The Yakuza’s Impact on the Japanese Economy

Eric Messersmith is a lecturer at the Institute for Asian Studies, Florida International University. He received his B.A. from the University of Miami, his MBA and Ph.D. from the University of Miami. Dr. Messersmith has long been interested in Japan and Japanese Culture. He lived in Kyoto for many years and was an assistant professor at Kinran College in Osaka. While in Japan he became educated about traditional Japanese culture. He is ordained as a practicing Tea Master of the Urasenke School in Kyoto. He holds the rank of 6th dan, jun hanshi in the martial art of Shorinji Kempo. Dr. Messersmith is a member of the Southeast U.S.-Japan Society, and a regular seminar contributor. He also serves as Executive Director of the Japan Cultural Foundation in Miami.

The following is excerpted from his dissertation Political Corruption in Japan: A Study of the Theory, Causes and Effects with Particular Reference to the Yakuza Factor in Banking Scandals and Prolonged Recession. The entire work can be read here: Political Corruption in Japan

“Is corruption more extensive in Japan than in other industrial societies? There is no real proof of this. The conclusion drawn here is that it is not the fact that corruption is more rampant in Japan but that the nature of that corruption has been altered to the point where it is no longer simply a nuisance for law enforcement but an actual detriment for the nation’s economy. In other words, even if the extent of corruption were less than other countries (and that is open to debate), it is the fact that criminal elements and corruption have infiltrated the very structure of Japanese governance that makes it so dangerous. There is no doubt, for example, that the American Mafia has extensive amounts of money in banks around the world. They also receive huge loans from banks to help finance their front businesses.

However, the failure of these businesses to re-pay the loans would not lead to the same economic consequences as they seem to have done in Japan. This is because of the way the Japanese government and economy are structured—and the fact that they are so intertwined, so much more than in other Western industrial countries. Another way of putting it is that Japan’s vaunted experiment where the government marched in lockstep with its banking institutions and industrial advances has resulted in creating a situation where the three elements cannot disengage without causing tremendous damage on all levels.

In a sense, what is being said here is that the Japanese economy is not an example of a true free market capitalist economy. Rather it is a strongly planned economy with some of the trappings of a free market system: while individual firms have been allowed to go under (for the good of the whole), entire industries are propped up by government decree.

The analogy of gears within the transmission of a vehicle is apt. If one gear is not working properly, the car grinds to a halt, despite the fact the rest of it is in perfect working order. As well, that one not-working gear can serve to destroy many of the other gears around it, potentially stripping them and leaving them useless as well. The question to be asked: which gear in the Japanese economy did not work and served to strip the others around it? This paper contends that the gear in question was the yakuza. Criminal elements managed to strip away the banking sector, the real estate sector, and the stock market. And no one dared question those criminal elements because they were either themselves also implicated or because they felt that attempting to do so would have called down the wrath of the yakuza upon them. At that point, the Japanese economy started to collapse because the government had to infuse billions into these industries as a way to prop them up. Instead, these non-working gears managed to strip the main gear itself—that of the Japanese economy.

Could this have happened in other Western industrial societies? Yes, but not quite as easily or with the ability to cause as much damage. The gear system for those economies is not as intermeshed as it is in Japan among the public and private sector. An attempt by criminal elements may have damaged a portion of the economy. But those defective gears would have quickly been discarded and replaced. In fact, we have seen an example of just that with the Enron and World Com scandals in the United States. Millions of dollars were lost; thousands lost their savings. But the economy did not collapse. To use another car analogy, the economy was able to shift gears in a relatively smooth way.

…the notion that all corruption and organized-crime involvement in a society can be eradicated amounts to wishful thinking. There are certain areas that will always remain under the shadows of organized crime and officials who feel they can break or at least bend the law. Instead, efforts might be better spent concentrating on extracting the yakuza from the policy-making areas of the Japanese banking system. This would involve breaking up the overly-cozy relationship between bankers, bureaucrats and bank supervisors. Once those links are broken, it would be harder for organized crime to create the bowling ball effect on knocking one over and consequently knocking everyone over. Another way to ease the pressure on the economy is to give business a rule of law that can be pursued in court. Because so many of the business transactions are done with a handshake and alack of a paper trail, this makes it easier for tendering systems and bids to be fixed, for example, and for the yakuza to muscle in. The implication seems to be that, if the businesspeople, bureaucrats and other government officials had fewer secrets and things were more in the open, the yakuza would not be able to dig their claws in as easily. The same is true if the justice system were more transparent.

Finally, if studies such as these do nothing more than raise people’s awareness of these issues, something will have been gained. In this case, not only are the questions asked and people made aware of them, but there is also a second level of awareness regarding the interviewees. Under the cloak of anonymity, these interviewees provide informed opinion of a kind that is usually very difficult to obtain otherwise.

 

Prevention

The study has left little doubt that there is some sort of organized crime involvement in the collapse of the Japanese economy at the beginning of the 1990s. …The researcher’s personal opinion on this subject is that a country cannot insure itself against this sort of thing—at least not indefinitely. In fact, it is the opinion of this researcher that organized crime and corruption to some extent are part of every government, or part of the political cost of doing business, in other words. The costs of trying to eradicate such things completely are prohibitive— and there is no guarantee that the desired results will follow. As pointed out by Pascha (1999): We have so far assumed that getting rid of an incident of corruption does indeed raise social benefits. Some economists have pointed out, however, that corruption may actually have some positive effects, namely when regulation in the economy is so rigid that economic dynamism is severely throttled. Corruption and bribery may then serve as “grease” for the economy.

There is also the opposite possibility to consider—the notion that capitalist free market societies are actually outgrowths of outlaw social systems and therefore corruption and organized crime must be a part of the system if it is to continue to work as advertised. This is essentially what Holmstrom & Smith (2000) argue, following Marx and his idea of “primitive acquisition,” when they claim that the type of “gangster capitalism and wholesale corruption in the former Soviet bloc and China should have been entirely predictable to anyone familiar with the historical origins of capitalism in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere”.

This researcher is not of this opinion. But perhaps what these researchers imply is that new capitalist economies need some sort of balance if they are to work properly. Free market systems need some regulation and rules, so as not to become jungle-like and unstable; they need structuring so they do not become free-for-alls rather than simply free. But they cannot be over-regulated or they will become moribund. Finding that balance is the key—and perhaps an issue that is more important than campaigns to eradicate the yakuza. In fact, it may be that the yakuza will simply vanish if there is no more profit in what they do (although there is a whole other side to the criminal enterprise—and that is satisfying the vices of people).

Japanese men take paternity leave in record numbers: 2.6% in 2011

ikumen dad

by Lucie Prunier

When one thinks of a Japanese family, what usually comes to mind is the image of a male breadwinner household, in which the father is mostly absent from home and busy working long hours, while his wife stays at home and takes care of the housework and children. This family model and division of gender roles continues to be seen by most as traditional, and even as the cultural norm of the country.

However, as in other developed countries, Japan has been undergoing tremendous changes, and an increasing number of people of both sexes reject this model – specialists even argue there is nothing culturally Japanese about the male breadwinner household: for instance, as Atsuko Suzuki’s work shows, women used to be massively employed in agriculture, and the percentage of housewives never went over its all-time peak at 37.1% in 1980.

A survey performed by the Gender Equality Bureau of Japan is a case in point of this change: to the statement that the “husband is expected to work outside the home, while [the] wife is expected to take on domestic duties”, over 70% of respondents agreed in 1979, but thirty years later, in 2009, more than half the population was against the stereotypical statement (55.1%), and for the first time in the history of this survey, the number of men who disagreed outnumbered that of those who supported it (51.1% against, 45.8% supporting).

While the case of career-women who focus on work and do not wish to marry, have children and become housewives is quite famous, less known is that of fathers who want to take part in their children’s education; yet, the latter has been gaining more and more attention. I wrote my Master’s thesis on this issue, performing researches and interviews to this end, and this article is based on it.

Originally, this trend was mostly limited to rare activist groups – like Otoko mo onna mo ikuji jikan o! Renraku kai (Childcare Hours for Men and Women! Network, also known as Ikujiren) created in 1980, and famous for sending a public letter to British Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2000, to induce him to take childcare leave when his baby was born – but they paved the way for the actual boom of the movement around 2005-2006.

Around this time, magazines dedicated to fathering like Nikkei Kids or FQ Japan were founded, as well as new associations, which gained momentum in the media and people’s minds, like Fathering Japan. The latter launched the papa kentei, or Fathering proficiency test, a quiz fathers can take for fun to judge their knowledge on childcare and raise awareness on the matter, gathering about ten thousand participants for its first edition in 2008; its quiz form was decided upon because, as the founder Tetsuya Ando told me himself: “Japanese people love quizzes and exams!”.

This development entailed the creation of the buzzword ikumen, which was made up by the advertising Agency Hakuhodo, according to Tetsuya Ando. It is made out of the words “iku” (“raise children” in Japanese) and “men” (in English), but one can also see a pun with the word “ikemen” (“handsome man” in Japanese), in order to make it sound positive to Japanese people.

Why make it sound positive?

With the young generations increasingly rejecting the old male breadwinner model and the birth-rates now one of the lowest in the world, the latest solution found by the government to tackle the issue has been to try and support this ikumen trend, in hope it would help families have more children: figures indeed show that families in which fathers are significantly more invested tend to have more children. It has multiplied campaigns since the early 2000s, and the latest revision of the Childcare and Family Care Leave Law in 2009 insists on the necessity for fathers to take better part in childcare by allowing both parents to share childcare leave – though its results are quite mixed so far.

 

I. The barriers preventing men from taking part in childcare

1. Being a father through work

As one who knows about the “workaholic” Japanese society can assume, a lot of men declare they do not spend more time with their wives and children for lack of family-friendly policies within their firms, and spend most of their time at work. According to a survey by the Dai-ichi Life Research Institute in 2004 (reported by Jihe Be), only 23.5% of respondents could get flexible hours for their families, and while 44% left home before 7:30 am, 46% came back home after 9 pm. Tetsuya Ando playfully noted to me that more than work-life balance, Japan is about “work-work balance”.

However, the same research institute showed that about 60% of men did not feel a work-family conflict, while declaring that being a father was their most important role. What this means is that for many Japanese men, fulfilling one’s role as a father equals being successful professionally and providing for their families; I even met an ikuman who claimed the same, while acknowledging it was a rather old-fashioned way of thinking. As stated by Gordon Matthew in 2003, working hard also remains a form of pride and an expression of strong masculinity, but the economic slowdown has been dampening this trend, as the state of Japan has worsened in spite of those workers’ efforts.

 

2. The young generation’s dilemma

It is rare to find a Japanese man under 45 years old claiming that he lives for work, while on the contrary older men with higher ranks tend to be more conservative. Younger men are torn between, on the one hand, the absence of official (media or government) encouragement to sacrifice one’s life to one’s company – and those young men tend to agree that this is not desirable – and on the other hand, their older colleagues, in front of whom they have to stay longer at work to appear as worthy workers. Add that to the fact those young workers are at the age when they usually have children, and the core of their dilemma is set.

 

I was told by several interviewees that, according to a rough estimate, while about 60% of men in their twenties would like an active role in childcare, only 30% of those in their thirties would, and 10% of those in their forties; this could leave hope for the future, as the younger generation will replace the older one, but since Matthew found the same figures in a 1989 survey, evolution may take a little longer…

 

Here are the main reasons usually heard as to why most fathers do not take part in childcare in Japan:

 

– Fear of the stigma:

Cases of fathers bullied or fired for taking time off for their families regularly appear in the media, and they clearly send a message to fathers that it is a risky thing to do. As a study by the Human Renaissance Institute shows, many are reluctant to do even seemingly easy things, like bringing their child to a daycare center: what if there was a problem and they ended up being late at work? Potentially bad repercussions on their careers and the fear of their peers’ opinion often keep them from even trying.

 

– Financial reasons:

As Masako Ishii-Kuntz puts it, the salary gap between men and women is still so wide, that it usually makes more sense within couples for the wife to be the one to reduce her workload; some ikumen I met expressed the same problem: they often literally cannot afford to do otherwise.

 

– They do not think about it

For most men, childcare remains a woman’s job, and it is a surprise to hear about a man taking part in it. However, a precedent in a man’s entourage can make him ponder on the topic, which leads to the next reason:

 

– No other male colleague has ever done it

Most would not dare be the first employee in the company to ask to take time off for his family, especially when it comes to childcare leave. The good news, however, is that when there is a precedent, it is an incentive for others – often for them to even realize a man can take care of his children too. For instance, when for the first time ever the mayor of a Japanese city took childcare leave after the birth of his child, his example was followed by four others within the same year. In general though, more than childcare leave, most men say they would rather go home early regularly for their children.

 

– They do not know how to

A lot of men also claim they give up on childcare because they do not know how to do it; the idea that women are naturally gifted for it still prevails in the general opinion – it should also be highlighted that traditionally, a lot of mothers go back for a month to their parents’ with their new born to learn how to take care of them, and it is still quite common to do so; this early isolation of the father is not the best incentive to encourage him to do his share, and it is precisely this sort of reason that leads associations like Fathering Japan to hold seminars or meetings to inform fathers, while magazines targeting fathers also provide advice and can be found at “strategic” places, like hospitals or daycare centers.

3. The influence of the ie in the countryside

As some of my interviewees like Mr Asano highlight, the rise of ikumen occurs in the Tokai region, and especially in big cities like Tokyo or Osaka: in the countryside, tradition still prevails. The ie – literally “house” – refers to the old family system in which 3 generations live together and the eldest son plays a major role, while his wife has to abide by her parents-in-law’s orders. Having the grandparents around could mean more people available to take care of the children, but as a study by Scott North in Toyama prefecture in 2009 shows, in old ie configuration households, women actually spend more time dealing with childcare on their own: the influence of traditional values, peer pressure and gender division remain strong. On the contrary, in urban regions, studies show that grandparents of dual income parents can be a great help for childcare, including the grandfather who may not have been present for his children, but has time after retirement for his grandchildren.

 

II. The role of women

1. As a boosting factor 

With the decline of the male breadwinner model and the rising influence of feminism, an increasing number of women refuse to bear the weight of childcare and domestic chores all by themselves, and it forces men to rethink their place in the household, as shown by interviews by the Human Research Institute.

Fathering Japan members pointed out to me how feedback and questions they receive about fathering are usually the initiative of women, rather than men: wives contact them, go to seminars, find fathering documentation and inform their husbands about it; some of my interviewees also explained they had joined the association after hearing about it from a woman in their entourage. I was even told that many wives trick their husbands into bringing them to seminars and meetings by telling them it is a “family event”, and once at the location, they pretext an errand to leave their husbands with their children at the event, to force them into thinking and trying to do some childcare.

It can also be noted that women are increasingly present in the media, and those sensitive to the issue advertise fathering and organizations related to it.

2. As a curbing factor 

Women can sometimes prevent men from taking an active part in childcare in the way that, as Tetsuya Ando puts it, many feel taking care of children is their sole responsibility. According to the Gender Equality Bureau survey mentioned above, it can be noted that in 2009, nearly 40% of women agreed that the “husband is expected to work outside the home, while [the] wife is expected to take on domestic duties”. Though they do not represent the majority anymore, a great number of them still assume couples shouldn’t share those tasks, and as Schoppa demonstrates, many are content with being housewives.

One of my interviewees pointed out that the expectation of mothers towards their sons and daughters are still often different as well, as more pressure is put on sons to succeed at school in order to obtain a good career, which helps perpetuating the male breadwinner scheme.

Moreover, according to Matthew, some men admit their families are far from being a place of acceptance and peace out of work, as they have to perform what he calls “family service”: their wives are less likely than older women to accept a family model where the father is absent, and they pressure them into doing activities with the family on week-ends, as they have no time during the week; the husbands often do not do them out of enjoyment, but out of duty, which entails much stress for them. Therefore, to Matthew, Japanese men are placed into an ironic situation, as “the progressive Japanese cultural ideal of men living for their families seems to have become not a source of fulfillment for men but a source of pressure”.

III. Ikumen

1. How and why they become ikumen

One should point out that the exact meaning of this word is actually a bit hazy in people’s minds: several of my interviewees highlighted how Japanese people often mistakenly assume an ikuman is a father who takes a long childcare leave of absence, or a househusband, while it more generally refers to a father who simply wants to take part in his children’s lives, sometimes without even taking childcare leave: many ikumen simply go home early on a regular basis.

A lot of the men who decide to take on this rather unusual path claim that they followed their wives’ incentive, or that they were made aware of fathering through external sources like associations.

Some also do it because they think it is important to give an alternative to the mother’s environment: to them, it is about going further than simply “helping the mother”, since there is no reason a father could not do as much.

I also met people who highlighted how they did not want to repeat their own experience with their fathers – or lack thereof – since the latter were usually absent from home during their childhood; in the worse cases, their fathers would bring home the authoritative spirit they needed at work: on the contrary, those new fathers want a harmonious bond with their own children.

Playing an active role in childcare has of course positive outcomes for fathers and their families, the first of which being the fact that they get to spend time with their children and develop close relationships with them. A lot of ikumen also claim it makes them understand better what most women go through regarding childcare when they are left alone with children, and they feel they gain patience and skills from the experience. They also all agree it improves their relationships with their wives, and communications within couples and families. However, those men also have their share of issues when taking the childcare road.

2. Their difficulties

“Why you and not your wife?” is a recurrent question ikumen have to face on a daily basis: most talk about the incomprehension they stir up, especially from their colleagues, when they express their desire to go home or take time off for their families.

They also face what I mentioned prevents a lot of men from even trying to deal with childcare: job insecurity. They have to miss on overtime or traditional “male bonding rituals” (nomikai) which can impede their careers. Depending on their cases, they find different ways to deal with it: M. Ishii-Kuntz mentions for instance Mr Takenaka, who took a difficult exam to stop being belittled by his colleagues for leaving at the same time as female employees – shameful indeed. Mr Wada whom I interviewed, explained that he got in trouble for not working overtime after his daughter was born, which led him to quit his job entirely; his colleagues were jealous of him, and his superiors never understood his decision.

When they decide to take a full childcare leave, ikumen try to minimize the inconvenience caused to their workplace by taking a rather short one – they only very rarely take one or two months off – but they still surprise people around them by doing so, sometimes even starting with their own wives. The Human Research Institute tells the stories of many of those men who were extremely worried about asking for such a leave, and coming back to work after it, and how the support of their peers is very important to them: many around them misunderstand their point, and assume they will go on vacations. M. Ishii-Kuntz says that this support depends on the family-friendliness of their firm, whether there are precedents and the female ratio at work; but the current recession is not really in favor of this trend.

Once on leave, a lot of them feel like they do not fit in: for instance, when a man is seen on the street in the middle of a working day, people assume it is his day off or he is unemployed, and if he is with his children, they assume he is a househusband; but the idea that he may be on childcare leave is extremely rare: according to the Gender Equality Bureau, only 2.6% of fathers took childcare leave in 2011 – twice as many as in 2010! – while 87.8% of mothers did.

It is hard for those fathers to be seen as the one responsible for their children, and they sometimes say they feel quite lonely and have a hard time relating to others: Mr Wada for example, explained that when he took his child to play in the park, since he was the only father around, he felt like an outsider, ostracized from the group of mothers who came at the same time. Many ikumen found themselves in this situation, and also worried it could impact badly on their children’s relations to others, for being the one with the “different” father.

M. Ishii-Kuntz says that while women can have roles that are both traditionally feminine (childcare) and masculine (work), it is much harder for men, especially regarding childcare leave: they cannot associate with full-time housewives, and they long for interactions with other fathers; they sometimes join gatherings and associations just for that.

3. Dual income families and daycare centers

 More and more fathers claim they want to at least help with childcare, especially when their wives decide to keep on working after giving birth. According to interviews, the common pattern for those dual income couples is to share daycare tasks according to each parent’s schedule: one brings the children in the morning, and the other picks them up in the evening; the father is more often the one in charge in the morning, so that he can work overtime if necessary.

Daycare centers allow both parents the possibility to work, but also to meet other parents in the same situation as them. As for fathers, by coming to daycare centers, they also encourage more men to do the same: for instance, Mr Wada explained that when he started bringing his child to his daycare center, only a handful of other fathers did, but mothers told him they were asking their own husbands to be more like him, and progressively more and more came in to take part in the process.

Conversely, the system also has flaws, the first of which being the continuous deficit of slots in daycare centers: whether government-subsidized or private, the number of facilities is greatly insufficient, and parents often struggle to find an opening – according to the Japan Times, about 25,000 children were on authorized centers waiting lists in 2012, but the real figure may be actually twice as high. Those who do manage to place their children have to face hectic days: in the morning, parents have to remember to bring diapers, changes of clothes, clean dishes and to take their child’s temperature. In the evening, those who do not have fixed hours can be scolded by daycare center employees for being late. If their child is ill, one parent has to leave work to take care of them, which can have a negative influence on their work, and services to help in those situations are scarce.

***

The relation Japanese men have with childcare is evolving: for older generations, being a father mainly meant being the breadwinner and providing for one’s family; but for younger ones, the model of the father absent from the home has less and less appeal, as men want to be more present in the lives of their children. Authors and interviewees agree that it is nowadays positive for a man to want to be an ikuman, that more men want to play a role in childcare, and that it has become easier for them to do so. However, the weight of corporate traditions, as well as those of the countryside, added to general assumptions on gender roles, curb the evolution towards more involvement in childcare for men.

 

Yet, some other factors are on the contrary helping this evolution: some still rare men stand up against corporate traditions and fight for their rights to take part in childcare, and women can – consciously or not – hinder this evolution at times, but also greatly boost it. The government can also play an important role, but their attempts to raise awareness on fathering have yet to show concrete results.

 

The evolution of men regarding childcare seems to have accelerated in the very recent years. However, as Scott North pinpoints:

“The pace of change has been slow. (…) For every Japanese husband who does the shopping, cleans the bath, cooks or takes his children to nursery school, there are nine who leave the household and care of children to their wives (or mothers).”

 

 

Lucie has masters degrees in Political Sciences and Contemporary Asian Studies from the Institute of Political Studies in Lyon, France. Gender issues is her primary interest; she wrote her master’s thesis on the subject of ikumen, using both academic literature and interviews with members of “Fathering Japan” and others related to the movement. Currently she works in the video game industry in Osaka. 

 

References:

-BE, Jihe, 2005: Chapter 4 “Nihon to Kankoku ni okeru dansei no ‘waaku famirii konfurikuto’” (Work-family conflict for men in Japan and Korea) in WATANABE, Hideki, Gendai Nihon no shakai ishiki: kazoku, kodomo, jendaa (The contemporary Japanese society conscience: family, children, gender) Collection: Sosho 21COE-CCC tabunka sekai ni okeru shimin ishiki no dotai, Vol.6, Tokyo: Keio gijuku daigaku shuppankai, 63:84

-Fathering Japan official website (English),

URL: < http://www.fathering.jp/english/index.html >

-Fathering Proficiency Test (Papa kentei) official page (Japanese)

URL: < http://www.kentei-uketsuke.com/papaken/ >

-Gender Equality Bureau (latest surveys from 2012 available in English),

URL: < http://www.gender.go.jp/english_contents/index.html >

-Human Renaissance Institute, 2008: Otokotachi no waaku raifu baransu (Men’s work-life balance), Gentosha renaissance

-ISHII-KUNTZ, Masako, 2003: “Balancing fatherhood and work: Emergence of diverse masculinities in contemporary Japan”, in ROBERSON, James, SUZUKI, Nobue, (eds.) Men and masculinities in contemporary Japan: dislocating the salaryman doxa, London: RoutledgeCurzon

-MATTHEW, Gordon, 2003: “Can ‘real man’ live for his family? Ikigai and masculinity in today’s Japan”, in ROBERSON, James, SUZUKI, Nobue, (eds.) Men and masculinities in contemporary Japan: dislocating the salaryman doxa, London: RoutledgeCurzon

-NORTH, Scott, 2009: “Negotiating What’s ‘natural’: persistent domestic gender role inequality in Japan”, in Social Science Japan Journal, Vol.12, N°1, Oxford University Press, 23:44

-SCHOPPA, Leonard, 2006: Race for the Exits: The Unraveling of Japan’s System of Social Protection, Cornell university

-SUZUKI, Atsuko (ed.), 2007: Gender and Career in Japan, Melbourne, Australia: Trans Pacific Press

Japan’s Antinuclear Movement, Post-3/11

By Douglas Miller

Antinuclear protest movements sprang up in and around Tokyo after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011. Japan’s antinuclear movement has since waned, however, and the reasons warrant careful consideration.

The antinuclear movement in Japan before 3.11 focused on opposition to nuclear arms, led by Gensuikyo—formally the Gensuibaku Kinshi Nihon Kyogikai (Japan Council against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs). That group emerged in response to the open-air nuclear detonation conducted by the United States on Bikini Atoll on March 1, 1954. It subsequently succumbed, though, to the factionalism for which Japan’s political left is notorious.

Numerous progressives who opposed nuclear arms supported the use of nuclear power. That includes even members of support organizations for the hibakusha victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombings. Opposition to nuclear power plants arose in some plant localities, but that opposition centered on fishing and land rights and did not necessarily reflect concern about the dangers of nuclear catastrophe.

The nuclear accident at Chernobyl in 1986 occasioned an upturn in antinuclear sentiment in Japan, but the antinuclear activists failed to attain sufficient collective heft to sway national policy significantly. They gathered tens of thousands of signatures for a petition that called for curtailing dependence on nuclear energy, but the Japanese constitution lacks any provision for legally binding citizen-initiated referendums. Meanwhile, the continuing election and re-election of parliamentary candidates from the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) calls into question the depth of popular opposition to nuclear power. The conservative LDP, which has dominated postwar Japanese politics, has been and remains a vigorous proponent of nuclear power.

nukepic

Cooptation of the Antinuclear Movement

The antinuclear movement that formed after 3.11 differed from its predecessors in that it was organic, not political. Protests outside the prime minister’s residence, the parliament building, and Tokyo Electric Power Company’s headquarters became weekly events. On July 16, 2012, more than 170,000 antinuclear protesters congregated in Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park—Japan’s largest antinuclear gathering ever.

The ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) differed little from the LDP in regard to nuclear energy policy. Kan Naoto, the prime minister when the disaster occurred, expressed concerns about nuclear power, but his DPJ successor as prime minister, former finance minister Noda Yoshihiko, announced his wish to restart all nuclear power plants as soon as possible after finishing rigorous safety inspections.

Japan’s antinuclear movement gained a face when Noda agreed to meet with representatives of the Metropolitan Coalition against Nukes (Hangenren). Interestingly, no evidence is available that suggests that Hangenren had indeed been in the vanguard of the antinuclear protests. But that did not prevent the mass media from portraying its leaders as “representatives” of the antinuclear movement. And Hangenren’s emergence as the face of the movement proved fateful.

Social movements decline for any of four main reasons: cooptation, repression, organizational failure, and absorption into mainstream society. Positioning the Hangenren as the face of the antinuclear movement enabled the authorities to coopt the movement. Now in the limelight as the newly christened organizers of the weekly protests, Hangenren colluded with the police. The policy became obvious as Hangenren organizers, positioned behind shields of riot police, and used police bullhorns to control the masses. Here were “protesters” abiding politely by traffic rules. The mainstream domestic media threw its support behind the cooptation policy, characterizing the nonaligned antinuclear activists as ultraleftist radicals. And the antinuclear movement declined into insignificance as a force for change.

We could argue, of course, that the decline of Japan’s post-3.11 antinuclear movement is a reflection of the movement’s success: that its agenda has gone mainstream. Reinforcing that argument are the findings of a recent Asahi Shimbun poll. That poll revealed that 58 percent of Japanese are in favor of moving away from nuclear energy dependence as soon as possible. The Japanese Communist Party (JCP) noted on its website, meanwhile, the gains by the JCP and by other antinuclear parties in a recent election for seats to the upper house in Japan’s parliament.

Japan’s pronuclear business establishment is stronger, however, than public sentiment. Its propaganda exalts the safety and necessity of nuclear power plants and the importance of nuclear technology. The business-friendly magazine Wedge recently carried an extended feature that called for restarting all of Japan’s nuclear power plants. Establishment propaganda also mobilizes pop-culture icons to extol the safety of nuclear power. Nuclear reactors power the lovable robotic cat Doraemon and the Gundam robots in Japanese cartoons. The popularity of the nuclear-powered robotic heroes is emblematic of the obstacles that the antinuclear movement faces. Adults who grow up with deeply ingrained notions of nuclear safety tend to cling stubbornly to those notions as adults.

Laudable Accomplishments

The Japanese government, which has taken a majority stake in Tokyo Electric, is working towards restarting the nation’s nuclear reactors. Tokyo Electric is moving to restart up to four nuclear reactors by 2015, starting with the Kashiwazaki Nuclear Power Plant in Niigata in July 2014. That would seem to negate the efforts of the thousands of antinuclear activists who rallied day and night after 3.11. But it does not mean that the post-3.11 antinuclear movement has been an utter failure.

