North Korea Turns 63, Party Guests Seem Kinda Angry

63 years ago today, everyone’s favorite totalitarian regime (and land of our Dear Leader!), was founded.

To mark the anniversary, NGOs committed to humanitarian concerns in North Korea have joined forces, launching The International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea (ICNK) at a press conference yesterday at the Foreign Correspondents Club. The press conference was followed by a protest held in front of the de-facto North Korean embassy in Tokyo (Chosen-Soren), where the coalition demanded that every one of the more than 200,000 prisoners held in political camps be released. (*Japan and the US both consider North Korea a threat to national security. The recent executive order by President Obama targeting the yakuza was intended to be an indirect blow to North Korea by cutting off their funding. See notes at end of article)

Demonstrators outside the de-facto North Korean embassy
Demonstrators outside the de-facto North Korean embassy in Tokyo, the Chosen-Soren

ICNK unites 40 groups committed to stopping human rights abuses in North Korea, marking a first in the humanitarian efforts to hold North Korea accountable; up until now, NGOs committed to this cause were working more or less separately. The organization brings what was once a mostly regional effort to a global scale, by linking organizations across the continents. It is hoped that these groups, banded together, can generate exponential strength as a unified front.

According to a former UN special rapporteur on North Korean human rights, crimes against humanity in the regime are “in its own category”. Vitit Muntarbhorn, who worked for 6 years in the post, estimates that the camps hold 200,000 to 300,000 prisoners, who are subject to systematic torture, near starvation, and systematic rape of female prisoners. Those outside the camps, depending on the depth of their allegiance to dictator Kim Jong-Il, fare only marginally better in the “state of fear”; Muntarbhorn’s 2009 investigation discovered that 40% of North Koreans are starving. Public executions are believed to have increased four or five fold in the past ten years. The full investigation can be read here.

The past 15 years have been dedicated to promoting awareness of these issues. However, Human Rights Watch Asia Director Phil Robertson stresses that the ICNK “is going to be an action coalition”.  Coalition members laid out their strategy at the press conference.

The coalition’s foremost concern is lobbying for a UN “commission of inquiry” of North Korea. Rather than having a single rapporteur monitoring the situation from afar, such a commission would lend “a group of leading experts and jurists, from around the world, selected and mandated by the UN” the authority to demand entry into the country for an investigation.  Members stressed that they are lobbying strongly for an independent and impartial investigation.

The press was skeptical. Given the relative economic and political isolation of the country, how can we force North Korea to change, much less to cooperate in an investigation? Indeed, North Korea has never allowed the UN special rapporteur into the country.

Coalition members were realistic about the likelihood they will be granted access in North Korea to carry out an investigation. However, they were seemed confident they could nevertheless affect change. The President of Seoul-based Open North Korea, Tae Keung Ha, points out that international pressure in the past has indeed led to changes in the regime. After the issue of prisoner camps was made known, the number of camps decreased from ten to six.  As another concrete example, 20 years ago, Amnesty International tried to visit one prison; though they were not allowed in,  the camp was abolished immediately after their attempted visit.

Dove-shaped balloons are released with the the names of over 600 friends and family members who are known to be detained in North Korean penal institutions

Ha’s comment that “Kim Jong-Il considers himself as an international leader” received laughs of surprise from the press. “He makes a lot of his image in the international community. So, the more that we talk about it, the more international pressure, the more they will respond.”

Mr. Robertson acknowledges the obstacles; “It is a failure of political will”. He mentions the usual excuses given by bureaucrats-  Kim Jong-Il’s shaky grip on reality, his nuclear capacity, the fear of another attack across the DMZ (the demilitarized zone), even attacks carried out by the North Korean government against its own people. Nevertheless, council members believe that “the machinery of the UN would have the capacity to make a wide range of recommendations on how to end impunity in North Korea”.

According to Benedict Rogers of Christian Solidarity Worldwide (which has also done its own investigation into North Korean human rights violations), there are four ways of securing a commission of inquiry: through the security council, the human rights council, the general assembly, and the secretary general. He adds, “We are not specifying categorically which we will use, but we believe it will likely succeed in the human rights council or the general assembly, where China and Russia do not have veto power.” He also acknowledges that China and Russia will “still remain major players”, but that there may be ways to soften any opposition they bring. It also seems that there may not be as much individual support for the regime within the countries that publicly offer it support; according to a council member, one Russian diplomat privately described North Korea as “the neighbor from hell”.

The annual UN Human Rights Resolution is passed in either November or December; it is in this resolution that the drafting countries (including Japan, South Korea, the EU, Canada) will hopefully include a call for the commission to be created. The Japanese government plays a very critical role here – it authors the initial draft of this resolution.

Upon completion, the press conference moved to the Chosen-Soren, where protestors outside the embassy held signs in English, Korean, and Japanese, and led chants in all three languages. A letter to Kim Jong-Il, asking for entrance into the country to conduct the investigation, was successfully handed over to an official inside the embassy.

Ms. Kim Hye Sook, center, spent 28 years in a political prison.

Ms. Kim Hye Sook, survivor of a political camp, attended to show support for the coalition. Having been detained from the time she was 13 years old, it was only when she was released 28 years later that she was informed of her crime: her grandfather had escaped to South Korea, and she was considered guilty by association.  The BBC has done an excellent interview with Ms. Sook. When I spoke with her, however, she wanted readers of the blog to know that North Koreans are fed propaganda about the Japanese people – and that it was only upon coming to Tokyo that she understood the lies she had been told. She feels gratitude for the work that Japanese NGOs are doing for this cause.

