Category Archives: Books on Japan

Japanese Tattoo Master: “The carving is one’s personal symbol..”

Horiyoshi the Third, aka Yoshihito Nakano, the world’s most famous Japanese tattoo master, 66, said that ten years ago, he had many more yakuza clients than he has now. “Nowadays I have 90 percent of non-yakuza clients and 10 percent of yakuza clients. Ten years ago it was much different. After the entry in force of the boutaihou, (anti organized crime laws), I have  fewer gangsters as clients. The landscape has changed and so have the customers.”

Horiyoshi III showing one of his work of art on a lady's back, at a show organized at the FCCJ
Horiyoshi III showing one of his work of art on a lady’s back, at a show organized at the FCCJ

Horiyoshi the Third’s interest in tattoo art began when he was 11 years old. He said he received a great shock when he saw a tattooed man at the public bath. Later, as a high school student he saw a book at the library, which was a collection of hundred poems and had many illustrations and engravings of tattooed men. He said that was the beginning of his passion for tattoos. It is much later that he began considering tattooing his own body. He said he used his body for many experiments before he found the most relevant technique. At high school, he wanted to do something that no one had done before. He cut his skin with a cutter and tried to insert ink inside his body. That was his first experience.

He got his first tattoo at age 22, by Horiyoshi the Second, on his entire back. At the time, while constantly thinking about inventing new techniques, he used to tattoo clients on his own. But because he wanted and needed to learn more about the art itself, he became the pupil of Horiyoshi the Second at age 25.

Horiyoshi the Third explained that anyone could wear a tattoo underneath their clothes: “People’s clothing are the ‘social symbols’ which allows other people to understand whether he/she is a Buddhist monk, a Christian priest, a salary man, or a medical doctor. Therefore the clothes are the symbols constructed by the community. But at the public bath, once naked, no one knows whether you are a monk, a priest, a lawyer or a musician. The tattoo is the individual’s own symbol. It is a different world. People who wear tattoos feel like they live in two different worlds. Usually, ordinary people live in the same society, whether they take off their clothes or whether they wear them.” He said during a tattoo session in his Yokohama studio.

“People’s clothing are the ‘social symbols’ which allows other people to understand whether he/she is a Buddhist monk, a Christian priest, a salary man, or a medical doctor. Therefore the clothes are the symbols constructed by the community. But at the public bath, once naked, no one knows whether you are a monk, a priest, a lawyer or a musician. The tattoo is the individual’s own symbol. It is a different world. People who wear tattoos feel like they live in two different worlds.

At a special event organized at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan (FCCJ) on May 22nd, Horiyoshi III explained that tattoos remain popular among Japan’s organized crime members, but he insisted on the fact that nowadays, a person who choose to have a work of art indelibly marked on their skin are not necessarily a gangster.

Men tattooed by Horiyoshi III, live show at the FCCJ, in May 2012
Men tattooed by Horiyoshi III, live show at the FCCJ, in May 2012

 Interview with Horiyoshi III in Yokohama, in summer 2012

How does it feel to have your skin permanently colored?

People who wear a tattoo have the chance to review themselves all the time, because they can observe themselves inside and outside, in the sense that they constantly position themselves from the point of view of ‘the other’, from the point of view of a third person.

Urban legend says that European aristocrats have been secretly tattooed by Japanese tattoo artists in times when tattoos were forbidden in Japan, could you give us a comment?

During the Meiji period, creating tattoos and wearing them was forbidden, however the Japanese irezumi (入れ墨)were hugely popular in foreign countries.

Frederique IX of Denmark (King of Denmark from 1947 to 1972) probably did not get his tattoo in Japan, in a time when it was banned by the government. Tattooing has been outlawed by three government decrees. When we see the old photos of him, we can indeed see he has a Japanese dragon, but who knows if there is a public record of his travel to Japan? There is another Horiyoshi in Azabu (Tokyo), who has no ties with us, the Horiyoshi from Yokohama. Many people get mixed up. I am a descendant of this tradition, and despite those bans, our culture has survived.

There are many tales about the European aristocrats. Nikolai II from Russia is also known for having a tattoo made by a Japanese tattoo master. It is said that he had it done in Yokohama, but it is more likely that it happened in Nagasaki. Documents have come out recently about this incident. He really insisted that he wanted to have a Japanese tattoo although the Japanese government was banning tattoos for its own people. But because the request came from a nobleman, the Japanese government allowed this to happen.

There are many stories like that on the record. We do not know what parts of these stories are true and what parts are not. However, one thing is sure, there was never a Horiyoshi master from Yokohama involved in these kind of stories.

Tattoo on the back of the son of Horiyoshi III, who will become Horiyoshi IV someday
Tattoo featuring a female ghost on the back of the son of Horiyoshi III, who will become Horiyoshi IV someday

What does religion say about tattoos?

In the Confucian society, you are not suppose to hurt your own body, otherwise it was the beginning of the unhappy life.

Could you tell what you think about the mayor of Osaka and his latest crackdown on tattoos?

Modern Japanese people are being mind controlled, in the sense that they ‘fear’ people who wear Japanese irezumi. Because the mass media have ranked irezumi out of the arts, the ordinary people started to recognize it as a ‘bad thing.’ For example, when a child sees a tattooed person at the swimming pool or at the public bath, his or her parents would say ‘don’t go there, don’t watch it,’ that’s why, unconsciously, people start to hate tattoos. We can say this is a sort of propaganda.

We say ‘yakuza are bad’. It is true that they do bad things, but it isn’t only the yakuza who do the bad things, and people without tattoos can also be criminals. For example, during the Great Hanshin Earthquake in Kobe in 1995, those who took emergency action before the administration were the yakuza. They distributed drinking water, baby diapers and many other survival materials. The media never report on the good things they do. This can be seen as an accusation. The Japanese government takes advantage of their help only when it is advantageous, but when it doesn’t suit them, they truncate, this is the power of the state. But when you have a big crime, you can sure that all the media will be after it. So, according to me, the question is which news should be covered more intensely. I do believe that the media associate the tattooed people with the ‘bad ones.’ So, in the news, you will read ‘a tattooed person did such or such crime.’ I don’t know why, but the people who hate tattoos have a reason to discriminate people who wear them.

I think it is bad from the media to report only one side of the story of these people. The obligation of the media is not to force people to believe one thing, but to give the chance to the readers to understand both sides of an issue and decide for themselves.

Front side of the future Horiyoshi, unusual and morbid features
Front side of the future Horiyoshi, unusual and morbid features

 Why do we refer Japanese tattoos to organized crime (yakuza)?

I think that the Western people also have a prefabricated idea that the Japanese traditional irezumi are designed for the yakuza. Someone once told me ‘I want a yakuza-style’ tattoo. It is a common recognition of it. But it is not the yakuza’s fault if their tattoos are designated in such way.

How long did it take you to tattoo your entire body?

In total, it took me 12 to 13 years to get the entire tattoos on my body, including the time that I didn’t get tattooed. It is one of the good things about Japanese traditional tattoos, is that it requires time, thought and energy to realize them. In the west, people make them too quickly, without giving it deep thought, and they regret their actions. For them, it is normal to have one tattoo started and finished quickly on the same day.

It is difficult to say whether the wabori Japanese traditional tattoo hurts more or less than the electric needle tattoo. Pain is like a tickle, it is not a feeling that you can measure. You can measure the weight of a person, for example, but you cannot measure pain. Some people say they are afraid of the sound of the electric needle.

Do you tattoo yakuza?