A reasonable goal for any social movement is to awaken the general public, to incite change. In that sense, the post-3.11 antinuclear movement has been highly successful. Never has such a movement in Japan swayed public opinion as much as this one has. Notwithstanding the establishment’s cooptation of the movement through Hangenren or even the projected restarting of reactors, the antinuclear movement has accomplished a great deal. Let us be grateful for its role in arousing a broadened public discourse about the direction of Japanese energy policy.

Douglas Miller is a public relations consultant, translator, and interpreter living and working in Tokyo. He is currently pursuing a B.A. in Political Science at Temple University. 

Outsiders Amongst Outsiders’: A Cultural Criminological Perspective on the Sub-Subcultural World of Women in the Yakuza Underworld

Rie Alkemade 

Abstract: This research explores a lesser-known aspect of the infamous yakuza subculture: the wives. Implementing a triangulation of methods and embracing a cultural criminological perspective, this thesis aims to discover the roles, influences, and positions of these women in this overly patriarchal criminal society. Traveling across the yakuza pyramid, this thesis seeks to understand these women’s subjective perceptions regarding their own positions and how they express these perceptions through popular media depictions. This study reveals that unlike Western mafia wives, yakuza wives have remained outside the sphere of criminal activity in this organized crime structure, remaining in the passive emotionally and financially supportive role. This research further explores the ways in which these women have adapted to their set circumstances by creating a parallel shadow subculture, an exclusively female ‘sub-subculture’ within the yakuza itself in which they create a sense of solidarity, pride, and confident identities by adopting and mimicking the yakuza rituals and customs as their own.

Key words: yakuza; women; popular media; subculture; cultural criminology 

***

CHAPTER I: Introduction

 

“Even a yakuza has a household, a wife and children.”

(Ieda, 2007; 12)

i.               Introduction

The Japanese yakuza is internationally acclaimed. With a membership of approximately 80,000 men, greater than any of its international ‘brother’ organizations, the names of the largest three syndicates – the Yamaguchi-gumi, the Sumiyoshi-kai, and the Inagawa-kai – have become known worldwide. Countless studies, both in Japan and abroad, have been conducted and published on this extensive organized crime structure. Its history has been traced back hundreds of years. Both the law enforcement and the general public have known the location of each syndicate’s headquarters and their geographical spread for the past decades. The membership figures and details for each syndicate and smaller sub-groups are registered and published by the National Police Agency (NPA) annually, open for everyone to see. Almost every single citizen in Japan is knowledgeable on the yakuza’s activities and whereabouts. Many even confess to knowing a yakuza member through acquaintances and most are aware of which major companies act as ‘front companies’ for the yakuza. Some can even point out which buildings are yakuza-owned. Despite being a criminal entity, it would appear that little is in the dark when it comes to the yakuza. The high level of transparency of this organized crime institution shocks many Westerners, a transparency incomparable to any of the yakuza’s international counterparts who prefer to thrive in the shadows of society.

One area of the yakuza institution however still remains mostly clouded in mystery: their family life. It is no surprising secret that yakuza members – indeed, any man engaged in criminality – has a family on the side. Yet these family members have hardly ever been the subjects of research, remaining in the shadows and out of the bright light of academia. As traditional research will show, the wives of criminal men were long believed to be estranged from their husband’s illegal pursuits and activities. The wife was traditionally portrayed as a dutiful, submissive, and obedient woman, blissfully ignorant of her husband’s criminal career (or consciously choosing to turn a blind eye), a woman whose domain was the home with the children like all other ‘good’ housewives. This view of the passive, moral woman was very much in line with the dominant view of criminality being an overwhelmingly male-dominated phenomenon – women were just not cut out to be criminals, even if their husbands and sons were. If any previous research had shown female activities in gangs or organized crime structures, they simply “ignored [the] girls’ occasionally violent behavior” (Steffensmeier & Allan, 1996; 463).

Many researchers in recent years have taken on the task of debunking this stereotype and indeed have successfully done so. Today, research reveals that the women in many international organized crime institutions, notably the Italian mafia, are as involved as their criminal men. Mafia members themselves as well as the police, the criminal justice system, and state officials have taken steps forward in acknowledging the role and influence of mafia wives on not only their criminal husbands but also within the mafia structure itself. Women are no longer assumed to be passive bystanders but are seen as active participants. However, the same cannot be said for research specifically regarding the case of Japan. Studies conducted in this field are surprisingly lacking, and even today little is known about yakuza wives. Are yakuza wives actively involved in the syndicate’s criminal affairs? Do yakuza wives exert any direct influence within the syndicate of their husbands? Few can answer such questions with confidence, and even less can do so with the support of empirical evidence. This thesis will aim to build a bridge in this gap of knowledge. This thesis aims to discover whether yakuza wives are as ruthless and involved as other mafia women across the globe have been proven to be.

 

ii.             Previous Research and Relevance

There has been a boom in the study of women in organized crime and other mafia-like organizations in recent years, significantly on the Italian mafia. As mentioned above, these publications aim to challenge the notion that women are inactive, passive members in the mafia world (Longrigg, 1998; Fiandaca, 2010; Siegel, 2013). These studies bring forth the eye-opening reality that in today’s criminal society women “occupy important positions in crime economies and in organizational structures” (Siegel, 2013; 5).

A lot of progress therefore has been made in the area of women in organized crime, as can be seen by the growing list of literature in the field. An example of a noteworthy publication is Claire Longrigg’s Mafia Women published in 1998, in which Longrigg conducts extensive and thorough case studies of several infamous women associated to the Italian mafia, both in Italy and the United States, and brings to light their involvement in the mafia’s criminal affairs and bloody vengeances. This publication is perhaps one of most important turning points for studies on mafia women, a point when it became clear that women did not hold the traditionally assumed passive position. Another significant publication worth mentioning is Giovanni Fiandaca’s Women and the Mafia: Female Roles in Organized Crime Structures, a compilation of studies by numerous researchers on organized crime structures across the world. The book contains chapters on women in the Italian mafia, the Russian mafia, the Albanian mafia, and the Japanese mafia – simply to name a few. It delves into the role of the press and mass media in influencing the stereotype of mafia women, and it also evaluates previous research conducted in the field. In short, it is an insightful and extremely comprehensive analysis of the phenomenon of mafia women on a global scale. Due to such publications therefore there is a growing number new discoveries and numerous new applications of different theoretical concepts. For example, a list of typologies regarding women who associate with members of organized crime institutions has been established – there are the traditionally stereotyped mafia wives, “women over fifty years old, originally from mafia families” (Dino in Fiandaca, 2010; 76); the active female personnel; the autonomous who act according to their own motives; the middle-aged female family members who’s activities fluctuate; the mafia member’s lovers and mistresses who hold a considerable amount of influence over their mafia companions; and finally the female victims of mafia-related crimes (Dino in Fiandaca, 2010). Though these typologies have been created based on extensive research and case studies of women associated to the Italian mafia, they appear to be stated as being applicable to other international organized crime institutions rather than being country specific. The same can be said for studies conducted on the general roles of mafia women – again, heavily based on studies of the Italian mafia but generalized theoretically to be applicable to organized crime structures across the world. The mafia wife’s roles have been identified as being the primary figure in the “educational and socializing processes” of the children (ibid; 75), the mediator of not only communication between different mafia families but also the Church, maintaining a favorable image of the organization, acting as instruments for strengthening ties between families through marriage, and counteracting the police and law enforcement. From knowing very little about these mafia women just a few years ago, criminologists have advanced significantly in their knowledge of these mafia wives, mistresses, and mothers. Yet despite these advancements in the field of women in organized crime, specific studies conducted on women in the Japanese yakuza are extremely limited. There is indeed a chapter in Fiandaca’s Women and the Mafia: Female Roles in Organized Crime Structures written by Le Monde journalist Ryu Otomo that focuses on women in the yakuza yet this is, from what I have seen, the only notable publication focusing specifically on the case of Japan. It appears to be a field that has yet to penetrate the academic world – or perhaps to put it more specifically, the academic world in English. Many publications both academic and non-academic regarding yakuza wives have been published in Japanese, but unfortunately they have yet to make their way into the English world of academia.

It is exactly this point that proves the relevance of the research I have taken on for this thesis. Firstly, in the growing academic field of mafia women the case of Japan is still sorely understudied; this thesis attempts to at least begin to fill in this missing gap of knowledge. While the yakuza is indeed an organized criminal entity that is in many ways comparable to other international organized crime structures, there are numerous differences in its organizational structure and its rituals, and major differences in the particular cultural context that must be specifically addressed accordingly to accurately study the wives of Japanese yakuza members. By shedding light on these factors, the question of mafia women in Japan can finally be compared to the studies conducted on mafia women in other organized crime structures, and general theories and typologies can be tested for applicability in Japan as well as the Western countries already discussed. Secondly, this thesis aims to lay the foundations for a bridge between the existing literary publications on the Japanese yakuza in English (such as David E. Kaplan and Alec Dubro’s Yakuza: Japan’s Criminal Underworld and Peter Hill’s The Japanese Mafia: Yakuza, Law, and the State) and the existing yakuza-related publications that are as of now only available in Japanese. Similarly, I have almost solely focused on having Japanese respondents and analyzing Japanese film depictions of the yakuza for these same reasons. And finally, as with any criminological research, with the results and conclusions made in this research there may be policy implications for law enforcement or the judiciary system. Though policy debate and evaluation is neither the focus nor the final aim of this research, the results may prove to be interesting or useful for those involved in dealing with organized crime in the police, legal institutions, or public officials; without any empirical research conducted, “community stakeholders run a high risk of being seriously mistaken about the nature of their gang problem”, and therefore “every effort must be made […] to discard preconceived notions because many of them are based on gang myths” (Howell, 2007; 45). As women in organized crime structures has long been an area shrouded by mystery and ignorance, it has continuously remained an area where many ‘myths’ existed; therefore studies such as this are relevant for many community stakeholders.

 

iii.           Research Question

Naturally, ‘women associated with the yakuza underworld’ is much too broad a topic to tackle within the purview of this thesis. Though it seems upon first glance condensed enough as a research topic, upon further reading one will immediately see that there are numerous kinds of women who are associated with the yakuza. There are the mothers, the sisters, the wives, the girlfriends, and the daughters that fall under this category. Furthermore there are numerous women who find themselves victim to the different types of yakuza activities, whether it is of white-collar extortion, or prostitution or drug trafficking; they too fall under the category of ‘women associated with the yakuza underworld’.

In narrowing down the focus of this thesis, there were some important factors to consider. First, that the aim of this research is twofold, which must be made clear in the research question. There is to start with the descriptive element: what are the roles and influences of the wives of yakuza members in this criminal subculture? In line with the general framework of a descriptive investigation, the first aim of this research is to “[uncover] information, [and] to paint a picture of a phenomenon, identifying the key characteristics and examining any patterns which occur” (Davies, Francis & Jupp, 2011; 56). As mentioned in the previous section, the descriptive element is the essential starting point due to the very fact that previous research in this chosen topic is limited. The second element that must be made clear in the research question is the explanatory aspect of this research, where cause-and-effect relations will be explored. Moreover it is necessary to condense the subjects or the units of analysis of this research from simply being ‘women’ to a more concise unit. As this thesis mainly focuses on the role and influence of the wives of yakuza members, it must be made clear in the main research question that it is the wives that are the primary subject of research (and consequently therefore these wives’ roles as mothers may fall into the subject category).

With these considerations in mind, the main research question for this research has been formulated as the following:

 

What are the roles of yakuza wives in the yakuza subculture, and how do these women perceive their own positions?

 

From this research question it is clear that there is both a descriptive element as well as an explanatory element to the research and structure of this thesis.

Several sub-questions fall under this main question. These sub-questions, which will also be answered throughout the analyses of the data, are the following:

  • Are there differences in the roles played by wives of lower-ranking and higher-ranking yakuza members?
  • Are the roles of yakuza wives comparable to wives of mafia members abroad? In what ways are they similar or different?
  • What roles and influences do yakuza wives have as mothers to yakuza children? How does this differ from wives of mafia members abroad?
  • Why do yakuza wives perceive their positions the way they do?
  • What role does the media play in our understanding of yakuza wives?

These are the questions to keep in mind for the remainder of this thesis, as well as when exploring and analyzing the data gathered to reach the final conclusion.

 

iv.            Methodology

As described in the previous sub-section, the aim of this thesis is twofold – to be both descriptive and explanatory. Creating a research design that accommodates these two goals was vital. The research conducted took on a largely theoretical approach (as opposed to a policy-related or intervention-based approach), which allows for the “understanding and explaining of human behavior and social action, the workings of social institutions and how all of these connect with the different dimensions of social structure” and also allows for the “exploring [of] dominant world views and unpacking problems perhaps by exploring [one’s own] perspectives or stakeholder perspectives in a way which opens up assumptions” (Davies, Francis & Jupp, 2011; 41-42).

What was made evident early on in the planning stages of this thesis was that I was beginning my research with very few prespecifications. What I mean by this is that as mentioned in the introductory sections of this paper, very little is already known about yakuza wives. Therefore it was difficult to create a well-informed and detailed plan to follow during the gathering of data; it is impossible to design specific questions or a fixed framework when there is limited prior knowledge on the chosen field of study. Thus the first decision made in creating the research design was to adopt a flexible as opposed to a fixed research design. The advantages of using a flexible design, one that is often adopted by researchers conducting qualitative research, is that it “evolves as the research progresses and therefore involves little prespecification”; the researcher “does not seek to control the setting. Instead, s/he allows the concepts to emerge naturally and examines them as they manifest, looking for themes and relationships to develop” (Davies, Francis & Jupp, 2011; 58). This was the more suitable option for this specific research as I could build my research design and plan even with the general lack of previous knowledge and research, and allowed for the option of openness and allowed me to be more prepared in the likely event that the data gathered revealed unexpected results.

For these same reasons, this research design largely took on a flexible combination of a deductive and inductive approach. Induction is the preferred approach for researchers who aim to generate theories as opposed to applying them. While it is not the aim of this thesis to generate new theories, due to the likelihood of unexpected results and the lack of prior data it would have been unsuitable to limit the design to either a purely inductive or deductive one. Having a combination approach is not unheard of in criminological research, as such social research has been known to often “[fall] between the two and there is, in practice, an intertwining of theory construction and testing” (Davies, Francis & Jupp, 2011; 38). As it has hopefully been made clear by this point, the main characteristics favored in choosing the design for this research were flexibility and openness, as opposed to rigid and fixed.

In deciding upon which methods to use for the gathering of data necessary for this thesis, it was important to keep in mind the end purpose of this research: to explore the roles of yakuza wives in the yakuza subculture, and to understand within this context their individual perceptions regarding their own positions. To accomplish these aims, it was necessary to choose methods that allowed for the exploration of subjective experiences rather than facts and ‘impersonal’ statistics. In line with this thinking, the use of surveys or questionnaires was also dismissed as a possible method of gathering data; it limits the responses in a way that does not allow for the exploration of subjective opinions and experiences, and the answers allowed are much too inflexible and rigid (qualities I wished to avoid, as explained above). With these considerations in mind three main methods were decided upon to gather the data, allowing for not only an exploration of subjective experiences but also a triangulation of the data to check for accuracy and comparison. Triangulation is essential as it “places a heavy emphasis on improving validity through the combination of different methods” (ibid; 60). This paper will conduct a triangulation of methods as well as a theoretical triangulation, thus aiming to increase the theoretical validity as well. It is important in choosing the most appropriate methods catered to each research project in optimizing the quality of the data gathered, as “nothing kills good criminology like bad method” (Ferrell, Hayward & Young, 2008; 192). The methods chosen were a secondary analysis of prior research, semi-structured, flexible interviews, and a narrative and syntagmatic analysis of media depictions (autobiographical and biographical works and films).

  • Secondary Analysis

A secondary analysis of previously conducted research is vital for any research, criminological or otherwise. There are naturally major advantages in carrying out an analysis of secondary data, as they are often “much more substantial than [what] the average researcher could achieve alone” and these studies are also “subject to high standards of validity and quality control” (Davies, Francis & Jupp, 2011; 68). This research will focus more on data collected by previous academic researchers (both from Japan and from abroad) as opposed to focusing on statistical data or official figures collected by government departments or criminal justice agencies, as there are close to none in this chosen field. As already shown in previous sections, the publications obtained for this research are primarily gathered by Western scholars and criminologists as opposed to Japanese researchers. Because of this, the secondary data – both of the theoretical and substantial nature – are focused on Western subjects, Western schools of though, and Western-oriented theories. This may appear to be a disadvantage to this research, due to the fact that they may not appear applicable to the context of Japan. The validity of applying such data to this specific case may be questioned. However I do not intend to apply these findings or theories blindly to my own findings and results, but rather use them as tools of comparison, to test whether they are indeed applicable to the case of Japan or not. As discussed above, one of the aims of this thesis is to discover whether the mainstream theories and discoveries of mafia women internationally are applicable to the case of Japanese yakuza wives as well. Therefore it is not disadvantageous to use secondary data gathered outside of Japan as the sources for this paper’s secondary analysis. Moreover, to indeed avoid having an overly ‘Eurocentric’ view for a non-Western subject matter, the other methods chosen – the interviews and the media analysis – focus almost solely on Japanese subjects and Japanese media depictions. This aims to balance the more Western-based data that is gathered in the secondary analysis. By countering the more heavily Western literature used for the secondary analysis with two other methods which are more heavily Japanese-focused, the validity of this research has hopefully been increased in the sense that it is more balanced on a global perspective.

 

  • Semi-structured Interviews

The conducting of interviews is the preferred method for many criminological researchers as it can be “an invaluable source of information and opinions that generate valid, representative and reliable data” (Davies, Francis & Jupp, 2011; 104). As this research prioritizes the analysis of individual experiences and perceptions of the yakuza underworld, more distant and quantitative methods such as the use of questionnaires and surveys were dismissed, as it would have been much more difficult if not at times impossible to follow up on the respondents’ answers or question them further to obtain more specific information or simply for clarification. The use of semi-structured interviews was chosen for the same reasons as choosing a flexible research design: the preparedness for unexpected answers or information due to a lack of prior knowledge on the topic. A semi-structured interview is characterized as the interviewer having “a list of information to be drawn from the respondent, but the questions used can be changed […] to fit in with the conversation” (ibid; 64). Should the respondent bring up an interesting or surprising fact, having a structured interview would be disadvantageous as it would not allow for the interview to follow-up on the point or ask the respondent to further elaborate. At the same time, because of the general lack of prior preparation in creating structured interview questions based on previous research, having a completely open, unstructured interview would be too risky – without some sort of structure (in the form of a topic list) there was the considerable risk that there would be little to no guidance throughout the interview in directing the respondent’s answers, which could have undesirably resulted in “inappropriate or unmanageable data unfit for specific contexts and for specific purposes” (ibid; 104). Considering these reasons, the semi-structured approach clearly seemed most ideal.

The sampling of the respondents chosen for this research was simple. I employed a purposive, non-probability sampling method as opposed to a random sample. The subject for this study, yakuza wives, is highly specific and moreover it is the perception of these women that is of interest, not the perceptions or opinions of the average Japanese citizen. Therefore having a random sample would not be fruitful to the study. It was important to recruit respondents who are familiar with the yakuza subculture. In the end this research uses the data gathered from nine respondents.[1]  The functions of these nine respondents range from a former yakuza wife to criminology professors to retired anti-organized crime police officers to individuals born into yakuza households – all respondents are individuals knowledgeable on and familiar with the yakuza subculture. Of the nine respondents, three are female (Respondents 1, 8 and 9). All respondents had given their informed consent in being interviewed for this thesis. All respondents’ names are kept anonymous to protect confidentiality. Only one respondent (Respondent 4) wished to remain completely anonymous and therefore the sex and function of this respondent, in line with his/her wishes, have been filled as ‘not available’ (N/A).

There is a clear limitation in choosing to conduct interviews as one of the three methods. Firstly, yakuza wives are, as a subject, an extremely hard focus group to gain access to and as a result, only one of my respondents is a former yakuza wife (Respondent 9). Perhaps given a lengthier time frame in conducting this research, it would have been possible to gain access to more former or even current yakuza wives, yet at this point this remains purely a speculation. Therefore a glaring shortcoming of this research is that much of my analyses and conclusions from this specific method must be drawn on the opinions of others whom themselves are not yakuza wives. However in an attempt to counter this limitation, the use of several yakuza wives’ autobiographies and biographies (in the third method explained below) have been employed in an attempt to unearth the subjective opinions, experiences, and perceptions of the subjects of this research.

  • Narrative and Syntagmatic Analysis of Media Depictions

Narrative analyses are described as “a variety of methods concerned with examining the overall structure of a text and with identifying patterns within the structures (e.g., watching episodes of a crime drama series and identifying recurring themes)” (Davies, Francis & Jupp, 2011; 234) while syntagmatic analyses focus on the “chain of events that comprise a narrative structure, such as the storyline that is played out in a television drama, novel or film” and “identified the relationships that exist between elements within the text”, analyzing “the chain of events and the roles and activities of the characters” (ibid; 238-239). These methods were chosen specifically to remedy the limitation of not having enough of subject in question (yakuza wives) as respondents in conducting the interviews. Two forms of media were chosen as the subjects for these analyses – biographical and autobiographical publications, and yakuza films. By analyzing the autobiographical accounts published by real-life yakuza wives, for example, it is possible to gain insight into the subjective perceptions and experiences of these women that was lacking in the data gathered through the interviews. Naturally the limitation of this method is that unlike an interview, one cannot ask questions directly to the authors; yet upon reading these books, most of the questions asked during the interviews themselves were directly or indirectly ‘answered’ throughout the books. Analyzing the films provides us with an insight as to how the yakuza wives within these films and their roles and activities relate to the portrayal of the yakuza subculture. The analyses are characterized by their qualitative nature rather than a quantitative one, the main characteristic of a content analysis, which is more suitable when combined with the two other methods, both of which are also highly qualitative in nature. How often something occurs is not the point of interest for this thesis, but rather we are interested in how something is portrayed. As will be made clear throughout the thesis, the relationships between the characters and the portrayed “chain of events” in these media depictions are vital in our understanding of these women’s perceptions and subjective experiences.

Criminologists have long acknowledged the role and influence of the media in influencing and even shaping crime, and many have further studied the role of the media in relation to organized crime specifically. The role of the press for example has been shown to have a large influence in the construction of the image of mafia women amongst the public in Italy and has also been shown to be a facilitator in the building of the stereotype of mafia women (Dino in Fiandaca, 2010). Studying the media therefore has allowed for these researchers to understand how the long-standing stereotype of mafia women was created amongst the mainstream public, and to what extent the mass media was responsible for this.

 

“As much as they can at times be approximate and inexact, and therefore should always be verified, news items spread through daily newspapers help us describe the phenomenon, localize it in space, define it over time, and classify it into types and categories. They help us to understand the images of mafia women: those created by opinion makes, distributed by the media, and corroborated or refuted from inside the organization. All this is fundamental in constructing a broader social representation of the female role inside the mafia organization.”

(Dino in Fiandaca, 2010; 81)

 

In these examples, the primary media form used by the researchers has been the press – newspapers, television news and the radio. This is not the case for this research; this research focuses on popular culture media. Focusing on mass media communication such as the newspaper or the radio is more likely to yield data regarding the perceptions of the average citizen; for example, how the ordinary citizen views organized crime. It is a legitimate and highly useful method in obtaining data regarding the perceptions of the mainstream society as a whole, or the general public’s opinions. Such perceptions are not valuable to this specific research. As analyzing popular culture media such as films and literary pieces are more suited in delving into the subjects’ individual perceptions rather than those of the general public, which is of less interest to this research topic, they were chosen as the sources of analyses instead.

 

  • Translation

As this thesis concerns a topic of a non-English speaking country (Japan), much of the literary sources used for this research have been read in their original language (Japanese). Below is a list of sources used in this research of which have been read in Japanese as they have not been officially translated into English; any quotes throughout this thesis taken from these sources have been self-translated into English:

  1. Anzai, Chizue (2001): Watakushi wa yubi o tsumeta onna (I am the Woman with the Chopped Finger).
  2. Ieda, Shoko (2007): Gokudo no Onna-tachi (The Yakuza Wives).
  3. Ishihara, Mai (2010): Anesan ninkyo-ki (Ane-san Chivalry Diary).
  4. Taoka, Yuki (2003): Otosan no sekkenbako: aisareru koto o wasurete iru hito e (My Father’s Soap Box: For those who have forgotten that they are loved).
  5. Taoka, Yuki & Manabu Miyazaki (2010): The last family.
  6. Tsubaki, Misao (2004): Anesan ga mita buttobi gokudokai (The Surprising Yakuza World as seen by the Ane-san).
  7. Uchiyama, Ayako, & Kanehiro Hoshino (1993): A study on the conformity of boryokudan members to the boryokudan sub-culture.
  8. Yamadaira, Shigeki (1998). The Legendary ‘Female Boss’. Yakuza dai jiten.

The following two sources, however, have been officially translated and published from Japanese into English. The translated versions were read for this research and therefore any quotes throughout this thesis are not self-translated but are officially translated:

  1. Miyazaki, Manabu (2005): Toppamono: Outlaw, Radical, Suspect: My Life in Japan’s Underworld.
  2. Tendo, Shoko (2012). Yakuza moon: memoirs of a gangster’s daughter.

The fact that I am not an official or certified English-Japanese translator may be argued by some to be a limitation; however, the author’s main argument or point should be exactly translated and carried into the English translation, and I have attempted to translate the more subtle nuances of the quotations and excerpts as accurately as possible. However one could indeed argue that this is a definite limitation in this thesis.

Similarly, the interviews conducted for this research were all conducted in Japanese except for one, which was conducted in English (Respondent 8). All excerpts and quotations from these interviews therefore are also self-translated into English.

 

v.              Theoretical Framework

Most research focusing on women in criminal subcultures or female criminality will choose to adopt elements of feminist criminology or the female emancipation theory in explaining their findings. As crime has historically been studied, or perhaps still continues to be studied, as a predominantly male phenomenon, many criminologists pose questions such as, “Do the macro social conditions producing male crime also produce female crime?” (Steffensmeier & Allan, 1996; 464) Such questions clearly demonstrate how female crime is not studied as an independent phenomenon but rather is studied alongside and in line with male criminality – that is, the gender factor is consistently present. The fact that the perpetrator of the crime is a woman is almost without fail heavily emphasized and used as the focal point of analysis. As a result, an increase in female crime or a general change in female crime trends is often explained through gender relations and the societal position of women at the time of the study in comparison to men. The Gender Equality hypothesis for example explains female crime trends in relation to their social role and status in the specific context of their respective societies – where women are more equal to men, there is a lesser crime gap (ibid). While there are a variety of gendered crime theories floating around in the world of academia, unarguably theories focusing on the effects of female emancipation have risen to popularity. It has even been argued, “the greatest single causative factor in the increase of female criminality has been the women’s liberation movement” (Austin, 1982; 411) – a bold statement. The emancipation of women in the larger society is allegedly reflected within crime groups as well. Indeed, female emancipation has even been brought up in the explanations of organized crime; Carroll (2009) for example has suggested that “the rise of mafia women in Italy is connected to women’s increased participation in universities and the labor market, as women are gaining equality in all institutions from which they were previously excluded” (Siegel, 2013; 5). Some such theories link female emancipation with economic theories such as Merton’s Anomie theory – the dominance of a patriarchal society is often tied to female crime as women are pushed “into crime through victimization, role entrapment, economic marginality, and survival needs” (Steffensmeier & Allan, 1996; 470). Merton’s theory will be revisited and explored further in depth below. According to such theories, all crime therefore committed by women is directly or indirectly linked to their social relation to the male population.

Of course such theories have been met with all sorts of criticism. Most critics argue that proponents of the Gender Equality hypothesis blindly accept gendered power relations as fact, while others criticize its inability to explain historic examples of nontraditional female offenders. For this study in particular however I believe there is a danger in adopting such heavily gender-based theories. As will become clear in this thesis itself, it is impossible to study yakuza wives separate from their relationship to their yakuza husbands; these women are not yakuza members themselves, yet have entered the criminal subculture because of their spouses. They have not independently chosen to do so on their own. For this very reason, it would be foolish to dismiss their position as women as irrelevant, thus showing that gendered theories do have their place in this research. Yet at the same time it would be foolish to assume that all of their actions are committed because of their position as women in a patriarchal society. The main issue with these gendered theories of female criminality, like with most traditional criminological theories, is that they fail to look into the individual criminal’s subjective opinions. They do not seek to understand why these women have turned to crime by asking these women directly; all answers are searched for in surrounding macro factors as opposed to the personal ones. Such theoretical frameworks are not suitable for this research. Rather than focusing on theories generated by crime statistics and opinions of others, we should opt for a theoretical framework that seeks to understand from an individual perspective why these women act the way they do. Perhaps these individual answers will reveal that gendered feminist theories are accurate in their conclusions, but at least we as researchers are able to reach this conclusion through focusing on the subjective opinions of the respondents themselves. As stated so aptly, “Feminist theories alone cannot explain the role of women in organized crime. Although the emancipation approach is relevant in some specific contexts, additional explanations should be explored […]” (Siegel, 2013; 7). Moreover most gender equality explanations have been used in explaining female crime in relation to their position within the mainstream society; while previous research may have stated this to be true, it is still questionable whether this can be directly translated into a subcultural setting, where a woman’s position may differ greatly from an average female citizen as is the case with the yakuza subculture.