*Jake’s note: On July 24th, President Barack Obama declared war on the yakuza (ヤクザ)aka The Japanese mafia, in an executive order. According to several sources, part of the reason for doing was that many of the yakuza are North Korean Japanese with affiliations to North Korea. There have been several cases where yakuza members were found to be importing drugs and guns from North Korea. Yakuza groups continue to provide them with a source of revenue. In his executive order Obama noted, “(the yakuza) are becoming increasingly sophisticated and dangerous to the United States; they are increasingly entrenched in the operations of foreign governments and the international financial system, thereby weakening democratic institutions, degrading the rule of law, and undermining economic markets.  These organizations facilitate and aggravate violent civil conflicts and increasingly facilitate the activities of other dangerous persons.  I therefore determine that significant transnational criminal organizations constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States, and hereby declare a national emergency to deal with that threat.” The threat the yakuza pose to US National Security is signficantly  related to their dealings with North Korea.

The Hollywood Reporter: Japan's Entertainment World And The Yakuza

An excellent piece on the Japanese entertainment industry and it's strong yakuza ties,
 by journalist colleague, Gavin Blair, writing from Tokyo.

Japanese TV Host’s Resignation Shines Light on Showbiz Mob Ties

The yakuza have strong links to the entertainment biz, but the times may be changing as the government cracks down on gangs.

TOKYO — The sudden retirement of Shinsuke Shimada, one of Japanese TV’s biggest stars, on Aug. 24 after links to a boss in the largest yakuza gang were exposed is bringing attention to the long and deep ties between organized crime and showbiz.

‘Various parts of society have made active efforts to eradicate links with crime syndicates, but the entertainment world is yet to follow suit,” opined an Aug. 30 article in the Daily Yomiuri, the English edition of Japan’s, and the world’s, biggest newspaper by circulation.

Police are now asking for an explanation of the underworld ties from Shimada’s powerful agency, Yoshimoto Kogyo, which has been rapidly expanding overseas in recent years, signing deals from Hollywood to Shanghai.

Shimada hosted no fewer than six weekly TV shows on some of Japan’s biggest networks until it emerged that a weekly magazine was about to run an article detailing his friendship withHirofumi Hashimoto, head of the Kyokushin-Rengo, a gang affiliated to the huge Yamaguchi-gumi.

Shimada’s troubles started 10 years back when, during a variety TV show, he compared the chrysanthemum-shaped symbol of an ultra-nationalist group to a certain nether region body part. With the chrysanthemum also being the symbol of the Japanese imperial family, the extreme right-wingers were not amused. They sent sound trucks blaring out abuse about Shimada — a standard modus operandi of Japanese nationalist groups — to his house, the offices of Yoshimoto Kogyo and the TV station in Osaka. For the rest of the story go to The Hollywood Reporter site here.

UPDATE: The Tokyo Metro Police Department Organized Crime Control Division (警視庁組織犯罪対策部) formally interrogated Yoshimoto Kogyo officials about the background of Shinsuke’s connections to the yakuza and the company’s compliance issues on August 31st and are continuing to meet with company officials and pursue possible criminal charges against Shinsuke Shimada, related to his business dealings with the Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s largest organized crime group.

For more on the story please check out these two pieces I’ve written for the The Atlantic Wire. I’m working on a third.

Ties to the Yakuza Are No Laughing Matter – Global – The Atlantic Wire

The Yakuza’s Favorite TV Host – Global – The Atlantic Wire

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

As a part of broader initiatives to expel organized crime from business, new “yakuza exclusion” provisions by the Japan Tourism Agency (JTA) go into effect today.

The JTA maintains a “Model Accommodation Contract”, which serves as a widely-accepted set of guidelines recommended for hotels, ryokans, and other lodging facilities.

The agency explains on its website: “As anti-social forces threaten the physical and financial safety of tourists and the hotels themselves, we have enacted new provisions to our existing laws.”

Along with informative stipulations such as “guests may be turned away if there is no vacancy” and “guests may be turned away if equipment breakdowns occur due to a natural disaster”, a new clause states that if a guest is discovered to be an organized crime member, their hotel reservation may be cancelled or they can be turned away. Additionally, they can also be kicked out. Guests may also be asked to leave they act in a violent manner or if they make “considerable trouble” at the hotel.

According to an article in the Asahi Shinbun, the National Police Agency had called for such measures to be taken since 2006. Police hope that such a measure, finally in place, will spread through the rest of the country. Arima Hot Springs Tourism Association, for example, had already implemented such measures. This association of hotels is located in Kobe, which is also the home of the Yamagumi-guchi.

Sado-san of the Japan Tourism Agency, who is coy about his first name, stated that there was no reason in particular that the Agency has decided to implement these provision now; he refers to the ongoing dialogue concerning such provisions that the agency has had with the police over the past few years. Kind of a, “just getting around to it” sort of thing, it seems.

The below excerpts of the contract are taken from the English version online.

Article 5 – Refusal of the Conclusion of the Accommodation Contract
05.01. The following are cases where our Hotel (Ryokan) will not accept the conclusion of the Accommodation Contract:

(4) When the Guest seeking accommodation is considered to be corresponding to the following (a) to (c).
(a) The law in respect to prevention, etc. against illegal actions by gang members (1991 Law item 77)
stipulated article 2 item 2 (hereinafter referred to as “gang group”.), gang member stipulated by the
same law article 2 item 6 (hereinafter referred to as “gang member.”), gang group semi-regular
members or gang member related persons and other antisocial forces.
(b) When gang group or gang members are associates of corporations or other bodies to control
business activities.
(c) When a corporate body has related persons to gang members.

Article 7 – The Right of Our Hotel (Ryokan) to Cancel the Contract
07.01. The following are cases where our Hotel (Ryokan) may cancel the Accommodation Contract:

(2) When the Guest is clearly considered to be corresponding to the following (a) to (c).
(a) Gang group, gang group semi-regular members or gang member related persons and other
antisocial forces.
(b) When a corporate body or other organization where gang groups or gang members control business
activities.
(c) In a corporate body which has persons relevant to gang member in its board member.

