In Japan, Tattoos Are Not Just For Yakuza Anymore

A young man with a stunning tattoo of Kanon Bosatsu (観音菩薩)the all-seeing, all-compassionate Buddhist deity. Designed by Horiyoshi The 3rd.

Tattoos are as Japanese as sushi, samurai, and yakuza but in recent years with the crackdown on organized crime (the yakuza), tattoos have become increasingly socially unacceptable while many younger Japanese and people living abroad have embraced tattoos as a fashion item.

In December last year, the government of Saitama Prefecture submitted a bill to revise local ordinances to prohibit tattoos under the age of 18. A fine of up to  500,000 yen will be levied on the violators of the law.  If a space is provided to tattoo on young people under 18, there is  a fine of up to 300,000 yen for the tattoo parlor owners. If the law is passed it will go into effect as of February 1st, this year.

Japan has waged many fruitless wars in the past and the latest war is a war on tattoos. Kicking it off was the Mayor of Osaka, the son of a yakuza boss, who as most yakuza are, was probably heavily tattooed.

In May 2012, the mayor of Osaka and founder of the Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party), created a huge controversy by ordering all public employees to confess to whether they had tattoos or not. In Japan, where tattoos are seen as a sign of being a yakuza, (member of the Japanese mafia), the tattoo “witch hunt” is in danger of alienating a large number of Japanese citizens and tourists as “tattoos” become more and more fashionable. Ironically, due to a series of laws cracking down on organized crime, the yakuza themselves are ordering their members to remove tattoos or not get them in the first place. One yakuza boss and tattoo artist laments, “All of my customers now are straight people (katagi). No yakuza in his right mind gets a tattoo now. You can’t do business that way. You can’t rise up the underworld ladder.”’

According to AERA magazine’s June issue (2012), at least two people in the Osaka metropolitan area have removed their tattoos after the mayor of Osaka announced the city’s crackdown on tattoos.

The young and charismatic mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, who was elected in 2011, has been compared to Adolf Hitler in the Japanese media for his authoritarian governing style, showing that Godwin’s rule applies even in Japan. Although, Hashimoto does have some fascist tendencies. It’s hard to really root for a guy who rose to stardom under the tutelage of yakuza associate and lousy comedian Shimada Shinsuke, who had Hashimoto appear on his variety show about laws in Japan. Hashimoto also got his start as lawyer for consumer loan outfits, Japan’s equivalent of legal loan-sharking, which doesn’t exactly make him a champion of the downtrodden.  Never mind.

From May to June this year, he ordered an official survey upon the Osaka civil servants to reveal whether they wear a tattoo on a visible part of their bodies.

Mr. Hashimoto, 42, announced a crack down on tattoo bearers who work in the public sector in Osaka last May. After a survey was conducted, the people of Osaka decided, that public servants should not wear tattoos, “because those who see them feel ‘awkward,’” the spokesman of the Osaka city hall explained. The mayor Osaka then requested all the public servants to indicate how big and where  their tattoos were located, in an official letter.

The root of this controversial crackdown on tattoos was sparked by the case of a welfare officer who intimidated children by exhibiting his tattoos. “We do not wish the tattoo to be visible to the eyes of the public, we simply would like them to hide their tattoos with clothes or band aids, if they are visible,” the spokesman said.

To conduct the survey, the city hall of Osaka asked the public servants to respond to their inquiry, which is a “work-related instruction.”

After May 2012, the esthetic surgery clinics reported that tattoo related issues and requests from patients “to remove their tattoos” had increased by 25% and are still increasing, according to AERA.

According to a medical doctor interviewed by AERA, there are three ways to clinically erase a tattoo: the laser ablation, the resection and the food technologies.

It should be pointed out that this policy is not going to become a law, but simply “the ethics of work” in Osaka, and the staff will be requested not to exhibit their tattoos at work.

In order to target the concerned staff, the city of Osaka sent a written request to 35,000 people. 113 replied that they had tattoos in a visible place on their bodies.

In December 2012, three Osaka municipal workers who were punished for refusing to respond to the survey have submitted a petition to the mayor of Osaka urging him to revoke the disciplinary action, Kyodo News reported. They submitted the signatures of 3,205 people. The supporters who wish to revoke Hashimoto’s disciplinary measures say that the Osaka Municipal government has “violated human rights.”