Therefore, as this thesis will primarily focus on the subjective experiences of women who live in the yakuza underworld, it is necessary to implement a theoretical framework that allows us to analyze their experiences and places importance on their individual accounts as opposed to relying on ‘impersonal’ statistical figures or macro factors. The individual woman here is of importance: her views, her daily happenings, and her perceptions are key in this paper. Thus we can immediately disregard the conservative, orthodox criminological theories as the main sources of analysis, as these theories often aim to equate crime into simple, impersonal equations. Positivist criminological theories such as Rational Choice theory or Routine Activity theory are unfit for this research, as are theories focusing too heavily on economic factors, such as Merton’s Anomie theory. As we will see throughout the paper, economic variables contribute little in exploring the subjective experiences of these women. Theories pertaining to the concept of social inclusion and exclusion, the idea of the underclass by Murray, and the theory on the creation of the ‘outsiders’ by Becker will prove to be important in explaining the position of yakuza members and more importantly their wives in respect to the mainstream society. Moreover at this point I believe it is necessary to make clear that most of the experiences and accounts explored in this paper do not discuss actual acts of criminality in terms of the law; indeed, these women are not criminals per se in the sense that they engage in illegal activities. In this light it necessary to point out that rather than using the word ‘criminality’, it would be much more appropriate to opt for the word ‘deviance’ in describing these women’s behaviors and experiences in the remainder of this thesis, mainly for the sake of legal clarity.

Flexibility in the theoretical framework is essential in this paper because, as will become clear in the subsequent chapters, the subjects discussed do not neatly fit into any clear-cut ‘mold’. These yakuza wives are not yakuza members themselves, but they associate with the yakuza on a daily basis. They are not criminals, but they live their daily lives in an environment where boundaries between the criminal and non-criminal are blurred. They do not engage in criminal activities and yet they may witness such activities constantly, possibly causing them to become desensitized to the criminal act. They live in a subculture dominated by men, where their place and roles as women are on the one hand clearly defined by their male counterparts, but on the other hand are not defined at all due to a lack of ‘structure’ regarding their position as women in an all-male world. In effect they live their lives in the ‘gray zone’ of the criminal underworld. At most we can talk of their deviance, and yet in comparison to their criminal spouses their deviance seems to become mild in their actions. For these numerous reasons and more, we cannot employ theories rooted in concrete, clear-cut, and rigidly defined factors. Imposing such rigidity on subjects in the ‘gray zone’ would be a mistake and ultimately prove to be futile. For these women they do not experience their lives in a clearly defined class within society; the yakuza underworld can indeed be described as an underclass, a subculture of Japanese society, but where do these women stand within this subculture? By adhering too strongly to rigid definitions such as ‘social class’ or ‘underclass’, we risk losing the intricate yet extremely important subjective experiences, perceptions, and emotions of these women who are the subject of this paper.

As taking on a more fluid approach to this thesis is a necessity, elements mostly taken on from a cultural criminological perspective will therefore be employed in analyzing the data. We must move away from the orthodox criminological thinking that favor theories such as Rational Choice theory or studies that attempt to apply Routine Activity theory (Kleemans et al, 2012), which seeks to equate criminal actions into simple, one-fits-all formulae; this is just not feasible in understanding subjective experiences, as people are “far from pallid creatures calculating the best manoeuvres through the social world in order to minimize risk and maximize contentment” (Young, 2003; 391). The brand of cultural criminology endorsed by modern and contemporary scholars such as Jock Young, Keith Hayward, and Mike Presdee fully embrace the entire concept of the blurring of boundaries in late modernity and the idea of a “world of ontological anxiety and economic insecurity, of vindictiveness and humiliation, of othering and counter-othering […] where culture shakes loose of its structural moorings, where identity becomes constant reinvention” (Ferrell, Hayward & Young, 2008; 205). Cultural criminologists “understand human beings to be creative and culturally innovative, caught in circumstances not of their own making but making sense of these circumstances” (ibid; 65). The theoretical framework provided by these criminologists hold the key in capturing the emotional experiences and “the phenomenology of everyday life” of the women studied in this thesis, most importantly through their seemingly unimportant daily lives, the “boredom, repetition, everyday acquiescence, and other mundane dimensions of society and criminality” (ibid; 16). As will become clear throughout this paper, this research does not analyze a single significant event or happening, but a series of events, a series of happenings – the daily lives of the wives of yakuza members. A theoretical framework such as the one proposed by cultural criminology perfectly allows for the analysis of such data. After all, crime is “if nothing else, a human activity […] cultural in nature and the product of social order in which we live at any particular historical moment” (Presdee, 2004; 276). If deviance is but a social behavior, where better to start than in the everyday routines of daily existence? We are able to take the ordinary to explore the extraordinary.

Furthermore as this paper progresses into its sections focusing on the popular media and mediated images of the yakuza wives, cultural criminology provides a framework ready to accept and understand this aspect of criminological research; as a definitive existence in late modernity, the role and influence of the media is heavily emphasized in cultural criminology. These criminologists have taken the steps forward in acknowledging that in criminology today, subcultures “can no longer be studied apart from their mediated representations” (Ferrell, Hayward & Young, 2008; 81), that the media has the incredibly powerful influence to “mislead and mythologize” criminality and subcultures amongst the mainstream society that cannot be overlooked or underestimated (ibid; 109). Cultural criminologists readily take on the task of understanding how mediated images can shape perceptions of crime through content analysis of mediated images or identify casual correlations between mediated images and the thoughts and behaviors of its audience through media ‘effects’ research. These advantages in embracing a cultural criminological framework are important to keep in mind in the subsequent sections focusing on the relationship between mediated images and the wives of yakuza members.

There are perhaps some criticisms in using a theoretical framework moored in cultural criminology that must be addressed at this point. Firstly, there is the primary criticism that cultural criminology has the tendency of ‘romanticizing’ the marginalized and the deviant, “glorifying their bad behavior, imagining their resistance, and minimizing their harm to others” (ibid; 21). In no way does this paper aim to do so. Studying the daily lives of these women who live in the underworld of Japanese society does not lead to an immediate glorification, just as it does not lead to immediate belittling. By allowing for a framework that looks into the subjective experiences of these women, we are able to see for example how they may feel inclined to glorify themselves on the silver screen or in their autobiographical accounts (to be explored in Chapter 6) – by observing this phenomenon, this thesis does not aim to support or criticize this glorification, but rather to understand how and why these women feel the need to do so, or to understand the context and environment that would produce such a desire for expressing themselves in this manner. Ultimately, cultural criminology still allows for objectivity whilst looking into the emotional and subjective. A second criticism to be addressed, the scholars who have presented the manifestos of cultural criminology often focus on youthful transgression as the primary examples of the embodiment of the manifestos, providing real-life models such as the graffiti, rave, or youth gang subcultures (Ferrell, Hayward & Young, 2008; Presdee, 2000). Many of the elements that make up this framework are oriented towards explaining youthful transgression, such as the world of late modernity being one of uncertainty and questioning one’s identity, and the clear emphasis on the mundanity of everyday routines. This theoretical framework has not been designed to tackle the question of organized crime, and indeed to my knowledge has never been used to do so. It is easy to see how this could be seen as a major shortcoming in applying this theoretical framework to the subject of those living in an organized crime subculture. To this I argue that while in the small details it may not be perfectly fitted, the framework overall is most definitely applicable to the topic at hand. Youthful transgression is the example of choice for these cultural criminologists in illustrating the theories in reality, but this is no way means that cultural criminology must be confined to studying the youth alone; theory is a generalized form that can be used to explain a variety of phenomena. Thus while Young, Hayward, and Presdee generally choose to focus on youthful transgression, it does not mean that the same theoretical framework cannot be applied to other forms of deviance, as long as the manifestos are still applicable. As long as the individual and specific details and elements of the theoretical framework, such as the ontological anxiety the subjects experience for example, is still applicable to the subjects chosen for study, then the theory itself is applicable.

More specifically, within this overarching framework much of the analysis of the data will be done in light of Jack Katz’s Seductions and repulsions of crime. Cultural criminologists often cite Katz’s theory on the seductions of deviance due to its heavy emphasis on the emotional aspects in explaining the ‘phenomenology of crime’. Katz cites a general “moral fascination” with deviance as the source of deviant behavior, a fascination that exists amongst people across all strata’s of the community (McLaughlin, Muncie & Hughes, 2003). Whereas much criminological thinking until Katz had focused on economic and socio-structural explanations of crime and consequently placing much of the blame on poverty and as a result, placing a bulk of criminality onto the underclass, Katz refuted these theories by explaining that crime in general does not exactly fit “the sentimentality of materialism” (ibid; 171) but rather can be traced back to emotionality and moral fascination, thus for the first time bringing forth a theory that could explain white-collar and upper class crimes. Using Katz’s theory on the seductions of deviance is a suitable choice for much of the analysis conducted on the data gathered. As I will explore in depth later in this thesis (notably in Chapter 6), much of these women’s behaviors are based on their emotions as opposed to being calculated, rational maneuvers or monetarily based. The actions taken by these women in their daily experience in the male-dominated subculture that is the yakuza do not have any tangible or economic gains; rather they are reactions to the actions of their male counterparts, and can more readily be seen a “response” to their structured and limited lives (Presdee, 2000). The general “moral and sensual attractions of doing evil” (Hayward, 2002; 2) as described by Katz due to their daily existence in a criminal subculture will to be the key factor in explaining their behaviors, as we will see in subsequent sections. It is important therefore to keep the basic points of Katz’s theory in mind when reading through the abovementioned sections of this thesis in particular.

 

vi.            Structure

This paper will start with a brief but essential exploration of the yakuza’s historical background, starting from their ancestral roots in the Edo period (1603-1868) and focusing mostly on their development in the immediate post-World War II years. This exploration will portray how the yakuza underworld became one that we now commonly assume to be a subculture dominated by and suited for men. The historical explanation will shed light on how women became excluded in this organized crime structure. We will see how the stereotype of the masculine yakuza subculture developed, and what specific events and developments facilitated this stereotype. Following this, I will briefly discuss the ‘myth’ of the female godmothers (or onna-oyabuns)[2] in the recent history of the yakuza and provide two case studies as examples debunking the ‘myth’ that actively involved women have never existed in the yakuza subculture. These two chapters together will provide the important historical backdrop necessary in continuing into the data presentation and analysis in the subsequent chapters of this thesis, and will serve as the essential foundational knowledge of the yakuza subculture for the readers with regard to all the important aspects to be discussed throughout this thesis.

The following chapters will look into the raw data gathered specifically for this thesis, through the literature reviews, interviews, and media analyses. Chapter 4 will look into the general role and influence of the wives of yakuza members today and will be largely facts-based and descriptive rather than analytical in nature. This will lead into the examination of the role and influence of the wife of the top godfather or the oyabun in Chapter 5, and how her role differs from the role of the lower-ranking wives discussed in the preceding chapter. Chapter 5 will also delve into the role of yakuza wives as mothers, raising children born into the criminal subculture. Chapter 6 will delve into the main analytical section of this thesis, as it will explore the development of the ‘sub-subculture’ of women within the male-dominated yakuza subculture, a reaction to the oppression and discrimination they face as women from their husbands, and a reaction to their position as the ‘outsider amongst outsiders’. This chapter will explore the popular media depictions of the yakuza wives in movies and literature and how their subjective perceptions shine through and influence the portrayal of themselves to the public. Chapter 7 will look delve into the future, and speculate on the future developments of both the subjects of this research and more generally the future implementations for criminological research in this field as a whole. This chapter will discuss the future of women in the yakuza subculture and whether we can predict a change in their position with the passing of time. Throughout this thesis, factors will be taken from different theories and subjective experiences and opinions of the respondents will be used to support or to oppose certain views, standpoints and assumptions. Finally, the thesis will reach the concluding points in its final chapter and attempt to tie together the main points, discussions and conclusions reached throughout this thesis.

 

CHAPTER II: The Masculine Yakuza

 

i.               The Global World of Men

It still appears to be a widely accepted ‘fact’ that in the world of the mafia there are no active female participants. As Claire Longrigg, author of Mafia Women states in her opening line: “’There are no women in the mafia.’ It’s probably the most durable stereotype of all, the image we see in films, in press photographs, and on the television news” (Longrigg, 1998; x) When asked to envision the mafia, most people would no doubt imagine – whether Russian, Italian, or American – a collection of overly-manly men with a heightened sense of masculine pride living in a world of machismo.

The subculture that is the mafia has, across the world, been heavily ritualized to exclude and even prohibit women from not only joining the organization, but also even being knowledgeable on their activities. For these gangsters, “belonging in the organisation is proof of manliness” (Longrigg, 1998; 204). In most organized crime groups historically and internationally the “initiation rite, in which new members are solemnly sworn in, has always been an exclusively male affair” (ibid; 29). In the case of Japan this is also true, as traditionally the gang members strictly forbade their wives from involving themselves in their gang affairs (Otomo in Fiandaca, 2010). In general, gender roles are more strictly enforced in this criminal subculture than in the opposing mainstream society. Women are generally barred from participating in mafia-related violence or occupying positions of power within the organized crime group (Jamieson, 2000). In the handful of well-known cases where women have risen to a position of leadership in the mafia or other mafia-like structures, most already-existing research concludes that these women did not independently join and rise in ranks but almost always stepped forth in only the event that her husband, companion, or even her son was unable to do so himself, often this inability due to incarceration or death. Moreover in most cases this ‘rise to power’ is only a temporary establishment (Savona & Natoli in Fiandaca, 2010). There are naturally exceptions to this general ‘rule’, which are sometimes explained by cultural differences – for example, some research has discovered that women in the Italian, Nigerian, Colombian or Mexican organized crime structures are much more active in their participation than their European counterparts (Siegel, 2013). Overall, however, most literature seems to agree that women in the mafia are only secondary to their men, as the organization is run by the men, for the men.

In the following sub-sections, the general historical background and development of the Japanese case will be explored in an attempt to portray the development into the current situation in Japanese society, which will provide an important backdrop for the remainder of this paper. Through exploring the history and course of development of the yakuza, it will hopefully become clear how it developed into becoming a world of men and how the masculine stereotype was created and enforced.

 

ii.             Otoko-no-hanamichi: Birth and Modernization of the World of Men in Japan

The Japanese yakuza have a long history in Japan, albeit its origins are slightly contested. There are several accounts of who exactly the original yakuza ancestors are and how they came to be. Most seem to agree however that the original gangsters can be found during the feudal times of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1600-1868), where these ancestral yakuza were servants of the town, serving to protect the town’s citizens. They were seen as honorable men, adhering to the rule: ‘Put down the strong and help the weak’. One can clearly see that herein lies the origins of some of the main yakuza values such as ninkyo (chivalry), giri-ninjo (duty and compassion) and jingi (honor and humanity). From these roots, the modern yakuza adopted the image that appeals to them the most (putting aside the argument of accuracy) – “The aggressive yet compassionate outlaw, useless to mainstream society but willing to stand up for the common man – these are the essential components of the yakuza legend” (Kaplan & Dubro, 2003; 17). From there the yakuza started to develop into their modern-day forms. These men “were the enterprising members of a medieval underworld who today are widely seen as the true ancestors of the modern yakuza: the bakuto, or traditional gamblers, and the tekiya, or street peddlers” (ibid; 7). With especially a weakness for gambling, these men could be called the original yakuza that Japan had seen although, naturally, their formation and activities have evolved over the years – for example the bakuto, though traditionally gamblers, today include “loan sharks, protection money collectors, pimps, and corporate raiders” (Adelstein, 2010; 87).

The Japanese underworld however, like the rest of the country, was changed drastically following the defeat of Japan in World War II. After the surrender, the Japanese people were plunged into a state of poverty and despair; food shortages were daily and people struggled to survive. Such conditions are ripe for the proliferation of black markets, which clearly fell under the control of the underworld. The black markets grew rapidly as it was for many of the Japanese citizens the only means of survival. It is estimated that “[only] two months after the surrender, […] there were 17,000 such markets throughout the country” (Hill, 2003; 43). In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the black market largely traded in daily necessities such as food, but as the conditions in Japan improved over the years the black market started focusing on the truly ‘black’ merchandise such as drugs. Moreover, as conditions continued to improve, most of the men who had made their livings off the black markets “drifted off into less precarious pursuits; those who stayed became the core of the new emerging yakuza empire” (Kaplan & Dubro, 2003; 60).

From these times onwards, the yakuza only continued to grow – not only in size, but also geographically and in the activities they would engaged in. Some yakuza groups alongside with the bakuto and the tekiya formed a third kind of group known as the gurentai, a ruthless group of “ruffians” more liberal with their use of violence (Kaplan & Dubro, 2003; 36). In fact, the yakuza underworld in general had become colored by more violence after the war, both “individually and collectively” (ibid; 73). They began to establish and work in legitimate ‘front’ companies on the side of their criminal enterprises, a common characteristic of yakuza groups today, most notably in the construction and transportation industries (such as in harbors and docks, in the case of the Yamaguchi-gumi). From 1986 to 1991 Japan entered the infamous era of the ‘Bubble Economy’, years characterized by “a rapid and large surge in asset prices, a sizable increase in money supply and credit, and the expansion of economic activity for a protracted period” (Okina, 2001; 396). Japanese businessmen rushed to participate in this overheated economy, and the yakuza too took advantage of the booming markets and fully entered the business world. They began to engage in new activities such as jiage, or land sharking, becoming what researchers now call the keizai yakuza, or the economic yakuza (Hill, 2004; Kaplan & Dubro, 2003). The Bubble Era was the peak of the keizai yakuza’s activities and monetary flow – to illustrate their financial success, “[during] the peak bubble year of 1989, the police estimated total gang income at 1.3 trillion yen [approximately 10 billion Euros today]” (Hill, 2004; 109). These gangsters “in effect, became key absorbers of excess credit in Japan. […] This new breed of criminal was dubbed the keizai yakuza, the economic gangster” (Kaplan & Dubro, 2003; 176).

This development of the yakuza from traditional times to the modern-day form is vital in understanding how the yakuza society developed into what is unquestionably assumed to be a world dominated by men and ultimately one that is believed to be unwelcoming and unsuitable for women. As with any other culture, as outlaws living outside the protection of the law, violence is an integral part of any mafia society. Thus, “[given] that the yakuza work ultimately depends on the credible threat of violence” (Hill, 2003; 51) it seems obvious that it is an entity most suitable for younger men, who are “statistically the most violent section of society” (ibid). As the yakuza moved into the construction and transportation sectors, again physical strength was deemed as a necessary trait:

 

“The Japanese yakuza … [Pause]. They were truly born from the Meiji era [1868-1912] onwards, and they were born out of three key industries… No, four. They emerge from four key industries. One is construction. Then coalmines. The iron and steel industry. And transportation and shipment. […] These are the first manual labor jobs that the Japanese yakuza were born out of. And when you’re talking about each of these industries, in terms of women, rather than women, men are more… suitable. I mean, it’s harder for women to do those jobs. Although, of course, some did. […] It’s about physical strength.”

(Resp. 7)

 

As already mentioned, the creation of yakuza ‘front companies’ became the norm, and as these companies were often linked to the four industries stated above, it became further instilled in the minds of yakuza members that they belonged to a truly ‘manly’ organization where women were not cut out to be. From these times, it became natural for men as opposed to women to be a part of the underworld society. Even though the yakuza itself progressed into the modern era of technology where the crimes perpetrated no longer depended on physical strength but rather on economic and financial aptitude, this notion lingered. And, as I will explore further in this thesis, this stereotype, so deeply ingrained in the minds of both the underworld and mainstream society, influenced and shaped the yakuza world as becoming one that is exclusive to men.

 

iii.           The Botaiho: Cementing the Stereotype

As the years went on, the yakuza continued to penetrate almost every sector of the Japanese state: “[as] the country modernized, the yakuza expanded their activities in step with the growing economy” (Kaplan & Dubro, 2003; 20). Despite the ideal image of the compassionate yakuza so preciously held and bragged about, the wealth of the Bubble had made them more violent over the years. As Kaplan and Dubro state so aptly, “Traditional yakuza – the ‘chivalrous gangsters’ – boasted by living by a code of conduct that meant never harming the ordinary people. […] [The] code had now lost all its meaning. The worlds of crime and commerce had simply become too entwined. At times it looked like the gangs had declared war on the Japanese” (ibid; 200). The late 1980s and early 1990s were also characterized by a series of yakuza conflicts and wars. There was first the outbreak of the Yama-Ichi War, a yakuza conflict between two groups that raged from 1985 to 1989, claiming the lives of 26 yakuza members (Kaplan & Dubro, 2003; 121) including some high-ranking members of the Yamaguchi-gumi (Miyazaki, 2005; 318-319), caused 70 injuries including several civilian bystanders and resulted in more than 500 arrests (Hill, 2004; 101). Following this, another noteworthy inter-gang conflict erupted in Southern Japan when, most shockingly to the Japanese public, a high-school student was mistakenly believed to be a yakuza member and murdered in 1990 (Resp. 3).

After years of public, political, and legal tolerance, the future of the yakuza was to be changed. In light of this ‘gang-war period’ of public violence (Hill, 2003; 98), 1992 saw the passing of the first real organized crime countermeasure laws. The Boryokudan Taisaku-hou or in short the Botaiho, was specifically aimed at decreasing and eventually eradicating yakuza activities and existence. As being a member of a yakuza syndicate in itself was never and still is not by law an illegality, the Botaiho began a system of designating certain syndicates and groups as being a boryokudan, legally defined and classified as “an organization prone to perpetrate violent illegal acts, collectively or chronically using its organizational or collective power” (Albanese et al, 2003; 273). Once designated, “its members are prohibited from making ‘violent demands’, which the law defines as demand or request made while exploiting the yakuza’s reputation for violent” (Hill, 2003; 102). By 2002, approximately 90% of all yakuza members had been designated as being members of such ‘violent groups’ (Hill, 2003). The law also called for the established of Boryokudan Eradication Centers (Botsui-senta), run mostly by retired anti-organized crime (marubo) police officers, where citizens could go to receive counseling on yakuza-related grievances, receive training on how to repel yakuza demands, and also provide assistance for yakuza members wishing to leave the group (Hill, 2003; 231). From the original Botaiho onwards, a series of anti-organized crime laws were passed, strengthening the police force’s abilities to tackle the yakuza; for example, as of 2011 the Organized Crime Exclusionary Ordinances (OCEOs) have been passed where ordinary citizens or businesses may be punished by law for making pay-offs or engaging in business transactions with the yakuza or yakuza front-companies (Adelstein, 2012).

While the Botaiho has been met with extreme resistance from the yakuza and much criticism from scholars both domestic and international, for this thesis I find one particular weakness in the Japanese laws regarding how they decide whom to treat as the yakuza, and how this affects which crimes to treat at boryokudan-related crimes. One major shortcoming of these laws is the prioritization of definition to action. To demonstrate the importance of definition within the police force, with the implementation of the Botaiho the police registered both full members and associate members of the designated groups as per listed by the yakuza syndicates themselves – these registration statistics are published annually in the National Police Agency (NPA)’s ‘White Paper’ reports. Because yakuza-related crimes or yakuza-related arrests can only be treated and registered as so if they fit under the definition of a ‘Boryokudan member’, many yakuza syndicates tackled this by “formally [expelling] some of their members. These individuals then set up as political groups or businessmen but operating with the muscle of their former groups still backing them up” (Hill, 2003; 104). This ‘solution’ to the problem clearly exemplifies how for both the yakuza underworld and police enforcement, the legal definition of a who a yakuza is as opposed to the actual activities undertaken is a rule of thumb in conducting their anti-organized crime affairs. The stereotype born out of a subcultural world dominated by men had, in effect, been transferred out to the mainstream; the Botaiho had cemented this stereotype into legality and writing. Statistically speaking, there are little to no studies conducted by the NPA or any governmental institution calculating the number of female members, though a notable study conducted by the Japanese police in 1999 suggest that the number of women belonging to a formal yakuza syndicate are extremely few, perhaps only a few dozen of the tens of thousands (Otomo in Fiandaca, 2010). The lack of research into this area could perhaps be explained by the statistical insignificance of female members; it could also be explained by the lack of belief in the phenomenon by the male-dominated law enforcement institution.

Whilst conducting the research necessary for this paper, I had the opportunity to interview several retired marubo police officers and interestingly enough, it was apparent that the police force places extreme importance on such definitions and statistics, proving the notions mentioned above. These respondents explained how the Botaiho laws define the yakuza as those recognized as belonging to a certain syndicate or group, which is decided upon by the men at the higher ranks of the group itself. Thus, by definition of the law, only those formally recognized as yakuza members (i.e. the men) can be arrested for yakuza-related crimes. These patterns of thinking have shone through on several accounts during the interviews conducted:

 

I: When you used to investigate yakuza-related crimes, did you only investigate the men?

R: [Pause] … yes, in most yakuza-related crimes, there are only men involved.

(Resp. 5)

 

(On whether there is a possibility of women being accomplices for the yakuza):

“They might be helping them out, but I don’t know. […] But statistically speaking, I don’t know how often this is the case. As a police officer, if you ask whether she was doing these things ‘for the syndicate’ … it’s a difficult question.”

(Resp. 5)

“If the oyabun doesn’t formally recognize you as one of his subordinates, you’re not one. So his wife is not a subordinate member of the group. [Laughs] Whatever the wife and husband do, it’s outside of the group. It’s not a yakuza related activity.”

(Resp. 6)

 

“I once encountered the wife of an oyabun at his funeral. […] [From] the way I see it, she’s just the wife so she’s not a yakuza herself, but everything she did was yakuza.”

(Resp. 6)

The effects of the Botaiho on the law enforcement’s perceptions of the yakuza underworld and the place of women, I believe, is made evident in these excerpts.

The idea that the legal system plays a role in the construction of a gender-skewed vision of crime and criminality is not unique to Japan, and has long been documented elsewhere. The law has always seen the criminal world as predominantly male, and as the law and law enforcement itself was formed by a predominantly male society, criminality in essence was and to some extent continues to be a male-dominated and male-oriented social construction. Thus as theorized by Pierre Bourdieu, deviance became a ‘normal’ male behavior, with masculinity “then [as] the rule and norm” (Dino in Fiandaca, 2010; 70). While modern society has taken steps forward in acknowledging the presence and role of females in the criminal underworld, I believe it is safe to conclude that in the specific case of Japan, the more traditional notion of ‘male criminality’ seems to be much more evident than in the Western world, a theme that will be seen consistently throughout the remainder of this thesis.

 

iv.            The Dropout and Misfit’s World of Poverty and Discrimination

The yakuza society is characterized by the fact that most of their members come from the lower strata of Japanese society. Studies have shown that a large fraction of these members come from disadvantaged backgrounds, having experienced parental neglect or raised in single-parent households, as well as being economically disadvantaged (Albanese et al, 2003; Otomo in Fiandaca, 2010). Most members “have never gone beyond required education” (Otomo in Fiandaca, 2010), which in the case of Japan ends at the age of 15. Many yakuza members also come from the more stigmatized ethnic minority groups, notably the Korean community (Resp. 1) or from the heavily ostracized outcast group known as burakumin. These members “are the poor and disadvantaged, the dropouts and misfits who find a home in the gangs” (Kaplan & Dubro, 2003; 132) – a well-told tale in the criminal societies across the world. For these men, the yakuza is perhaps the only means to make a living and “[many] yakuza leaders play on this idea of discrimination to justify their existence: society is to blame, not them, moreover (they say) the yakuza play a vital social role in providing a niche for society’s outcasts” (Hill, 2003; 80). For those born into and familiar with the yakuza underworld, this idea of appears to be heavily rooted in their minds:

 

“Even for the Japanese yakuza, there are plenty of reasons as to why they commit crimes, but if you look at it from the societal point of view, the main reason would be poverty and discrimination.”

(Resp. 7)

 

Thus, as a ‘home’ for the underprivileged and discriminated, the yakuza continue to exist in Japanese society after the turbulent wartime and post-war years, and has become an established and cemented stratum in Japanese society where these dropouts find their home.

The yakuza members’ position within the overall Japanese society as the misfits further provides an explanation as to why they place a seemingly exaggerated importance on masculinity and ‘male pride’ (as discussed earlier in this chapter) – and indeed, this explanation is one that can be generalized to outside just the yakuza to its international counterparts. As one of my respondents, a man born into the yakuza underworld and thus highly familiar with the subculture, stated quite clearly:

 

“If you think about it, the yakuza are those who have dropped out of the general society, so it would be weird or strange if these dropouts placed their

 

 

pride in the same place as those in the average, general society; at least, that’s my opinion. [Laughs].”

