Japan’s Once Influential Yakuza Mobsters Lose Their Grip

In Japan, the yakuza traditionally controlled vice businesses and demanded shakedowns. But as their dwindling numbers are hunted down by the authorities, the mobsters are trying to reinvent themselves to survive.

 A member of the Yakuza shows off his tattoos during the Sanja Matsuri in Tokyo, 2014.
A member of the Yakuza shows off his tattoos during the Sanja Matsuri in Tokyo, 2014.
Yann Rousseau

TOKYO â€" The building is brown and narrow. The old, worn blinds are closed. This is the Roppongi neighborhood in the heart of Tokyo, just opposite the prestigious Ritz-Carlton. At exactly 10 a.m., three men, all in their forties and wearing stylish grey suits, welcome a passenger in a black sedan. They bow curtly. He is probably a "kobun," one of the godfather's partners. He is escorted under umbrellas inside the six-story building, where Japan's third-largest yakuza organization, the Inagawa-kai, has been established since 1972.

The headquarters address appears on the calling cards of the 3,300 members of the organization, which police officers have been visiting more often. Even American legal authorities have been redirecting their decisions to freeze assets of senior members of the organization toward this building. In 2009, a plan to move the offices to another neighborhood caused outcry from residents of the selected site. The organization gave up.

With the blessing of political and economic elites, the yazuka have been trying with futility to build themselves a new chivalrous image. Instead, they are being hunted down and forced to reinvent themselves to survive.

"The goal is to make them disappear completely," says Lieutenant Tetsuya Yamamoto, deputy director of the National Police Agency (NPA), which is in charge of the fight against the "boryokudan," or "violent groups.” The very word "yakuza" refers to a losing hand in a very ancient card game, and authorities no longer use it.

Like other mafia clans across the country, the Inagawa-kai are distant successors of 17th century professional gamblers and merchants. They prospered in broad daylight for decades around Tokyo and Yokohama, regulating black markets.

Never explicitly forbidden, yakuza organizations were able to secure control over prostitution, entertainment, illegal gambling and usury to small companies and private individuals, before becoming involved in economic life. Companies entrusted them with their dirty work, the strong-armed negotiations that the Japanese legal system could no longer resolve. At their peak in the 1960s, there were more than 180,000 members. But as of last year, there were only 53,000, according to the NPA. "The social demand that once existed for the yakuza has gone," explains lawyer Hideaki Kubori.

Extortion and surveillance

But in Kabukicho, a tough Tokyo neighborhood, they still patrol under the flirtatious neon lights and posters of young women in bikinis. Every week, magazines following their activity write about the arrest of yakuzas trying to extort, say, massage parlors that offered more than muscle relaxation or a denuded hostess bar. In these businesses, gangs always demand protection money in exchange for the surveillance of the premises or help in recruiting girls, sometimes from abroad. It is said to amount to the equivalent of 1,100 euros per month, per business.

"Payments, exclusively cash, officially refer to the hiring of green plants, paintings or hot towels," a specialist says. Nearby, they still run underground casinos, known as "killing rooms," designed to rip off rich players. In late 2011, the CEO of Daio Paper, a major family business, was investigated after admitting he tapped more than 120 million euros of the company's money to pay off his debts. He mentioned unlucky bets in Macau, but local tabloids discovered he frequently visited some of Tokyo's rigged betting rooms.

In its latest white paper, the NPA also highlights revenues generated by drug trafficking, but the number of arrests linked to narcotics continues to diminish. Only 12,951 arrests were recorded in 2013. They were essentially related to the import or distribution of amphetamines such as crystal meth. Cocaine and heroin never really made their way into the archipelago.

Apart from this traditional mafia activity, the yakuza are still attempting to extort or control the industries that made their fortune in the 1970s. "For a long time, they were very active in real estate," explains Landry Guesdon, a lawyer from the Iwata Godo firm. A former Morgan Stanley employee remembers the acquisition of a building in the 2000s whose seller coundn't get his tenants to leave. To "convince" them, he called on a yakuza organization that would send muscles around to let their pitbulls run around in the hallways, where recalcitrant grandmothers lived. Beefy and tattooed guys would also calmly do their stretching exercises, shirtless, in the elevators.

