and extortion banned?” the reply from Takashi Kobayashi, a former
Yamaguchi-gumi member, was, “If you have something to be blackmailed about, you
deserve to be punished. That’s social justice.”