Japan Tourism Agency has given the finger to the nine-digit crowd aka the yakuza.

Jake’s notes: Most major hotels in Japan since 2009 have embedded an anti-organized crime exclusionary  clause into the overnight stay contracts guests sign when checking in. A yakuza member who signs in as a hotel guest and conceals his/her yakuza affiliation can then be arrested for fraud, if the hotel agreement has that clause. The anti-organized crime clause was the brain-child of deceased lawyer, and former prosecutor Igari Toshiro. This contractual clause was used this year to arrest the second highest ranking member of the Yamaguchi-gumi Kodo-kai for “playing golf under false pretenses.”  Yakuza are great fans of expensive luxury hotels but as illustrated in Itama Juzo’s classic film 民暴の女(Minbo no Onna/The Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion)–they often cost the hotel more in business and in financial losses than what they pay for their top-of-the-line rooms.

Shimada Shinsuke, the Jay Leno of Japan retires after yakuza ties exposed.

In Japan it has been front-page news for the past three days that Japan’s most ubiquitous and popular television comic and host, Shinsuke Shimada, is retiring from the entertainment industry after admitting to extensive ties to the yakuza, Japan’s organized crime. Before his announcement, Shimada hosted six different programs, aired in Osaka and Tokyo. The scandal would be the equivalent of Jay Leno or Regis Philbin confessing to being in cahoots with Mexican kingpins. His abrupt departure has forced TV stations to cancel or adapt programs on which Shimada featured regularly as a host. But much more than: it has brought to public attention the yakuza domination of the entertainment industry. The Japanese character in the headlines, the one in the circle (暴) is shorthand for 暴力団 (boryokudan) meaning “violent group,” police lingo for organized crime. Bo (暴)itself means violence. On police documents regarding organized crime, that character stamped in a circle is read as マルボウ(marubou) and is shorthand for yakuza.

The news of Shimada Shinsuke, popular television celebrity, falling from grace due to his yakuza ties was front page news in Japan.

For the rest of the story please check out “Ties to the Yakuza Are No Laughing Matter” on the Atlantic Wire.

Japanese TV Star Shimada Shinsuke retires before yakuza ties exposed

(Note: This article was originally written before the 10 pm press conference on the 24th. There is an update here on The Atlantic Wire. )

Shimada Shinsuke (島田紳助) one of Japan’s more prominent television personalities is scheduled to announce his retirement from the industry or at least his talent agency, Yoshimoto Kogyo (吉本興業) at a press conference at 10pm today. Allegedly, the reasons behind his retirement are  that his close ties to a member of the Yamaguchi-gumi Kyokushinrengo (山口組極心連合)might be exposed in a weekly magazine.

According to police sources, for several years Shimada Shinsuke was close to Goto Tadamasa, the former head of the Yamaguchi-gumi Goto-gumi, until Goto was forced to retire on October 14th, 2008. It was from that time that Shimada allegedly became close to a senior member of the Yamaguchi-gumi Kyokushinrengo. Several months ago, Shimada apparently made the mistake of making deragatory remarks about Mr. Goto, which did not sit well with the former crime boss. Shimada even allegedly did the unthinkable, referring to Mr. Goto without any honorifics at all, an act in Japanese society which is called 呼び捨て (yobisute). This so offended Mr. Goto that he leaked information to the press about Shimada’s friendly relations with organized crime.

In Goto Tadamasa’s best-selling autobiography, 憚りながら (Habakarinagara) Goto refers to Shimada as a hypocritical little チンピラ(chinpira) which is yakuza slang for the lowest level of yakuza. The publisher of Goto’s book, Takarajima, in a book released this March (平成タブー大全)in a chapter written by yakuza expert Mizoguchi Atsushi, discusses in details Shimada’s close relationship to the Kyokushinrengo leader, Hashimoto Hirofumi.

Shimada has been in trouble before, for a case of assault, in 2004, in which he dragged a 40 year old female employee into his dressing room by pulling on her hair, and then slapped her repeatedly. She had failed to show him the proper respect, he felt. It was certainly thuggish behavior and he was fined for the assault.

The talent agency he belongs to Yoshimoto Kogyo, has been rumored to have yakuza ties for years. The company was listed on the stock market for a short time but then later withdrew as a listed company on their own, or after considerable pressure from the police.

It remains to be seen what will be the official reasons announced for his retirement.

UPDATE: Shimada’s relationship to the yakuza boss in question allegedly included cash gifts to the boss for “looking after me.”  The police are taking an interest in the reasons behind the alleged donations. Police sources have said they now consider Shimada to be a yakuza associate or in police lingo, 準構成員 (junkoseiin).

The New Sex-Ed: Yakuza Awareness Classes

This August, Police in Fukuoka have started conducting organized crime education and awareness classes at middle and high schools in the prefecture. Prefectural police report that the current cultural tolerance of the yakuza often results in admiration of them by misinformed youth; indeed, many yakuza first participated in gang activities in their formative early teens. The police have therefore created this program to educate middle and high school students about the realities of yakuza life.

The curriculum includes ways of dealing with yakuza confrontations (for example, what to do when approached in the workplace by a yakuza demanding to be payed off), a run-down of how the yakuza make money (through drug smuggling, loan sharking and other illegal activities) and general advice on how not to get entangled in a gang.

Of the 69,000 students who had taken the class before June of this year, 24,000 were asked to participate in a survey. According to the results, 40% had some yakuza presence in their lives. 2% had reported they were even invited to join a gang. 97% of students reported that the classes were easy to understand, and that “they now understood the truth about the yakuza.”