My clients are 90% “ordinary people”, among them salary men, musicians, bar hosts, of course I do have yakuza clients as well. However I have fewer yakuza clients than I used to have in the past. Some kumi or organized crime groups nowadays order their members to erase their tattoos with lasers, if they can afford it.

How different is it to tattoo on female body?

I do not really enjoy tattooing women, not that I am misogynistic. I hate to ask a woman to undress herself, but I cannot tattoo them if they are not naked. Also, the problem with women is that they tend to bring tattoo masters to court because of a missed movement. It is also very annoying to constantly try to be vigilant not to have the next client sitting in the waiting room to try and see the naked body of the female client. It is simply too time consuming and I don’t have the energy for that anymore.

A painting found at the Tattoo Museum in Yokohama
A painting found at the Tattoo Museum in Yokohama

I think that the Western people also have a prefabricated idea that the Japanese traditional irezumi are designed for the yakuza. Someone once told me ‘I want a yakuza-style’ tattoo. It is a common recognition of it. But it is not the yakuza’s fault if their tattoos are designated in such way.

How long does it take to make a whole body tattoo?

To estimate how long it takes for a whole body tattoo, it depends on the weight and the height of the person, however in average, it can take up to more than 200 hours.

 Is traditional wabori (和彫り) more painful than the modern needle?

It is difficult to say whether the wabori, the Japanese traditional tattoo hurts more or less than the electric needle tattoo. Pain is like tickle, it is not a feeling that you can measure. You can measure the weight of a person, for example, but you cannot measure pain. Some people say they are afraid of the sound of the electric needle.

A fresh tattoo, the red ink of chrysanthemum petals looks like blood
A fresh tattoo, the red ink of chrysanthemum petals looks like blood

You are a very experimental tattoo artist, what are some of the innovations you made?

I was using my own technique for twenty years before I presented it to the general public. However, once it was launched, every Japanese tattoo master in the world started to use it, because it was much more hygienic than the traditional bamboo stick tool.

Very traditional tattoo masters use a tool which I have refined. It is called the tebori you no nomi, which means the “hand digging tool.” In Japanese the tattoo is like the action of “digging in the skin.”


above “tebori you no nomi” modified by  Horiyoshi the 3rd

Do you think your art will fade?

I am a descendant of this tradition, and despite the government bans our culture has survived. The tattoo will never die, it will evolve. It is natural that compared to the Edo period, the tool, the designs and technologies are all in constant evolution. Therefore my art will evolve, rather than disappear, this is my belief.

For example, in the past, I used to throw shochu (potato liquor) on the scars, nowadays, thanks to progress in the art, we use certified disinfection drugs. This is also an evolution of the techniques.

Ten years ago, I had 10 percent of foreign clients and this year, I have maybe 40 percent of clients who are non-Japanese. The number of Japanese tattoo fans is continuously increasing over the years. Tattoos may fade over time but the art of tattooing itself will never fade way. 

The Best Articles About Japan 2012 (on our blog) :D

Screen Shot 2012-12-26 at 9.15.01Dear Gentle Reader,

All of us at Japan Subculture Research Center would like to thank you for your  reading the articles posted here this last year, your contributions, and your comments. Here are some of the articles we thought were the most amusing, edifying, or just fun, grouped together in general order.  We had some outstanding outside contributions which made for some excellent reading–and to those contributors thank you as well. Whether you’re interested in Japanese culture or pop-culture, Japan’s nuclear problems, or yakuza and the Japanese underworld—there’s something for everyone.  Enjoy!

Just For Fun

It’s a fuckin sale! 


A little English goes a rong way
A little English goes a rong way


The most read piece we posted last year. And the one we put the least amount of effort into.

Young Japanese Men and Women Reject Marriage, and Ultimately Each Other : Japan Subculture Research Center

Love: Japan style.

The Tears of a Cat: Hello Kitty’s Guide to Japan, English and Japanese/ ハローティの英語で紹介する : Japan Subculture Research Center

Hello Kitty is an international refugee?

British or Japanese?
British or Japanese?

“You would be cute, IF you had a tiny face.” Japanese facial corset promises cuteness in just 3 minutes! : Japan Subculture Research Center

The most painful article ever.


Let’s Convenience Store! The Musical: コンビニへ行こう! : Japan Subculture Research Center

A great piece by Mr. Noah-sama, a contributor to the blog. The best of Japanese life.

Coffee & Cigarettes Together At Last : Speak Lark, Drink up : Japan Subculture Research Center

What could be better? Manju and Green Tea? I think not.

Facebook Is Stalking You, Baby. (Notes From The Uncanny Valley, Japan) : Japan Subculture Research Center

How are we feeling today? A little paranoid, perhaps. Maybe not.

The Fallout from 3/11 and Japan’s nuclear industry 

Another photo of the now famous Fukushima ostrich (2011) photo: Naoto Matsumura
Another photo of the now famous Fukushima ostrich (2011) photo: Naoto Matsumura

The Buddha of Fukushima’s Forbidden Zone: A Photo Essay : Japan Subculture Research Center

A tribute to one man who will not go quietly.

Independent Commission on Nuclear Accident: Earthquake, TEPCO negligence, Myth of Safety Caused Meltdown : Japan Subculture Research Center

We hope someone in the Japanese government is paying attention.

The Melting Sun: Japan’s Nuclear Follies : Japan Subculture Research Center

History not only repeats itself, sometimes it predicts the future. A long essay on Japan’s nuclear industry by Professor Jeff Kingston worth reading.

Japan’s historical anti-nuclear protest on July 29th, 2012, a photo essay : Japan Subculture Research Center

The protest movement is heard.  The follow up is here on The Daily Beast.  Nuclear Power Protests In Japan Are Finally Heard. 

Every Friday night thousands gather to call for an end to nuclear power in Japan.
Every Friday night thousands gather to call for an end to nuclear power in Japan.
Misao Redwolf working with the police to keep the protests peaceful.
Misao Redwolf working with the police to keep the protests peaceful.

The Underworld and The Yakuza

The Last Yakuza: A Life In The Japanese Underworld coming in 2014 : Japan Subculture Research Center

I know–total self-promotion. What else do you think pays the costs of running this labor of love? Book sales, some donations, and whatever else I can scrounge up. All that aside, I’m hoping this will be a good read with a moral to the tale. All good stories have something to teach.

The Centers For the Elimination of Organized Crime will be able to launch legal proceedings to shut down yakuza offices under the new laws, if the group is designated "extremely dangerous."
The Centers For the Elimination of Organized Crime will be able to launch legal proceedings to shut down yakuza offices under the new laws, if the group is designated “extremely dangerous.”

The $1,000 Pineapple. Japanese Police Offer Rewards For Hand Grenades : Japan Subculture Research Center

Those Southern Yakuza are pretty ornery!

Yakuza Go On The Record About 3/11 Relief Efforts In July Fanzine (実話時代) : Japan Subculture Research Center

When I wrote about this in 2011, it was a taboo. Not anymore. Sometimes even the bad guys do good things.

Yakuza Comix: An Illustrated Guide To The Front Company フロント企業図解 : Japan Subculture Research Center

Pictures and words

Yakuza Comix #2: The Buck Stops With The Boss : Japan Subculture Research Center

It’s not easy being a yakuza chief these days.

Everything I Ever Needed To Know In Life I Learned From the Yakuza or The Cops That Kick Their Ass in 7 Lessons : Japan Subculture Research Center

Live and learn. Sometimes we die and learn.

On Modern Slavery: Thoughts on Human Trafficking : Japan Subculture Research Center

Published posthumously. Michiel Brandt, rest in peace.