(Resp. 7)

 

While indeed the yakuza are as much a part of the Japanese society as the average law-abiding citizen, they have formed their own criminal subculture outside of the mainstream; this is a vital point when asking why they seem to have a place an exaggerated importance on masculinity, or have a more backwards view regarding gender roles and women (to be discussed in the following sub-section). In a world of dropouts and misfits, masculine pride can be said to be the pinnacle of their existence and their daily activities. Unlike the rest of the mainstream society, who have access to legitimate means of accomplishing financial or personal successes, the misfit members of the yakuza underworld must take pride in something else, not in line with the legitimate members of Japanese society: they value their masculine strength, use of violence and aggression, and masculine pride and honor. Moreover – a point explored further in the following sub-section – being members of a criminal subculture, these men strive to be as different and transgress further from the mainstream or average as possible, and a heightened pride in masculinity in itself is a means to do so.

 

v.              Yakuza Perceptions of Women

It is common knowledge that the members of the yakuza subculture do not view women in the same manner as those in the mainstream society; women are generally treated as inferiors and are not seen as equals. In line with this, masculine narcissism “is an accepted facet of the yakuza subculture” (Hill, 2003; 74). The idea that men in the yakuza subculture have a different view regarding women compared to the male population of the opposing mainstream culture has been noted in previous studies. A study was published in 1993 by the NRIPS entitled, “A study on the conformity of boryokudan members to the boryokudan sub-culture”, where the researchers looked into the members’ adherence to yakuza subcultural values. One such value was ‘disdain for women’ further explained by the statement, ‘It’s obvious that the woman should work and provide for the man’ (Uchiyama & Hoshino, 1993; 27). Answers were collected from a survey given to 1440 arrested yakuza members between the months of January to March in 1993. While the researchers came to the general conclusion that the “Boryokudan-subculture was supported and approved by most Boryokudan members, [and the] degree of conformity to the Boryokudan sub-culture increased as their status rose in the organization, or Boryokudan careers became longer” (ibid; 35), regarding their views on women the same conclusion was not found to be true. What I found to be a somewhat surprising result from these questionnaires is that compared to the other subcultural ideals in the survey such as ‘display of wealth’ and ‘face-consciousness and revenge’ to name a couple, the value ‘disdain for women’ ranked the lowest in terms of level of agreement. This held to be true across the different age cohorts of the participants, the participants’ rank within the yakuza group, and even across different syndicates. I found this to be an unexpected conclusion, as masculine narcissism and the assumption of female inferiority appears to be, as stated by Hill, an “accepted facet”. However, this finding could be explained by the fact that many yakuza members join the yakuza for economic reasons, such as the desire to live a “hedonistic” lifestyle or to make a decent living (Albanese et al, 2003; 272).  Taking into account these factors, perhaps it is not so surprising that the value “disdain for women” ranked the lowest in comparison to the other economic values listed in the questionnaire, such as “mammonism” and “display of wealth”, the two values that were ranked the highest (Uchiyama & Hoshino, 1993; 121).

Nonetheless exploring the anecdotal accounts given by women familiar with the yakuza society would suggest that yakuza men indeed do not view women as equal to themselves. Women are clearly seen as an inferior gender, showing that despite the quantitative results of the NRIPS report above, the yakuza unmistakably show disdain towards women. Numerous examples illustrate this standpoint. Naturally, the foremost example of this argument is the prohibition of women to participate in yakuza affairs. Though this could partially be explained due to the lack of physical strength of women compared to that of men rather than an outright disdain, it appears that it is still in this modern age a persistent belief that women could bring about the downfall of the yakuza syndicate through their involvement, as explained by one of my respondents:

 

“There’s still this lingering old-fashioned belief that women should stay in a supporting role. Women shouldn’t interfere with the management of the group by saying things like, ‘You should do this or that’. Many yakuza still believe that this leads to the downfall of the group. It’s still a very strong belief.”

(Resp. 7)

 

This lack of faith in a woman’s ability to successfully manage or handle ‘business’ responsibilities is clearly an indicator of the yakuza’s view of women as less able and thus consequently inferior to themselves.

Another glaring example that illuminates the yakuza’s view of women is their infidelity. In every single autobiographical and biographical work read for this research, without fail the yakuza husband is unfaithful to his wife (Anzai, 2001; Ieda, 2007; Ishihara, 2010; Taoka, 2003; Tendo, 2012; Tsubaki, 2004). Media representations of the yakuza such as The Yakuza Wives movie series[3] further support this notion. For many yakuza men, women are merely means to flaunt themselves – their status, their wealth, their lifestyle as an outlaw – as was explained to me by one of my respondents:

 

“The yakuza do not live like ordinary people, but live as outlaws. They do not want an ordinary life, tied down by morals and resisting temptations. They desire the lives envied by others, so they often have a flow of young, attractive girlfriends. […] This desire is usually shared both by men at the top and bottom of the pyramid. Most yakuza members are unfaithful to their wives. […] For these men, it wouldn’t be strange to say that women are merely ‘objects’. They clearly do not respect women. Even with their young, attractive girlfriends, they may lavishly spend money on them not out of affection but so these women make themselves look good; this is one of the girlfriend’s ‘roles’.”

(Resp. 4)

 

Another respondent, the daughter of a yakuza boss and whom herself had married a yakuza, agreed with this notion:

 

“The yakuza always want to show off and look good, so when they go out they spend a lot of money. A lot of women are attracted to these kinds of men, thinking they’re very manly, so they can easily find other women and be unfaithful to their wives. Being unfaithful and having girlfriends is kind of a norm in the yakuza society.”

(Resp. 8)

 

From these various sources we can conclude that men of the yakuza underworld show little to no respect towards their female companions. For reasons explored above, women are in many cases merely seen as objects to show off their own status or hedonistic lifestyle.

It can therefore be said that yakuza men hold a more traditional view of women that is not in line with the progression of feminism in mainstream society. To understand the position of women in modern Japan, a brief historical exploration of feminism and female emancipation in Japan is necessary. The discourse of female emancipation in Japan followed a similar one to that of most other industrialized nations. Like Japan’s Western counterparts, women “were ascribed the role of ‘good wives and wise mothers’ whose primary role was in the reproduction and socialization of children, and as passive supporters of a ‘wealthy country and strong army’” (Mackie, 2003; 3), thus historically assigned to a purely domestic role. And, like other industrialized nations, women began to challenge the longstanding patriarchal system around the time of the Meiji era (1868-1912) and began fighting for political and social rights. However many scholars have noted that despite having gone through a highly similar feminist movement to the Western nations, Japanese women today have hardly reached the same level of equality and independence. In fact, some go so far as to state that “[in] Japan, gender inequality in the workplace persists as in no other industrialized nation” (Goff, 1994; 1147). The Japanese koseki or the family registration system for example requires that “each household has a family head, usually male [and it] is expected that both marriage partners will bear the same family name – in practice, usually the husband’s” (Mackie, 2003; 130), a practice that is no longer prevalent in most Western countries where it is not unusual for the wife to keep her maiden name after marriage. From these accounts it would appear that despite the rights women of the past had fought for, there was consequently little result or success. Observing the yakuza subculture’s mentality and perceptions of women in this light may show that they are in line with the general mainstream society; that women in Japan are overall treated as unequal to men, not just within the underworld itself. However other scholars point out that Japanese women are indeed emancipated, just not in the Western definition of the word. The number of women in the workplace has actually increased in number in the past decades (Goff, 1994) and continues to increase. Most interestingly, Japanese women enjoy an economic autonomy that is unmatched by their Western counterparts, as they are able to act as the “head of the family in all decisive areas of family finances (husbands have to hand their salaries to their wives)”, and this form of emancipation and independence is “rarely acknowledged when the construct of the ‘miserable’ and oppressed Japanese woman has to serve as the ‘other’ of the ‘liberated’ Western model of femininity” (Kersten, 1996; 390). The idea of the still-oppressed Japanese woman here is “misleading” (Otomo in Fiandaca, 2010).

These factors are influential in the context of our analysis of the ‘backwards’ views towards women held by the yakuza. The question to be asked is: to what extent is the way of thinking different from the mainstream society? How backwards are the yakuza regarding their view of women? Western scholars may argue that the men of the yakuza subculture and men of the mainstream society both disregard the value and importance of women, as they may be overall shocked by the general ‘lack’ of independence and emancipation of Japanese women – compared to Western women. Yet I believe it is important to avoid a ‘Eurocentric’ view on this matter. As stated by Kersten and Otomo above, Japanese women are autonomous in extremely different ways from Western women, and to simply impose the Western definition of ‘emancipation’ onto Japanese women would be unrealistic, as in numerous ways the Asian mentality and definition of the word is entirely different. To provide another example, many Western scholars may see the stay-at-home position that many Japanese women still take on as a sign of oppression and lack of emancipation, yet many of these women themselves see this “devotion to the home as the creative nurturance of children, rather than obedience to a man, and to them the home offered a sense of domain rather than dependency” (White, 1992; 69). As one of my respondents plainly and clearly illustrated:

 

“[In the case of Japan] in the 60’s and so forth, women had to be equal but now they feel we don’t have to be equal, we can be whoever we can be, whoever we want to be.”

(Resp. 8)

 

Therefore to answer the questions posed above, we can conclude that men in the yakuza organization definitely do have a more traditional view on the roles that women should fill – and this may be linked to their position as dropouts and ‘outsiders’ from the larger Japanese society – yet it is not as backwards or ‘behind’ as some Western scholars may believe upon first glance. The danger of ‘Eurocentrism’ must be carefully avoided in all analytical aspects of the data presented in this thesis, and instead we must strive to find answers and definitions within the context and culture of Japanese society itself, to avoid inaccurate conclusions.

In light of these important historical developments, definitions, and the general backdrop of the yakuza subculture, this thesis will further delve into the question of female yakuza members and the ‘myth’ of the female godmothers in Japan.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER III: Female Godmothers

 

i.               The ‘myth’ of the onna-oyabun

There appears to be in the modern age amongst the members of mainstream Japanese society a belief in the ‘myth’ of the onna-oyabun or the ‘female godmother’ in the yakuza underworld. A general lack of media coverage on this ‘phenomenon’ and an attraction for popular media to portray such onna-oyabuns (namely The Yakuza Wives series in Japan and the character of O-ren Ishii in Kill Bill: Vol. 1 internationally) have caused many to wonder whether such female bosses truly exist in the yakuza society or whether they are fictive creations and fabrications of popular culture.

Further reading on this subject would reveal that there have indeed been real cases of women who can be described as onna-oyabuns. Though rare today, they were not unheard of in history. Back in the feudal times of the Edo era where gambling was the primary activity of the yakuza’s ancestors, female gamblers were a common sight (Otomo in Fiandaca, 2010) and therefore there was a greater possibility for a woman to take control of her own crew of gamblers. In the years before and after World War II, documented cases can be found on the “many female delinquents, female gurentai, and female yakuza” (Yamadaira, 1998; 219) with famous female oyabuns ruling in the areas of Yokohama and Tokyo. However as times have changed and the yakuza itself has changed, modern researchers have generally come to the conclusion that these numbers have waned, painting an entirely different picture in the world of today: “These women were clearly integrated into the structure of a crime ‘syndicate’ and more than once engaged in the ritual of the exchange of cups of sake that sealed their ties of vassalage. Today, these rituals are no longer used. And there was no longer female gang leaders” (Otomo in Fiandaca, 2010; 211). Similarly, an interview with an anonymous (male) oyabun reveals that “[there] probably aren’t any onna-oyabuns today. It’s probably just in the world of films. There used to be some before, though. […] There were quite a few female gamblers” (Yamadaira, 1998; 226).

Yet this complete and absolute dismissal of their existence may perhaps be a bit too hasty. A retired marubo police officer in Tokyo shared with me his personal experience with a female ‘godmother’:

 

 

I: Is it true that there are few to none female yakuza members?

R: You don’t see them often. Well, actually almost never. But once while I was still working as a police officer, I did meet a female boss. […]

I: In Tokyo?

R: Yes, she was the boss of a tekiya group. She’s passed away now, but I did meet her long ago.

I: What kind of woman was she?

R: Well. She was just an ordinary old lady. Her group wasn’t very big. About 10 people maybe? It was originally her husband’s group, but then her husband passed away and she took over. […] I’d been in the police force for a long time [roughly 40 years] but in the end, no matter how long you search there’s hardly any female bosses. Maybe just a handful…

(Resp. 2)

 

Official research into this field, for reasons mentioned in the previous chapter, has been little to non-existent; statistics and official reported figures in this area as another retired marubo officer had explained are scarce:

 

“We haven’t really conducted any research on this so we can’t say there aren’t any with certainty. There used to be official female members in the past, but today there’s no statistics on the subject. From what I’ve heard, there used to be some female yakuza bosses during the 1940s to 1950s… so about 60 years ago. But I would say that the number of female members is probably close to zero.”

(Resp. 5)

 

Due to an evident lack of concrete research into the question of onna-oyabuns, we cannot say with absolute certainty that there are none in the yakuza underworld today, yet the general consensus seems to be that the numbers are extremely limited, nearly to the point of non-existence. Again, however, as discussed in Chapter 2, it is important to remember the issue of definition when discussing such issues in light of the view of the police who may not see female bosses as so due to problems in legal definition (which will be explored further in the case studies below).

Nonetheless in very recent history, there have been some noteworthy cases of female oyabuns who took control of their respective gangs. The following sub-section will focus on two of perhaps the most famous cases of female ‘godmothers’ in the Japanese yakuza: Yoshiko Matsuda of the Matsuda-gumi in Tokyo, and Fumiko Taoka of the Yamaguchi-gumi in Kobe, Western Japan.

                             

ii.             Case study (I): Yoshiko Matsuda

Immediately after the 1945 surrender of Japan in World War II, the Kanto Matsuda-gumi ruled over the area of Shinbashi in central Tokyo, reaping in the profits of the blooming black markets in the area. The founder and oyabun of the group, Giichi Matsuda, originally a gurentai yakuza before the war, was well known for his aggressive attitude and quick use of excessive violence, exemplified in cases such as the 1946 ‘Shibuya Incident’ where the Matsuda-gumi members fought a group of Taiwanese peddlers in a full-blown gun battle for the control of the black markets in the area – right in front of a police station (Caprio et al, 2007). After the assassination of Giichi Matsuda, his wife Yoshiko took on the position of leader to “hundreds of members and alone controlled two thousand gangsters” (Otomo in Fiandaca, 2010; 210). Officially labeled the “2nd head of the Kanto Matsuda-gumi”, Yoshiko ruled her area of downtown Tokyo with an iron fist, almost matching her deceased husband in aggression and violence. She is even credited as being the first person, let alone a woman, from the yakuza underworld to provide the Americans with an insight as to how the yakuza structure worked in Tokyo, talking “freely and proudly” about her criminal lifestyle (Kaplan & Dubro, 2003; 36).

Though Yoshiko is neither the first nor the last example of a female boss, she is perhaps one of the most well known, most likely due to her characteristically violent rule. Yoshiko brings us to the realization that though the yakuza subculture is one with rigid gender norms and where women are generally pushed aside to a peripheral role, some women have stepped forth to prove themselves as genuine contenders to the men. Moreover, the case study of Yoshiko Matsuda demonstrates that some women are indeed capable of being as aggressive and forceful as their male counterparts.

 

iii.           Case study (II): Fumiko Taoka

The Yamaguchi-gumi, currently the largest syndicate in Japan boasting a membership of roughly 39,000 members according to NPA statistics (Adelstein, 2012) largely owes its status as the most powerful yakuza group to the third kumicho of the group, Kazuo Taoka. Dubbed “the godfather of godfathers” and “the undisputed godfather of Japanese crime” (Kaplan & Dubro, 2003) the third oyabun of the now-infamous syndicate can be rightfully credited as the one responsible for the growth of the group and its proliferation across the islands of Japan from its origin in the small harbor city of Kobe. Perhaps what is less known about this powerful Japanese gangster is the silent but influential woman behind him – his wife Fumiko.

Fumiko is possibly the most famous example of her kind. In almost every single one of the interviews conducted for this research, her name has found its way into the conversation. Unlike the stereotypical image that many may have of the steely gangster whose wife is left in the dark regarding his criminal activities, the demure and oblivious yet dutiful wife waiting at home, Fumiko was very much a part of Kazuo’s yakuza lifestyle. Though there are no records, accounts, or arrests to suggest or prove she was directly involved in his criminal activities, Fumiko was perhaps Kazuo’s primary advisor. Yuki Taoka, the daughter of the two, has written much about her mother in her biographical account of her father in My Father’s Soap Box and she explains, “When my father was about to become the successor of the second Yamaguchi-gumi godfather, he discussed it with my mother. ‘These kind of talks are going on, what should I do. […] I have no money, I have nothing, what should I do…’ My mother said to him, ‘I’ll take care of the household, whether it’s living expenses or anything else, I will work and take care of it. You should put all of your effort into the group’” (Taoka, 2003; 27). As Kazuo took on the role of third godfather and ruled the syndicate for 35 years, Yuki recounts numerous anecdotes in her biography on how her mother stood by his side, his most trusted advisor and supporter.

When Kazuo died of natural causes in 1981, the Yamaguchi-gumi had already prepared for his wakagashira (the second in command) to succeed as oyabun, as is the formal procedure of all yakuza syndicates. However the wakagashira at the time, Kenichi ‘Yamaken’ Yamamoto was serving prison time, so until he was to be released the 62-year old late Kazuo’s wife took on the role of temporary head, a position she was only meant to fill for a few months. This already in itself was an unpredicted event that shocked both the yakuza society and the police. Yet when the imprisoned wakagashira too succumbed to illness while serving his prison sentence, the Yamaguchi-gumi crumbled and fell into a state of instability and eventually resulted in the intra-group Yama-Ichi war. Until the fifth kumicho of the Yamaguchi-gumi was elected eight years later, Fumiko continued her rule at the very top of the Yamaguchi-gumi hierarchy, the primary decision-maker of this enormous syndicate.

When discussing the era of Fumiko’s leadership, there does not seem to be one general consensus regarding the true extent of her power as an onna-oyabun. Though most do not deny that Fumiko most definitely exerted at least some of her influence and power over the syndicate, she was only placed in her due to desperation in a time of chaos, due to “perhaps, a measure of near panic Yamaguchi leaders felt that, in the heavily macho world of the yakuza, they had openly turned to Fumiko, long a silent power of the organization” (Kaplan & Dubro, 2003; 115). And despite clearly having been in the top decision-making position of the Yamaguchi-gumi, some argue that she still cannot be labeled as an onna-oyabun, which again emphasizes the problematic issue of definition:

 

“At that time, she temporarily took over the syndicate because there was no one to formally take on the role of oyabun. She was the ane-san [the wife of the godfather] of the group so only as an acting head she took over when her husband died. That’s why she doesn’t actually have the formal title of ‘4th head of the Yamaguchi-gumi’.”

(Resp. 2)

I: But didn’t Fumiko Taoka of the Yamaguchi-gumi become the leader figure after her husband’s death?

R: Well, she wasn’t formally instated as the head of the syndicate, but I would say she was merely acting as the head.

(Resp. 1)

Others however readily accept and praise Fumiko’s reign. Already during her late husband’s rule as the third kumicho, Fumiko was seen as the ideal ane-san by the yakuza underworld. Their daughter Yuki goes into depth on this matter in her book where she talks about how much of a role model her mother was as the Yamaguchi-gumi ane-san: “My mother originally came from a ‘straight’ family so it must have been hard, marrying into such a different world. She had to recognize and learn all the rules, traditions, rituals and norms of a man’s world, but also as a woman, a yakuza wife, and the ane-san, her own position and role. She did so well in her role that quite often other families would say she was the ‘prime model of a woman’” (Taoka, 2003; 160). She was more than merely an ane-san on the arm of a powerful underworld husband, but she earned the respect of the members as she was more than just their ane-san but closer to a mother figure; “there was no one in the syndicate who had not been looked after by Fumiko. […] She was the epitome of a ‘godmother’” (Yamadaira, 1998; 225). What is most interesting to note is that during the years 1981 to 1983, the years coinciding with the beginning of Fumiko’s establishment as the head, the Yamaguchi-gumi “actually grew in size to a peak of 13,346 gangsters” (Kaplan & Dubro, 2003; 120) showing Fumiko to be not only an extremely capable head but also that the leadership of a woman in a subculture dominated by men seemingly did not deter potential members from joining. Nonetheless most seem to agree that rather than setting a precedent for future onna-oyabuns, the case of Fumiko is more of an outlier example:

 

“I think it must be quite difficult for a woman to rise as the head of a syndicate in a society so dominated by men. For men, face and honor is extremely important. In the case of Fumiko Taoka, she was very strong-willed so the members could rely on her, but usually I don’t think this is often the case.”

(Resp. 1)

 

These cases provide examples of how women in the past have defied the general stereotype of the ‘passive’ and inactive woman living in the yakuza underworld, and are interesting examples to consider when pondering the general question regarding the role of women in this organized crime subculture. As this thesis will delve into ‘general’ and ‘common’ examples of yakuza wives, it is important to keep in mind that there are of course exceptions to the general stereotype, that some women have stepped forth into the public view as active and engaged participants in the yakuza syndicate’s activities, ruling with an iron-fist comparable to that of the men.

 

CHAPTER IV: Gokutsuma

Little empirical and academic information has been gathered about women married to yakuza members. There appears to be a fascination surrounding these women as many from the mainstream society wonder what kind of women would enter a relationship with an ‘undesirable’ man such as a yakuza member. In the reportage compilation, Gokudo no Onna-tachi (The Yakuza Wives), author Shoko Ieda who had spent several months living with and interviewing such women states the following:

 

“‘What kind of woman marries a yakuza?’ I often get asked these kinds of questions. Every time, I answer: ‘Anyone.’ Many of these women have said to me, ‘It just so happened that the person I fell in love with turned out to be a yakuza’.”

(Ieda, 2007; 155)

 

This chapter will explore several themes. First, the question as to whether certain women are more likely to become associated with such criminal men will be looked into by observing how these women encounter and enter relationships with yakuza members. Are there similar characteristics between these yakuza wives? Through exploring these accounts of encounters it will hopefully become clear whether some women have an attraction to the yakuza underworld, thus making them more ‘prone’ to marrying into criminality. Following this section I will look more concretely into the role and influences of these wives in the yakuza syndicates of their husbands – do they have any specific roles? Are there any known roles that these women play within the syndicate, much like what has become known about women in the Italian mafia? Moreover by exploring the roles (or lack of) of women in their husbands’ yakuza syndicates, we will be able to see whether the international mainstream criminological theory today regarding women as active members in their respective organized crime institutions is applicable also in the case of Japanese women.

 

i.               Romantic Encounters

The number of academic research conducted on how these women meet men from the yakuza underworld are close to none. As encountering and marrying a yakuza member in itself is not against the law, the police have no reason to prioritize or finance such research or gather statistics in this field (Resp. 1). Therefore most of the knowledge needed must be taken from autobiographical and biographical accounts and anecdotes from those familiar with or have encountered the yakuza society.

Accounts and opinions on this matter seem to split. Some believe that there is a clear, consistent pattern and notable similarities on how these women meet their yakuza husbands, and thus there exist similarities in their backgrounds and personality traits as well. In the case of adolescent girls, some of the respondents have noted that these girls are often juveniles themselves, having come from troubled homes or disadvantaged backgrounds. This standpoint is can be seen from this excerpt from Respondent 1, a criminology professor and former researcher for the NRIPS:

 

“A very common pattern is that juvenile girls often go to hang out in town […] and they meet other juveniles or yakuza members and they have a great time. Juvenile girls often come from stressful home situations, or have issues with their parents, and when they meet yakuza members who also have experienced similar issues, these girls feel a strong sense of connection and feel understood by these men. […] Sometimes these girls know that these men belong to the yakuza; sometimes they don’t. But for these girls being a yakuza isn’t necessarily bad, because they start to think ‘Oh, but he’s so cool.’”

(Resp. 1)

 

Another respondent, a daughter of a yakuza boss herself, also emphasized this point, saying that many yakuza wives used to be delinquents or yanki (a Japanese slang word for delinquents or troublemakers) in their youths as they didn’t grow up in warm or stable home environments (Resp. 9). Another one of my respondents familiar with the yakuza underworld (who wishes to stay anonymous) clearly outlined two main patterns as to how the yakuza meet their wives:

 

“Firstly, the women work in the mizushoubai industry, or the entertainment and ‘nightlife’ industry. They may work in bars, late-night restaurants or as hostesses. The men often show off their wealth to impress these women. […] This pattern usually is the case for higher-ranking members or the bosses, who have the money to spend.

                        The second pattern is where the woman and yakuza member have known each other since their youth or adolescence and have grown as juveniles together. They may have been members of bosozoku gangs [juvenile biker gangs] and naturally form a relationship, where the boy eventually becomes a member of a yakuza group.”

(Resp. 4)

 

In all of these accounts, the respondents appear to stress the fact that these women were once juveniles themselves, thus explaining how they are able to meet such men: through association. These accounts also stress that these women have also come from disadvantaged backgrounds, forming a common ground with the yakuza. It is commonly believed that “underworld women have the same social origins as the men” (Otomo in Fiandaca, 2010; 214). The latter respondent however does make a clear point that although these two patterns are prominent there are some outlier cases that do not neatly fit into these two described patterns (Resp. 4). This concept of women from disadvantaged backgrounds being attracted to criminal men has been documented by researchers elsewhere. Several studies of well-known gangster wives and mistresses have shown that such women are often born into a state of poverty and are initially attracted to their criminal spouses due to the economic opportunities they could provide them for a more prosperous life; the initial appeal therefore is largely based in the glamour and wealth of the criminal career (van San, 2011). Moreover a survey published in the NPA’s annual White Paper report in 2000 reported that “11.2% of criminal gang members said they decided to join a gang in the hope of having greater success with women” (Principato in Fiandaca, 2010; 293), which shows that gang members themselves believe in the allure of wealth in attracting certain women. The emphasis of the conclusions of such studies on economic prosperity and wealth as key explanatory factors remind us of social-structural theories such as Merton’s Strain or Anomie theory (Bursik, 1988; McLaughlin, Muncie & Hughes, 2003) where the desire to step out of economic deprivation is one of the sole motivations of action for criminals. As we will see later on, however, this pattern does not fit so precisely in the case of Japanese yakuza wives.

Thus the idea of women who marry into the yakuza subculture being slightly different from the average female citizen who comes from a ‘good’, middle-income home appears to be a prevalent one amongst the Japanese. It is perhaps an extension of the traditionally dominant and classic criminological beliefs that criminality is a phenomenon of the lower classes or the ‘underclass’, the theory of social exclusion and Becker’s creation of ‘outsiders’, and shows clear signs of positivist criminological thinking. It hints to John Galbraith’s “culture of contentment”, a culture of the societal majority “who are all right thank you, doing fine and sharing little in common or concern for the excluded minority” (Young, 2003; 393). It is possible to think that these beliefs are popular with the Japanese mainstream society as it allows them to distance themselves further from this criminal underworld, where even their wives are not from the ordinary strata of the community. It bodes well with the mainstream society to create the societal underclass that is the yakuza society as “the Other”, a group “with defective norms who contrast with the normal majority” (ibid; 395). And it appears that the wives too have been conveniently placed in the group of “the Other” as it allows for the further separation between the criminal and non-criminal, even amongst the women.

In the latter of the two accounts above, Respondent 4 further comments on how such women have often worked in the mizushoubai or late-night districts, areas teeming with yakuza members and yakuza-related activities. This too appears to be a common belief and stereotype. It is possible that many who are unfamiliar with the yakuza underworld believe that only women who work in such districts are likely to meet and enter relationships with yakuza members. However many who are familiar with or are immersed in the yakuza subculture refute this image to be inaccurate – anyone from any class of society has an equal likelihood of meeting and marrying a yakuza member and claim it is inaccurate to say some are more ‘prone’ than others due to their backgrounds or careers. It is also not necessarily the case that women from lower-income classes are more likely to find appeal in such men. In her autobiographical work The Surprising Yakuza World as Seen by the Ane-san the author Misao Tsubaki, a former yakuza wife herself, addresses this common belief regarding yakuza wives and disproves it as inaccurate:

 

 “Of the yakuza wives I know, there is… the daughter of a print shop owner, an esthetician from a salon, a girl from the countryside, a nurse, etc. … […] And there indeed were some wives who used to work in the mizushoubai industry. But it’s not like the movies; it’s not like most of the women are from that area. On the contrary, I actually think that those cases are less common…”

(Tsubaki, 2004; 135-136)

One of my respondents concurred with this point, providing an example of a woman he was acquainted with from his hometown who herself was from a ‘good’ family and was also highly educated, yet ended up marrying a Yamaguchi-gumi member (Resp. 2).