In the space allocated for comments, some reported that there were shootings near their house, and that they were afraid of being hit by a stray bullet.

Seven teachers have a special license to teach the class. They plan to visit 545 public and private schools at least once by March of next year.

Jake’s note

In terms of eradicating the yakuza from general society, Fukuoka Prefecture is highly progressive. In March of 2010, convenience stores in Fukuoka prefecture, at the request of the police, stopped selling and handling yakuza fan magazines.

It’s probably the beginning of the end for the fanzines. Without their use as recruitment tools and propaganda for organized crime, the Japanese public’s attitudes towards them may begin to change as well. On several fronts Fukuoka is thinking ahead to create a society without yakuza, or at least one where it is difficult for them to recruit young blood.

In addition to the anti-yakuza curriculum they have created, the Fukuoka Prefectural Police Department, working in conjunction with the Centers to Eliminate Organized Crime, produced a realistic depiction of yakuza life in their educational film 許されざる者 (“The Unforgivable”). The film is a surprisingly accurate portrayal of yakuza life, the merits and demerits of the life.

In this scene, an errant yakuza is beaten to a pulp, while the text explains that modern laws forbid yakuza to force members who want to quit to chop off their pinkies and or/ interfere with the resignation.

Yakuza cops play all the yakuza in the film, which gives the film a surprising amount of intensity. In many ways, its one of the best yakuza films in recent years.

The police will rent it to anyone who’d like to see it.

Taro Kono: A new leader for a new LDP?

Taro Kono, 2010, illustration by @marikurisato 

“I’m really getting sick and tired of talking pessimistic about the future of Japan. Two years ago, I said, let me run the LDP, I can probably run it better than anyone else.”

With that, Liberal Democrat Party (LDP) member Taro Kono simultaneously opened the press conference and announced his intention to seek the presidency of his party. Kono, who was first elected in 1996 and currently serves in the Lower House, won the 2nd largest number of votes for the presidency last year. He lost to former Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki, an old-school politician with no charisma but plenty of factional support.

Is it possible that Japan’s former ruling political party, the LDP, which ran the country for five decades and introduced nuclear power, could also be the same party to lead Japan out of the nuclear mire? Many people would argue this is unlikely. It was the LDP which created the nexus of bureaucrats, corrupt politicians, dysfunctional oversight agencies, and the monopolistic electrical power companies known as Japan’s “nuclear mafia”. It’s hard to conceive they could also be the one to break up the system and put Japan back on track; most people are justly dubious.  However, there is rising popular support for Mr. Kono both within his own party and the Japanese public. He has become a political celebrity, often interviewed in magazines and on television.

Kono speaks English fluently, a rarity among Japanese politicians. He attended university in the States and went on to work for two southern politicians in the 1980s. His confident, even aggressive style is also unusual among his peers. On the currently ruling DPJ, he comments, “Really,  they are just taking orders from the bureaucrats. They don’t know what the hell is going on”. And about the quarter of his party that threatens to leave if he wins the presidency? “That’s OK, we don’t need them. We can ask better members of the other parties to join us.” For an LDP politician, that voice of inclusion and sanity is widely different from the usual tribal politics that dominate the organization.

Among the things he is pushing: deregulation, pension reform (he rants: “2004 reform was a big failure. No one is talking about that right now. Where did it go? I am the only one talking about this.”), and of course, like all radical politicians, the eventual phasing out of Japan’s nuclear power program.

This, and his relative youth, distinguish him considerably from the old LDP guard. In a US cable dated October 27th, 2008 (courtesy of Wikileaks) Ambassador J. Thomas Schieffer reports: “During this meeting, (Kono) voiced his strong opposition to the nuclear industry in Japan, especially nuclear fuel reprocessing, based on issues of cost, safety, and security. Kono claimed Japanese electric companies are hiding the costs and safety problems associated with nuclear energy, while successfully selling the idea of reprocessing to the Japanese public as ‘recycling uranium.’…He also accused METI of covering up nuclear accidents, and obscuring the true costs and problems associated with the nuclear industry.”

Kono envisions the phase-out concretely; he hopes to have all nuclear plants decommissioned by 2050, replaced by renewable energy and then, if necessary, supplemented by natural gas. Acknowledging that overnight abandonment of the nuclear plants isn’t realistic, his plan includes allowing the use of nuclear-generated energy until renewables can take over; this has a time limit, as he also opposes building more reactors. But first: fire the upper management of TEPCO, do tests on both the hardware and the software, and after that discuss which plants are safe to operate.

One of the main concerns Kono has about nuclear energy in Japan is the ever-increasing amount of spent fuel that is piling up without a place to store it, or a working strategy to discover one. Though the government claims it will find a place to dump the nuclear waste by 2028, the testing required to meet that deadline hasn’t taken place and thus is probably 10 years behind schedule. However, the government still hasn’t admitted to this, and of course more and more waste is produced every day. He likens this faith, blinded by the shiny shiny yen, in an abruptly sobering way: to the Japanese army of WWII.  “Anything is possible if you have mind to do it… but at the end of the day you just lose everything.”

His outspokenness on this issue and others have made him many enemies. As the only member of his party who has questioned the safety of nuclear power, he reports that he is often asked “Are you a  Communist?”  Some have even publicly called for him to join the socialist party (he jokes that he isn’t sure if this is an upgrade or a downgrade from “Communism”).

Pointing out that the DPJ is owned by the power company labor unions (while the LDP is essentially owned by the companies themselves), Kono doesn’t convey optimism about the current system’s ability to objectively handle this crisis. He also warns that though the media has stepped up its reporting on energy companies since the accident, they are also held back by the possibility of losing lucrative advertising from the power companies. “Probably every single media in Japan is bought and paid for by power companies. When I go to TV stations in Tokyo, they say, well they understand that TEPCO will probably not be buying much more advertising time. But local TV stations still get many offers from electric companies. So if the major TV stations criticize power companies, the local ones won’t receive that advertising. So they have to be a little calm right now”.

