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Yakuza Blues: Japan's Notorious Gangsters Hit Hard By COVID

The infamous (yet legal) Japanese criminal syndicate was already suffering under new laws when the pandemic hit. Now its business model is crumbling.

A Yakuza member shows off his tattoos during a 2014 festival in Tokyo in
A Yakuza member shows off his tattoos during a 2014 festival in Tokyo in
Yann Rousseau

TOKYO — Strands of bleached blond hair falling on eyes smeared with kohl, low rise skinny jeans, an oversized wallet hanging out of their back pocket... These "host boys' wait for their midnight shifts in front of the Otsuu restaurant in Kabukicho, Tokyo's "hot" district. This is also the stomping ground of yakuzas, Japan's notorious gangsters.

Cabs block Hanamichi street as they pick up the first drunk customers of the evening. Hawkers swarm everywhere, looking to lure new clients into their clubs or convince lost young women to start a career in nightlife. Watching the hubbub unfold to the echoes of booming sound systems, you would never guess the Japanese capital was under a state of emergency.

Unable to legally impose a "lockdown," Japanese authorities are betting on economic actors and the population's civic-mindedness to diminish daily contamination levels and relieve hospital congestion. With a national average of 5,000 new cases every day, restaurants are strongly advised to close at 8pm.

Selling alcohol is forbidden — in theory. Nightlife businesses are expected to suspend their operations for a few weeks. Most of the countries' bars, karaokes and nightclubs respect these rules, but Kabukicho puts up resistance. Many of the owners here have links to the yakuza underworld, which has had a particularly hard time in the face of the COVID-19 crisis.

Yakuza bosses are all elderly and vulnerable people.

Although the influx of foreign tourists has gentrified this small district — about one square kilometer — that neighbors the world's busiest railway station, it still harbors over 3,000 businesses dedicated to adult entertainment. Among the strip-tease clubs, sex shops and massages parlors with colorful neon lights, "kyabakura" establishments offer clients the chance to clink glasses with ladies in evening dresses for a hefty price, while "host clubs' allow women to mingle with young androgynous men as long as they order champagne. Most of these nightlife establishments are licensed and pay taxes, but some offer illegal goods and services, from sex to methamphetamine to underground casinos.

"Yakuzas manage these illegal activities but they are also behind many legal businesses', says criminologist TakumaKamada, from Osaka University. "And they're suffering from a serious erosion of their financial resources."

With the spread of the pandemic — which killed 12,200 people since January 2020 in a population of 126 million inhabitants — nighttime clients have dwindled and many businesses saw their finances plummet. Dozens closed their doors, leaving yakuzas without "mikajimeryo," the protection money business owners give to local gangs. Ranging from 20,000 to 100,000 yens per month (150 to 750 euros), these tips helped businesses avoid problems such as dealing with troublesome clients.

Advertisements for nightclubs in Tokyo's Kabukicho red right district — Photo: Yoshio Tsunoda/AFLO/ ZUMA

During the day, yakuzas often set up food stalls at the traditional neighborhood festivals that color Japan's cities. Usually very profitable, these small, mobile stands sell treats like squid balls and cotton candy, but have been scarce since the pandemic as many local councils cancelled all festivities prone to large crowds. "We usually make a lot of money near temples during New Year's celebrations, but it has become completely impossible with COVID-19," complained one yakuza to the Japanese weekly Shukan Shincho. "The number of stalls has dropped and with only a few people going out, our income is only a third of what it was in previous years," said another gang leader.

Yakuza leaders are also worried about catching the disease themselves, and have considerably limited their team meetings, and some even cancelled big internal celebrations for the New Year. "Yakuza bosses are all elderly and vulnerable people. They often suffer from chronic diseases, such as diabetes, that are linked to their lifestyle," says researcher Martina Baradel, author of an essay on the evolution of gangs in Tokyo and Fukuoka. According to the Japanese National Police's latest statistics, 51% of yakuzas are over 50 years old and 11% are over 70 years old. "Therefore, ever since the beginning of the crisis, they have followed governmental health guidelines to avoid taking any risks."

You only become a yakuza if it is the only thing you can do.