Taking on a different yet interesting view on this discussion, another respondent – an author born into a yakuza household and thus extremely familiar with this world – argues against not only this stereotype but also against generalizing ‘yakuza wives’ as one homogenous group. He argues against treating those in the yakuza society as a separate entity simply based on the fact that they are a criminal subculture. To illustrate this, he provides an excellent example:

 

“Since the yakuza world is heavily populated by men, it is usually difficult for them to meet women. […] But this isn’t a special case just found with the yakuza; it’s common for all male-dominated institutions. The self-defense force or the police force is the same. […] Some people say that yakuza members often marry women they meet in the nightlife industries but it’s the same for these other institutions. Actually, from what I’ve heard, in a certain downtown area of Tokyo the rate of marriages with a woman from the mizushoubai industry is higher for the police department than for the yakuza. […] My main point being that there is, like with any case, an infinite variety of how a yakuza meets his wife. There’s no way you can compartmentalize it into different patterns, saying ‘Because he is a yakuza member, it is always like this’. That’s what I believe.”

(Resp. 7)

 

Therefore we can conclude from these accounts from various sources that although there appears to be a widespread belief that women who were once juveniles themselves or women working in the nightlife and entertainment industries may be more inclined to meet, be attracted to, and eventually marry a yakuza member, this is not an accurate depiction of reality. Research has shown that these women could very well come from upper-class as well as lower-class families and from almost any profession, thus making the promise and lure of economic prosperity an invalid reason for association. Perhaps there is a common attraction amongst these women to ‘dangerous’ men (van San, 2011) or more generally to ‘powerful’ men (Resp. 2), yet overall it has proven to be near impossible to place these yakuza wives into clear-cut patterns regarding their backgrounds and initial yakuza encounters. These accounts dispute the theory of social exclusion, showing that the boundaries between the socially included and excluded may actually be more porous than those in the mainstream society would like to believe.

 

ii.             Role and Influence

Previous research conducted in the field of women in organized crime have revealed that unlike the traditional view of women being ignorant homemakers and dutiful wives and mothers who are unaware of their husbands’ criminal activities, many of these women have in fact played a small yet very significant role of their respective mafias, serving as messengers and negotiators or being the mastermind behind revenge attacks (Siegel, 2013). Thus the current presiding theories regarding mafia women contest the traditional view of the passive woman, claiming that women have always been as involved as their men in mafia affairs, and merely a historical lack of research has kept this reality in the shadows (Fiandaca, 2010; Longrigg, 1998; van San, 2011; Siegel, 2013). The question to be explored in this sub-section is whether this leading theory is applicable in the case of Japanese yakuza wives as well.

As discussed in earlier chapters, there has generally been a lack of empirical research into whether women are actively involved in yakuza affairs. However, through analyzing the various sources and data gathered for this research I believe it is safe to conclude that generally women who have married into the yakuza subculture overall defy these mainstream findings as unlike their international counterparts they have little to no influence or role within the syndicate itself. Instead they generally stay in the ‘traditional’ role of supporting their husbands from the side and raising the children. Almost all respondents echoed this conclusion. Some were more adamant and clear in emphasizing that the women literally had no relation whatsoever to the yakuza syndicate itself:

 

“The wives have little to no function within the group itself. This is because they are prohibited from becoming formal members of the group.”

(Resp. 4)

Earlier excerpts taken from retired marubo officers also support this view (Resp. 5; Resp. 6). However these wives may be ‘used’ by their husbands – for example, it is a common occurrence for yakuza members to conduct bank transfers or sign contracts and leases in the name of their wives rather than their own (Ieda, 2007). Yet this does not make the wife an active participant in the yakuza activities as this is often done purely on the initiative of the husband, the wife’s name merely ‘used’ to avoid police suspicion. This is a common practice in other organized crime structures, where the women would be used for any registration process as a means of avoiding traceable assets to the mafia itself (Longrigg in Fiandaca, 2010). Most respondents on the other hand did acknowledge that these wives did not have a direct role within the group itself, yet they do play a more covert role in supporting their husbands; while their husbands “carry out the activities in plain sight, […] the women support the men from behind” (Resp. 1). But by the word ‘support’, most respondents simply stated that they mean emotional support as opposed to active support. It is still not entirely clear whether all these women happily adopt these supportive roles on their own or are involuntarily put into this position by their husbands as a result of being prohibited from being more active participants. It is interesting to note that while mafia cultures in other parts of the world, with the most prominent in academic research being the example of the Italian mafia, have progressed forward to allow their women to openly act on behalf of the mafia group, the Japanese yakuza are still seemingly inflexible in allowing their women to openly participate. What I believe to be more interesting is that according to the data, the women themselves seem to have accepted this role, unwillingly or otherwise. As one of my respondents clearly stated:

 

It is a world for and by men. I don’t think women are able to really step into it. […] I don’t think it will not be a world for men. I think in terms of the faithfulness and loyalty these men have, it’s just not possible for women to be a part of that world.”

(Resp. 9)

It is interesting to see that this respondent, a former yakuza wife herself, would side with the traditional view of the yakuza being a male-dominated society that is unwelcoming to women. Of course, some women do state a sense of anger over not being able to formally be active members themselves (Ieda, 2007) yet these accounts appear to be more rare than common. Perhaps unlike their Western counterparts, most women seem to have accepted their traditional role as opposed to feeling the need to ‘emancipate’ themselves by entering a career of overt criminality themselves. Or as we will see in a later chapter, these women may have taken on a different and more unique way of exerting themselves within the subculture that is the yakuza society.

However, one common occurrence that appears to be unique to the Japanese yakuza underworld is that in most cases, these women are also the main (or in some cases the only) source of financial support for the couple or for the family. With the tightening legal severity around the yakuza society since the establishment of the Botaiho two decades ago, modern-day yakuza members have been struggling with generating an income. Thus is it extremely common for the wife to take on a job to support her husband financially – and this is an openly known fact. These wives have been described as “the backbone of their men’s life financially” (Resp. 1) and the “sole source of money” and the “moneymaking tool” for their husbands (Resp. 3). There are times when the wife takes on this role voluntarily and times when the wife is pressured by her husband to do so; there is no one-fits-all pattern. There does appear to be a pattern however in where and what kinds of jobs these wives take on to support their yakuza husbands: the nightlife and entertainment industry.

 

“There are a lot of cases where the wife earns money to support her husband by working in the amusement and entertainment industries, like bars or cabarets.”

(Resp.1)

Most of these wives do not engage in criminal activities themselves to fund their husbands, though there have apparently been some reported cases where the wife engaged in drug sales or prostitution (Resp. 4). Some wives may also engage in other forms of illegal activities, such as “bookmaking, loan-sharking, traffic in amphetamines, and illegal gambling” (Otomo in Fiandaca, 2010; 213). However according to the retired marubo officers amongst the respondents, such cases are said to be quite rare. This lack of economic success of the yakuza member further refutes the argument in the earlier sub-section regarding the promise of economic prosperity as a source of attraction for these women. But of course, we cannot generalize this pattern to the entire yakuza hierarchal structure; the higher-ranking members and the oyabun himself are known to receive an obligatory ‘membership fee’ from the lower-ranking members on a monthly basis (an NPA White Paper report in 1993 published that a larger yakuza syndicate’s oyabun would receive 527,000 yen (approximately 4050 Euros today) per month just from such fees), meaning they are often not troubled financially (Einstein & Amir, 1999; 143). This means, as we will see in the following chapter, the case of the oyabun’s wife is extremely different from the women discussed in this chapter. As one of my respondents explained, the phenomenon discussed in this chapter is more common in the cases of lower-ranking members, who struggle to survive under the Botaiho.

From all the data presented above, we can therefore conclude that in the case of the Japanese yakuza subculture the women do not fit in line with the leading international discoveries on mafia women. While globally women have stepped out of their assumed passive roles and have come forth to openly act on behalf of the mafia, Japanese yakuza wives by contrast stay in the shadows, playing the traditional role of merely supporting their criminal husbands. A unique aspect of yakuza wives however is that they are heavily depended upon by their yakuza husbands to provide financial support for himself as well as their family. Though this does not make these women active participants in the yakuza syndicates, it does make clear that they do indeed have a significant role on the side in supporting their criminal spouses in more tangible ways. However the portrayal of the yakuza wife presented in this chapter is mainly applicable for the lower ranking yakuza wives. As we will see in the following chapter, the story is entirely different when looking into the role and influence of the wife seated at the very top of the yakuza pyramid – the wife of the oyabun, the ane-san.

 

 

 

CHAPTER V: The Ane-san

The previous chapter explored themes applicable mainly to the wives of lower-ranking members. As the yakuza society follows a strict pyramidal system, the wives at the peak of the triangle lead extremely different lives – and thus have entirely different roles – from the wives discussed previously. Popular culture depictions of yakuza wives in books and films generally convey their image of these top wives – the glamorous ane-sans of the yakuza underworld.  This chapter will explore in depth the lifestyle and roles of the ane-sans. The data in this chapter acts as an essential backdrop for the following chapter, a thorough analysis of the ane-san as depictured in popular culture and media in comparison to reality.

This chapter will also look into the upbringing of children born to yakuza parents or more specifically, children born to parents who are oyabuns and ane-sans. This sub-section will seek to explore the influence of the yakuza subculture on the children born into it and will primarily focus on the role of the mothers – especially the ane-sans – in indoctrinating the yakuza values and norms into their children. Furthermore this sub-section will delve into the question as to whether having yakuza parents can be seen as an indicator of intergenerational transference in the children, as some scholars have stated to be true in the case of other mafia organizations across the world.

 

i.               Lifestyle

 

As with any organized crime group, those at the top are often believed to be the most successful, the most wealthy, the most glamorous. The same can be said for the yakuza underworld. While researchers have proven that most other organized crime structures such as the Italian and the Russian mafias have evolved from their traditional hierarchal structures to more network-oriented structures, most Japanese syndicates have remained faithful to their rigid hierarchies (the main exception to this rule being the Tokyo-based Sumiyoshi-kai, which has adopted a federation-based structure) (Hill, 2003). Regardless, in all yakuza syndicates and groups there are clearly the men who sit at the top. As a lower-ranking yakuza member, money is always a struggle and as seen in the previous chapter, the wives are often the sole financial support for the family and for her husband’s financial dues to the group. The story however is entirely different for the ane-san at the top. As one of my respondents stated, “I think the wife has it tough. Without a doubt. […] Only the women at the top, the ane-sans, have it somewhat easier. Only those at the very top.” (Resp. 3)

In Japanese literature there are numerous publications and autobiographies on the lives of ane-sans, apparently a popular literary read (Anzai, 2001; Ieda, 2007; Ishihara, 2010; Tsubaki, 2004). These autobiographies all tell stories of the day-to-day life of an ane-san in the modern age. These women live the high life; they drive expensive cars or have chauffeurs. They have bodyguards protecting them during all hours of the day. They live in spacious, lavish mansions though granted, often communally with the subordinates of her husband’s syndicate. Their husbands shower them with expensive clothes, bags, and jewelry. They often admit to having a drinking problem. Their grand lifestyle is incomparable to the wives in the lower ranks struggling daily to make ends meet. Respondent 3, a resident of the city of Kobe (home of the Yamaguchi-gumi headquarters), told me about one of his well-known neighbors:

 

“I used to live in a mansion right around the time I got married. […] My neighbor was the family of the 5th head [of the Yamaguchi-gumi]. […] I think it was Mr. Watanabe…? Mr. Watanabe was living right next door to me. In the summers, his wife would send me enormous gift packages. And if I repaid her for them, I’d get a whole large sum back again. […]  I remember there were always bodyguards around him, even to and from the elevator of the mansion. And his wife had them too.”

(Resp. 3)

The stereotypical image of the wealthy and glamorous gangster wife (Longrigg, 1998) is evidently applicable for these high-ranking Japanese mafia wives as well. And consequently, due to their higher-ranking status and incredibly different lifestyle results in these women having very different roles and influences compared to the women described in the previous chapter.

 

ii.             Role and Influence

 

The ane-san at the top of the hierarchy has several important roles to fulfill. First, as the ‘mother figure’ of the group her husband rules, not only must she tend to the daily necessities of the subordinates but also to those of their wives. As these smaller sub-groups often all live communally in the oyabun’s home, a direct reflection of the traditional collectivist nature of many Asian cultures, she must provide the meals for all members of the group and tend to all the household chores. Therefore, for obvious reasons, the finances of the group often fall into the responsibility of the ane-san. As former ane-san Chizue Anzai writes in her autobiography, “To feed the other girls and subordinates, I spent every day running around, managing the money” (Anzai, 2001; 62). Several of my respondents also acknowledged the financial responsibilities of the ane-san, a task they attributed to climbing higher in the yakuza ranks:

 

“The higher up the pyramid you go, the less the men deal with money. Right? Then it becomes more and more the wife’s responsibility as you go higher. I get the impression that the money is all in the wife’s hands since the husband doesn’t bother with things like that.”

(Resp. 3)

 

“It’s the wife of the oyabun who knows how much money the group earns from a day at the construction site, or which of the subordinates have how many children and spend how much on education, who has been feeling ill… The wife is the one who distributes the money to these subordinates when they need it.”

(Resp. 7)

 

The practice of the women holding the household finances is not unique to the yakuza underworld but is a practice widespread across the Japanese society as a whole. As mentioned in the introductory chapter, women often have the status as head of the family regarding financial matters, as the men would come home and hand over their earnings to their wives, giving the women a sense of economic autonomy and dominance in everyday affairs unfound in Western cultures (Kersten, 1996; 390).

These top wives are also often the ones who come to resolve any quarrels between the group’s subordinates or between the subordinates and their wives; where the oyabun, too far removed from the interpersonal relationships of his subordinate members falls short, his wife steps in as the advisor and mediator for such conflicts. This too was supported by many of my respondents. Respondent 9, a daughter of a yakuza boss states: “If you’re the ane-san of a group, you also have the very important role of taking care of the subordinates and providing them with emotional support and giving them advice”.

Finally, it is the ane-san’s responsibility to be resilient against police inquisitions to protect her husband and the group as a whole. Due to her financial responsibilities, though she is not an active participant herself the ane-san is often very knowledgeable on the activities and inner workings of the syndicate, and this is well known by the police.

 

“The boss’s wife is the most knowledgeable on the group’s flow of money: how much everyone earns, how many subordinates there are… she probably knows more than the boss himself. If you investigate the yakuza group’s financials, it’s common that the police will come across the wife’s name on their bank accounts, for example. So if they want to go after the money, they’ll probably start with the wife.”

(Resp. 7)

 

Because of this, the retired marubo police officers I had the opportunity to interview all agreed that the ane-san learns to become resilient and obstinate against the police.

 

“… Well, they usually have a solid sense of pride, are pretty strong-willed and hard-mouthed. [Laughs] You could never beat them in a verbal fight. And I guess this has to do with the fact that they’re husbands are those kind of people, but there is probably an aspect of honor there as well.”

(Resp. 6)

 

The son of the yakuza boss I had the chance to interview also commended these women on their resilience in protecting their husbands, saying that for many of these oyabuns his wife is the “most reliable figure in his life” and in his experience often more resilient than her own husband, who is usually much quicker to start talking (Resp. 7). Former ane-san Maiko Ishihara herself echoed this sentiment in her autobiography:

 

“It’s not that we’re strong-willed from the beginning. In the beginning, everyone dutifully and demurely do as they’re told. […] But as a yakuza wife, you just can’t stay submissive. The number of subordinates you have to look after increases, and there’s more issues to resolve. I suppose you just grow stronger naturally.”

(Ishihara, 2010; 44-45)

 It is not difficult to see that perhaps there is also a sense of maternal instinct in the need to protect her husband’s subordinates, whom she cares for as the mother of the group. In many of these ane-sans’ autobiographies, such feelings have been explicitly explained as they express a motherly need to care for the wellbeing of the subordinate members as if they were her own children (Anzai, 2001; Ishihara, 2010; Tsubaki, 2004).

For these reasons the ane-san is able to exert some influence over the group – though how much influence exactly she exerts is contested and most likely differs greatly across different groups based on the individual ane-san’s own personality as well. And, as we will see in the following sections, these women’s perceptions of their own importance within their husbands’ groups may possibly be inflated, affecting the way in which we must look at and analyze these autobiographies. However all respondents agreed that compared to the lower-ranking wives, the ane-san definitely is able to exert more influence over her husband and over her husband’s syndicate, though not to a decision-making level. While the ane-san too is unable to attend formal yakuza events or conferences, she may have the possibility of exerting a ‘considerable’ amount of influence over her husband to voice her own personal opinion (Resp. 4). Again, however, this standpoint is heavily contested.

Unlike the lower-ranking gokutsuma described in the previous chapter, these top wives are not in a situation of financial instability that requires them to provide financial support for the family. Yet it appears that many take on a side job voluntarily. Former ane-san and self-described onna-oyabun Emiko Hamano portrays the difference between wives of different ranks regarding their chosen lines of work:

 

“Most of the companions of the yakuza […] earned their living as prostitute masseuses or strippers to support their lovers. When their men went up a level in the gang, and they had themselves called Anesan [big sister], they began to earn money in the rackets[4] or loan-sharking.”

(Otomo in Fiandaca, 2010; 214)

Once again the importance of hierarchy is heavily emphasized in this excerpt. The distinction between the ordinary gokutsuma and the ane-san is made evident in the side job they take on and whether it is out of necessity or purely on a voluntary basis.

 

iii.           Yakuza Children

 

Another area that criminologists and researchers focus on when studying mafia families are naturally the children. Research has been published on the idea of mafia clans continuing over generations of families in Italy, mafia daughters being “spoilt mafia princesses” in the United States (Longrigg in Fiandaca, 2010), or wives of organized crime gangsters raising their sons to be ruthless and dangerous criminals just like their fathers (van San, 2011). These studies declare that the mothers instill mafia values and norms into their children as they are socialized into a culture of crime as they too enter the same criminal career as their fathers in adulthood. This conclusion has been especially emphasized in studies on Italian mafia families:

 

“It would be nearly impossible, according to one Naples magistrate, for an intelligent woman born into a mafia family to remain aloof from criminal culture. […] [Such a woman] grows up with a particular mentality and assimilates the mafia’s distorted sense of justice.”

(Longrigg, 1998; 35)

 

“One magistrate in Calabria has come to the conclusion, after fifteen years of practising law, that there is only one way to break the mafia.

‘Sterilise them.’”

(ibid; 109)

 

It would appear that in Japan many people of the mainstream society know little about these children born into yakuza households, most likely due to the lack of studies or media attention in this field. Most respondents relied on heresy or stories from others regarding children with yakuza parents when asked about the subject. However most seemed to believe that there is no single pattern to the future of yakuza children: “some grow up to have legitimate careers and marry ‘ordinary’ citizens, while others do not” (Resp. 4). Having talked to those familiar with the yakuza underworld, this definitely appears to be true. In Japan, several children of yakuza families – especially those born to oyabun and ane-san parents right at the top – have published their own autobiographical and biographical books, (Miyazaki, 2005; Taoka, 2003; Tendo, 2012). The anecdotes in these publications clearly illustrate that though they share the common trait of being born to yakuza godfathers, their futures hold little resemblance to each other’s – Miyazaki is now a social critic after having had several run-ins with the law over the years, Taoka a professional counselor having had no association with criminality whatsoever, and Tendo, currently a single-mother after suffering through juvenile detention and a methamphetamine addiction. One of my respondents, the daughter of yakuza boss in Osaka, eventually married a yakuza member herself; when asked whether she believed this was related to her upbringing, she fully agreed:

 

“Yes, I think there’s a connection. As the daughter of a yakuza boss, from childhood I was surrounded by yakuza members and lived amongst them. I feel like for an ordinary person to be tolerant of that is quite difficult and this makes it very hard to develop any sort of relationship.”

(Resp. 9)

 

On the other hand, as Yuki Taoka, daughter of oyabun Kazuo Taoka of the Yamaguchi-gumi states in her own publication:

 

“As I write these anecdotes, it sounds like I was quite the delinquent as an adolescent, but that was definitely not the case. Society often believes in the model: ‘The old man is a yakuza; the daughter is a juvenile leader’, and they would try to fit me in this mold. But I can say that I was a very normal and ordinary high school student.”

(Taoka, 2003; 71)

 

Similarly the Taoka family’s son Mitsuru also did not follow the criminal path, but instead became the CEO of a transportation company – granted, one that was started by his own father (Resp. 2; Resp. 3). Thus not all yakuza children grow up to become criminals themselves or associate with criminals, although of course some do, as with the case of Miyazaki, who outlines his troubles with the law extensively in his autobiography Toppamono (Miyazaki, 2003). Most yakuza children do not succeed their fathers in taking over the syndicate, a common practice with other mafia structures. Kaplan and Dubro provide an example from the Inagawa-kai where the founder Inagawa’s own son “eventually [succeeded] him as godfather”, but this was described to be “an unusual development in modern yakuza gangs” (Kaplan & Dubro, 2003; 136). Overall it cannot be said that because one is a child of a yakuza, he or she too grows up to become one or she grows up to marry one.

This in itself is a discovery that contradicts the conclusions of several studies that focused on the Italian mafia, which have revealed that mafia children have an extremely high possibility of becoming criminals themselves in adulthood. This demonstrates the difficulty in directly and blindly applying theories that are heavily based on studies of Western cultures to the case of Japan. In explaining this inconsistency in findings, it is necessary to point out an extremely important difference between the structure of the Italian mafia ‘family’ and a Japanese yakuza ‘family’. The Italian mafia, like many other Western mafia-like organizations, is generally based on the nuclear family itself or on blood relations. The Italian mafia clan comprises of the father, the uncle, the male cousins, or the sons and less formally, the wives, mothers, sisters and the daughters (Longrigg, 1998). Thus it is of no surprise that the continuation of the clan carries through across generations; children born into mafia families truly live the mafia lifestyle in their everyday lives in their own homes. Every relative they come in contact with are participants of the mafia family in some way or another. But the story is very different for the yakuza ‘family’. A single yakuza clan is not based on literal blood relations but rather on synthetic or fictive ‘blood’ relations formed between the members through the sakazuki ritual that binds them in either the oyabun-kobun (father-son) bond or the kyodaibun (brotherhood) bond. When considering this major difference, it is easier to see how the children born into yakuza households can be far more removed from the yakuza lifestyle and subculture compared to the children of other international mafia homes and why syndicates are not carried across literal blood lines.

Another point is made clear in the latter excerpt above; Taoka’s quote tells us that yakuza children may be subjected to a negative stereotyping by society as a whole. The idea of intergenerational transference – the idea that the parent’s criminality is a strong indicator of delinquency in their children – has indeed been a long-standing criminological theory, and the role of biology in indicating criminality has been supported by numerous studies (McLaughlin, Muncie & Hughes, 2003; van San, 2011). It is not difficult to see how such a common ‘assumption’ could prevalent within society when viewing the criminal subculture such as the yakuza, and the children born into it. When yakuza children talk about their upbringing, bullying is a major theme in almost all cases (Miyazaki, 2005; Taoka, 2003; Tendo, 2012).

 

“All the other students know who [the child from a yakuza family] is. Then the rumors and stories spread quickly. Who she is, which group her father is from. Spreads like wildfire.”

(Resp. 3)

 

Yakuza parents, especially the mothers, appear to be painfully aware of the consequences of their husband’s ‘careers’ on their children, knowing that “being a yakuza isn’t accepted by society” (Resp. 2). As one yakuza wife interviewed in The Yakuza Wives compilation said sadly, “A yakuza’s child is a yakuza’s child. You say that the child has nothing to do with that stuff, but in the end society won’t think of it that way” (Ieda, 2007; 108). Thus they take great effort in providing a good education and ‘normal’ home environment for their children. Miyazaki emphasizes this in his own autobiography when talking about his mother and how she “did her best to make sure we got a good education. She really regretted that she hadn’t attended even primary school. […] She believed naively that education would allow her children to choose an affluent path in life completely different to her own” (Miyazaki, 2003; 16). It appears that the mother herself plays a crucial role in guiding her children’s futures, often hoping for them to take the non-criminal route. This could be a vital point in understanding why yakuza children do not always grow up to become like their yakuza fathers or marry yakuza members themselves.

 

iv.            Yakuza Blood

 

Reading through these publications and having had the opportunity to talk to some of these yakuza children however I believe it can be argued that the yakuza ideology and mindset is definitely clear in these children as a direct result of their upbringing. It may not be immediately clear, as it does not necessarily manifest in a criminal career as one may expect, yet it is there – and the development of such a mindset is most definitely influenced by the mother. This is especially true if the child’s mother is the ane-san of the yakuza group as opposed to a wife of a lower-ranking member.

Motherhood is something that criminologists cannot ignore when studying women living in a subculture of crime as it is often seen as one of the most important event in a woman’s life, both in the criminal and non-criminal world. And indeed child rearing is seen by most societies worldwide as a woman’s task. This is true also in the case of Japan, where perhaps this notion is emphasized more than in the Western countries, as “society – women as well as men – does not forgive a woman who does not take care of children” (White, 1992; 72). Even in the criminal world researchers have found that many take motherhood extremely seriously and some argue that motherhood is exactly why women are less inclined to commit to a criminal career compared to their male counterparts. Respondent 8, a criminology professor who specializes mostly in the gang culture in the United States, explained this concept clearly:

 

[Women] tend to associate with [criminal] men but even if they are like a female gang member, they don’t usually continue to be the formal member because they… they marry. Most female members marry and become mothers, and at that time some do associate [with criminal men] but some don’t. You know, because of their motherhood. […] For the sake of their children. When you reach a certain age, at least say maybe 20 or older, women tend to take the roles more seriously. Because I think women’s roles are really defined more clearly. Otherwise they will be stigmatized, especially in Japan. […] I think their status always goes through say, single to family member.”

(Resp. 8)

 

Thus we can conclude that in the yakuza subculture as well motherhood is a monumentally important task that these yakuza wives take on, yet due to their daily and constant association with criminality and deviant values and norms the upbringing of their children is incomparable to the upbringing of children born in non-criminal households. As discussed in the previous sub-section, this does not necessarily mean that the children grow up to become enter a criminal career themselves. The yakuza values instilled in these children manifest in other ways; namely through what one of my respondents, the son of a yakuza boss, coined ‘yakuza blood’. When asked to elaborate, he explained:

 

“People like me who’ve grown up in the yakuza world, we have a different way of thinking. For example, an average person would say something like ‘If you commit a robbery, you’re a bad person’ and it ends there. Robbers are bad people, they need to serve time in jail, and that’s it. People like me, however, we look more into the human relationship between people… how do I put it. The humanistic side. When I say ‘blood’, I mean this sort of way of thinking that we’ve learned growing up.”

(Resp. 7)

 

To exemplify this way of thinking, he provided an anecdote of his uncle who had been charged with murder along with another yakuza member; at the trial, the pair were asked who was the main culprit of the crime to which they both simultaneously raised their hands. As a result they were given the a prison sentence of the same length – and they responded gratefully, saying it would have been a “betrayal” to the other if one had received a shorter sentence. As they thanked the judge the respondent recalls how he “couldn’t help but laugh” and see the “beauty” of their relationship (Resp. 7).

When asked whether there was such a thing as ‘yakuza blood’, my other respondent born into a yakuza family wholeheartedly agreed:

 

“Yes, definitely. […] [How] I think and how I behave is definitely similar to a yakuza. I’m very short-tempered and once I start, I won’t hold back. During times like that I think, ‘Ah, I’m definitely my father’s daughter’. I can feel the blood of the yakuza in myself.”

(Resp. 9)

 

The idea that children born into mafia families are often raised with different ideals and values that are more respected in the criminal subcultures have been already noted in previous studies. In a study of women in Curaçao involved in drug trafficking by van San for example has shown that mothers often consciously raise their own sons to become ruthless and talk of their sons’ violent behavior “with visible pride” (van San, 2011; 291). And it is logical that simply by growing up in such an environment children naturally pick up certain mindsets and behaviors, whether it’s a simple matter of copying the yakuza’s gambling behavior in their child’s play (Taoka, 2003) or learning to become hard-mouthed and to avoid discussing certain topics with ‘ordinary’ people (Ishihara, 2010). However, the mother is often the crucial figure in the development of such a mindset, whether consciously or unconsciously. Taoka explains this extremely clearly: “It’s a lot easier for the child if he has the same values and norms as his parents and doesn’t feel confused about how to live life. […] My mother supported my father. So I supported my father, and I respected him. For a child, the mother is the model” (Taoka & Miyazaki, 2010; 19; 28). As Taoka’s mother Fumiko was one of the most famous ane-sans in recent history, perhaps she had a stronger sense of instilling the values and traits respected in the yakuza subculture in her children than the average ane-san. Interestingly enough, Taoka recounts how she had subconsciously taught her own son the same sort of ‘yakuza values’ such as feeling proud of him when he didn’t “rat out” his friends to the school principal (ibid; 125).