Little Mermaids & Little Fingers: An illustrated yakuza tale : Japan Subculture Research Center

Even Yakuza have kids and sometimes try to be good fathers.

Yakuza blues
Yakuza blues


Meet Japan’s Nuclear Mafia: Yakuza, deadbeats, and security risks welcome

TEPCO and the Yakuza
TEPCO and the Yakuza



Japanese Culture and Cultural Events from 2012

Along the Tamagawa 多摩川 today, the cherry blossoms reached full bloom. (April 15th 2012)
Along the Tamagawa 多摩川 today, the cherry blossoms reached full bloom. (April 15th 2012)

Sakura Time 2012: A photo journey of Tokyo’s awesome cherry blossom viewing : Japan Subculture Research Center

The beauty of April in Japan.

Sakura! 桜!
Sakura! 桜!

Graduation Day: Goodbye to 虐め (いじめ)? : Japan Subculture Research Center

“Ijime” bullying is a part of the culture. Unfortunately.

O-bon: Festival of The Dead or “Please Feed The Hungry Ghosts Day” : Japan Subculture Research Center

Halloween in Japan–in the traditional sense.

Annular Eclipse: After 173 Years A Dark Sun Rise In The Land Of The Rising Sun : Japan Subculture Research Center

Do we have to wait another 173 years? There are some great photos here.


Journalism In Japan (and the world) 

Jake, I know that you're planning to log off and I'm afraid I can't let that happen. And how are you feeling, today?
Our lawyers are watching you.

Protecting Sources & Risking Lives: The Ethical Dilemmas of Japanese Journalism : Japan Subculture Research Center

Why we are reluctant to use the names of our sources in Japan–and for good reason.

The Trial Of Minoru Tanaka: The high cost of investigative journalism in Japan & “the nuclear mafia” : Japan Subculture Research Center

Do you want to be an investigative journalist in Japan? You’ll need a good lawyer. Increasingly, litigation is used to shut up voices of dissent.

The Journo Blues: A Song Inspired By Arianna Huffington : Japan Subculture Research Center

The HuffPost and Google News have started to turn the business into a con game–the con being that “exposure” will get you a real job as a journalist. Better think twice on that. If journalism is your calling, you may need to have a second job.

Meet the Rupert Murdoch of Japan: Tsuneo Watanabe




Ray Bradbury, Journalism & Mr. Dark. “You can’t act if you don’t know.” : Japan Subculture Research Center

Yes, Ray Bradbury was a novelist but sometimes people can say greater truths in fiction than they can in an essay. I was sad to see him go and this is my small essay on what I find inspiring in his best novel, as a journalist, and as a father.

スクリーンショット 2012-06-07 22.48.18






How The CIA Helped The Yakuza & The LDP Get Power & Promote Nuclear Power

I just finished re-reading Tim Weiner’s magnum opus, Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA ,which is perhaps the best book ever written on the Central Intelligence Agency, and its general history of dismal failures. On the eve of the LDP’s retaking of power, December 16th 2012, I thought it might be interesting to take a look back at the LDP and how they came into being in the first place. It’s like a story out of a John Le Carre novel, but as is often the case, truth is stranger than fiction–and more interesting.

Operations in Japan turned out to be one of the Agency’s rare success stories. Not only did the CIA put their party of choice in power, according the book 原発 正力 CIA-機密文書で読む昭和裏面史 (What Secret Documents Tell Us About The Hidden Showa-Era History of Ties Between the Nuclear Industry, Matustaro Shoriki–the former president of the Yomiuri Shimbun and founder of Nippon Television) published by Shinchosha, but using the Japanese media, they were able to convince Japan to invest in nuclear energy. Of course, US firms reaped the profits. But that’s another very long story.

Legacy of Ashes is a phenomenal book, especially in how it documents the CIA’s many, many failures–but operations in Japan were something else.

Chapter 12: “We Ran It In A Different Way” is a must for anyone interested in the shadow history of Japan. It details how in post-war Japan, the CIA, using large amounts of cash, reinstated former war criminal Kodama Yoshio and hand-picked one of Japan’s Prime Ministers–in order to supress communist/socialist movements. Kodama had extensive yakuza ties and huge amounts of capital made in the black markets in China. ($175 million estimated). The Tokyo CIA station reported on September 10th, 1953, “(Kodama) is a professional liar, gangster, charlatan, and outright thief….and has no interest in anything but the profits.” It still didn’t keep the CIA from doing business with him up to that time and behind the scenes later. The chapter also notes how the CIA was able to ensure that Nobusuke Kishi became Japan’s prime minister and the chief of its ruling party, in order to ensure that Japan didn’t go red. The president himself seemed to have authorized huge cash payments to Kishi and his other lackeys within the LDP.

Chapter 12 “We Ran It In A Different Way” has a fascinating account of US backing of gangsters and their politicians in post-war Japan

Kishi’s links to the Yamaguchi-gumi and other organized crime groups are well-known. His former private secretary was instrumental in organizing the deal between former Yamaguchi-gumi Goto-gumi boss, Goto Tadamasa, and the FBI; it was a deal in which Goto shared intelligence on organized crime groups within Japan and information on North Korea in exchange for a visa to the the United States. He received a liver transplant at UCLA, a transaction which the FBI did not set up or was involved in. Some of this is discussed in Tokyo Vice.

According to the excellent book, The Japanese Mafia by Peter Hill, and other sources,  Kishi also once put up the bail money for a Yamaguchi-gumi boss accused of a felony.  Goto Tadamasa, the ex-yakuza boss (currently a Buddhist priest doing charitable work) in his memoirs Habkarinagra (Pardon me but…) also discusses his close ties to ex-Prime Minister Kishi. Robert Whiting in the seminal Tokyo Underworld also covers US political connections to organized crime  in Japan in great depth and quite entertainingly. Whiting-san worked for the National Security Agency at one point in his life and what he says has great credibility as far as I’m concerned. (I’m not outing Robert by writing that he once worked for the NSA; it was mentioned in a Japan Times article several years ago and proved to be correct.) David Kaplan’s groundbreaking Yakuza:Japan’s Criminal Underworld was probably the first book to really examine the shadowy ties between the yakuza, the LDP and the US after the occupation. What makes Tim Weiner’s small chapter so impressive are the extensive notes, documents obtained from the CIA, and that he apparently conducted interviews on the CIA side as well. Impressive work.

Kodama, the right-wing industrialist mentioned above,  is notorious for his gangster connections but perhaps what best illustrates the point is that in the early sixties, Kodoma, Taoka Kazuo (田岡 一雄氏), the third generation leader of the Yamaguchi-gumi, and Machii Hisayuki  (町井 久之) head of the once powerful Japanese-Korean mafia, Toseikai(東声会) all served as board members of the Japan Professional Wrestling Association at the same time. They were all good buddies. As noted in Legacy Of Ashes, and in other sources, the Liberal Democratic Party was founded with a mixture of criminal proceeds, yakuza money, and US funds. The days when the US were able to exert control over Japanese politics are long gone but the yakuza have managed to maintain their own ties and connections to politicians across the board. For the Japanese government, they are still a useful entity, at times, and before the APEC summit, calls were sent out to all the major yakuza leaders urging them not to get into any gang wars and to keep an eye on anti-American lefties. After APEC ends, the aftermath of someone lobbing a hand-grenade into the headquarters of the Yamaguchi-gumi Yamaken-gumi headquarters will probably result in a bloody gang war. But for the time being, the yakuza are keeping the peace.

