The reign of the yakuza could finally be at an end. Jon Axworthy investigates the bloody battle to preserve 400 years of Japanese criminal tradition.
The men didn’t know what had hit them. It was 2.30am when the hand grenades started to rain down on their fortress-like headquarters. Before the smoke had cleared the attackers had already sped off on high-powered motorbikes, leaving behind a scene of utter devastation.
Welcome to everyday life in Japan’s Kyushu region. A place where vicious fighting between rival yakuza clans the Seido-kai and Dojin-kai has been intensifying. This August attack was a retaliatory strike for the killing of a Seido-kai boss and his brother by someone tossing a grenade into their car as it idled at a red light. Hand grenades are now as essential to yakuza life as shortened fingers and ornate tattoos.
As befits a criminal organisation that has been around since the 17th century, the yakuza moves with the times to survive. Just as the Samurai sword made way for the handgun as its weapon of choice, so the gun has now made way for the grenade. In fact ”pineapples” (to give them their yakuza slang nickname) have become so widespread that cash rewards are offered for them by the police in Kyushu’s biggest city Fukuoka.
The main reason for this upsurge in violence? A rash of new legal constraints that are trying to topple organised crime in Japan once and for all. However, with indolent police and unhelpful members of the public standing in the way, it’s not going to be easy. And as the shrapnel-strewn Kyushu streets show, the yakuza’s mobsters aren’t ready to go quietly.
The current carnage is a departure for the usually low-profile yakuza, which has run Japan’s underworld with ruthless efficiency for more than a century. Its origins go as far back as the sword-wielding vigilantes of the Edo era, 400 years ago.
The world may have changed, but the organisation’s strict code of conduct remains intact, protecting the public from any overspill from its violent world. In fact, the yakuza has co-existed openly with civilian life, with many clans having named headquarters in major cities. Ironically, the public perception of yakuza territories is that they are well-ordered and crime-free – some clans having even been known to work in tandem with the police.
“The Kudokai Godfather has gone on record to say that they were responsible for stemming the tide of illegal Chinese immigrant gangs,” reveals Atsushi Mizoguchi, Japan’s foremost yakuza expert. “The police [even] congratulated them on a job well done.”
However, the introduction of new fiscal laws that attempt to sever the gangs from their earnings have made the yakuza desperate – causing an upsurge in violence that has rocked Japan.
The Organised Crime Exclusion Ordinance means that any individual with proven business links to yakuza groups can be prosecuted and named publicly. And as Mizoguchi points out, “In Japan, reputation is everything.”
The government is also pressuring banks to scrutinise their books and identify money-laundering operations. “It’s been the most hard-hitting anti-gang ordinance since a 1992 law that made yakuza godfathers personally responsible for any crimes committed by their underlings,” explains Mizoguchi.
But there are dangerous side effects to squeezing the yakuza’s finances. “The yakuza is no different to the American mafia. Revenue flows upward, and if those at the bottom of the pyramid can’t pay their dues, it affects the senior figures too,” says Mizoguchi. “That explains the 44 gang-related shootings last year, 18 of which occurred in Kyushu. Lean times mean that yakuza factions are becoming desperate to survive as there isn’t enough money to go round to keep everyone happy.” What’s more, construction bosses who have refused to do business with the organisation in light of the recent laws have been shot dead in front of their homes and local mayors have received death threats for pursuing the law.
So, after years of engaging in white-collar crime during Japan’s ‘bubble economy’ period, the yakuza has had to revert to its more traditional forms of income – prostitution, drug smuggling, extortion and gambling.
It recently emerged that in Tokyo’s red light and entertainment district of Kabukicho (traditionally the territory of the Yamaguchi-gumi syndicate), customers were being charged a 15 per cent processing fee if they paid with a credit card, compared to the usual three per cent average.
“It’s the perfect scam,” says Akihiko Shiba, a former superintendent in Japan’s National Police Agency. “No one complains when they get their credit card statement as businessmen don’t want to advertise the fact that they have spent money in Kabukicho. And there are hundreds of pleasure quarters all over Japan, which translates to millions of yen for the organisation.”
There is also evidence that the yakuza is moving its operations into other Southeast Asian countries, including Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar and Cambodia. But many commentators believe that, even in light of the new fiscal laws, the will to remove the yakuza and directly target its estimated 80,000 active members just isn’t there.
“There’s nothing directly outlawing yakuza membership,” says Tatsuya Shindo, a former member of Sumiyoshi-kai, the yakuza’s second largest family. “Japan still recognises their right to exist because the weight of history is on their side.”
But there are also those who feel that there is an ulterior motive as to why the police don’t pressure the government to make membership illegal. “For years, corporate Japan has employed retired policemen as consultants for negotiations with companies that may be fronts for yakuza operations,” says Mizoguchi. “And the ex-policemen are paid well for it.”
Meanwhile, the hand grenade attacks continue and the Seido-kai is establishing a presence in the capital to profit from the vice trade. Inevitably, the public are starting to get caught up in the violence.
Hiroshi Miyamoto was one such victim. A 34-year-old father of two, he was admitted to hospital in 2007 with a rugby injury and unknowingly exchanged rooms with a Seido-kai gangster recovering from an attempted assassination.
Miyamoto, a sheet-metal worker, was shot dead in his hospital bed by a Dojin-kai assassin who thought he was finishing the botched job.
There was mass outrage at Miyamoto’s death, and even though the Dojin-kai went to his family home to pay their respects (and offered the family £600k in compensation), for the first time there was revulsion throughout Japan for the yakuza way of life.
And this is where the new laws may have an impact, with the authorities almost stepping back in their role to police the yakuza; it falls on the public’s conscious to stop tolerating their presence.
However, widespread corruption, four centuries of mythic tradition and an almost admirably adaptable criminal network may prove more difficult to thwart. “Yakuza is like a blood stain,” warns former gangster Shindo, “the longer you leave it, the harder it is to get rid of.”