Many yakuzas quickly chose to hold meetings through phone calls or messages. Executives advised their teams to abstain from gathering in their neighborhoods to avoid disturbing the population, who have less tolerance for these gangsters than in previous years, when the yakuza made efforts to help communities hit by economic crises and natural disasters. "Getting sick is particularly serious for yakuzas as their status limits their access to health insurance," Baradel points out, referring to recent Japanese laws that made life significantly harder for criminals.

Gangs are not officially forbidden; their origins date back to the organizations of professional gamblers and door-to-door salesmen in the 17th century. They even have a legal status, official offices and every clan member is registered at their local police station. Their activities, however, were not heavily scrutinized until 2011, when new laws punish legal businesses linked to their activity. Banks opening accounts for registered gang members, insurance companies signing contracts with yakuza-owned bars — these kinds of actions are now prosecutable, and even obtaining a cell phone number is now a complicated process for these certified criminals "These laws are an indirect prohibition," sums up Takuma Kamada. The yakuzas, whose name refers to a losing combination in an ancient card game, have become unattractive business partners and clients.

As a result, those in the lower ranks of these mafia groups are no longer able to collect the monthly money they're obliged to give their superiors, who in turn pay the godfather at the top of the pyramid. Many have thrown in the towel, while others launched low-cost unions that are less demanding of their members. "Since the yakuza exclusion ordinances, the clans have seen their membership melt away. And even if it is still difficult to estimate in the data, the Covid crisis has accelerated this phenomenon," points out the criminologist.

A masked crowd walks past entertainment billboards in the Kabukicho district — Photo: Rodrigo Reyes Marin/ZUMA

In its latest white paper on criminal activity, published in April, the national police estimated that mafia groups lost 2,300 members last year. The twenty largest unions sharing the archipelago only count 25,900 gangsters total today, when they boasted over 180,000 members at their peak in the 1960s. The country's biggest organisation, Yamaguchi-gumi, has lost nearly 10% of its employees in 2020 and only claims 8,200 members today. Young people are no longer joining their teams: "You only become a yakuza if it is the only thing you can do," notices columnist Mark Schreibe, author of Shocking Crimes of Postwar Japan.

Barred from their traditional activities, the yakuzas have retreated to small scams such as calling isolated, elderly citizens pretending to be grandchildren in urgent need of money. Through these operations, they stole 27.8 billion yen (210 million euros) last year, which represents a 12% decline compared to 2019, according to police statistics.

Just like gangs elsewhere in the world, they've tried to adapt to their new restrictions. "As the pandemic disrupts the legal economy, it also influences the illegal activities of the world's largest criminal organizations. Lockdowns and the closure of borders have hampered their prostitution networks, their weapons and drugs trafficking," observed United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime experts in a recent report.

"The coronavirus has exposed all their vulnerabilities."

But mafias in Italy, Russia, the Balkans and Hong Kong reacted quickly. "They tried to intercept the flows of public money aimed at boosting economies' The UN analysts noted. "With economic activity increasingly carried out online, these organizations also engage in phishing and credit card scams and set up fake donation sites."

The conversion is different in Japan. Online delinquency didn't blow up in 2020: The police only saw a 4.1% rise in cybercrime for a total of 9,911 cases that year. Old and poorly educated yakuzas who don't speak any foreign languages struggle to launch these complicated business endeavors. "The coronavirus has, in fact, exposed all their vulnerabilities," observes Baradel. "They can't adapt to these new markets, they don't know how to expand internationally or how to build global ties, and they haven't developed any new skills," she explains, comparing the yakuza's paralysis to the flexibility of other mafia that are "deployed internationally and capable of more effective networking."

While the police and the public opinion are pleased the yakuza's scheduled extinction has been sped up by COVID-19, criminologists warn against a future with less controlled and more opaque criminal activity. Small groups called "hangure" — a term blending "han" (half) et "gureru" (thug in slang) — are rising gangs, unregistered with the police. Often arising Chinese or Korean communities, they act in less centralized and more violent ways than the historic, weakened yakuza unions. "They are younger, more mobile, and without community ties. They are the ones who will give headaches to the police," warns Mark Schreiber.

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