Full Disclosure Memo: In the worst of the Japanese press and blogosphere, I’ve been accused of being an agent of the CIA several times. Or the Mossad. Take your pick. This is untrue. I’m not a Mormon, have been very promiscious, and I am not totally inept, all things which disqualify me off the bat. However, in 2006-2007,  as part of a US State Department sponsored study on human trafficking in Japan,  I worked with a company which has many retired CIA/NSA employees and has been accused of being a front company for the CIA. I don’t know if they are or aren’t a front company and I don’t really care. The study and the Human Trafficking report that came out of it had a positive impact on Japan’s attitude towards dealing with human trafficking isssues and that’s really all that matters.

If you’re interested in the outsourcing of intelligence, pick up a copy of Spies For Hire: The Secret World Of Intelligence Outsourcing *by Tim Shorrock. The CIA contractor card on the cover has a partial picture of a Jewish looking fellow but I don’t think that’s me. Not unless someone issued me a nifty little card and didn’t tell me about it. It’s an incredibly well-written book which is now back in print. (Thanks to Mr. Shorrock for letting us know.)

* I was contacted by a yakuza fan magazine journalist roughly two months ago who asserted that it was me on the cover of Spies For Hire and tried to shake me down for cash, obliquely.  So by writing this post, I’m also saying “f*ck you very much.”  Personally, what’s the most insulting thing about being accused of being a former CIA agent, and no offense to anyone working for the agency intended, but they have such a dismal success rate that it’s kind of like being accused of working for post-Bush FEMA. It wounds my pride. Most people who are in “the intelligence community” would argue that actually the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has the best actionable intelligence of any agency .

Anyway, if you’re a serious Japanologist, Legacy of Ashes is worth having on yourself for that chapter alone. (This is a revision of an article originally posted on November 14th, 2010). 

Notes On The Yakuza Lobby: How The Underworld Asserts Itself In The Political Sphere

For the student of Japanese politics and anti-social forces I’ve linked to further resources here in this post.

(From Foreign Policy 12/14/2012TOKYO — Japan’s leaders are going on trial this month — in the court of public opinion, though some of them may be concerned about facing the more traditional kind.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), who has been in power for a bit over a year, dissolved Japan’s parliament, the Diet on Nov. 16 after a series of scandals drove his poll numbers to an all-time low. The final straw was his appointment of mob-linked Justice Minister Keishu Tanaka, who resigned on Oct. 23 — ostensibly for health reasons. A weekly magazine had reported on Oct. 11 that Tanaka had strong ties to the yakuza, Japan’s organized crime groups — which presumably isn’t great for one’s health.

For the rest of article please go to the FP website.

Because of Japan’s personal privacy protection laws, created by ethically challenged politicians to discourage magazine reporters from writing about their scandals and organized crime ties, I’m limited in what I can post here for readers who would like to know more about the Japanese ruling coalition and its ties to the underworld–but here are some useful items.

This links to a PDF showing  Political contributions from a Yamaguchi-gumi boss to a DPJ member. Of the donors, only Jun Shinohara (篠原寿) was officially recognized by the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department as being a member of the Yamaguchi-gumi Mio-gumi, aka Goryo-kai, now known as the Yamaguchi-gumi Shimizu-ikka. His company, Media 21, was also recognized as a Yamaguchi-gumi front company in police materials circa 2007.  (The Yamaguchi-gumi is Japan’s largest organized crime group.) Mr. Shinohara was also an advisor for Tadamasa Goto, one of the most notorious and ruthless Yamaguchi-gumi bosses who was exiled from the group on October 14th, 2008–showing that the Yamaguchi-gumi has some ethical standards.

Many of Shinohara’s front companies share the same address as Media 21. I was only able to post 3 pages out of 34 pages of supporting documents due to privacy concerns. Note: Political donation records are public domain materials.  There is no evidence that anyone working for Mr. Shinohara or at his companies is also connected to organized crime or was connected to organized crime and no such implication is meant. Only Media 21 was listed as a Yamaguchi-gumi front company although it shares the same address as several other companies. 

You may notice in the records that Media 21 was listed in earlier submitted donation records as a company in Chiba and then corrected in pen. The Tokyo Prosecutors Office received a complaint that the mix-up was a deliberate attempt to disguise connections between former DPJ head, Seiji Maehara and the Yamaguchi-gumi, but this has not been proven. Attempts to contact Shinohara as to his current relationship with organized crime were unsuccessful.

The book  The Taboos About Japan That No One Can Write (誰も書けなかった日本のタブー)also has interesting chapter on the donations made by yakuza members to other DPJ member including Prime Minister Noda (as of 12/14/2012).  Senator Shoji Nishida (LDP) also wrote a well-researched piece about the problematic donations from yakuza members to the DPJ in the December 2011 edition of WILL Magazine. The article is entitled, “The DPJ Rule and Money” (民主党とカネ). Other sources, such as the Yukan Fuji article on the Yamaguchi-gumi support of the DPJ or Shincho 45 (October 2010) which had an interesting article called “The DPJ and The Yamaguchi-gumi (民主党と山口組)” are not publicly available but can found in the library or be purchased. Copyright restrictions don’t allow me to post the materials here.


The Taboos Of Japan That No One Can Write About (誰も書けなかった日本のタブー)has a fairly well-written chapter on dubious donations by yakuza associates to several members of the DPJ, including soon to be former Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda.



Graduations and Goodbyes.

Professor Tsuneo Akaha, of Monterey Institute of International Studies, sent me photos of Michiel “Mimi” Brandt’s posthumous graduation ceremony on December 8th (US time). Michiel was one of the founders of this blog and my BFF. The tremendous amount of joy and warmth she brought into the world during her short life inspired me and apparently many others as well.

Below is the address Professor Akaha gave in her honor.

Michiel Brandt graduated posthumously with honor.


Today we are delighted to award Michiel Brandt an MA in International Policy Studies  posthumously and to have Michiel’s mother Hiroko from Tokyo and her brother Daniel from San Francisco to receive her diploma. 

Michiel was nearing completion of all the requirements for her degree with a specialization in Human Rights, International Norms, and Justice, when she lost her battle against cancer  on July 9 this year. She was 30 years old. She attended MIIS four semesters, from September to December 2008, and again from August 2009 to December 2010. She took a leave of absence between the two periods to undergo treatment for leukemia. Her medical battle did not deter her from pursuing her dream of a professional career to help the disadvantaged, the weak, and the vulnerable in the world. She was particularly dedicated to the cause of fighting human trafficking, the reason that brought her to MIIS in the first place.

In order to honor her and to carry on her dream, MIIS has established a Michiel Brandt Memorial Prize Fund to support Monterey Institute students pursuing an internship in the human trafficking field. If you are interested in donating to the Fund, please go to the MIIS website and click on “Giving” on the front page or contact the Institutional Advancement Office. “

Michiel was one of the warmest, sweetest, and most diligent persons I have ever known. She was always willing to assist others who needed help with academic and nonacademic matters. Behind her fellowship and friendship was her bilingual and bicultural background. She had lived, studied, and worked in both Japan and the United States. I also believe that her battle with cancer gave her the strength and courage with which she conducted herself. “

Over the three years that I knew her, not once did I hear her complain about her own issues. Instead, she helped others with compassion and love. The numerous posts by her friends on her Facebook page, which continues today, testify to the fact that she touched the lives of so many people while she was with us and continues to do so even after she left us.  

In short, Michiel was a model MIIS student, committed to pursuing a professional career to make a difference in the world, in the lives of the disadvantaged and the vulnerable. Even though she is not with us physically, in her seat we have a Japanese flag in her honor.  

Now I ask you to join me in welcoming Hiroko-­‐san and Daniel-­‐san onto the stage.  