Through these examples and anecdotes we can clearly see that children born into yakuza households do not necessarily grow up to pursue criminal careers in the yakuza underworld themselves, as has been shown to be the case in other international organized crime families. Simply being born into a yakuza household does not automatically indicate that the child will enter a similar criminal career in his adulthood as well, refuting theories focusing on the biological transference of crime. Yet it is evident that these children do have a different set of values from the mainstream society, a set of values much more respected and valued amongst the yakuza subculture as opposed to mainstream society. And as explored above, these values can be traced back to being taught to them by their mothers. Because to a lack of literature on children born into lower-ranking yakuza households it is difficult to generalize these findings across the pyramid, and the conclusions drawn here must be done hesitantly, but I believe we can conclude that if the child’s mother is an ane-san of her group, there is a higher chance that these values will be more deeply rooted in her children.

 

Chapter VI: The ‘Sub-subculture’ of Women

 

The chapters until this point have mainly focused on the presentation of the data gathered in a more matter-of-fact manner with the roles and influences of the yakuza wives and more specifically the ane-sans at the pinnacle of the pyramid explained in detail according to the information provided by the numerous respondents and autobiographical accounts of the subjects themselves.

This chapter will delve into the more deeply analytical aspect of this thesis. It will look into several different themes and through this aim to understand the behavior and perceptions of these yakuza wives in the context of their position within the yakuza subculture. In this chapter I will introduce the role of the popular media, namely yakuza films and the role these films play within the subculture itself. Through exploring the mediated images of these yakuza wives in popular culture depictions – focusing primarily on the Gokudo no Onna-tachi (The Yakuza Wives) movie series – and several ane-sans’ published autobiographical and biographical accounts (Anzai, 2001; Ieda, 2007; Ishihara, 2010; Tsubaki, 2004), this chapter will aim to understand the position these women subjectively believe they hold in the male-dominated yakuza society. Furthermore this chapter will aim to reach an understanding of their perceptions and actions as reactions to living in such a subculture: by creating amongst themselves a ‘shadow’ subculture of women, or a female ‘sub-subculture’ within the yakuza underclass.

 

i.               The Silver-Screen Ane-san

 

Though they have significantly dwindled in recent years, yakuza films were at one point in time highly popular with the Japanese audience. Films such as 1973’s Jingi naki tatakai (Battles without Honor and Humanity) are still highly regarded and respected cinematic pieces even today. These films are often cited as the medium for inventing and spreading the image and the ‘legend’ of the modern yakuza, improving their image amongst the mainstream society. As a well-known film director of such movies stated, the yakuza “liked those movies because it made them look good. It was good for their image” (Varese, 2006; 107). It is an openly known fact that the yakuza often take part in the film production process, only allowing favorable images of themselves to be portrayed. When the satirical film Minbo no Onna (The Anti-Extortion Woman) was released in 1992 showing the yakuza to be weak, pathetic, and bothersome to society, the director Juzo Itami was violently attacked by Yamaguchi-gumi members outside his Tokyo home (Varese, 2006). Itami later committed suicide, although many have questioned whether his death was truly a suicide or in fact a yakuza-related homicide. Similarly in 1990 author Atsushi Mizoguchi was warned and threatened by the Yamaguchi-gumi against publishing a certain book that unfavorably portrayed the yakuza – he did so anyway, and was stabbed in the back by Yamaguchi-gumi members (Kaplan & Dubro, 2003). As expected however the content of these films are like the yakuza subculture itself largely male-dominated. In the traditional yakuza film plotline, the protagonist is an honorable male yakuza, and women are hardly given the limelight. One of the most popular yakuza films of today, Outrage (2010) and its sequel Outrage Beyond (2012) demonstrate exactly this point; the characters of importance are all men, and should a woman appear she is merely collateral damage, a victim to the yakuza conflicts and violence. There is I believe a notable moment in Battles without Honor and Humanity where the protagonist Shozo wishes to perform the yubitsume ritual, or the cutting off of one’s pinky, as an apology offering to his boss. Unfortunately for Shozo, no one knows exactly how it is to be done until eventually the boss’ wife steps forth to offer her knowledge on the ritual and providing Shozo with the necessary mat and knife. This is most definitely a moment of interest as even in this film now four decades old, the ane-san is momentarily portrayed to be not only knowledgeable on the yakuza rituals but also steps forth where all other men fail. Yet this was clearly not the intended message of the director, as the wife in this moment is merely used to ridicule the “almost religious respect surrounding the yakuza, its rituals, and its ceremonial paraphernalia” (Varese, 2006; 113) and to show the overall ineptitude of the yakuza members as opposed to directly showing the aptitude of the women. The woman herself is actually of no importance. In general, if any women are present in these yakuza films they are often prostitutes or mere victims of the violence and are in fact completely unimportant to the plot itself. As these movies are made to “[reinforce] the virtue of absolute duty towards one’s gang, and, more generally, towards the yakuza code” (ibid; 109) it is easy to see why women do not hold any significant roles. With a male-dominated yakuza world pushing for pro-yakuza films in a male-dominated film industry, this result is hardly surprising.

To compete with these male-dominated films, two noteworthy female-dominated movie series emerged in the cinematic scene in Japan. First the Hibotan Bakuto (Red Peony Gambler) series starting in 1968, starring a knife-wielding female protagonist, a gambler who lives in the yakuza underworld seeking vengeance and proving herself to be as ruthless as the men. The series successfully continued on for eight films, finally ending in 1972. More famous however is the Gokudo no Onna-tachi (The Yakuza Wives) series, mentioned several times prior to this chapter. The movie series began in 1986 and the most recent installation, Gokudo no Onna-tachi: Neo (The Yakuza Wives: Neo) was released June of this year (2013), meaning the series has now been lasting for nearly three decades. Unlike the Red Peony Gambler series, the Gokudo no Onna-tachi movie series has no continuing plotline or characters across the different film segments as all bring forth a new story with new characters, although often the actresses are reused. Based on Shoko Ieda’s non-fiction reportage series of the same name (though naturally the film plotlines are ‘exaggerated’ for the dramatic appeal), each film follows one female protagonist, often an ane-san or another high-ranking wife as she faces some sort of conflict that is eventually solved by the film’s end. These conflicts are often both a personal one relating to the ane-san’s husband or family, and one relating to her yakuza syndicate, a power struggle or collusion and betrayal. These female protagonists often are the acting heads of their husbands’ yakuza syndicates due to their husbands’ death or imprisonment; in some films they have their husbands’ full support and in some films they do not. The portrayals of the female lead in these movies are without fail all the same, establishing a clear pattern. The ane-san is a force to be reckoned with: steely and cold yet with a humanistic side, she is a proud woman who clearly demonstrates her position of superiority over the other characters in the film, often throwing out phrases such as “Do you have any idea who I am?!”. She is cutthroat, often herself wielding a gun or a katana (a traditional Japanese sword) and is never afraid to kill for the sake of honor or revenge – and indeed, she often does so. She is an honorable woman, usually more so than her male counterparts. Those who follow the same yakuza code as her, male or female, respect her greatly. She is often described by others as a “good wife” due to her commitment to the yakuza syndicate and in several films is called an onna-oyabun by yakuza members and civilians alike.

The ane-san on the big screen is definitely a character that leaves a strong, lasting impression on viewers. For those who know little of the yakuza subculture (as indeed most viewers do not) it seems to provide a ‘model’ on what they believe an ane-san is like in reality. Comparable to this is the character of O-ren Ishii in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Vol. 1, an extremely violent but respected onna-oyabun who rises to power by seeking revenge and killing those who stand in her way. Surely many viewers across the world believe this to be an accurate depiction of the yakuza subculture and women’s place in it. But as we will discuss in the following section, especially regarding the Gokudo no Onna-tachi movie series, perception plays a key role in understand these movies and in comparing the movies to reality.

Though there is no one single continuous plotline across the movies there are several significant themes that occur across all films in the series:

  1. The conflict between love and the yakuza underworld: A young, innocent girl, often the ane-san’s younger sister or daughter, shows no interest and even actively avoids the yakuza society yet ultimately finds herself falling in love with a yakuza member;
  2. The importance of status: There is a clear distinction between a high-ranking yakuza and a chinpira (a low-ranking yakuza member), a ranking system which is directly transferred to the wives themselves;
  3. A desire to keep family members out of the subculture: Though the protagonist is always a high-ranking yakuza wife, she never wishes for her children or siblings to enter the yakuza society;
  4. The power and honor of women: The ane-sans are always honorable, brave, respectable yet vengeful women who often outlive their husbands and are shown to be more honorable than the male yakuza members.

As these themes indicate, within these films the woman’s place in the yakuza underworld is paramount. These women are not only knowledgeable on the yakuza rituals and ceremonies but are active participants; several films depict the ane-san or other wives performing the yubitsume ritual as well as engaging in the sakazuki ceremony that binds yakuza members as family, a ritual in reality prohibited to women. They are present at yakuza meetings and conferences, voicing their opinions and forming allegiances. They demonstrate their strength and willpower by stabbing themselves in their hand or foot to prove their ability in withstanding pain, crying out that their actions prove “the will of a yakuza’s wife” (The Yakuza Wives: The Last Battle, 1990; The New Yakuza Wives, 1991). By viewing these films, the audience is likely to believe that women have a central role in the yakuza underworld. But as we will see, it is important to identify the point of view from which these films were made to understand why these characters are portrayed the way they are.

 

ii.             By women, for women: Perceptions

 

Le Monde journalist Ryu Otomo has noted, “the image of the “lady gangster” spread by some Japanese films, in no way reflects reality” (Otomo in Fiandaca, 2010; 205). And indeed most of the autobiographical accounts by real-life ane-sans will show that their daily lives are not as dramatic or ‘exciting’ as that portrayed in the movies, as gun shootouts and the cutting and stabbing of various body parts so abundant in these films are in fact entirely non-existent. It is essential to acknowledge at this point the importance of identifying this discrepancy, as cultural criminologists point out the necessity of acknowledging “today’s porous boundaries between fiction and non-fiction” or rather the idea of ‘true fiction’, which is defined as “various non-fictional accounts woven into a larger, fictionalized narrative” (Ferrell, Hayward & Young, 2008; 206). Observing the silver screen depictions of these yakuza wives whilst keeping in mind the concept of ‘true fiction’ is the vital starting point in conducting the film analyses.

Many who have seen such movie series that highlight the importance of these yakuza wives question the accuracy of the portrayal of the ane-sans. In almost every single one of the interviews conducted for this research, the topic of the Gokudo no Onna-tachi movie series came up organically in the conversation with all respondents, showing that it clearly left an impression in their minds as the audience. Most had similar opinions on the series in general and its accuracy in reflecting the reality of the yakuza subculture. Many clearly emphasized the point that a female author, Shoko Ieda, had written the reportage that served as the basis of the films, which is focused almost entirely on women. Thus it is very easy to imagine that the perception of importance of these ane-sans have been exaggerated by the subjects themselves and this exaggeration was at the same time readily accepted by the author whom herself is a woman. The stories that are told in these movies in the end are “just in the world of films and television” (Resp. 2).

“Yes, this you see, it’s all interviews conducted by a woman from a woman’s point of view, with female subjects, looking at how these women view their situation and their husbands… and their husband’s syndicates. Right. This, this is all from a woman’s point of view…”

(Resp. 5)

 

Both of Respondents 2 and 5 however are male. Just as they could argue that a female perspective could twist the reality of the situation, it could just as easily be said that being men, their opinions too are clouded by male-dominated stereotypical beliefs. Yet the women I had the chance to interview also concurred with these statements. As can be seen in the excerpt below, though they are not as quick to dismiss their portrayals as entirely fabricated, the female respondents too question the reality of these plotlines:

 

“The original reportage was conducted by a woman using women as her primary target group, which I think explains why it was written in a way that clearly emphasized the message that ‘As the wife, I’m supporting the group’. […]. I mean, I do get the impression that they are quite dependent on their wives since there are many stories about ane-sans. But I feel like the stories in the movies are a bit exaggerated… if these wives really were going around killing people, I think there would be more arrests and police cases to prove it. […] If you look at it that way, I think that area is definitely fictional.”

(Resp. 1)

Indeed, yakuza-related arrests of women are generally extremely low. A study shows that between January and October of 1999, there were just 20 women within the 302 cases of yakuza-related arrests and eventually convicted, a mere 6.6% of the total (Otomo in Fiandaca, 2010). Though this research is not very recent, the consequent NPA annual White Paper reports have not reported a significant rise in female yakuza-related arrests.

Believing that they could give me the most accurate and realistic answers to my questions regarding this movie series, I asked both the son and daughter of the yakuza bosses their opinions on the accuracy of these films. Both strongly emphasized that in reality the ane-sans they are familiar with (their mothers) were nothing like these characters. According to Respondent 7, these characters are a much more extreme and exaggerated version of real-life ane-sans; his mother he explained “was very humble. Her clothes were more ragged than the wives of her subordinates. She ate what everyone else ate, sometimes just taking the leftovers for herself” (Resp. 7). As Respondent 9 herself is a former gokutsuma, I asked whether she felt a connection to these women having been a yakuza wife herself. She clearly stated that these were merely fictional stories made for the movies, and though she had been a yakuza wife herself she had “never helped out with any of their affairs” (Resp. 9). At the same time she did acknowledge that there are “probably more than a few women who watch the movies and think that they’d like to become an ane-san themselves.” Overall it can therefore be concluded that most viewers of these films find them to be generally inaccurate.

This is an important point to keep in mind when exploring the autobiographical accounts of real-life ane-sans, which are technically written to be non-fictional narratives. The accounts, anecdotes and perceptions of these women must therefore be analyzed as being entirely non-fiction as opposed to ‘true fiction’. For example, the autobiographies definitely allude to or plainly state the respective ane-sans’ feelings of importance and respect amongst their husband’s subordinates:

 

“We don’t clearly flaunt ourselves in the public, but we as yakuza wives do have a proper role to play.”

 

“For the subordinates, what the ane-san says is absolute.”

(Ishihara, 2010; 45; 128)

 

“For the subordinates, my words as the ane-san had the exact same power as Sentarou, [her husband].”

(Anzai, 2001; 109)

 

“Women are strange. No matter how much pain they suffer or hard times they go through, once they think ‘But he needs me. He can’t do anything without me”, then they’ll stick to him anyway.”

(Ieda, 2007; 274-275)

 

Judging by these excerpts it would appear that the ane-san of a syndicate most definitely holds a position of authority and respect within her husband’s syndicate, almost as if his subordinates were her own. As some of the ane-sans above explicitly state, their word is equal to that of their husbands; she is as much in power as the oyabun himself, and this portrayal is definitely supported in the Gokudo no Onna-tachi movie series. The question as to whether this position of the ane-san is accurate or not is only secondary to the point that these women themselves truly believe that they hold this position within their husbands’ syndicates and it is this perception that is of primary importance when analyzing the literature.

Though there are no empirical studies on the causal effects of these films on the yakuza subculture itself, we can make some cautious conclusions from the accounts given by those familiar with the yakuza subculture. The account give by Respondent 7 above described how his mother took on a very humble approach to her role as ane-san, but perhaps she resembles that of the older generations as this respondent himself is already in his late 60’s. As Respondent 9 is slightly younger, I asked whether she noticed any differences between the more traditional ane-sans and the ane-sans of today:

 

“Compared to the wives of the older generations, recently the wives seem to mistakenly view her husband’s subordinates as her own subordinates; this is something that I’ve noticed being more common these days.”

(Resp. 9)

 

Though there is no way to affirm this statement or to see whether this is at all related to the influence of the portrayal of ane-sans on the silver screen, it is an interesting point to contemplate. Perhaps here exists what Ferrell, Hayward, and Young have called ‘media loops’, the idea of an “ongoing process by which everyday life recreates itself in its own image”, creating an effect they describe as a ‘hall of mirrors’ (Ferrell, Hayward & Young, 2008; 130). While there is no hard evidence or empirical research to support this idea (except for this quote provided by Respondent 9), we could guardedly conclude that perhaps these mediated images and depictions of the ane-sans and yakuza wives portrayed in their books and films are contributing to “the reconstitution of everyday reality itself” (ibid; 145). Though this conclusion now must be made cautiously at most, more research into this field may produce evidence supporting this standpoint. And perhaps the influence of these popular culture depictions and the behavior of modern-day ane-sans are important in determining the future of the yakuza subculture, which will be discussed in the following chapter.

We can therefore clearly see that the reality of the place of yakuza wives in the underworld and the silver-screen depictions of these women are juxtaposed from each other, but it is not enough to simply point out that the juxtaposition is there – we must ask ourselves why such a discrepancy has come into effect. The central question to ask is: why do these women have an exaggerated view of importance regarding their place and influence in the yakuza organization? These are the questions to be answers in the following section.

 

iii.           Outsiders amongst Outsiders: the ‘Sub-subculture’

 

As I believe it has been made extremely clear in the preceding chapters, these women live their daily lives in the yakuza subculture and yet are not actual members of the subculture itself. And though they are not criminals, due to their position of living in a criminal underworld they are unable to freely move between the criminal society and mainstream society; one could say they are in effect ‘stuck’ in their positions. It is clear that the marginalization these yakuza wives face, or indeed, any form of female discrimination in the general society, is “always defined in opposition to a system of male power” (Dino in Fiandaca, 2010; 72) – and this system of male power is especially heightened in the mafia subculture. As mentioned in the introductory chapter, while we cannot attribute every single one of these women’s actions to gendered explanations, at the same time we cannot dismiss or ignore their position as the marginalized gender in a male-dominated society. With these points in mind these women are, one could say, outsiders within the society of outsiders. When Howard Becker coined the idea of the criminological ‘outsider’ in 1963 he makes explicit that it is neither a rigid nor a clearly defined concept but rather a fluid one due to the ambiguity surrounding the word ‘deviance’. The focal point of Becker’s theory claims that deviance only come into existence based on the reactions of others and other social groups, a mechanism we use to create and label ‘outsiders’ ourselves, meaning “we must recognize that we cannot know whether a given act will be categorized as deviant until the response of others has occurred. Deviance is not a quality that lies in behavior itself, but in the interaction between the person who commits and act and those who respond to it” (McLaughlin, Muncie & Hughes, 2003; 245). Deviance and thus ‘outsiders’ are therefore not inflexible definitions but rather notions based on the convenience of the social group at hand, explaining why “[some] rules tend to be applied more to some persons than others” and “some rules are enforced only when they result in certain consequences” (ibid). Therefore these women can be considered ‘deviant’ by members the mainstream society and yet are still viewed as ‘outsiders’ by those in the criminal subculture itself.

It is evident that the men of the yakuza underworld push their wives into a peripheral role despite the women’s own accounts that seem to state otherwise. Though they play a role in supporting their husbands financially, providing emotional support, and raising their children (and caring for the subordinate members if the she is an ane-san), they are barred from being active participants or formal members. As one yakuza wife interviewed by Ieda stated sadly:

 

“In the end, we’re women. They’ve drawn a clear boundary and they won’t let us in. I’ve been with them for seven years [married to her husband for seven years] and they won’t let me in, but some young kid from today can just go ahead and join … What useless creatures women are…”

(Ieda, 2007; 84)

 

As described so fittingly by cultural criminologists, these women live their daily lives in the yakuza subculture where “certainties of just reward and confident identity fade away” (Ferrell, Hayward & Young, 2008; 56), struggling with their limited positions in a modern world of ‘hyper-individualism’. Thus in the following analyses of these yakuza wives’ behaviors and reactions to their circumstances, I believe it is important to keep in mind that they are acting as “agents of social reality, active interpreters of their own lives” (ibid; 88). I therefore believe we can argue from this point onwards that the behaviors taken by the yakuza wives in the underworld can be seen as a reaction to their involuntary set circumstances, a means of forming or perhaps solidifying their identities in the yakuza subculture, and the deviance they may engage in as a way of “seizing control of one’s destiny” (Hayward, 2002; 4), making sense of the circumstances “not of their own making” (Ferrell, Hayward & Young, 2008; 65).

The main point to be presented and argued is that the actions of these women – in forming an exaggerated sense of self-importance within the yakuza world in their autobiographies, to give an example, are all reactions against their placement as the outsiders amongst outsiders, or rather their building of a ‘sub-subculture’ within the yakuza subculture itself. There are numerous factors that reflect this standpoint to be true. The women living in the yakuza underworld seem to mirror and mimic many of the traditional yakuza rituals, rituals their husbands forbid them from participating in. Such mimicry is often described in their respective autobiographical publications. Yakuza ceremonies such as formal conferences, the sakazuki ceremony, and the houmei-iwai (the picking up of a yakuza member upon his release from prison) to name a few are all exclusively male-only affairs. As ane-san Mai Ishihara clearly states in her autobiography:

 

“Amongst men, as a sign of brotherhood men will perform the sake ceremony, but it will never happen between a man and woman. I really experienced that the yakuza society was centered and revolved around men.”

(Ishihara, 2010; 15)

 

It is also only the male members who perform the rituals such as the yubitsume, as they are reserved only for formal members of the yakuza organization. Former ane-san Chizue Anzai recalls in her autobiography her husband’s reaction upon her having performed the yubitsume on herself not once but three times; he reacts with extreme anger, telling her that as a woman she shouldn’t have done something so “stupid” (Anzai, 2003; 15). Similarly many of these yakuza wives and ane-sans have adopted the intricate and extensive oriental tattoos across their backs, arms, and chest; the very same tattoos that decorate so many of the yakuza men. These women, having immersed themselves in the yakuza subculture, tattoo themselves in a similar style as formal yakuza members, at times sharing the same designs as their yakuza husbands thus clearly mirroring the actions their husbands have taken. Such female tattooing practices are retold in numerous autobiographies (Anzai, 2001; Ieda, 2007; Ishihara, 2010; Tendo, 2012), as these women confess to having their entire backs, if not more, covered in delicately drawn ink that immediately mark them as belonging to the yakuza subculture to those in the mainstream society. At times they do so with the consent and even encouragement of their husbands (Anzai, 2001; Ieda, 2007) yet often their decision to permanently ink their skin with yakuza emblems and designs is strongly and aggressively opposed by their husbands (Ieda, 2007; Ishihara, 2010; Tendo, 2012). Despite this however these ane-sans display their skin art amongst each other with clear and visible pride. This mimicking ritual too is portrayed consistently in the Gokudo no Onna-tachi film series, where it is often seen that most if not all the protagonist wives at some point proudly display their adorned backs, flaunting their delicately Oriental tattoos for others to admire.

With such strong negative reactions from their husbands to their adoption of yakuza rituals and customs, the women it seems have merely adopted these rituals amongst the circle of wives themselves, thus creating a sort of parallel ‘yakuza’ world with only female members. Several autobiographies state such mimicking events taking place, below being a perfect example:

 

“Amongst those girls, there were some who told me, ‘I’ll follow you, ane-san, until I die’. […] It was only that one girl with whom I exchanged the blood sakazuki.”

(Ishihara, 2010; 83)

 

These mimicked rituals amongst the wives are also portrayed in numerous Gokudo no Onna-tachi films where female characters exchange rituals of ‘brotherhood’, or rather, in their cases the rituals of ‘sisterhood’, and several ane-sans proceed to perform the yubitsume ritual in the moments when any male yakuza member would do the same. In a memorable scene where two ane-sans of rival syndicates confront each other in a heated argument, we are clearly able to witness how they have adopted the same manner of speech and typical yakuza slang from the subculture as one of the ane-sans angrily demands the other to offer up her pinky as a sign of compliance and apology, an obvious mimicry of their husbands’ and other yakuza members’ behaviors (The New Yakuza Wives: Hell if you Fall in Love, 1994). These examples of women mimicking the traditional yakuza rituals amongst themselves offer an insight as to how these ‘outsiders amongst outsiders’ have created a subculture amongst themselves as a reaction to the discrimination they face based on their gender in an exclusively male world.

The phenomenon of women mimicking rituals from an all-male organization has been documented in other subcultures across the world. Studies on Latino gang culture compiled in the book Gang nation: delinquent citizens in Puerto Rican, Chicano, and Chicana narratives by Monica Brown provides such an example. The chapter entitled “American She: Gendering Gangs” focuses on exactly this specific phenomenon, similarly using autobiographical accounts and film depictions as primary sources of analysis. The authors describe the position of girls and women in the Latino gang subculture “as girlfriends, mothers, homegirls, and strangers” who are “objectified and denied agency” (Brown, 2002; 82-83). The girls are thus in extremely limited gender roles within the gang culture in which they are constantly and helplessly dependent on their men. These women too are marginalized in a different way from the gang members by society; while the gang members still have the chance of rising to power within the gang subculture itself, the women have no such opportunities, consequently resulting in a sort of double-marginalization. As author and journalist Gini Sikes fittingly states, “[In] a world of second-class citizens, they [female gang members] remain third-class” (ibid; 93). As a result these Latina women are consequently shown to mimic the rituals performed by their gang boyfriends or husbands, a “response to repression and abjection within dominant culture [the patriarchal Chicano culture]” (ibid; 94). These practices of mimicry are used to “establish an alternative sense of “national”, as is evident in many similar passages about male gangs […] in girl-gang narratives these scenes emphasize the way that female agents/actors have co-opted the traditional forms of male rituals” (ibid; 97). By attending gang brawls for example, though they are not direct participants they are able to ‘symbolically’ participate in gang rituals and are able to see themselves as part of a larger community. And furthermore, according to these analyses, the women living within the Latino gang culture further react by “[striving] to assert themselves in the public sphere” (ibid; 84), which explains the sudden ‘surge’ of media coverage on these girls and the growth of the media market for stories of female gang members, causing a sensation of “specularization” (ibid; 86-87).  Due to this sensationalization, Brown notes the importance of being wary of the accuracy of such productions:

 

“Latino/a cultural production – literature, film, music, etc. – reflects lived realities. This is not to say that representations such as those conveyed through the narratives under discussion should be viewed as opaquely “real”. If they cannot be viewed as straightforwardly revealing “the real”, they act as an art of resistance, art that grapples with “the real”: that is, art that works to resist erasure and oppression, art that revisits and revises history, art that that tells new stories that complicate received notions of Chicanos/as and Latinos/as, rather than confirming simplistic and degrading stereotypes.”

(Brown, 2002; 85)

 

All the points above resound almost identically in the case of women living in the yakuza subculture as ‘third-class’ members of a ‘second-class’ society. It is not difficult to argue therefore that the mimicry of rituals and the creation of the parallel ‘shadow’ subculture within the yakuza underworld itself is a direct response to the oppression and gender discrimination these women face in a male-dominated criminal society from which they cannot leave, exactly like the girls and women living amongst Latino and Chicano male gang members. Though cultural criminologists such as Mike Presdee have confidently stated, “We no longer strive for freedom, rights or achievement: we strive simply for “feelings”” (Presdee, 2004; 281) perhaps this is not entirely true for those whom themselves are the marginalized within a marginalized group – perhaps it is exactly freedom, rights and achievement that these women seek.

Alternately, another explanation for the creation of this ‘sub-subculture’ can be seen from a cultural criminological perspective, mainly drawing on the points of the state of anxiety and the mundanity of daily routines as stated by Ferrell, Hayward, and Young. The mundanity of routine according to these cultural criminologists is an inevitable byproduct of late modernity, where lives “quickly become routine, ultimately little more than predictable packages of commodified experience” (Ferrell, Hayward & Young, 2008; 107). As one who is not a member of an organization of criminality, it is difficult to believe that those who spend their daily lives living amongst criminals in a criminal subculture face the seemingly ‘pedestrian’ problem of routine mundanity, yet accounts by these women would suggest otherwise. Many ane-sans describe their day-to-day activities as being uneventful and unexciting due to their husbands’ extreme protectiveness of them and their children. They talk of their days spent behind closed windows and curtains, hiding from any potentials dangers in the outside world (Ishihara, 2010). In the portrayal of these women in the Gokudo no Onna-tachi series, many times they are shown to complain of the boredom they face being a yakuza wife, unable to freely do as she pleases but rather having to stay at home on their husbands’ demands (The New Yakuza Wives, 1991). The fact that many ane-sans voluntarily take on a job on the side may be an indication of their boredom in their daily lives confined to the domestic spheres. Yet at the same time, they live in a state of constant anxiety – perhaps not the same kind of anxiety that Ferrell, Hayward, and Young discuss, an anxiety induced by late modernity, but rather a very physical and straightforward anxiety induced by a constant state of fear. It is also however possible to argue that these women live very much in conditions similar to that of late modernity’s ‘culture of control’ as described by David Garland, a culture “where we are policed at home, at work, at pleasure” by those in power (Presdee, 2004; 278). It can be seen therefore that the specific details of cultural criminological theory cannot be perfectly fitted to the circumstances faced by these yakuza wives yet the overall ideas can be applicable in explaining their actions as reactions to life in a patriarchal criminal subculture.