Kono also laments a missed opportunity for the LDP to reform. When the DPJ took power for the first time in 40 years, the senior LDP leaders realized that their party needed to change. “I thought DPJ would rule the country for 10 years and that they will do the reforms that LDP couldn’t have done. So for LDP it would be a dark 10 years–though we could use those years to get rid of the old people and bring in a young generation.” But now, Kono believes, due to the unexpected failure of the DPJ, the sentiment among those LDP have changed; by the weakness of their competition, the LDP has been lured into complacency, “and the moment to change the party disappeared”.

Still, he observes, “If you go talk to people on the street, they hate the DPJ. But they don’t feel the LDP has changed a bit.” Despite irritation with one party, distrust of the other remains; just one of many discouraging parallels to the current political U.S. system, one of the republics after which the Japanese one was modeled.

On how his party has treated him since the disaster: “Now, a lot of senior LDP members look at me and say, you are right. There was an accident. But I was never talking about an accident, just about the danger of the spent fuel.”

He jokingly suggests that this means no one was “actually listening to what [he’s] been saying”; but it is telling that the LDP politicians confused those two subjects. One might speculate that to the bribed politicians who willfully ignore concerns about nuclear safety, subversive types [like Kono] haunt a conscience that was long-ago smothered in the asphyxiating folds of TEPCO’s pocket; perhaps, any suggestion of genuine oversight seems like “the right choice”, and in the mind of these civil servants, Kono’s warnings occupy a space in their brain not specifically about “spent fuel” or “industry-government collusion”, but more broadly labeled “accountability”, “statesmanship”, or maybe “civic duty”.

As the conference came to a close, Kono, maybe unconsciously, provided a thought-provoking reference to his previous WWII analogy:  “If we have a mind to do it, there will be more investment, more research and development, and more people will see the bright future with renewables. There are some scholars who say that renewables are not enough. But people said the same thing about nuclear power plants, that they would be safe. But that wasn’t the case. I don’t really care what they say. We simply have to set the goal and work towards it.”

Going through the motions in The Great Happiness Space

For those looking to get the low-down on what exactly goes on at a host club—that flashy, boozy Japanese phenomenon where Labyrinth’s King Jareth-meets-salaryman ‘hosts’ entertain J-women for cash—the 2006 documentary The Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osaka Love Thief is the place to start. We posted a review of the film last year, and now JSRC  have hooked up with director Jake Clennell to get the story behind what it was like to document the nightly escapades of those who play in the realm.

Illustration by Mari Kurisato (www.marikurisato.com)

Interview by Jean Ren and Jake Adelstein

JSRC: Even someone with little knowledge of Japanese culture who has never heard of host clubs before can watch this film and pick out several universal elements from it. The girls use the hosts as sources of entertainment, comfort, pleasure, and scapegoats with no reservations. It doesn’t seem like a far stretch from situations everyone finds themselves in at one point or another in real-life relationships. Do you think that this makes the film’s subjects and their experiences more relatable to a diverse demographic?

Jake Clannel: People like to extrapolate stuff about relationships from [the film], but people already make a lot of deep films about relationships. I think there’s a lot to be said about the deeper emotional implications of what people truly think or feel about those relationships. So I don’t think the film stands out because of that. The film stands out (to me) because it’s kind of a joke on the audience in a way. Everybody in that film knows what the film is about, and everybody that’s in a host club knows what it is—so when it comes time to comment on “What is your experience in a host club like?” everybody already knows the rap. There’s a sort of set of clichés that goes along with that environment. It’s like you walk into a strip club as a man in America—you know it’s a strip club—you become temporarily absorbed in the entertainment of it, which is what you’re paying for, right? And when you watch a television show the reason you sit through commercials is because you want to watch the next episode of Cheers or whatever.

I see what you’re saying. Everybody should know what the deal is.

Exactly, everybody SHOULD know what the deal is. But what you’re paying for is to not know what the deal is. You’re paying to be temporarily relieved of that faculty. I think that we’re talking about (one of?) the most extreme case(s) here. I think that for most people—for most women its an opportunity for them to go somewhere where they can get drunk, they’re not going to get raped, and they’ll be taken care of by an institution that’s set up to take care of them. It’s focused on giving these women an entertainment experience—so be it an extremely labor intensive one.

A good host is somebody who is actually talented with people, which not everybody is. The same goes for a hostess. A bunch of guys go to a hostess club and suddenly there is a whole bunch of girls being very nice to them and everybody knows what the deal is. That’s not to say that something real can’t come out of it, but you don’t walk into a hostess bar and think that it’s not one—you walk in and it’s quite clear when you get the bill what the situation is. It’s explicit in the process. If I go to a theater and I buy a ticket and somebody does something on the stage, even though for that moment—if that actor is good enough—I’m lost in the illusion, I still know that it’s a staged and scripted show. Which is what you would hope for. That’s actually the best-case scenario.

Many host/hostess clubs are notorious for being exclusive to Japanese only. Was it hard to gain the trust of the Rakkyo employees, and to get permission to do a feature length documentary? What made Issei and the guys at Rakkyo in particular trust you?

I think for Issei it was really more about us being from the outside. So his perspective on it was probably, “Why are these people interested in this? Why would you be interested? What’s your take?” I think those guys are quite famous. They get a lot of press and television exposure. Issei is very famous in his own universe.

Issei admits to sometimes getting so caught up in his host persona that he can’t even tell what his true personality is. Would you say that he, along with the other subjects, were slipping into a role and performing for the camera—acting as they felt hey were expected to—instead of being “real”?