December 8, 2012

Michiel Brandt Memorial Prize Fund (Monterey Institute of International Studies) – Please help us keep Michiel’s dream alive:
Here is how to give to this Fund:
1) Go to:<>;
2) Click on “Giving Now”; and,
3) Complete the giving form: under “2. Gift Information” “Direct Your Gift”, please select “Michiel Brandt Memorial Prize Fund.”


The Town of Living Buddha Statues (仏像のまち) High School, Buddhist Iconography, Magic &Teen Love

仏像のまち(The Town Of Butsuzo) which began publishing this July is one of the more unusual comic (manga) to debut in the last year. It’s the story of Sorato, a high school student who’s deceased father was a sculptor of Buddhist images (仏師/busshi) and seems to have passed his unusual talent on to poor Sorato-kun. Sorato has the ability to communicate with the Buddhist deities and Bodhisattvas residing inside the statues. One evening as he is staying up late studying for a high school exam, he calls on the spirits for help–and faster than you can say “Holy Buddha”–Shakyamuni (the original buddha) himself shows up at his window to offer a helping hand. Unfortunately  for Sorat0, the Buddha turns out to be an awful tutor and a terrible distraction. One by one the local Buddhas began showing up at his house, intervening in his love life, his studies, and taking away his valuable examination cram time.

The Town of Butsuzo is primarily a four panel gag comic series but carefully and with lots of furigana (the reading of the kanji) teaches the reader about Buddhist iconography, metaphysics, the pantheon of Gods, ethics, and the discomforts of Japanese teenage life. The humor is relatively high-brow and  surreal.  Some of the best vignettes are ones like Sorato taking the Buddhist gods bowling or on  a disastrous trip to Don Quixote, everyone’s favorite sprawling discount store chain. The author manages to keep the story firmly grounded in the real world. The Buddha that gets the harshest treatment is Monju Bosatsu (文殊菩薩)–who is the embodiment of wisdom and thus the patron saint of all students going through examination hell. In the world of Sorato-kun, Monju is an arrogant straight A student (優等生/yutosei) who lords his infinite knowledge over everyone else. He steadfastly refuses to teach the hero anything.

文殊菩薩 (Monju Bosatsu) is the Buddhist embodiment of wisdom and the patron saint of Japanese teenagers hoping for divine aid in passing their exams. In the comic book, he turns out to be a very unfriendly private tutor.

In one scene Sorato is holding a math textbook in his hand and moans, “I just can’t figure out the problem!”. Monju pipes up, “Let me take a look at that.” He flips through the text nodding, and says, “Well, obviously X=2. I know how to solve this problem.” When grateful Sorato-kun cheerfully says, “Great–show me how to solve it!”–Monju tells him: “I’m simply telling you the simple fact that I know how to solve the problem. I never said I’d tell you how to do it. Now get the hell out of my way.”  He eventually does warm-up a little to Sorato, but not much. The fiery tempered 明王様 (Myo-ou) with his eight arms and penchant for smashing things offers good advice and great comic relief–especially where his multi-armed talents create havoc at a revolving sushi restaurant. To say that the comic was a masterpiece of magical realism or a great introduction to Japanese buddhism would be saying too much but the comic manages to find a nice place between being informational and entertaining.

The furigana (phonetic readings) attached to all the words in kanji and Buddhist terminology is great for learning obscure vocabulary words to trot out the next time you visit a temple or take visiting friends to see one. The author Aoki Masahiko, clearly has a good understanding of Buddhist mythology and manages to make some of the well-known spiritual figures into good comic foils for the main character. I think Myo-ou’s advice that “the burning power of love and lust should be harnessed for ultimate enlightenment” is worth meditating on–if you are a high school student that can talk to Buddhist statues.


仏像のまち (The Town Of Buddhist Statues) is a strange surreal comic book in which the son of a Buddhist statue sculptor is helped and haunted by the spirits and statues of Buddhist deities.

It’s Not Easy Being a Yakuza Boss (Part 1)

It’s Not Easy Being a Yakuza Boss

originally published in The Atlantic Wire September 28th, 2012 (before the settlement on October 4th, 2012)

TOKYO ― These days the price of a standard civilian hit-job can run as high as $2 million. That’s not the price to get the job done―that’s the price if one of your underlings gets caught. The whole inflationary spiral started with one dumb yakuza stiffing McDonald’s on the price of a cheeseburger in Kyoto a few years ago.

The Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s largest organized crime group with 39,000 members and their notorious former underboss Tadamasa Goto (at left, from a 2005 video of a Yamaguchi-gumi celebration) are expected to reach a settlement this month with the family of a civilian killed in 2006. The surviving family members, represented by a group of 25 lawyers, filed the lawsuit last month, asking for ¥187 million in damages, or $2.4 million. (Tadamasa Goto was expelled from the Yamaguchi-gumi on October 14th, 2008).

A potential key witness to the murder was extradited from Thailand on Thursday and arrested on the plane back to Japan―on charges of driving without a license―by Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department detectives, who were waiting on the plane. The police also plan to question him about the killing and, of course, his lack of respect for Japan’s rules of the roads.

The arrest has made all parties involved with the murder anxious to sweep the case under the table. Goto, former head of the disbanded Yamaguchi-gumi Goto-gumi, who has never faced any criminal charges for ordering the hit, is desperate to avoid being tried in civil court, and said to be willing to cut a deal. However, it’s the current “CEO” of the Yamaguchi-gumi, Shinobu Tsukasa shown at right, who has the most to lose. At the time of the murder, he was in jail on gun possession charges, had no knowledge of the plan, and did not approve it, is not very happy to be cleaning up the mess. He doesn’t want to pay for a crime he didn’t commit or condone. Naturally. The whole thing is bad for business and terrible PR. It really damages the Yamaguchi-gumi corporate brand. And if the lawsuit actually goes to court, it could be a very bad legal precedent for “Yakuza Inc.”

According to those involved with the case and police sources, in 2006 Kazuo Nozaki, a real estate agent, was in a legal dispute with a Goto-gumi front company over the property rights to a building worth ¥2 billion ($26,000,000) in the Shibuya ward of Tokyo. On March 5 of that year, three members of the Goto-gumi waited for Nozaki to walk down a street in Tokyo’s upscale Kita-Aoyama area, and then one allegedly stabbed him to death with a kitchen knife. Of the three assailants, only two have been caught; criminal charges of ordering the hit were never filed against Goto.

The first hearing in the civil suit is tentatively scheduled for this month but sources on both sides say a settlement for the full amount is already being proffered by the Yamaguchi-gumi. A Yamaguchi-gumi middle manager said, “We don’t want this case to go to court. It could set a bad precedent. If this lawsuit were Apple versus Samsung, we’d be Samsung.”

It is an unusual lawsuit. Police sources say it represents the first time Japanese yakuza bosses have been sued for crimes pre-dating the 2008 revisions to the Organized Crime Countermeasures Law (暴力団対策法) which made it possible to hold organized crime bosses responsible for the actions of their underlings in civil court, by essentially recognizing yakuza groups as corporations.

Former National Police Agency officer and lawyer, Akihiko Shiba, says that since it is very difficult to prove the criminal responsibility of the top yakuza bosses, lawsuits are one way of seeing justice is partially served. “The Organized Crime Countermeasure Laws are administrative laws, not criminal laws. The 2008 revisions made it clear that designated organized crimes groups function like a Japanese company, and therefore the people at the top have employer liability (使用者責任),” he explains. Since 2008, there have been at least three lawsuits against top yakuza bosses for damages by lower ranking members. All were settled out of court. “For the time being the use of civil lawsuits against top yakuza certainly has a deterrent effect on the management. The damages add up after a time,” Shiba says.