Adversely, drawing from the theoretical aspects described in Katz’s Seductions and repulsions of crime we can argue that these women are characterized perhaps with a higher degree of a moral fascination with crime and deviance due to their daily life in a world of criminality, especially combined with facing a sense of perpetual boredom. Together these rationales serve as the primary explanation behind the development of the ‘sub-subculture’. The pioneer behind the idea of the seductions of deviance, Jack Katz asserts that there is at the core of deviance the emotional aspect, the fascination of crime. Deviance he argues offers a sense of “self-transcendence”, a means of overcoming the mundanity of daily routines. “At the subjective level, crime is stimulating, exciting and liberating” (Hayward, 2002; 2). Rather than equating crime to a formula, a futile task according to cultural criminologists, there exists a lure of deviance, a “fascination with the unacceptable” (Presdee, 2004; 277). It can be argued that for these yakuza wives, criminality is a more tangible part of their daily lives than members of the mainstream society, thus possibly heightening their fascination with deviance. Though prohibited by their husbands from becoming actual criminals, they are able to superficially engage in acts of deviance by mimicking the rituals performed by members of the yakuza organization, which offers them a sense of excitement and even superiority and pride, a “defiant reputation as “badmen”” (Hayward, 2002; 3), much like the yakuza members themselves. Similarly, by taking on jobs that teeter on the edge of legality and illegality such as loan-sharking and racketeering (Otomo in Fiandaca, 2010) these wives may feel the thrill of superficially or even just symbolically engaging in deviant behavior. To enhance this excitement, this sense of superiority and pride stemming from their fascination with deviance, they step out into the limelight with their published autobiographies, their deviance marketed to the general public as a commodity, much like the women in the Chicano gang cultures in Brown’s Gang nation. Altogether these explanations serve to explain why these women may portray a dramaticized and exaggerated view of importance regarding their position – the simple lure of and fascination with deviance. The aesthetization and glorification of their deviance, their creation of the ‘sub-subculture’ as seen in the depictions of themselves in the media therefore can be explained through these theoretical factors.

Observing these yakuza wives through different theoretical perspectives, all appear to point to the same concluding point. Living as third-class citizens amongst the second-class, the ‘outsiders amongst outsiders’ in a criminal subculture, these women live their daily lives in a world characterized by anxiety and at the same time mundanity. Their environment has a heightened sense of patriarchal superiority from which they are unable to exert their individual agency. They are unable to drift between the criminal and mainstream and yet they are unaccepted in ‘their’ surroundings. Their subjective perceptions and actions taken therefore can largely be explained as reactions to their positions in the patriarchal yakuza society. As a means of “taking control of one’s destiny” as described by Hayward, they have created a parallel matriarchal society amongst themselves, a ‘sub-subculture’ just for the women. The evidence for this can be seen in their autobiographies and the portrayal of these women in popular media depictions.  The “everyday involuntary risks faced by women simply by virtue of being female in a patriarchal society” (Ferrell, Hayward & Young, 2008; 73) is made apparent for us to understand through the accounts of their daily existence. Through the exploration and analysis of their expressed experiences, by paying attention to the representations of their daily existence, we are able to understand their position from their point of view.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter VII: The Future

 

In this final chapter preceding the conclusion, several different aspects of the future will be discussed. Firstly the future of the subjects themselves, yakuza wives, will be shortly speculated and explored through the use of the opinions of the respondents of this research. Will the yakuza transform in the near future to be less restrictive towards women as other organized crime structures have? Or will it remain stubbornly rooted in its beliefs that women should be prohibited from yakuza-related activities? Will the yakuza transform in the future to resemble its international brother organization, adapting to the times and the tightening grip of the law?

In the following sub-section the future of research conducted in this field will be discussed through providing implementations for future research in the area of women in organized crime not only in the case of Japan but also across the globe. As this thesis has hopefully highlighted, there is an extreme necessity for noticing and identifying culture-specific factors in conducting criminological research, which should be prioritized in future research regarding international mafias and mafia-like organizations.

 

i.               The Future Yakuza Wives

 

An interesting issue raised by many of the respondents was the future of the place of women in the yakuza organization. Many pondered as to whether the yakuza will remain unyielding and stubborn in their desire to uphold the traditional models of masculinity within the organization or whether they will loosen their discrimination against women, becoming more lax in allowing female participants, affiliates, and eventually perhaps even formal female yakuza members to join their respective syndicates.

Turning to other international organized crime structures, we can see that many are progressing away from their traditionally strict beliefs that mafia activities only allow for male participants. Many have even seen the rise of ruthless female mafia members; cases of such women have been documented in Italy, Russia, the United States, Australia, and Argentina (Siegel, 2013). The most cited example of a progressive mafia organization is perhaps in the Neapolitan Camorra. The Camorra has over the years adopted a more flexible and fluid structure, abandoning the traditional hierarchal one, another clear demonstration as to how certain mafia groups have discarded traditionally ‘accepted’ ways of operating to adapt to the changing times. This change has been credited as one of the main reasons as to why women have been able to rise to positions of power in the Camorra. These ‘Camorristas’ have even been described as the ‘active backbone’ of the organization. Moreover as the Camorra is heavily family-based, there have been a greater number of women who have stepped forth in the place of their husbands, brothers, or sons, not necessarily as a duty of honor to the organization but rather to assert the strength and position of her family (Longrigg, 1998). Other mafia clans such as the Sicilian Cosa Nostra have eventually followed suit. As Longrigg states clearly, “The mafia is nothing if not pragmatic. If the clan needs her, a woman can have a role in Cosa Nostra” (ibid; 33). Longrigg however also brings to our attention that the rigidity or flexibility of the mafia structure is often a direct reflection of the rigidity or flexibility of the overall society itself and is very much in the context of the culture of the local area. The Camorra’s flexible structure according to some researchers is reflective of the progressive and increasing emancipation of women in the mainstream Neapolitan society. Nonetheless the general trend appears to be that women are no longer bystanders of the Italian mafia organization – they “no longer merely defend their men but become active players” (ibid; 16). In fact the importance of women in the mafia culture has taken a dramatic turn in the opposite direction as many of these mafia wives have voiced their personal perception of extreme significance and importance. As former mafia wife Piera Aiello stated, “The wives of mafiosi always know everything. If they were to talk, it would be the end of Cosa Nostra. […] As long as the women remain silent, the mafia will never be beaten” (ibid; 240). Similarly in the case of the Russian mafia, though the male mafia members generally limit female participation, they have acknowledged that there are indeed “certain criminal activities that only women can perform” due to their higher credibility with the general public, such as committing the crime of fraud (Gilinsky in Fiandaca, 2010; 233). Again, Longrigg’s point on the context of overall mainstream society is applicable; Russia as a country may be less advanced in terms of female emancipation or general ‘progressiveness’ compared to Italy, and for this reason some may argue that the Russian mafia may lag behind the Italian mafia in terms of female involvement. Nonetheless we can agree that most mafias across the globe have begun to admit that women have an important position within the criminal organization itself and have even gone so far as to admit that some activities as in fact better suited for women rather than men. Clearly this thesis has shown that the same cannot be said for the case of Japan. A large factor for this inconsistency could be explained culturally, as the social context of the mafia organization is undoubtedly of importance. As I have made evident on numerous occasions throughout this research, most of the popular theories regarding women in organized crime are based on case studies and extensive research conducted on Western societies and thus they may have similarities pertaining to their Western nature that may not be applicable for the Asian cultural context of Japan. Indeed, one of my respondents had emphasized that the persisting and stubborn importance placed on masculinity and otoko-no-hanamichi (‘the glorious path of men’) is one specific to Asian cultures (Resp. 7); if it is, as Longrigg points out, important to note the societal context of the mafia’s national origin, then the factors that are culturally specific to Japan (or the larger Asian community in general) must be duly noted.

When asking respondents regarding the future of yakuza wives in the criminal subculture – whether they would someday be accepted as participants or even formal members of the syndicates – opinions were distinctly split. There appeared to be no answers in an ambiguous ‘gray zone’ as all were strong in their beliefs of either black or white. There were those respondents who dismissed the importance of the wives entirely in the future of the organization; while they did admit that women currently have a specific role as the financial backbone of their husbands, this by no means symbolizes their importance in keeping the yakuza alive in the future.

 

I: Do you believe the yakuza could survive without women?

R: Absolutely. The yakuza world is purely one of men without any formal duties for women. And there are unmarried members of the yakuza.

(Resp. 4)

“The yakuza society has already-existing models that don’t include women. […] These are rituals that are for men to build their organizations; that’s the base line. So there’s no way women can enter into it.”

(Resp. 5)

 

Similarly, Respondent 9 who is a former yakuza wife herself explicitly dismissed any possible future roles for women in the yakuza organization, stating that it would be “impossible”.

 

“As I mentioned before, it’s a society of men. Women can’t participate in the conflicts or ‘wars’ that these men have sometimes. It’s just not possible.”

(Resp. 9)

 

It is extremely interesting that it is not just the men who flat-out reject any potential future changes for yakuza wives but that some women too find this to be an impossible and unrealistic development. Whether it is a reluctant acceptance of their current position or a pragmatic and rational view of the situation itself surely varies across individual females who support this standpoint.

Simultaneously however the other respondents voiced a strong yet polar opposite opinion regarding the future of yakuza wives, that they had played a silent yet extremely important role in the development of the yakuza until this point and they will continue to grow in influence and power as the years continue rather than dwindle down. As the yakuza’s growth in size and power can be largely attributed to strong wives, they argue, the future holds the same pattern. One respondent for example credited the successes of the Yamaguchi-gumi, the largest and most powerful syndicate in Japan today, almost entirely to the women in the shadows:

 

“I think the reason that the Yamaguchi-gumi has grown to be such a strong syndicate today is that in the background there were strong women supporting them, don’t you think?”

(Resp. 2)

 

The proponents of this standpoint appear to believe that not only are women the pivotal figures in supporting the growth and development of the yakuza society but also that unless the male members themselves acknowledge the importance of these women and allow for their participation, the yakuza itself will die out as an entity, unable to keep up with the modern era. The ‘pragmatic’ characteristic described by Longrigg regarding the Italian mafia in adapting its structure to the changing times is exactly what appears to be missing in the yakuza, which will eventually explain their demise as an organization.

 

“I have the feeling that in an organization that is so male-dominated like the yakuza, women know exactly what roles they have precisely because they are women. […] [But] I don’t think we’re in an era where men, in their male-dominated way of thinking, can just push aside women simply because they are women.”


“Male pride constructs the yakuza society. […] But this pride often gets in the way of rational judgment and decision-making.”

(Resp. 7)

 

In the earlier quote by Respondent 9 regarding the impossibility of women joining the yakuza as formal members in the future, the inability for women to participate in yakuza-related conflicts was stated as a reason for their lack of a future in the yakuza organization, yet Respondent 7 refuted this point, providing an anecdote as to how women are significant players within the organization in a different kind of way:

 

“There are almost never any cases where the wife directly engages in the fighting by picking up a gun or sword herself; that’s what the subordinates are for. But she plays her part by encouraging the members. I mean, of course the subordinates themselves are scared of conflicts and of dying, but they think ‘We have to do our best for our women’ when they see their wives doing their best to encourage them. It’s almost like a performance.”

(Resp. 7)

 

Proponents of this side of the coin argue that an aptitude and willingness for violence and physical strength are no longer the central strengths necessary for the yakuza to survive, but rather the willingness to adapt to modernity and the increasing severity of the law. To progress in this direction, women must become accepted as participants of the organization.

And so opinions are split. Some believe the yakuza will continue to run as it has in the preceding years while others believe we have reached the era where the yakuza will crumble into non-existence unless they change their ways of thinking and operating. While at this point we can merely speculate on this discussion, it isn’t difficult to see that as other organized crime structures adapt to the progression of female emancipation, tightening law enforcement and legal controls, and changes in mafia-related activities from those relying on physical force to more intelligence-based crimes such as white collar crimes, the Japanese yakuza is lagging behind and thus may fail in the ‘success’ of its ventures as more progressive mafias swoop in a succeed where the yakuza will fail. Especially today in a world of globalization and internationalization, organized crime entities are no longer bound to their countries of origin, but rather have crossed borders and seas into new lands. It would appear that the proponents of the second standpoint – that the yakuza must adjust from their traditionally masculine ways to include women – have the more believable arguments for the future of the yakuza as an organization.

 

ii.             Implications for Future Research

 

As more and more is becoming known on Western organized crime structures, it becomes increasingly clear that much, much less is known about mafias and mafia-like organizations in non-Western societies. It appears that within the Western world of academia little is known about other Asian mafia groups or even less so on African mafia groups for example in comparison to Western-based groups – and the yakuza is only one such example. Especially in the growing literature regarding the roles of women in organized crime, non-Western examples appear to be severely lacking. One major reason for this could be a general lack of research conducted in these fields by local researchers as well as international ones. Another attributable reason, as was the case with this research, could be that foreign academic pieces have simply not made their way into Western academia through a general lack of translations. As this research has attempted to build a bridge between existing English and Japanese knowledge regarding the yakuza, future research in other areas of the world may perhaps follow suit, as more and more bridges of knowledge can be build across the world and each society will have more knowledge in their respective organized crime groups that can be exported to international audiences as well.

It has been made clear that this thesis is specifically focused on the case of Japanese organized crime in Japan – a very country-specific research. The data, results, and conclusions reached at the end of this thesis are by no means easy to generalize to other organized crime groups due to its high level of country specificity. However several aspects of this research can be taken in for consideration for future research projects. Most notably, this thesis aimed to focus heavily and prioritize the importance of cultural context and specific cultural values and differences in understanding the actions, reactions, and perceptions of the research subjects and respondents. Before making hasty – and therefore most likely to be inaccurate – conclusions regarding certain phenomena, it was necessary to look into whether it was common or unusual in the Japanese society as a whole. To provide a concrete example, one may find it strange that the ane-san of a yakuza group controls the finances of her husband almost completely, especially from a Western point of view, thus one may (incorrectly) conclude that yakuza wives have an extremely high degree of emancipation compared to the average Japanese housewife. But further research will show that this is an extremely common habit in Japanese society as a whole (Kersten, 1996). From this one example we can already see that looking into the cultural context is key as failing to do so can alter the conclusions reached completely, perhaps in an entirely different and wrong direction. As proponents of cultural criminological thinking will most certainly agree, future research in any criminological field must prioritize the context of culture in their studies, rather than focusing on purely economic theories for example. To ignore culture entirely would be the biggest mistake future researchers could make.

As mentioned in the introductory chapter, providing policy implications was never a primary goal of this conducted research. Yet any criminological research provides points of interest for stakeholders and policy-makers – in this research, for example, the problem of definition in the Botaiho laws in the police’s inability to arrest women for yakuza-related crimes has become evident. This ‘discovery’ may have an effect on Japanese legality as well as the knowledge on the reality of yakuza-related crimes. Similar research conducted in different societies however may prove otherwise, thus this study cannot be generalized easily to other countries. Yet this research may prove to be useful for future Japanese research in particular. As it is evident in Longrigg’s studies on Italian mob wives in Mafia Women, it became clear that women are as involved as their mafia husbands if not more and this clearly has an effect on the Italian legal system and law enforcement agencies. For future studies not only in the case of Japan but globally, it may be reasonable to keep in mind any unexpected findings that may affect any policies or laws in the specific country of research, even if this is not the primary aim of the research.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter VIII: Conclusion

 

“To function as a business in the 1990s, [the mafia] cannot be exclusively male.”

(Longrigg, 1998; 150)

 

Through the extensive, thorough, and analytical exploration of the position of yakuza wives in the criminal subculture of Japanese organized crime, many discoveries have been made and numerous ‘facts’ and ‘myths’ have been proven as well as disproven. Through an extensive summary of the themes explored across the chapters of this thesis, this final chapter will continue into its concluding points and reach the final remarks that can be made through the multiple analyses of the data gathered and presented throughout this research.

            Through the in-depth and comprehensive examination of the yakuza as both a business organization and as a criminal subculture within the cultural context of Japanese society, and by delving into the perceptions of the women who live their daily lives in this male-dominated subculture, we are able to make some noteworthy conclusions regarding the role of women within the yakuza society and how they perceive themselves and their importance within their environment. In the earlier chapters of this research, the preliminary descriptive questions regarding Japanese mafia wives were tackled: Are some women more prone to falling for criminal men? What are their roles, if any, and what influences do they have over their criminal spouses? Through a constant comparison with their Western counterparts, many assumptions were debunked and it was made clear that Japanese yakuza wives are in many ways extremely different from other mafia wives across the globe. Firstly it was proven that Japanese yakuza wives are not necessarily drawn to yakuza members due to the promise and lure of economic prosperity and security, a frequent pattern with Western mafia wives notably in the United States. It cannot be said that some women due to their disadvantaged, lower-class backgrounds for example are more likely to marry into the yakuza subculture; a common stereotype or prevalent mainstream assumption was therefore disproven as false. Going further, through a triangulation of methods to ensure an increased validity of the results obtained we were able to see that unlike Western mafia wives who have been shown to be much more knowing, active participants than previously imagined, yakuza wives hold the traditionally assumed ‘passive’ and peripheral roles. They do not involve themselves in their husband’s criminal affairs and merely support their husbands from the shadows; whether this role they fill is voluntary or involuntary is case-dependent, with no fits-all pattern to describe all wives. Nonetheless again we are able to see that due to many factors, most of these factors being explained through cultural differences between Japan and the West, the dominant mainstream criminological theories regarding trends of women in organized crime structures is in fact not applicable for the case of Japan. On the other hand, it was also made evident that adopting a cultural criminological framework that allows for the exploration of cultural factors in explaining certain phenomena is in fact undeniably essential for criminological research.

Following this descriptive exploration of the roles and influences of the subjects of this research, both the high-ranking and low-ranking yakuza wives, within their husbands’ yakuza syndicates, we are able to conclude with a high degree of confidence that the wives of yakuza members in Japan are rather different from other Western mafia wives; they do not actively involve themselves in yakuza-related activities or affairs except for of course some outlier examples, and this appears to be an empirical truth as opposed to an assumption made due to a lack of interest or research conducted by the law enforcement or academics. Naturally by examining only the opinions of those working in law enforcement (such as Respondents 2, 5 and 6) it seems clear that there is the much-documented traditional assumption that women are not involved in organized crime affairs, leading us down the path of inaccurate information due to stereotyping as Longrigg extensively described in Mafia Women. However by examining the opinions of other respondent who are not a part of law enforcement agencies, we can conclude with considerably less fear of inaccurate assumptions that yakuza wives are indeed not active members of yakuza-related activities. Therefore much of the organized crime theories generated to explain female involvement in the mafia that has been proven to be applicable for most Western mafia structures is not entirely applicable to the case of Japan. Not only are the roles of women associated to the yakuza entirely different from the roles of women associated to mafias in the Western world, there are fundamental cultural differences between the traditional and long-standing Asian culture dominant in Japan that cannot be blindly compared to the West regarding theoretical applicability. As one of my respondents emphasized consistently throughout the interview, many of the values and norms held by the yakuza are especially Asian in nature, such as their stubbornness in upholding the traditional model of masculinity. This may also explain why the Japanese yakuza holds on dearly and unrelentingly to the ideals of masculine solidarity when its Western counterparts have begun to let go.

It has also been shown that not only do these wives stay out of aiding in yakuza-related activities but also that these women in the yakuza do not enter any sort of overtly criminal lifestyle themselves and in many cases, neither do yakuza children. Many readers may regard this as a shocking surprise, as the idea of intergenerational transference has been made evident in numerous other organized crime structures and has been made evident so often, time and time again, that it has almost become an accepted ‘fact’. In many of the cases that have been previously studied, mafia wives and mafia children have often been revealed to be criminally prone and are often as violent or aggressive as their husbands; it is also a fairly common pattern for the children of mafia parents to continue the mafia bloodline, creating true mafia families. This thesis brought to light an important cultural difference of the yakuza organization, namely that they operate based on fictive or synthesized family bonds created by the sakazuki ritual as opposed to literal family bonds, thus ‘weakening’ the likelihood of real children or blood relatives to continue the syndicate lineage. Such occurrences are in fact rarely seen in the Japanese yakuza organization. Yet this thesis has also shown that while these wives and children often do not display an overt and obvious criminality, the ‘deviance’ in these yakuza wives and children manifest themselves more covertly. It is made apparent in their way of thinking, in where they place their pride, and which norms and values they esteem over others, which clearly show that their mentality and mindset is entirely different from those in the average, mainstream society. An admiration for ‘human relationships’ even amongst criminals (Resp. 7), the importance of not ratting out a friend over cooperation with those ‘in power’ (Taoka, 2003; Taoka & Miyazaki, 2010), or a mother encouraging her arrested son not to ‘say anything stupid’ to the police (Miyazaki, 2005) – such anecdotal accounts told throughout this thesis and of course numerous more have demonstrated this point consistently throughout the thesis. Simply because these women and children are not actual, legally-defined criminals, it does not directly lead to the fact that these women and children are not ‘deviant’ in some way or another; they differ greatly from the mainstream citizen due to their daily lives and upbringings in a criminal subculture and these differences can be uncovered in their mindsets and subjective perceptions.

Regarding the yakuza wives, the specific subjects of this research, there is another added element that demonstrates their concealed manifestation of deviance: their development of a female ‘shadow’ sub-subculture within the yakuza subculture itself. In line with cultural criminological thinking, as a means of gaining control of their lives and their agency, as a clear reaction to their marginalized position as women in the male-dominated yakuza subculture, these women have formed a sense of solidarity amongst themselves whilst living in this stratum of criminality, one which they are not directly participants of yet one which they cannot voluntarily shift from to the legitimate society. Much like the Chicano girls described in Brown’s Gang nation, these women have adopted mimicry as their means of reaction. Evidence of this parallel sub-subculture can be seen in the biographical and autobiographical accounts written by real-life, modern yakuza wives and ane-sans (Anzai, 2001; Ieda, 2007; Ishihara, 2010; Tsubaki, 2004) and in the film representations focusing on the women in the yakuza underworld, most notably the Gokudo no Onna-tachi film series. These media outlets clearly portray and shed light on how these women have reacted to their less-than-desirable situations as women in a excessively patriarchal subculture by turning around and adopting the exclusively male rituals, decided as so by their husbands, as their own and creating a parallel world of women tied together in their own sakazuki rituals, where women act as the men amongst themselves as the men make it clear they are unwelcome in the larger community. These women “caught in circumstances not of their own making” (Ferrell, Hayward & Young, 2008; 65) show their determined attempt in making sense of such circumstances as well as taking control of their denied agency. Of course it is necessary to address the bias of such accounts, or the exaggeration of the films – as these books and films are based on accounts of women written by women, there is very possibly a skewed perception of self-importance, easily accepted by the female authors such as Ieda themselves without wariness. Yet instead of stopping at this point, in merely accepting the bias as existing, this thesis has attempted to delve further into understanding why these women portray themselves in this light, why they feel this exaggerated sense of self-importance and seemingly misplaced pride within the yakuza subculture when in fact the gutting truth may be that they are not that important after all. By employing the theoretical tools given to us by cultural criminologists such as Ferrell, Hayward, Young, and Presdee, we are able to see that this too like the creation of the parallel female sub-subculture is simply a reaction of these women to their situation, a demonstration as to how these women “strive to assert themselves in the public sphere” (Brown, 2002; 84), much like the Chicano girls in Brown’s own research. In the words of cultural criminology which illuminated the introductory chapter of this thesis, these occurrences are all phenomena of reactions to “boredom, repetition, everyday acquiescence” (Ferrell, Hayward & Young, 2008; 16), the fading away of confident identities, and the attempts to show that they are still “agents of social reality, active interpreters of their own lives” (ibid; 88), a “steady increase of control” (Young, 2003; 391). As Jack Katz’s Seductions and repulsions of crime appropriately describes, by constantly living in and being exposed to criminality through their lives in a criminal subculture, these women may also develop a more sensitive, magnified, and acute fascination with deviance and their construction of a ‘deviant’ sub-subculture and their involvement in legal ‘gray area’ activities such as loan sharking may reflect their desire to participate in this deviance, even if only symbolically or superficially.

This thesis further demonstrated, again in line with the cultural criminology framework, the importance of analyzing media depictions in undertaking the study of a certain criminological phenomenon. As cultural criminologists stress when studying subcultures in particular, subcultural subjects “can no longer be studied apart from their mediated representations” (Ferrell, Hayward & Young, 2008; 81) and this research has taken these words to heart in the popular media analyses whilst staying true to the qualitative nature of the research conducted. By adopting the methods outlined in a narrative and syntagmatic analyses of these media forms, this thesis has explored biographical and autobiographical accounts as well as film depictions of the yakuza wives studied in exploring the subjective experiences and perceptions of the subjects studied. Through these media analyses we are able to reach many of these final conclusions: the conclusions that women in the yakuza underworld perceive themselves with an exaggerated sense of self-importance, the conclusion that these women portray themselves in this manner as a means of commodifying their experiences to the general public and society as a whole, again a means of expressing their perceived importance within the criminal underworld. Without the readiness to explore media depictions, without the theoretical framework provided to us by prominent cultural criminologists, such conclusions would surely have been difficult to reach.

One point can be made with certainty: these women are extremely strong and resilient, more so than they are given credit for. They have been described as the financial backbone of their husband’s daily lives and even the full financial support of their husbands’ yakuza-related activities. They support their men from the shadows emotionally as well as financially. The ane-sans at the top of the pyramid adopt the subordinate members of her oyabun husband almost as if they were her real children, tending to them, resolving their issues, and feeding them – this too providing an explanation for their feelings of self-importance. Their husbands’ criminal lifestyle is not always a life they voluntarily or knowingly choose to enter. Many wives, opposed at first, eventually relent, somewhat sadly stating, “It just so happened that the person I fell in love with turned out to be a yakuza” (Ieda, 2007; 155). They are thus thrown into an extremely unfamiliar world, leaving behind the comforts of mainstream society only to end up as “third-class citizens” in a world of those who are already marginalized (Brown, 2002). As this thesis has explored, in the face of such anxiety and fading confident identities, they react in ways that may seem unconventional in comparison with their Western counterparts and may seem less ‘emancipated’, yet it is still very much a legitimate way in which they seek to reclaim their own agency in an overly patriarchal underworld.

Like with other mafia wives across the world, research similar to the one conducted for this thesis truly brings to light that the traditional stereotype of women being submissive, passive, and weak are truly just stereotypes and women are much stronger and adaptable than previously believed – and this holds true across the world, whether Western or Asian. Western research has shown that women in organized crime structures are anything but passive and weak, as they are actively and often aggressively involved in the criminal ventures of their respective mafia families. In the case of Japan however they too are not passive, but in a different way from the West; they show resilience, strength, and solidarity in the face of their undesirable situation by creating a sense of community exclusively amongst themselves, in a shadow sub-subculture that is created by the women, for the women.