Isn’t that what is implied by the setup? In the sense that if you shoot a great kabuki actor who has spent his life embracing and inhabiting a role, that along with that role comes the actor’s existential dilemma. And that existential dilemma is inherent in the seductive nature of theater.

But did you want them to perform for the camera, or did you want to catch them off guard. Were you aiming to capture the moments where they forgot that the camera was there?

No! no. the camera was right in everybody’s face the whole time. I’m not hiding anything. I was very surprised by the frankness. [For instance] I had no idea what those girls do for a living. I just didn’t know. For me, it came as a surprise.

So you don’t think the fact that some of the participants were blatantly lying to the camera and using their interview as a means to personal gain detracts from the objective merit of the film?

[Those guys] weren’t strangers to publicity and I think from all the host media that’s out there everyone is quite familiar with the role that is inherent in the film— that it is in some way roguish. That’s what it is to be a host, right? You are famous for being extremely charming and attractive to women and not for being anything else—there is no other component. In the first half of the film they are giving the party line: we are providing entertainment for these women, we’re making them happy. At some point every host documentary draws the same conclusions. That to me is what is interesting. If a viewer gets caught up in the plot or the idea that the contradictions presented in the film are real, then that person has missed the point. The film is designed in a way to make people get caught up the contradictions, and then reexamine their biases. Ultimately, if they digest the film for long enough, they’ arrive at a different conclusion.

So you’re saying that everyone involved—even the girl, Saori, who most dramatically proclaimed her love and devotion to Issei– was playing along with the illusion?

Yeah she’s just playing. Totally playing! Host clubs have their own media, websites, videos, ads. Everybody knows the game. When you go to a host club you are engaged in an Andy Warhol-esque 15 minutes of fame, which you are taking part in, in a very very modern world. I go to Disneyland to get my photo taken with Mickey—I am in the Disney fantasy/reality. If I’m a middle management guy in a golf magazine, I’m engaged in that set of imitations within the time and media landscape. So when you go into a host club, there are performances/photographs/menus—it’s simply inherent in the illusion is the media. In order to be a host you have to be backed up by a certain amount of media. You have to be number 1 or your photo has to be there—your reputation is validated only if you appear in some form of media somewhere—this is particularly true in Japanese culture. Why is one host more famous than another? Only because of the media that surrounds them whether its self created, microcosmic or not.

How do the guys get started it the host club business anyway? Do they rack up debts at hostess clubs and soaplands? Do they lack an education for more stable employment opportunities? Or are they drawn to hosting because it sounded cool? What’s the motivation here?

One thing that I found out, through another film that was made on the same group of guys, was that actually a lot of these guys don’t necessarily come from money. The reason they need to make a lot of it is often to support somebody in their family that needs it. And that’s not what my film’s about though. My film is not about the reality of these people’s lives, it’s about the role-playing they are involved in within this tiny realm.

And this space is the so-called Great Happiness Space?

Yes, it’s an artificial universe. Like I said the reality of people’s lives is that you don’t get the backstories.

One guy in particular was really helping out his disabled mother, and another was sending the money home. That’s actually what they were doing. That’s the tragic truth. And as I’ve said in the past there is a sort of sense in it that… (pause) that it forces you to examine capitalist priorities in a way that you might not be able to look at your own life. It’s quite easy for you to look at someone else’s life, someone who is involved in something that pushes your buttons morally, so you immediately you create a sense of otherness because your moral line has been crossed. But really, aren’t we all involved in that? How many of us could not say we don’t do things that we’d rather not do for money?

It’s a system that we all know and love. You work, the things you buy in shops my not necessarily be benefitting some child that sewed it together in China or something. But it’s difficult to observe the own contradictions in your own capitalistic systems and work out a way to take action from it whereas in the film— in the film it is very easy from the POV of somebody who is outraged or confused to draw moral conclusions about these people. Which I think is naïve. And I say that because of an absolute unequivocal level of respect, truly, for the fact that these people are involved in such an intricate celebration of something.

So the guys have financial and familial obligations that they need to tend to that require crossing a few moral lines—fine. On the job though, you get a feeling that most guys are certainly taking advantage of some of the girls. How is the viewer to reconcile what seems like a display of moral depravity?

I think anyone would tell you that there’s a real difference between fucking for money and kyabakura. That’s not to say that people aren’t human and people haven’t married their hostess or something. But I think that’s separate, that’s something else, that’s something that goes on, that’s the real world. But a host club is not the real world—it’s a theater, and I don’t think that young drunk men and women don’t occasionally do what young drunk men and women do—(laughs)

They do! Right? So I think that that’s okay, but I don’t think that that’s really interesting. It’s just an inevitable part of what it is to be human.

But this kind of system operates on the open acceptance of the notion that in addition to sexual and physical services, abstract feelings like love, happiness, the intricacies of a relationship (even if they are just illusions) are products that one can buy as well. For people, particularly Westerners, who are accustomed to putting love and affection on a pedestal, this idea might be unsettling.

Because I’m a Westerner and I really don’t know much about Japanese society—I can’t tell one person apart from another on the street in terms of social class or lifestyle—I can’t claim to have had enough foresight in the field to understand how delicate and interesting it was as a piece of psychological projection. I didn’t quite get that at the time, but intuitively I felt that this was not about morality or relationships, this is about a story that people are telling again and again. It’s set up and you go through a set of stages again and again, and that’s what it is.

Were any of your personal morals challenged in this situation?

Oh, fuck me. What kind of line is that?! That’s bullshit—does anyone over the age of 16 actually take that seriously? That’s the drama that everybody knows! It’s a prerequisite for this dilemma to be possible. But if I suspend my belief for just a moment and think a pretty young girl is actually interested, then I’m getting my money’s worth. If I don’t suspend my disbelief, I’ll go back to my ex-wife. (laughs)

Do you keep in touch with Issei and the others?