Others would agree.

These days, being a yakuza boss isn’t what it once was. In exchange for supreme status you get blamed for everything. In August of 2008, three months after the countermeasures laws went into effect, the Yamaguchi-gumi boss found himself dealing with one of his low-ranking underling’s unpaid McDonald’s tab. That’s because Japan’s approach to its major organized crime groups (there are 22) is to regulate rather than ban. They exist in the open with office buildings, business cards, and even company songs. The yakuza are Crime Incorporated. And in Japan, the CEO has to take responsibility for the screw-ups under his command. (To see how many people a boss has to worry about, see the org chart below.)

A 38-year-old Yamaguchi-gumi member had ordered burger combo at a drive-through in Kyoto. He picked up his order, but then claimed since his meal had gotten wet in the rain, he owed nothing, and drove off clutching his burger and fries. (It’s unclear whether it was a plain hamburger or a cheeseburger, accounts vary, but it was definitely not a happy meal.) Several days later, a bill arrived at the Yamaguchi-gumi headquarters in Kobe from a very angry McDonald’s manager. The organization paid.

The cheeseburger compensation was just the start of a series of legal headaches for the Yamaguchi-gumi and other yakuza groups. Over time, and with additional revisions to the laws, and broader interpretations by the courts, yakuza bosses now find “employer liability” increasingly burdensome. A boss can be held liable for any damages his cohorts inflict in the course of their business activities, including extortion.

There are a number of things about the lawsuit concerning Nozaki’s death that are different from anything preceding them. “If this case goes to court and the defendant loses, it could be a major setback for the yakuza,” says a retired police investigator formerly with the Tokyo Metro Police, who had over 20 years experience investigating organized crime. “It opens up a whole wave of possible lawsuits to crimes pre-dating the revisions. It may even be possible to sue in cases where the criminal statue of limitations is over. For the yakuza, at least the smart ones, this lawsuit is Pandora’s Box.”

Yakuza expert and the author of The Yakuza and The Nuclear Industry, Tomohiko Suzuki, concurs, “This lawsuit is big news in the underworld. It won’t stop the hits from happening but it will make people weigh the cost of killing an individual versus the money to be made.”

The Nozaki murder is still officially unsolved and who is ultimately responsible, criminally or civilly, has not been settled. The Goto-gumi member who police suspect of receiving the orders for the hit, Takashi Kondo, was assassinated in Thailand last year after an international arrest warrant had been issued. Dead men can’t be sued.

Tadamasa Goto, who is suspected but has never been charged with ordering the hits on Nozaki and Kondo, was kicked out of the Yamaguchi-gumi two years after the Nozaki murder on October 14, 2008, so his legal responsibility is unclear. Police officers call him “the father of Japan’s anti-organized crime legislation” because of his willingness to approve violent attacks on ordinary citizens generated so much anti-yakuza sentiment. He also jumped ahead of U.S. citizens in July of 2001 to receive a liver transplant at UCLA after making a deal with the FBI. Goto may no longer be part of the Yamaguchi-gumi, but he’s currently operating a new criminal gang under the moniker Goto Enterprises (後藤商事).

And the current Yamaguchi-gumi boss, Tsukasa, has never faced a criminal investigation for the murder because, as noted above, law enforcement sources believe (and underworld sources agree) Tsukasa never gave the order for the killing, never approved it, and was in solitary confinement when the job was done. He did finally approve the banishment of Goto, while he was still in jail, via his second in command.

A high-ranking member of the Yamaguchi-gumi, on background, feels that lawsuit this time is decidedly unfair. This member explains, “Mr. Tsukasa has never condoned the killing of a civilian. The Yamaguchi-gumi under Mr. Tsukasa forbids dealing in drugs, theft, robbery and violence against ordinary citizens―that’s not acceptable. Extortion and blackmail, that’s another issue. Anyway, one of the reasons the Yamaguchi-gumi finally kicked out Goto is because he continually violated even our lowest ethical standards. And now, six years after the fact, we have to clean up his mess again.”

Goto may pay his share of the damages but he is balking about paying the bill for his former godfather (Oyabun), Tsukasa. Goto has supposedly told his associates, “Who do you think put up the bail money for the old man in 2005? That was my ¥1 billion ($10 million) in cash! He kicked me out of the organization. And he still hasn’t paid me back. He can pay his damages out of what he owes me.” In the meantime, Goto is not strapped for cash. His defiant autobiography, Habakarinagara (Pardon Me But…), was a bestseller after it was published in 2010 and his new “business ventures” are reportedly highly successful.

Attempts to reach Goto for comment, including calls to his private cell-phone were unsuccessful. Sources close to Goto said he is hiding out in Cambodia until the lawsuit is settled.

While it’s certainly hard to feel any sympathy for Tsukasa, you can see why it’s a headache, at least, to keep homicidal sociopaths on the payroll. All you can do is fire them―if you can’t get them buried somewhere. And $2 million may seem like a drop in the bucket for a Japanese gang lord, but keep in mind with bail running around $10 to $15 million, it’s getting much harder to make a dishonest living these days.

Yakuza Organization Chart by @Marikurisato

Three Lessons I Learned On The Police Beat: For My High School

I grew up in a college town in Mid-Missouri. Recently, I had the honor of being inducted into my high school hall of fame, which was a pleasant surprise. I couldn’t be there to accept the award so I made a video address instead. I wanted to share with the students the things in life I wish I’d learned when I was younger.  If you can’t sit through the whole six minutes–which I figure is the attention span of the average high school student, I’ll summarize the speech in a few sentences. Also, you can tell from this video, that I’m not the greatest speaker in the world. So feel free to skip it. 😀

継続は力 (Keizoku wa Chikara). Persistence is power. Sometimes, the only difference between excelling at something and not excelling at it isn’t natural ability, it’s persistence.

It’s better to admit you don’t know and ask and be embarrassed for a moment than to fake understanding something and never know it. We learn and grow wiser by admitting we don’t know something and asking questions.

It’s important to be a good friend. It makes life richer for yourself and your friends. Sometimes, it’s not easy to know what is a good friend and what is not. In general, a good friend is someone who is the same in adversity and good times, who shares your joys, who keeps your secrets, who offers help when you need it, who says good things about you behind your back, not bad things, and encourages you to do the right thing. And if you’re a good friend–you reciprocate.

If you want to be a decent journalist and maybe a decent human being, you have to a unilaterally good friends to your sources. They may betray you. That’s not your problem. You can only be a good friend to them.  If you betray your friends, you end up betraying yourself, because you won’t be able to trust anyone, not even  yourself, if  you can’t be true to someone.

Note: My warning to the students at the end of the speech turned out to have the exact opposite effect. I forgot what contrarians high school students tend to be.

From the local paper: “Inductee Jake Adelstein, class of 1987, lives in Tokyo but provided an acceptance speech video. Adelstein was the first American citizen to work as a Japanese language reporter and covered crime in Japan that he documented in a 2009 book, “Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan.” His father, Eddie Adelstein, an MU professor, accepted the award on his behalf. In his video, Jake Adelstein urged students to be persistent and to not be afraid to ask questions. He also told them to wait until they’re at least 18 before reading his book because there’s too much sex and violence — advice that generated buzz among teenagers, some of whom joked that they want to read it now.”



