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Feature Articles


March 2007
The Japanese Mafia

By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus


Mike La Sorte is a professor emeritus (SUNY) and writes extensively on a variety of subjects.

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The Japanese mafia ó the yakuza ó is arguably the largest, wealthiest and most secretive of all the organized crime syndicates in the world.

"Yakuza are not criminals. Criminals are antisocial, unpatriotic, and undisciplined, like animals. Yakuza are not wild animals. We have tradition and obey the law. Itís our own law, but it is law just the same."(Yakuza boss)

"On 17 July 1993, a single murder in Sopporo (by a samurai sword) sent lead flying between affiliates of the Yamaguchi-gumi and members of the Far East Brotherhood. This triggered a violent reshuffling of complex gang alliances, with repercussions sending lead flying in plenty of directions." (C. Seymour, Yakuza Diary, 1996)

     Turf wars among the yakuza clans are to be expected. A current outbreak of violence and posturing is being given much press in Tokyo. Two mafias are locking horns, the Kobayashi-kai and the Yamaguchi-gumi. The encounter began on 5 February with the assassination of a member of Kobayashi, which is affiliated with the second most numerous clan, the powerful Sumiyoshi-kai.

     The killing was followed by a gun battle against the headquarters of the Yamaguchi-gumi. The police intervened to prevent further disturbances in the two yakuza strongholds located in Tokyoís Ginza and Shibuya neighborhoods. Arrests were made and a cache of arms sequestered. Reports indicate that yakuza capos are head to head to calm the gathering storm. Officials fear an outright war that would involve a virtual army of clan members. The Yamaguchi-gumi is the most potent criminal force on earth, numbering some 39,000 followers, of an estimated total of 87,000 yakuza in Japan. The Sumiyoshi, by comparison, can field about 10,000 regulars.

     The largely mythical yakuza tradition has evolved over many generations and is said to be an admixture of outlaw and samurai sentiments. Yakuza emphasizes the heroic portion of the myth, the macho samurai code, a stoic set of values, which stresses the willingness to endure without complaint pain (including full body tattooing), hunger and imprisonment in order to prove oneís manliness.

"The jail feels like an icehouse and the food tastes like an icicle. Why do they go there even though theyíll face grief? They call it giri, a yakuzaís obligation. Sometimes itís a false courage. This is a manís life, a manís grief. Yakuza life was created in this spirit. Be patient!" (Goro Fujita, former yakuza turned writer)

     A large percentage of yakuza recruits are the products of divorced or separated parents. Lacking a father or mentor, the boys feel alienated and drift into antisocial behavior. The school system tends to channel difficult youth into dead-end high schools, which function essentially as warehouses for poor students. They are drawn to like-minded teens and join motorcycle gangs. From these schools of crime, the most promising are recruited into the world of the yakuza.

     The words ya-ku-za signify "eight-nine-three," a losing hand in an ancient card game. Since the 1950s yakuza clans have gone well beyond the original negative meaning, assembling substantial wealth and becoming pervasive in Japanese society and well synchronized with legitimate institutions. The small independent gangs have formed super gangs. However, the basic building block of the yakuza organizational structure remains the feudal father-child asymmetrical relationship, similar to the traditional Italian padre/padrone status of father/boss to the subservient son. This tight allegiance is the mortar that holds together every yakuza criminal association. As the old Japanese saying goes, "If your leader says a passing crow is white, itís white."

     The yakuza profit by appealing to the publicís tastes. A healthy cut is extorted from the proceeds of bars, clubs, massage parlors and restaurants. The mafias have a strong grasp on prostitution, gambling and loan-sharking, and practice a variety of blackmail schemes. The gains realized are invested in legitimate enterprises. The fairly widespread corruption of officials and businessmen through bribes and unspoken threats has strengthened the yakuza influence on the Japanese political economy.

     The evolution of the yakuza after the Second World War featured a new form of gangsterism inspired by the American model, which is the standard by which many capos measure their own performances. Criminal ventures became diversified to more lucrative organized crime initiatives, such as weaponsí sales and black market transactions. As the yakuza gained sophistication, economic speculation has succeeded in manipulating the world of affairs to their own profit, thereby achieving a "semi-official" legitimate status in Japanese society.

     Two years ago, the Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japanese bosses participated in the first known Asian mafia conference. The main agenda of the meetings was to promote cooperation among the families, to maintain peace and order, to prevent mob wars, and to devise strategies for manipulating the competitive triads of China.

     Up to the late 1930s the street gangs were limited to circumscribed territories; the local inhabitants were, in effect, their subjects. The lower and working classes were given protection, in the feudal style, from marauding street thugs. In turn, the people swore undying fealty to their "lords." The yakuza considered themselves "criminals with a heart," a species of the Robin Hood mentality.

     In 1992, the government finally responded to the growing yakuza threat by approving the first legislation against what had become a nationwide true and proper mafia syndicate. The clans were declared illegal, and from that moment the yakuza undertook to assume a lower profile, with the upper echelon yakuza morphing into white-collar businessmen, both in appearance and behavior. They applied their skills as fixers, middlemen, and investors.

     Masatoshi Kumagai is a classic case of the new generation yakuza criminal boss/executive. He is the prototype of the proper man of affairs, who also keeps his hand in the underworld, having at the ready men who are at his beck and call to serve in the name of the traditional yakuza code.

     The 42-year-old Kumagai is a rising star of the yakuza and commands 10,000 men. He takes seriously yakuza history and is a strong proponent of the traditional criminal code of honor and service, which, he avers, is in a state of erosion and not what it was during its golden age. In an interview with journalist Jerome Pierrat, Kumagai discussed Asian organized crime in general terms, being careful not to incriminate himself. "This [unnamed person] is the most potent boss in Korea, and behind him is his counterpart in Asia; they specialize in arms trafficking. Then there is [unnamed] who controls the New York Chinese triads."

     Kumagaiís argument of the new and more pragmatic yakuza to meet the modern era is exemplified by these remarks of an elegantly attired and gentlemanly gangster and cocaine dealer: "What is a yakuza? To me, being in the yakuza is a job. Thatís the most important thing. You talk about obligation or honor, but above all, itís a job. Of course, itís a big commitment, a lifetime commitment, but I donít believe itís much more extreme than the commitment a university graduate makes to the company that hires him." (Quoted in Yakuza Diary)


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