No I’ve been working in the theater for a long time, and I’m currently making a film about breastfeeding. I just finished a film abut Alaska. I spent the last 6 months of my life in the slums of Bombay. One of the beautiful things about my job, which is primarily documentation, is just moving from one amazing situation to another. I don’t think it’s [my relationship with these people after the filming]…I mean it’s irrelevant. I don’t know about their lives, I don’t know those people you know? I mean, I respect them immensely and I’m extremely grateful that I was allowed to take part in [the experience]—it gave me a lot of food for thought about what it is to address a situation that might be a bit bleak. And have created out of it something that is so mysteriously entertaining.

There’s a scene in the movie that shows a “champagne call” which is basically an activity in which the hosts are made to drink up to 10 bottles of champagne in a night in order to cater to the competitive nature of their jealous female customers. I think for many viewers, this is the point where one realizes that these guys really are hard workers.

Yeah! Nobody works harder than those guys!! No one does. They just don’t know how hard they work because they’re young. They might know, but you’re indestructible until you’re like what, 27?

So in some senses this film is really about a form of dinner theatre where everyone, the actors and the audience are playing their assigned role?

You got it! You scored—you understood it. But yes, to me that’s interesting. Some people might not think that. It’s kind of a one trick pony. It’s not exactly Shakespeare.

From my standpoint as a director, I hope there’s a point at which you stop being caught up in the battle of the sexes, and you start moving into an area where you begin to look at it as something that might actually be a little bit more charming.

The ones that were working in the sex industry were very upfront about it. But you see, the point is that the film is structured to manipulate the audience’s biases. It’s girls versus boys. If you watch it with your significant other, between the two of you there’s a point where your respective sympathies swing. So I can claim that as authorship. Of course it can only be objective to a certain degree, but my form of objectivity as a filmmaker was to embrace the theater in the business.

The US Declares War On The Yakuza

On July 24th, President Barack Obama declared war on the yakuza (ヤクザ)aka The Japanese mafia, in an executive order which stated that “(the yakuza) are becoming increasingly sophisticated and dangerous to the United States; they are increasingly entrenched in the operations of foreign governments and the international financial system, thereby weakening democratic institutions, degrading the rule of law, and undermining economic markets.  These organizations facilitate and aggravate violent civil conflicts and increasingly facilitate the activities of other dangerous persons.  I therefore determine that significant transnational criminal organizations constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States, and hereby declare a national emergency to deal with that threat.”

In Japan, the yakuza exist as semi-legal entities regulated but not outlawed. They are the subject of comics, games, movies and fanzines. Apparently, President Obama is not a fan.
The typical structure of a yakuza group. Artwork by @marikurisato

The yakuza were one of four international organized crime groups (in federal law enforcement terms “transnational criminal organizations”) singled out by the President in his order. The order is meant to give the United States new tools and methods to break the economic power of transnational organized crime and protect the financial markets. It will assist the US federal government’s efforts to disrupt, destroy and defeat the international organizations that pose a significant threat to U.S. national security, foreign policy or the economy.

As a result of the order, any property in the United States or in the possession or control of U.S. persons in which the yakuza have an interest will be blocked, and U.S. citizens are prohibited from engaging in transactions with the yakuza, or their affiliated companies. The order also authorizes the U.S. Department of the Treasury, in consultation with the Departments of Justice and State, to identify for sanctions any individual or entity determined to have materially assisted, sponsored or provided financial, material or technological support for any person whose property and interests in property are blocked pursuant to the executive order.

In the past, Citibank has been punished by the Japanese Financial Services Agency twice (2004 and 2009) for aiding and abetting money laundering by yakuza members; there was no punishment from the US side. In 2004-2006, Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) seized close to a million dollars worth of assets in the United States owned by Kajiyama Susumu, the so-called emperor of loan sharks, and a Yamaguchi-gumi Goryokai (旧山口組五菱会・元山口組清水一家)member. UCLA from 2000-2003, received close to two million dollars in money from four individuals who were yakuza or associates of the yakuza, in exchange for liver transplants conducted at UCLA hospitals.

It remains to be seen how this executive order will effect yakuza operations within the United States or whether this will also effect US companies in Japan that do business with the yakuza or their “shell-corporations.”

On September 30th, 2009, Ando Takaharu, the head Japan’s National Police Agency declared war on Japan’s largest organized crime group, the Yamaguchi-gumi (40,000 members), and pushed for a dismantling of the main faction of the group, the Kodo-kai (山口組弘道会) (3,000-4,000 members). The nearly two year “war on the yakuza” in Japan has resulted in the arrest of the number one and number two most powerful members of the Kodo-kai and dealt a huge blow to that faction, if not the Yamaguchi-gumi itself.

Reddit Japan has posted this blog entry, if you feel like adding your own comments or insight.

The text of the actual executive order follows. The annex refers to the four international crime groups mentioned above of which the yakuza are included.

EXECUTIVE ORDER

BLOCKING PROPERTY OF TRANSNATIONAL CRIMINAL ORGANIZATIONS

By the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, including the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (50 U.S.C. 1701 et seq.) (IEEPA), the National Emergencies Act (50 U.S.C. 1601 et seq.) (NEA), and section 301 of title 3, United States Code,

I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, find that the activities of significant transnational criminal organizations, such as those listed in the Annex to this order, have reached such scope and gravity that they threaten the stability of international political and economic systems.  Such organizations are becoming increasingly sophisticated and dangerous to the United States; they are increasingly entrenched in the operations of foreign governments and the international financial system, thereby weakening democratic institutions, degrading the rule of law, and undermining economic markets.  These organizations facilitate and aggravate violent civil conflicts and increasingly facilitate the activities of other dangerous persons.  I therefore determine that significant transnational criminal organizations constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States, and hereby declare a national emergency to deal with that threat.