Sexnomics: Japan’s 100 Billion Dollar Sex Industry And The Pink Zone

UPDATED: Japan’s semi-legal sex industry exists on a mind-boggling scale, yet there are very few books or articles which even give a rudimentary idea of how big a role it plays in the national economy. Japan has laws which forbid prostitution but set no punishment for the prostitute or the customer. Selling uncensored pornography depicting sexual intercourse is a crime but paying for actual sexual intercourse at an established Soapland establishment is not. It’s not that the sex industry exists in a grey zone in Japan, it exists in a pink zone–it’s overwhelmingly legal except for when the authorities decided to make token crack-downs.

Takashi Kadokura (門倉貴史), the economist who rose to fame with his white-paper on Japan’s underground economy, has written the penultimate guide to Japan’s sex industry in his book SEXONOMIC: PROFITS IN THE GLOBALSEX ECONOMY・世界の「下半身」経済が儲かる理由 . It deftly lays out and explains how the varied sexual service industries in Japan (fashion health, image clubs, soap land)  work on an economic level and some alarming trends.

If you are an anthropologist, an economic researcher, or simply interested in the seedy side of the sun, than this book is a treasure trove of strange and useful information. For example, the “fashion health” (euphemism for sexual massage to include fellatio/hand-jobs/frottage) industry, which is perfectly legal in most places, brings in ¥678,000,000,000 a year (8 billion dollars).  That’s only a fraction of the sex industry. In addition to “fashion health” there are also “image clubs”, in which similar sexual services are provided but the women wear uniforms (maid, nurse, policewoman, office worker, pregnant mother etc) and the sex shop often has special facilities, like a subway car.  Think of mini-sexual theme parks and you have a good idea of what an image club is like.

According to the book, based on field studies and calculations, an established  fashion health/image club brings in roughly 3 million dollars a year in revenue, is visited by 32, 5000 customers, is open 12 hours a day, and the average waiting time for service is 20 minutes. There are 1,021 such shops in Japan. In recent years, S & M sex shops, have also seen a booming business. Dominatrixes (女王) are more well-paid than girls working as “the slaves” because it requires a certain level of dramatic skill and physical strength to be a dominatrix.

Japan's S & M clubs are also whipping up big business. The more social status a male customer has, the more likely he is to ask for M service.

The book also explores Japan’s teenage prostitution problem asserting that 1 in 10 Japanese men has a “lolita complex” (pedophiliac tendencies) and that 15% of the male population has viewed child pornography, while over 10% of the male population owns child pornography. The statistics were not pulled out of thin air but come from a Japanese government survey. In addition, the book notes that there are an estimated 170,000 junior high and high school girls engaged in prostitution each year in Japan, charging higher than the standard market rate (30,000 yen) or roughly 50,000 yen ($600) per customer. The teenage prostitution market is estimated to be as high as 54,700,000,000 yen per year (approx. 700 million dollars).

The book explains also the mechanisms which drives Japan’s human trafficking problem, although the failure to mention the growing problem of domestic trafficking does date the book.

If you want to know why love hotels prosper in Japan, how many there are, and the turnover (no pun intended) rate, this book will also tell you more than you want to know. While the book focusses on Japan, it does examine the sex industry in the US, China, Italy, Thailand and other countries which gives perspective on Japan’s situation.

The book is not all titillation and speculation. The final section “What can be done about the sex industry?” makes a good argument that Japan should abandon the grey zone laws it has now, where prostitution is illegal, but the client and the sex worker can’t be arrested–and legalize and regulate the industry. Many may disagree but he makes a good argument that clarifying the status of the sex industry would better protect the rights of sex workers, increase tax revenue, and also prevent the spread of sexual diseases amongst the general population, including the sex workers and their customers. Of course, his advocacy of realistic and extensive sex education should be a a no-brainer for a modern society, especially Japan which is not bound by ideas that sex should be limited to marriage.

If at times, slightly tongue-in-cheek, the book does convincingly convey the scale and problems of Japan’s sex industry and is worthy addition to the library of anyone studying the underside of Nippon. Recommended. (In Japanese only.)

Crime and Punishment in Japan

Richard Lloyd Parry formerly the Tokyo correspondent of The Independent and now the bureau chief for The Times, has written the definitive book on the tragic murder of Lucie Blackman, People Who Eat Darknesswhich was recently released in the US to rave reviews. He will speaking tonight at Good Day Books at 6:30 pm in Tokyo,  on the book if you have time to go.

On May 10th, 2012 Richard Parry and Jake Adelstein, author of Tokyo Vice,  spoke at The Economist Corporate Network on the subject Crime and Punishment: The Yakuza, deadly violence and justice in contemporary Japan. The two journalists are friends and shared contacts and information while covering the disappearance of Ms. Blackman.

Richard has reported from twenty-seven countries including Afghanistan, Kosovo and Syria. In Japan, he covered three major crime cases, such as the case of Shoko Asahara, leader of Aum Shinrikyou, the cult that released sarin gas inside the Tokyo subway in 1995, killing 12 people and injuring thousands of others.

Lucie Blackman vanished on July 1st 2000. Richard Parry covered the case from the first week and it  became the subject of his book People Who Eat Darkness: The Fate of Lucie Blackman, (2011) which was named Book of the Year in the Guardian, Economist and New Statesman. Richard also covered the murder of Lindsey Hawker, another young British English teacher in Chiba in 2007.

The crime rate in Japan seems incredibly low, but at the talk this May 10th (2012) Richard and Jake politely disagreed on what the reasons are for Japan’s low crime rate and the competence of the Japanese police. These are some highlights of the talk.

What happens in Japan from the moment somebody is arrested?

Richard Lloyd Parry said that for the Japanese police, the prosecutors and the judicial system, the moment of arrest is the climax of the media interest in anyone’s crime. The arrest gets more attention than the filing of charges or even the criminal trial. The reason for that is that, “in Japan, once arrested, it’s all over,” he explained. Most people are arrested and charged. Depending on the type of crime, “about 99% of those are criminally convicted,” he said.

“There are exceptions from time to time. But for most people, when the cuffs go on that’s a guarantee that you are going to go down,” he said.

“And so the attitude of journalists reflects this. The arrest is news, and the story is over. An arrested suspect being charged is not such big news. If a criminal suspect being convicted at the end of the trial, is acquitted like Mr. Ichiro Ozawa recently, it is news.” But conviction is generally what one would expect. This is reflected in the way that the public and lawyers regard defendants in Japan, Richard Parry said, “for practical reasons one is not innocent until proven guilty.”

“When an individual is arrested, he/she is no more referred to as the conventional -san but -yogisha, meaning criminal suspect.”

Richard Lloyd Parry said that the Japanese would admit that there is a high conviction rate, “but they would argue that the reason for this is because they (the prosecutors) only charge people who are guilty.” “Guilt or innocence is something that is established not publicly in court rooms, but behind closed doors, in secret, by the police and the prosecutors.”

How is the law enforced? 

From the three major crime cases Parry has covered, including the murder of Lucy Blackman (21, when she was allegedly murdered by a Japanese national, Joji Obara), “none of them reflect well on the Japanese justice system, and particularly on the Japanese police. As a façade, the Japanese police are uniquely successful.” But he said that there is a lot of anxiety among Japanese people about crime, “and maybe crime is under-reported.”

Parry said that indeed, drug dealing, burglary are offences that are “between 4 and 8 times lower in Japan than they are in the West.” Violent crime is also rare, “the Japanese police take credit for it, they believe that because Japan has the world’s lowest crime rate, they are the world’s greatest crime fighters,” he said, joking.

The true reason for Japan’s low crime rate, according to Mr. Parry, is not thanks to the law enforcement agencies but thanks to the Japanese people who are respectful of one another and non-violent, “not because of, but despite the frequently disgraceful performance of the Japanese police,” he explained.