"At the time, these pressure methods were commonplace, but things are changing," the businessman says, noting that their presence in investments is running out of steam. Like all businesses, the yakuza became overly indebted in the 1980s acquiring property and golf courses before the bubble burst. They still haven't repaid their debts.

New scams

From these prosperous times, when they controlled hundreds of "legal" real estate or construction industry companies, they have maintained influence in the construction segment and still seem able to summon up a strong workforce in an archipelago that's paralyzed by a collapsing working population. Several criminal organizations are suspected of participating in the Fukushima dismantling site, where radiation requires rapid team renewals. Others have reinvented themselves in hazardous or municipal waste management.

"Major foreign groups in the same sector have even had to abandon their projects on these markets," says Guesdon. But the income made with these activities is poor, and traditional companies are resisting. "In major stock market groups, directors are no longer suspected of collusion with the yakuza," Hideaki Kubori says.

Just a few years ago, they still had to give in to the "sokaiya" blackmail. These yakuza amassed equities from a specific company and threatened the groups to make scenes during general meetings of shareholders or to humiliate the managers. Mitsubishi Motors, Nomura Securities and even the Dai-Ichi Kangyo Bank (now integrated into the Mizuho Financial Group) have all had to give in. "The legal arsenal against organized crime has been reinforced, and this kind of racket has disappeared," the lawyer notes.

A major cleaning

Tokyo no longer has time for the yakuza. Since an anti-gang law was implemented in 1992, their activities have been criminalized and organization godfathers are now held liable for all the comings and goings of their members. In 2011, new rulings targeting companies suspected of knowingly maintaining economic relations with mob members led to a major cleaning. In foreign companies, retired police officers are now often consulted to review clients that are too insistent or potential partners that are deemed suspicious.

The country's banks have reopened their files after being caught in 2013 selling auto insurance policies to gang members, whose incomes weren't investigated. They simply let their clients sign a clause â€" as do all people who wish to open an account or be party to a commercial agreement in Japan â€" assuring they weren't linked to the mob. Punished by regulators, financial institutions now claim to be without reproach.

Every month, Atsushi Fukasawa, a member of the Iwata Godo cabinet, goes to bank agencies around the country to officially close the accounts of yakuza who appear in a new, national database. "The police are always in a room next door," the lawyer explains. "I give them a bag with their money inside. And they leave. They never complain, for fear of being arrested," the lawyer explains.

Now outcasts, the yakuza are sinking into secrecy and are trying to refine their strategy. After the 2008 financial crisis, they reportedly recruited qualified traders and analysts to sharpen their knowledge in financial markets and set up new scams. Sometimes, they are still implicated in the bankruptcies of businesses listed in ancillary markets. In secret, they accumulate company equities and try to manipulate market prices by launching rumors or using information gleaned by their networks, confidential information let slip by a manager during pillow talk with a friend whose love isn't free.

Lieutenant Tetsuya Yamamoto doesn't believe these conversions. He thinks the loss of their traditional income has instead pushed criminals to increasingly hopeless scams over the last few years. For example, a call to an old grandmother pretending to be her grandson, who lives in town and suddenly needs a the equivalent of a 250-euro wire transfer. Posters then warning of the technique are distributed.

"They no longer manage to recruit young members," explains Atsushi Mizoguchi, an independent expert. They can no longer have bank accounts, rent apartments or pay gym subscriptions. And they must constantly keep a low profile. Tattoos are now unadvised.

Even the authority of the most powerful godfather is contested, the expert explains. In the fall of 2015, the country's largest clan, the Yamaguchi-gumi, split, a sign of a deep crisis within organized crime. Shinobu Tsukasa, the powerful leader of the Yamaguchi-gumi, who controlled 40% of all the yakuza in the country before the split, orders his men to give him an envelope containing money every Jan. 25.

"It’s not bearable anymore," says Atsushi Mizoguchi. The deputy director of the police agrees. "Their decline is inexorable," he says, adding that the mob now is just a "necessary evil" to control petty crime. But it's an evil that must be eliminated.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!