Continue reading The US Declares War On The Yakuza

Whoot! What? Wut! German Fashion finds a home in Tokyo

Japan Subculture Research Center is going through puberty and heading towards adulthood. After a long discussion with the Japan Subculture Research Center team, we’ve decided to expand the blog to cover not just the underworld and subculture of Japan, but to Japanese pop culture, movies, and books. We’re also reworking the layout to bring you a better, more accessible, easier to navigate format.

Joining the JRSC team is Camille Blanchot, a fashion and set designer originally from France, and now our Special Japan Fashion Correspondent. In her first article, Camille interviewed Yann Le Geoc, the founder and manager of one of Tokyo’s most chic and interesting niche stores, Wut Berlin (東京都渋谷区神宮前5-1-15/5-1-15, Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo. Japan). In the interview, Camille is represented by “C” and Yan by “Y.” While this may be readily apparent, we at JSRC feel that you can never over clarify. In other words, we like needless exposition.

Wut Berlin: Bringing German Fashion To Tokyo

C: So, please introduce yourself

Y: I am Yann Le Goec. I am French, 35 years old, and I am a buyer.

Our Man In Japan: Yann Le Goec

C: You have this shop called Wut BERLIN. When did you open your store and how did you found it?

Y: Wut opened in February 2006 in a very little space in Omotesando. Basically the concept was to open a select shop for German designers and the idea came from the president of my company, a Japanese company, HP France.

C: Most Japanese when they think of fashion they think of Italy and France, how did you convince the Japanese fashionistas that German fashion was hip and cool?

Y: That is true, but also sometimes a bit fed up with the same brands so they are always looking for new brands so we have to go to other countries or cities to bring something new to fashion customers.

C: What is it about German fashion that the Japanese like?

Y: There are some German designer which fit the Japanese taste and some who don’t. Especially, German women are very tall, so German designers make clothes for that size of woman.

But some German clothes are in the Japanese taste, not so much into body conscious, not over-sized per se, but not about the sexiness of the clothes, and our best seller is, ANNTIAN, which is a very unisex style of clothes.

Not very masculine, not very feminine.

C: About your shop, please explain the white tile look of the store. And the way the tile cracks in the store. Don’t you worry the Japanese might think the store is failing apart?

This shop wasn't damaged in the quake. The damaged tiling is part of the design.

Y: The name of the shop is woo which means anger, but means southern anger – as you can see, the front of the store is perfectly done but step by step it is crackling and exploding towards the dressing rooms. I don’t think the customer will think the store is falling apart.  I think the customer is seduced by this without understanding the meaning.

C: Has the great tohoku earthquake changed people’s fashion taste?

Y: No, not really. Consumption hasn’t really changed, either. Nothing has been affected except for the first few days after the earthquake, and then everything went back to normal.

C: Who is the most Japanese influenced designer from Berlin?

Y: There aren’t really any German designers who take their influence from Japan. If they do so, I haven’t heard of it.

C: So would you describe your store as Japanese fusion fashion?

Y: I don’t think it’s a fusion, but more German clothes that fit Japanese body.

C: Do you think Japanese people wear German fashion the same way German wears German fashion?

Y: Actually Germans aren’t very fashionable. The brand we sell here they don’t sell at all in Berlin – very few stores, maybe. So German brands are most popular outside of Germany. The brands which are popular in Germany aren’t the brands that would be popular here.

C: How do you market to the Japanese public?

Y: We do a lot of promotions through our website and our blogs – blog is very important to communicate directly with customer. We don’t do a lot of press, as I don’t believe anymore in press power, but we rent a lot of clothes for singers or hair magazines.

C: Do you think magazines are still useful?

Y: It depends on the market, but for stores like ours there almost aren’t any magazines that deal with this kind of fashion. They don’t sell high fashion magazines anymore. But they still sell mass fashion magazines, like kawaii (可愛い)– style magazines, which still surviving.

C: Do you think it is different in Germany?

Y: Yes, press is still very important there.

C: How is your Japanese?

Y: My Japanese is not perfect at all, I don’t think I know the language well. I would say its better to know a little, so you can make sure people know what you are talking about. Actually, there are very few Japanese working in the industry who speak good English.

C: Who is your favorite Japanese designer?

Y: I really like Balmung. He is a very young Japanese designer so not so famous in Japan or Europe.

K: Why do you like Balmung?

Y:  Because he makes very particular shapes, which you don’t find in any other Japanese brands, or in Europe fashion. He really has a very particular style, and doesn’t make so many pieces per collection.

C: It’s summer; it’s very hot. What should one wear to survive?

Y: Naked? (laughs) Long, flowing, floor length dress, light, white, even for a man.

C: Sometimes, people think you are German. Why are you selling German clothes?

C: Like I said, it was not my idea in the beginning, it was the president of my company who decided  to send me to Berlin- and then I was surprised to find interesting designers. And I think its better to do it like this, because it avoids a nationalistic feeling about it, if I choose it, it’s because I like it, not because it’s my German brother

Yann’s store

C: So, your favorite pieces in your shop?

Y: This coat, a kind of trench coat and I like it because it is made of nylon but on the collars its doubled with leather, and this stitching is a very colorful which is very rare and new and the brand is KTZ.

KTZ Trench Coat

This brand comes from London.

This is a Japanese brand, this is a bag, it’s the IKEA bag with a leather bottom. I like the idea of making something very cheap expensive. The brand is STOF. And it’s from Tokyo.

This is a Tata Christiane, she makes tunic tops from vintage scarves.

Tata Christiane tunique -front

C: Why do you like this item?

Y: I really like her style because she’s a weird designer in Berlin. I like what she is doing.