References

 

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  4. Anzai, C. (2001). Watakushi wa yubi o tsumeta onna (I am the Woman with the Chopped Finger). Tokyo: Bungei Shunjyuu.
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  20. Ishihara, M. (2010). Anesan ninkyo-ki (Ane-san Chivalry Diary). Tokyo: Takarajimasha.
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Appendix A: Respondents List

 

Gender

Language Spoken in Interview

Respondent
(function)

 

Type of Interview

Date, Location and Duration

Respondent #1

(Resp. 1)

Female Japanese Criminology professor / former researcher for NRIPS In person April 16, 2013
Tokyo, Japan
1 hr 15 min
Respondent #2

(Resp. 2)

Male Japanese Retired anti-organized crime police officer In person April 18, 2013
Tokyo, Japan

1 hr 15 min

Respondent #3

(Resp. 3)

MaleJapaneseBusinessmanIn personApril 24, 2013
Kobe, Japan
1 hr 45 min

Respondent #4

(Resp. 4)

N/AJapaneseN/A (Confidential)In personApril 24, 2013
Kobe, Japan
2 hr

Respondent #5 & 6

(Resp. 5 / Resp. 6)

Male;

Male

JapaneseTwo retired anti-organized crime police officersIn person
(focus group)April 25, 2013
Osaka, Japan
1 hr 20 min

Respondent #7

(Resp. 7)

MaleJapaneseAuthor; son of yakuza bossIn personMay 2, 2013
Tokyo, Japan
2 hr 10 min

Respondent #8

(Resp. 8)

FemaleEnglishCriminology professorIn personMay 16, 2013
Tokyo, Japan
1 hr 5 min

Respondent #9

(Resp. 9)

FemaleJapaneseAuthor; daughter of yakuza bossEmail correspondenceN/A

 

 

 

 

 

 

Appendix B: Glossary

 

Ane-san                       –          Wife of the oyabun (translation: ‘elder sister’)

Anego                          –          Wife of the oyabun; a more polite version of ‘ane-san’                                             (translation: ‘elder sister’)

Bakuto                         –          One of the three original yakuza types: gamblers

Boryokudan                –          Yakuza groups designated by the police as ‘violent’                                                             groups

Bosozoku                    –          Juvenile biker gangs in Japan

Botaiho                        –          Japan’s first anti-organized crime/countermeasures                                                   legislation

Botsui-senta                –          Centers for the eradication of the yakuza

Burakumin                  –          The outcasts of Japanese society who are heavily                                                     ostracized

Chinpira                      –          A slang/derogatory word for a low-ranking yakuza                                                   member

Giri-ninjo                    –          Duty and Compassion; Two of the main, traditional                                                             yakuza values

Gokudo                       –          Another word for yakuza (preferred term in Western                                               Japan such as Osaka)

Gokutsuma                 –          A yakuza wife

Gurentai                      –          One of the three traditional yakuza types: ruffians

Houmei-iwai               –          The yakuza ceremony of a syndicate’s members picking                                          up a member upon his release from prison

Jiage                            –          Land sharking (one of the yakuza’s economic activities)

Jingi                            –          Honor and Humanity; One of the main, traditional                                                    yakuza values

Katana                        –          A traditional Japanese sword; a samurai sword

Keizai yakuza              –          ‘Economic yakuza’: term used for yakuza members                                                  during the bubble economy due to their involvement in                                                businesses

Kobun                                     –          Members of a yakuza group or syndicate in the lower                                              strata (translation: ‘child’)

Koseki                                     –          The Japanese family registration system

Kumicho                      –          Head of a yakuza group or syndicate; another word for                                            oyabun (translation: group leader)

Kumi-in                       –          Members of a yakuza group or syndicate

Kyodaibun                   –          The synthetic brotherhood bond formed between two                                              members

Marubo                       –          An anti-organized crime police officer

Mizushoubai               –          The entertainment industry (bars and restaurants,                                                     cabarets, hostess clubs…)

Ninkyo                         –          Chivalry; One of the main, traditional yakuza values

NPA                            –          National Police Agency

NRIPS                         –          National Research Institute of Police Science:                                                            institution within the NPA

Onna-oyabun              –          Female head of a yakuza group

Oyabun                       –          Head of a yakuza group or syndicate; another word for kumicho                             (translation: ‘father’)

Otoko-no-hanamichi   –          A Japanese saying; translates as ‘the glorious path of                                               men’

Sakazuki                     –          One of the many yakuza rituals; exchanging of sake to                                              form a father-son or brother-brother bond

Tekiya                         –          One of the three original yakuza types: street peddlers

Wakagashira              –          The second in command of a group, after the oyabun

Yanki                           –          The Japanese slang word for delinquents or                                                               troublemakers

Yubitsume                    –          One of the many yakuza rituals; the cutting off of the                                              pinky as an apology offering

Appendix C: Filmography

 

  1. Fukasaku, K. (Director). (1973). Jingi naki tatakai (Battles Without Honour and Humanity) [Motion picture]. Japan: Toei Studios.
  2. Itami, J. (Director). (1992). Minbo no Onna (The Anti-Extortion Woman) [Motion picture]. Japan: Toho Co., Ltd.
  3. Kitano, T. (Director). (2010). Outrage [Motion picture]. Japan: Office Kitano.
  4. Kitano, T. (Director). (2012). Outrage Beyond [Motion picture]. Japan: Bandai Visual & Office Kitano.
  5. Gokudo no Onna-tachi (The Yakuza Wives) Series:

i.         Gosha, H. (Director). (1986). Gokudo no Onna-tachi (The Yakuza Wives) [Motion picture]. Japan: Toei Studios.

ii.         Yamashita, K. (Director). (1990). Gokudo no Onna-tachi: Saigo no Tatakai (The Yakuza Wives: the Last Battle) [Motion picture]. Japan: Toei Studios.

iii.         Nakajima, S. (Director). (1991). Shin-Gokudo no Onna-tachi (The New Yakuza Wives) [Motion picture]. Japan: Toei Studios.

iv.         Furuhata, Y. (Director). (1994). Shin-Gokudo no Onna-tachi: Horetara Jigoku (The New Yakuza Wives: Hell if you Fall in Love) [Motion picture]. Japan: Toei Studios.

v.         Nakajima, S. (Director). (1996). Gokudo no Onna-tachi: Kiken na Kake (The Yakuza Wives: A Dangerous Gamble) [Motion picture]. Japan: Toei Studios.

vi.         Sekimoto, I. (Director). (2001). Gokudo no Onna-tachi: Jigoku no Michizure (The Yakuza Wives: Companion to Hell) [Motion picture]. Japan: Toei Studios.

vii.         Hashimoto, H. (Director). (2005). Gokudo no Onna-tachi: Joen (The Yakuza Wives: Burning Desire) [Motion picture]. Japan: Toei Video Company.

  1. Tarantino, Q. (Director). (2003). Kill Bill: Volume 1 [Motion picture]. United States: Miramax Films [distributor].
  2. Yamashita, K. (Director). (1968). Hibotan Bakuto (Red Peony Gambler) [Motion picture]. Japan: Toei Kabushiki Kaisha.

 

 

 

 


[1] The details of the respondents’ sex, functions, etc. can be found in the respondents table in the Appendix (Appendix A)

[2] A glossary of frequently used Japanese words and phrases in this thesis can be found in the Appendix (Appendix B)

[3] A compiled list of films used for this thesis can be found in the Appendix (Appendix C)

[4] Racketeering is still considered an activity in the ‘gray area’ in terms of the law (Otomo in Fiandaca, 2010) and cannot be strictly classified as an illegal activity.

Women of the Yakuza

Born and raised in Tokyo, Rie Alkemade holds a masters degree in Global Criminology from Utrecht University in the Netherlands. Interested in the phenomenon of organized crime, she decided to focus on the topic of women in the yakuza – a subject about which little has been formally studied. Being fully bilingual, she herself conducted and translated interviews for her masters thesis  ‘Outsiders Amongst Outsiders’: A Cultural Criminological Perspective on the Sub-Subcultural World of Women in the Yakuza Underworld”.

The following has been excerpted from her work, which can be read in its entirety here

…Unlike Western mafia wives, yakuza wives have remained outside the sphere of criminal activity in this organized crime structure, remaining in the passive emotionally and financially supportive role. This research further explores the ways in which these women have adapted to their set circumstances by creating a parallel shadow subculture, an exclusively female ‘sub-subculture’ within the yakuza itself in which they create a sense of solidarity, pride, and confident identities by adopting and mimicking the yakuza rituals and customs as their own.

The “myth” of the onna-oyabun

There appears to be in the modern age amongst the members of mainstream Japanese society a belief in the ‘myth’ of the onna-oyabun or the ‘female godmother’ in the yakuza underworld. A general lack of media coverage on this ‘phenomenon’ and an attraction for popular media to portray such onna-oyabuns (namely The Yakuza Wives series in Japan and the character of O-ren Ishii in Kill Bill: Vol. 1 internationally) have caused many to wonder whether such female bosses truly exist in the yakuza society or whether they are fictive creations and fabrications of popular culture.

Further reading on this subject would reveal that there have indeed been real cases of women who can be described as onna-oyabuns. Though rare today, they were not unheard of in history. Back in the feudal times of the Edo era where gambling was the primary activity of the yakuza’s anceyakuza wives!stors, female gamblers were a common sight and therefore there was a greater possibility for a woman to take control of her own crew of gamblers. In the years before and after World War II, documented cases can be found on the “many female delinquents, female gurentai, and female yakuza” with famous female oyabuns ruling in the areas of Yokohama and Tokyo. However as times have changed and the yakuza itself has changed, modern researchers have generally come to the conclusion that these numbers have waned, painting an entirely different picture in the world of today: “These women were clearly integrated into the structure of a crime ‘syndicate’ and more than once engaged in the ritual of the exchange of cups of sake that sealed their ties of vassalage. Today, these rituals are no longer used. And there was no longer female gang leaders”. Similarly, an interview with an anonymous (male) oyabun reveals that “[there] probably aren’t any onna-oyabuns today. It’s probably just in the world of films. There used to be some before, though. […] There were quite a few female gamblers”.

Yet this complete and absolute dismissal of their existence may perhaps be a bit too hasty. A retired marubo police officer in Tokyo shared with me his personal experience with a female ‘godmother’:

I: Is it true that there are few to none female yakuza members?

R: You don’t see them often. Well, actually almost never. But once while I was still working as a police officer, I did meet a female boss. […]

I: In Tokyo?

R: Yes, she was the boss of a tekiya group. She’s passed away now, but I did meet her long ago.

I: What kind of woman was she?

R: Well. She was just an ordinary old lady. Her group wasn’t very big. About 10 people maybe? It was originally her husband’s group, but then her husband passed away and she took over. […] I’d been in the police force for a long time [roughly 40 years] but in the end, no matter how long you search there’s hardly any female bosses. Maybe just a handful…

Official research into this field, for reasons mentioned in the previous chapter, has been little to non-existent; statistics and official reported figures in this area as another retired marubo officer had explained are scarce:

“We haven’t really conducted any research on this so we can’t say there aren’t any with certainty. There used to be official female members in the past, but today there’s no statistics on the subject. From what I’ve heard, there used to be some female yakuza bosses during the 1940s to 1950s… so about 60 years ago. But I would say that the number of female members is probably close to zero.”

Gokutsuma

Little empirical and academic information has been gathered about women married to yakuza members. There appears to be a fascination surrounding these women as many from the mainstream society wonder what kind of women would enter a relationship with an ‘undesirable’ man such as a yakuza member. In the reportage compilation, Gokudo no Onna-tachi (The Yakuza Wives), author Shoko Ieda who had spent several months living with and interviewing such women states the following:

“‘What kind of woman marries a yakuza?’ I often get asked these kinds of questions. Every time, I answer: ‘Anyone.’ Many of these women have said to me, ‘It just so happened that the person I fell in love with turned out to be a yakuza’.”

The number of academic research conducted on how these women meet men from the yakuza underworld are close to none. As encountering and marrying a yakuza member in itself is not against the law, the police have no reason to prioritize or finance such research or gather statistics in this field. Therefore most of the knowledge needed must be taken from autobiographical and biographical accounts and anecdotes from those familiar with or have encountered the yakuza society.

yak wives 2Accounts and opinions on this matter seem to split. Some believe that there is a clear, consistent pattern and notable similarities on how these women meet their yakuza husbands, and thus there exist similarities in their backgrounds and personality traits as well. In the case of adolescent girls, some of the respondents have noted that these girls are often juveniles themselves, having come from troubled homes or disadvantaged backgrounds. This standpoint is can be seen from this excerpt from Respondent 1, a criminology professor and former researcher for the NRIPS:

“A very common pattern is that juvenile girls often go to hang out in town […] and they meet other juveniles or yakuza members and they have a great time. Juvenile girls often come from stressful home situations, or have issues with their parents, and when they meet yakuza members who also have experienced similar issues, these girls feel a strong sense of connection and feel understood by these men. […] Sometimes these girls know that these men belong to the yakuza; sometimes they don’t. But for these girls being a yakuza isn’t necessarily bad, because they start to think ‘Oh, but he’s so cool.’”

Another respondent, a daughter of a yakuza boss herself, also emphasized this point, saying that many yakuza wives used to be delinquents or yanki (a Japanese slang word for delinquents or troublemakers) in their youths as they didn’t grow up in warm or stable home environments. Another one of my respondents familiar with the yakuza underworld (who wishes to stay anonymous) clearly outlined two main patterns as to how the yakuza meet their wives:

“Firstly, the women work in the mizushoubai industry, or the entertainment and ‘nightlife’ industry. They may work in bars, late-night restaurants or as hostesses. The men often show off their wealth to impress these women. […] This pattern usually is the case for higher-ranking members or the bosses, who have the money to spend.

The second pattern is where the woman and yakuza member have known each other since their youth or adolescence and have grown as juveniles together. They may have been members of bosozoku gangs [juvenile biker gangs] and naturally form a relationship, where the boy eventually becomes a member of a yakuza group.”

In all of these accounts, the respondents appear to stress the fact that these women were once juveniles themselves, thus explaining how they are able to meet such men: through association. These accounts also stress that these women have also come from disadvantaged backgrounds, forming a common ground with the yakuza….

The entire thesis with citations and references can be read here.

Posts by Stephanie Nakajima

Women of the Yakuza

Young Japanese Men and Women Reject Marriage, and Ultimately Each Other

Hafu – The Film

Book Review: Introduction to Zen

Occupy Tokyo: Another Good Excuse to Come Out and Hate on TEPCO

Japan-related blogs now have a homebase!

Japan’s First Food Bank: Applying Japanese Efficiency to the Problem of Hunger

20msv/yr: What Does The Rest Of The World Think?

Protesters Come Out in Record Numbers Against Nuclear Power

TEPCO’s “Severe Accident Manual” Takes On Barcode Hairstyle

North Korea Turns 63, Party Guests Seem Kinda Angry

Yakuza Friendly Hotels–on the way out. Goodbye Nine-Fingered Discount!

The New Sex-Ed: Yakuza Awareness Classes

Taro Kono: A new leader for a new LDP?

NISA Needs To Take Evil Lessons

Death by Pufferfish: A short story by Mayumi Shimose Poe

Book Review: Reimagining Japan

Japanese study finds correlation between exhaust fumes and asthma

Fashion model exodus from Tokyo!

Of earthquakes, tsunami and the ephemeral

Years of Disaster Drills Prevents Tsunami Deaths At Iwate Prefecture Junior High and Elementary Schools

U.S. Embassy Cool With Current Radiation Levels

Please No Stealing! Please!

Latest Travel Warning from the State Department

The Coast Guard Who Tried to Rescue Japan

Young Japanese Men and Women Reject Marriage, and Ultimately Each Other

According to this article, Japanese over 35 may find it “impossible” to wed. In 2005, the percentage of unmarried men between the ages of 35-39 was 30.9%. 5 years later, of that same subset of men (now 40-44), 27.9% were married – indicting that only 9.7% of the unmarried 35 to 39 year olds tied the knot during that 5 years- and only 3% of the overall male population does so during that age bracket.

This data, which comes from the 2010 Census, indicates that marriage rates for woman in the same age group are slightly lower –10.8% of unmarried women get hitched in that interval, only 2% of the female population. And after 45, only .1% get married.

According to some “marriage consultant”, there are a few reasons the Japanese are increasingly remaining single. First, it is becoming more socially acceptable to stay unmarried. “Peculiar” personality traits of men over 35 also play a part; many unmarried men over 35 are immersed in hobbies (otaku alert!) or work (salarymen alert!). They have few friendships and tend to go through life “unseen” (hikikomori alert!). Another problem- it is a tendency of both men and women to “shoot high” and spur compromise. Men in particular tend to overvalue themselves; even in cases when the relationship is unfolding pleasantly, and a couple suit each other, the consultant explains, often the man will think “I’d be better off single than with this person”.

because these people look happy.

Those who participate in konkatsu (marriage parties) are both more desperate and more selective (“specs” such as income and career become more important than in traditional dating), making one’s chances of finding someone through these parties very slim. Therefore, a man with a below-average income has virtually no chance of securing a mate through konkatsu.

There are many ways to analyze this data. I see the movement away from marriage as part of the passive rebellion occurring among the young in Japan.“Herbivore men”, who spurn the materialistic and status-seeking identities of their fathers, refuse to participate in demanding salary man jobs and aggressive spouse/girlfriend/one-night stand-hunting; but not knowing any other options (or in Japanese society, not having any), they sit out altogether- from the dating scene, from the job search.

More obviously, women also find themselves choosing to stay single rather than settling. More ambitious and educated than ever before, the new generation is very much at odds with tradition here. Wanting both a job and a husband is hard when most Japanese men still expect the woman to do all the housework, even if she works as well.

Written almost 11 years ago, this excerpt from the LA Times I think explains some of the data; “During the “bubble” economy of the 1980s, women got choosier but remained more pragmatic than romantic in picking a mate. They still defined a good catch as a man with the “three highs”: higher education, high income and height. Now young women who can support themselves have added even tougher criteria for Mr. Right. Chikako Ogura of Aichi Shukutoku University says the new standard is the “three Cs”: financially comfortable, emotionally communicative and cooperative in housework and childcare.” You know, the typical Japanese male.

Fewer marriageable men on the market = less marriage. Doesn’t seem like brain surgery to me. Yet, I have heard from a number of haters that analyses invoking simplistic “demonizing” of asian men is a western interpretation, and that the issue is more complicated than that.

Of course, it is more complicated than that, but any analysis that fails to include the shifting expectations of women is simply incomplete. There is actually evidence that the declining birthrate can be at least partially attributed to women refusing to have children due to ” their husbands’ lack of participation in child rearing and housework” (Ishii-Kuntz, 1994, 2003). Again, opting out.

And from the same UN report, the discrepancy of hours spent on housework (according to a 2005 study, women spend a daily average of 4.26 hours doing housework compared to 1.38 hours for men) is one of the most oft-cited statistics by women.

Marriage Consultant highlights the fact that the young, choosier than ever, are passing up opportunities and waiting until it is “too late”. Specifically, men are starting to have more unrealistic expectations, and according to the U.N. data, the same could be said of women. God help you all!

 

 

Hafu – The Film

this brochure, published in November 2010, gives insight into the lives of hafus

Birthed from the Hafu Project, the Hafu Film is a documentary that follows 5 half Japanese subjects as they explore their identity and place in modern day Japan. It is expected to be released next year.

Erika Wiseburg of the project describes the film as “an attempt to open the channels of communication and break down stereotypes that are so prevalent (in Japan)”.

Hafu Film is currently running an “Indie Go Go” campaign (For those who don’t know, Indie Go Go is a site where different artists can introduce their projects and ask for pledges in exchange for gifts). The directors of the film are looking for donations to help with post production.

For $10 you can get a postcard from the directors and a shout out on facebook. For $50 you can get a copy of the DVD, and for $100, you can receive artwork from a half-Japanese artist or your name in the end credits. The campaign runs until December 11th.

As a half myself, I am very intrigued by what these individuals will say about their experience. On the website for the film, the creators refer to the feeling of “being an outsider” in one’s own culture, or being regarded as such by full-blooded Japanese, a feeling I am certainly familiar with. I was bullied by my white-er classmates in NY for being Japanese, and when my well-intentioned parents took me to a Japanese summer camp, I was bullied there as well for being only half Japanese.

However, I have found my positive experiences of meeting other half-Japanese more rewarding than my negative experiences are discouraging. Before my most recent move to Japan in 2009, I had met only a few half-Japanese in my life; I became acquainted with severalfold this number over the past 2 years, an experience that has been a catalyst for revisiting the ever-problematic issue of my cultural identity. Maybe as a reaction to the difficult socialization process I underwent in my younger years, I tend to define myself by my intellectual interests, my political opinions, and by other purely cerebral points; discussing the ways in which we are defined, not by choice but by pure circumstance, is a different way of connecting with people, and an experience that had been missing from my life.

I’m happy to see this conversation happening. The brochure cites that 1 in 30 babies born in Japan today are of mixed race, and over the past 10 years in the United States, the number of mixed-race children in America has risen by 50%. If you yourself are not a hafu, you probably know someone who is (besides of course, the most famous one of all- President Obama).

We will keep you posted on its official release date. Check out their indie go go site for some preliminary profiles of half-japanese or to donate:  http://www.indiegogo.com/hafu-film

Book Review: Introduction to Zen

 英語対訳で読む禅入門, or Introduction to Zen with Accompanying English Translation, was written by Priest Souen Ozeki and translated by a one Elizabeth Mills (whom I suspect may be using a pen name, as the translation is not native). As stated in the preface, the book was intended for both English speakers interested in the religion and Japanese speakers interested in the English terms for Zen method.

Introduction to Zen attempts to clarify the following subjects: the history of Buddhism (and specifically the development of Zen), the basic underlying concepts, the rituals and practices, and the ways in which Japanese culture is intertwined with the religion. The book also has a chapter outlining some of the major players in the history of Zen in Japan.

The cover boasts that this text conveys the content’s “difficult ideas” clearly  (むずがしい考えがスッキリ分かる!); though if this leads you to expect something other than the usual interpretation of Zen – non-linear, meandering, parabolic explanations- you will be disappointed. My western brain still struggles to grasp the style typical of Zen masters, their purportedly didactic riddles often leaving me with more questions than answers.

Often, it’s a confusing read. In the beginning, Priest Ozeki devotes a chapter to the importance of maintaining “a pure heart”, without bothering to explain what a pure heart looks like, or the nature of the maintenance required. This is just one of many vague instructions listed for living a Zen life; others include “being present in the moment” and keeping a “free mind, one which is not influenced by anything”. Ozeki further complicates things a few chapters later when he decides to mention that “Zen is not a thing to think about but is training. You can not attain enlightenment even if you read many books and study hard.” Resisting the urge to question why I am reading a book about a subject the author himself has just declared *actually* requires field study, I decide to remain open to his attempts to explain the concept of Enlightenment and corresponding parable:

“Enlightenment could be explained as having the same mental condition as the Buddha had when he attained enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree. Enlightenment can be attained when you clean up your mind which is ordinarily messy. Zen training strips away fixed ideas and prejudices and reorganizes the mind. Now I quote one story.  In the Meiji period, a scholar visited a training hall in Tokyo to see (a famous master). The master, listening to the scholar, poured tea into a cup. He continued to pour even after the cup was full. The scholar said: ‘Master! The tea is overflowing’. The master answered: ‘Yes. It is similar to you. Your mind is filled with study and there is no room for what I tell you.’ This story explains Zen very well.”

*eyes widen, glaze over*

It only after finishing the entire text that I gleaned what might be the unstated assumption: like a religion, there are values by which Zen abides. However, practitioners believe these values can only be discovered through the practice of Zen, rather than the study.

Without trying to assist the author by creating a framework in which the pieces more or less fit, much of the book’s teachings comes off like the wisdom of “Mystery Men”s the Sphynx: “In order to go down, you must first go up.” I fear this might be unavoidable; the consensus seems to indicate that Zen can not be comprehended using the tools of logic, but must be “observed”. Only those who tough it out for the requisite decades might stand a chance. But who has the time, anyway? We can’t all sit around on tatami mats, reinventing the wheel. Give up the answers already!!

Despite this infuriating quality, the book certainly has some merits.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The way the book is written is by far its best attribute. As you can see to the left, the difficult and Zen-related words are translated underneath the English. Additionally, more abstract phrases (such as “within one’s self” and “the more you X, the more you Y”) that one doesn’t often come across in daily language are also translated, making this a very useful reference for expressions of personal conviction, which are difficult to learn in this language for cultural reasons.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And on the following page, there is a Japanese translations of the entire preceding text. This is a rather enjoyable way to learn or even just reinforce Japanese skills.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And while the book doesn’t do much to clarify the murkier aspects of Zen, the practices of the religion and the lives of the monks are very clearly explained, and with handy illustrations.

 

learn proper Zen technique before visiting the temple this New Year!

And in case you ever visit a temple, and are suddenly struck on the back, you will know “how to” do it!

this jolly illustration demystifies the unpleasant whacking that goes on in Buddhist temples

 

Unfortunately, the “history of Zen” area and the profiles of the Zen masters could have been written with a little more flavor; they are only slightly more exciting than the endless genealogy lists of the Torah. However, if you are interested in the life of a priest and the rituals involved in Zen practice, this book I found to be unique in its descriptions of Japanese monastery life, one which, if you are not proficient in the Japanese language, you may only find here.

The book can be bought on Amazon.jp : Introduction to Zen

Jake’s Review Of the Book:

I have a slightly different take on this book than Nakajima-san, but then again I lack objectivity which is why she was the better person to do the first review. I lived in a Soto Buddhist Zen Temple for three years in college and meditated every day. This book is full of great little zen sayings and anecdotes but it doesn’t quite explain the differences between the two major sects of Zen Buddhism. Soto Buddhism, founded by Dogen, essentially looks at Satori (悟り)or enlightenment as a mental state that one can reach through the practice of meditation on a regular basis and remaining centered and aware in daily life. Zazen (座禅) or Zen meditation itself is like a powerful herb–it can be used as medicine or poison. The technique has been show to actually increase activity in the parts of the brain that control behavior and physically change the structure of the brain over time. By being aware of our anger, our greed, and our motives as we act–we can overcome those passions and be better people. However, without motivation or ethical guidelines or commitment to those precepts, zen can just become a tool for being a more efficient killer. I suggest that any Zen Buddhist neophyte read Zen At War  for a sobering look at how Zen Buddhism was perverted by the Japanese military rulers for use in the Second World War. It also has some touching stories of those few Zen Buddhists who stood for peace and against the inhumane acts inflicted by the Japanese Imperial Troops and wartime regime.

It’s often glossed over but a Zen Buddhist priest in the Soto Buddhist tradition takes a vow to uphold ten ethical precepts (重十誡). If I could uphold these for a day, it would be a very good day.

Not to kill but to nurture life.

Not to steal but to receive what is offered as a gift.

Not to misuse sexuality but to be caring and faithful in intimate

relationships.

Not to lie but to be truthful.

Not to intoxicate with substances or doctrines but to promote

clarity and awareness.

Not to speak of others’ faults but to speak out of loving-kindness.

Not to praise self at the expense of others but to be modest.

Not to be possessive of anything but to be generous.

Not to harbor anger but to forgive.

Not to do anything to diminish the Triple Treasure but to support

and nurture it.

I don’t know anyone who can live up to those precepts, except maybe the Dalai Lama. “Not to speak of others’ faults but to speak out of loving-kindness” almost precludes journalism as a career. (LOL). Ultimately, when you put the mystic mumbo jumbo aside, the goal of Zen Buddhism, especially in the Soto School–is to be come a living Buddha, a Bodhisattva (菩薩), who is a beneficial force in the world.  Bodhisattvas are men and women committed to the welfare, liberation, and enlightenment of all  sentient beings.

Zen master Dogen, in one of his lesser known writings, sums up the teaching of the religion rather elegantly in his essay: The Four Integrative Methods of Bodhisattvas (Bodaisatta shishaho). The purpose of zen meditation is to enable the practitioner to live up to these ideals. At least, that’s my understanding of it. But then again, I’m not enlightened.

The four integrative methods of bodhisattvas are giving,  kind speech, beneficial  action, and cooperation. This  giving means not coveting; not coveting is not being greedy.  Kind speech means that  in looking upon living beings one shoulfirst arouse a  mind of kindness and love and should  utter caring, kind words. It is the absence of harsh speech. In ordinary social convention there is the etiquette of asking if someone is well  or not;  in Buddhism there is the expression  “take care”  and the ethical  conduct of asking how someone is. To speak with  the thought in one’s  heart of kindly minding living beings as one  would a baby is  kind speech. Beneficial action means  to employ skills beneficial to  living beings, high and  low. For example, one watches over the  road far and near, working out  means to benefit others. One should pity  even an exhausted turtle  and take care of an  ailing sparrow. When one hasseen an exhausted turtle  or an  ailing sparrow, one doesn’t  want their thanks-one is simply moved to  helpful action. Fools  think that when benefit to others is  put first, one’s  own benefit will be reduced. It is not so. Beneficial action  is one  principle; it is universally  benefiting self and others. Cooperation means  nonopposition. It is not opposing oneself and not opposing others. For example, a task  of cooperation is a manner, is a standard, is an attitude. After regarding others as  self, there  must be  a principle ofassimilating oneself to others. Self and others are endless with time. (adapted from Shobogenzo.:Zen Essays by Eihei Dogen, translated by Thomas Cleary)

 

 

Movie Review: About the Pink Sky

written by Amy Seaman

 

This is the second in a series of reviews about films showing at the 24th Tokyo International Film Festival, which runs until October 30 at select cinemas throughout Roppongi.

 

With its rough editing, abrupt scene changes and nearly nonexistent transitions, About the Pink Sky is an indie film that manages to straddle the fine line between being ridiculously pretentious and artfully epic, despite the fact that the entire film — save for the credits — is in black and white.

 

In one sentence, this is a coming-of-age story. An 113-minute tale about the trials and tribulations of growing up as a high school student in Japan, narrated from the perspective of four different individuals, all played by actresses and actors that few of us have heard of. But just because this movie has no known talents and is only director Keiichi Kobayashi’s third film doesn’t mean you should turn away yet — this is a good movie, albeit with a slightly stereotypical plot.

 

Relying on a cast comprised entirely of minor performers can sometimes be a risk unrewarded, but in this case, Kobayashi’s decision to cast somewhat inexperienced actors and actresses only manages to emphasise and strengthen the sprinklings of political and social commentary uttered by various characters throughout the film.

 

It’s the raw nature of Kobayashi’s footage — think inconsistent contrast, rapidly darkening rooms, uneven voices — that makes About the Pink Sky feel less like a distant movie, and more like a story told by a friend of a friend. The majority of the film’s characters are known only by one name, which further highlights the fact that this — finding a wallet containing 300,000 yen in the street — could happen to anyone, anywhere.

 

Sure, the “anyone, anytime, anywhere” thing might be a little bit cliché, but for a movie that, at its core, simply depicts the day-to-day interactions between high school students, the ultimate message of the film only resonates that much more when presented under implications of ubiquity.

 

So what’s the final message? You’ll have to watch to find out.

 

See About the Pink Sky on Tuesday, October 25 at the Roppongi Cinemart starting from 4 p.m. in Roppongi. Tickets are available online at www.tiff-jp.net and at the box office itself.

 

** This film is produced in Japanese, with English subtitles **