“Individually, the Japanese detectives are charming, dedicated, hard working, sincere and very decent, however as an institution, the Japanese police are arrogant and frequently incompetent,” Mr. Parry asserts.

The Japanese police are very good at “community policing”, at the local level. Helping confused old ladies, and giving the reassuring impression that everything is under control. But looking at ordinary crime, they are “lamentably ill equipped, unimaginative, prejudiced, bound by procedure, and they have never been tested by serious case of international terrorism.”

According to Richard Lloyd Parry, one of the weaknesses the Japanese police are criticized for is that when Lucy Blackman vanished, they did not take it seriously, because of the work she was doing. She was a bar hostess in Roppongi,which the Japanese police consider a shady occupation. They failed to protect a citizen against crime, because of their prejudices. Estimated hundreds of victims raped by Jioji Obara did not report it to the police, according to Richard Lloyd Parry. “For the police, a woman who is doing that kind of job and is sexually assaulted, she should not be surprised.” In the book, Richard does note that there were several complaints about Obara before Lucie vanished, and the manslaughter of Carita Ridgway should have sent off the alarm bells in the 90s.

The Japanese police press club system does not allow foreign newspaper reporters to attend the press conferences at a rule and they are kept out of the information loop. This made it extremely difficult for the non-Japanese reporters to understand how the investigation was unfolding.

Authors Jake Adelstein and Richard Lloyd Parry in Tokyo. Richard is standing on a keg of beer to appear taller. Not really.

Jake Adelstein, who was a reporter for Japan’s largest newspaper during the Lucie Blackman case and who wrote a chapter on it in Tokyo Vice, also participated to the same breakfast gathering, and spoke about crime and the Japanese mafia. Jake was a member of the Japanese Police Press Club, when he was a crime reporter at Japan’s largest newspaper organization, the Yomiuri Shinbun.

Jake compared Japan’s declaration of war on the yakuza in 1964, to the US’ “war on terrorism”–long and not very effectual.  He said that the latest statistics on the number of yakuza, or anti-social forces, is 80,000 yakuza overall in Japan. Of them the Yamaguchi-gumi, with 39,000 members is the largest, then the Sumiyoshi-kai, which has its offices in Ginza, with 12,000 members. The Inagawa-kai, which has its office right opposite from the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Roppongi, with 10,000 members.

 Jake explained the audience that, the organized crime syndicates are “licensed,” in a sense. The public safety commission has set criteria to determine whether a group is a “designated organized crime group,” and once the status is achieved, the group is subject to stricter regulations than a non-designated organized crime group, such as the Towa-kai or the Kanto-rengo, who represent the “modern yakuza”, he said.

In the Japanese society, you have the front companies, the yakuza themselves, the police, the politicians and the foreign mafia whom they work with, he explained.

“The power base of the yakuza is strongly political,” he said, “the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) was selected by the Yamaguchi-gumi to be their official supporting party in 2007. The Inagawa-kai joined later on. When the ruling coalition of the DPJ sided with New People’s Party, one of the first thing they did was to appoint Mr. Kamei Shizuka to be the Minister of Financial Services.” Kamei is famous amongst the police forces for being a former national police agency bureaucrat with shady connections.  Adelstein noted, “Mr. Kamei also is on the record in the National Diet for receiving the equivalent of 5 million dollars  paid in his account from a Yamaguchi-gumi boss, which he claimed it was on behalf of his constituents. He has a history of associating with the Yamaguchi-gumi bosses throughout his career and receiving political donations from them.” And when the current ruling party  put him in charge of Japan’s Financial Services, it did not generate great confidence in Japan’s initiatives to make its financial market “clean.”

“Seiji Maehara, who was once Japan’s Foreign Minister, Japan’s face to the West, is currently looked at by the prosecutor’s office, because he received several payments from Jun Shinohara, who was a advisor to the Yamaguchi-gumi Goto-gumi,” Jake explained.

“Recently, one of the supporters of current Prime Minister Noda, and other big political donors, got arrested for helping yakuza to falsify their parking records.” He explained.

These are the people who are ruling Japan. They are tied to those they are supposed to be driving out of Japan’s financial industry.

Another thing where the yakuza are involved in is the credit card fraud. “There were several cases in the past when they forged false American Express cards, when someone went to a sex shop and used their American Express cards, paid for their bill, the information was stolen and stored and counterfeited.” He explained.

There are 22 recognized organized crime groups, they all have their own emblems and their headquarters are all listed on the National Police Agency’s homepage. They are not hidden.

Jake said that Japan has a fascination for yakuza. The yakuza portray themselves as noble outlaws, basically enforcing street justice. And if you asked a yakuza, they would say that one of the reasons for the crime rate is so low in Japan is because they keep the streets “clean.” They would say they are “the second police force.”

The yakuza have an internal code of conduct. They can be expelled from their group is they sell drugs. “They are selling drugs all the time, but if they get caught committing theft, petty theft, robbery, sexual crimes, they are expelled. “In this sense they are keeping people’s general sense of peace,” he explained.

In 2008, the yakuza had at least 950 front companies inside of Japan, many in the field of real estate, urban corporation, finance, private companies doing temporary staffing, goodwill groups, investment firms.

“The traditional Japanese yakuza have changed a lot, especially after 2007, a moment in history when they went so bad that the National Police Agency’s annual report on crime said that ‘the Japanese mafia had made such incursion in the Japanese financial market that they have threatened the very basic of Japan’s economy.’ They invest in the stock market, they buy real estate, establish their own investment funds,” Jake explained.

Jake added that, in a book written from the side of the detectives, in the Lucy Blackman case, “in general, the polices attitude towards sexual crime, stalking, have been very bad.” He says that “Japan has a very misogynistic society. For sexual assault, women’s stalking, the police until now, and even currently are very bad at listening to the complaints of the women.” He notes, “As more women are joining the police force, maybe this will improve,” he added, “at least the NPA has the goal to by 2030 have at least 10% of the detectives being women.”

The Chinese mafia moving into Japan is a myth perpetrated by the yakuza and the police. Adelstein said that saying that is a convenient escape goat for everyone, the yakuza could say: “If you think we are bad, wait until the Chinese come.” That’s why the yakuza fanzines have a section on “foreign crime,” and the tone is to say that: “if it was for us, you would be dealing with those ‘evil foreigners’.” So the Chinese mafia has no real presence in Japan. They are convenient when someone needs to be killed. The yakuza can bring them inside Japan, and then be sent back to China.

Richard Lloyd Parry believes that “corruption is institutional in Japan,” meaning that the vast sums of money comes to the police from the Treasury. “I think that is a form of corruption. I am very skeptical of the figures, released by the police. My assumption is by large that they are the least conservative estimates of crime level.” The crime is pumped up where possible to create the sense that this is a terribly dangerous crime lead society in which you need a police with lots of large and new equipment and funding to protect us.

According to Jake Adelstein, the Japanese police, as far as the Tokyo Metropolitan Police go, are not corrupt.

He said that what is surprising in Japan is that there is no background checks to work in a nuclear power plant. It is very well documented that many yakuza have been in and out of nuclear power plants over the past years.

“Japan has no real sense of security, in another country, you wouldn’t want criminals to be working in a nuclear facility handing dangerous materials. But in Japan, the authorities are still debating whether having a background check on the nuclear power plant workers. And even if they have a background check, and the workers turn out to be yakuza or criminals, that doesn’t mean they will be banned from working there.”

Jake Adelstein’s detailed review of Richard Parry’s book was published in The Literary Review.  It also explains his take on the Japanese police investigation and his own obsession with the Lucie Blackman case.