A sculpure found at the Tattoo Museum owned by Horiyoshi the Third in Yokohama, 15 minutes away from his work studio
A sculpture found at the Tattoo Museum owned by Horiyoshi the Third in Yokohama, 15 minutes away from his work studio

According to Manami Okazaki, the author of Tattoo in Japan: Traditional and Modern Styles, who researched in depth the current situation of tattoos and those who wear them in modern Japan, “With the popularity of tattoos in America, with several reality TV shows and celebrity tattoo artists, tattoos are increasingly popular among young people in Japan.” Whereas before, more yakuza people used to wear tattoos and “the gang connotations were stronger.” However, the historical connection to the yakuza still remains overall, because the recent crack down on tattoos in Japanese society has increased more than ever, she explained.

An explanation of the decline of yakuza clientele and the increase of ordinary citizen clientele given by Hokuo, a tattoo master in Japan interviewed by Manami Okazaki, is that nowadays, the yakuza do not have the money to buy extravagances such as whole body tattoos. A decade ago a full-body tattoo could take up to 500 hours to complete and cost over 5 million yen.

The cooperative association of Hakone hot springs and ryokan said that the traditional Japanese irezumi (入れ墨)generate “fear and awkwardness,” generally because they are associated with members of the anti-social forces (反社会的勢力. The Hakone hot spring association spokesman said that, people wearing tattoos are now increasing and “discussions are raising everywhere in Japan, because there is no definition or explanation of the ‘fashionable tattoo’ and the traditional irezumi.” He also added that there was no clear explanation given to whether this is “good or this is bad,” but the Japanese irezumi is forbidden everywhere, in public baths, in swimming pools, etc.

He said that the problem is when the tattoo creates “fear and uneasiness.” “It’s a difficult problem. It’s true that the irezumi could be seen as part of Japanese culture, and people who are not members of the yakuza are also wearing tattoos. However, in general, in Japan, tattoos are not good,” he concluded.

Another figurine found at the Tattoo Museum, featuring Horiyoshi III working on the body of a woman
Another figurine found at the Tattoo Museum, featuring Horiyoshi III working on the body of a woman

The Asahi Newspaper in Hokkaido reported that a new initiative rose among the Hokkaido public baths owners’ union who submitted a proposal to restudy the manuals for letting tattooed customers use the facilities.

The initiative, currently under consideration, was raised as some owners started to say that: “excluding tattooed people is discrimination.” According to the Asahi Shinbun, since the Hokkaido organized crime exclusionary laws went into effect in 2011, this reality has raised other sorts of trouble. 245 public bath owners have been inquired on this issue. 75% have replied to the inquiry.

Currently, 75% of the public baths owners allow tattooed people to use their facilities, 19% believe that they might lose customers if they ban them, 17% answered they fear that “not letting tattooed people in might create trouble with the other customers,” and 36% answered that they have nothing to report in particular. 24% of them informed their customers about the ban on tattoos on posters or orally. 71% answered they have not announced anything in particular.

Most of the public baths owners reported that their main concern was to “establish the right limits between the Japanese traditional irezumi and the fashion tattoo.” Many also reported that even though they announce the ban on posters, “it is difficult to actually refuse them entry.” The result of the survey basically announced that 60% of the poll requested that “each public bath owners should have the freedom to exercise the right to ban or allow entry to tattooed individuals based on their own judgement.” And 16% wish the rules to be changed, and are considering changing the content of the manuals. The reason given is that discriminating against  tattooed people would be a violation of the human rights.

Archives of Japanese tattoos aimed for criminals explaining their meaning on different location of the body
Archives of Japanese tattoos showed how they were used to brand criminals explaining their meaning on different location of the body

The spokesman of Hokkaido’s union of public bath owners said that they did not intend to change the manuals only because of the tattoos issue. They conducted the survey because they received some complaints over the last few  years. The revised manuals have been published in the summer of 2012. “Some people think that the tattoos are a nuisance. But the opinion are quite diverse, it is fifty-fifty,” the union member said.

The Hokkaido Organized Crime Exclusionary Ordinance Team  told JSRC that the inquiry started in November last year and that the survey does not judge whether the tattoos are “good” or “bad.” The Hokkaido organized crime exclusionary laws that went into effect in 2011 evoke the issue in a “hygienic sense,” and also from the point of view of the human rights and discrimination against tattooed people.

With regard to the hygienic issue, the spokesman of the Hokkaido law enforcement unit explained the hygienic issues of tattoos, such as transmissible diseases. Tattooed customers’ “hygienic issues” were compared to customers with tuberculosis.

“The reason we have to kindly ask certain customers not to use the public facilities is because we would like to have ‘healthy bathtubs’, the message is ‘let’s have clean public baths. People tend to feel awkward on the hygienic level when they bathe with tattooed people,” he added.

Tom Stringer, 25, a British English teacher in Osaka for  four years was refused entry to become a member of a gym spa called Costa, because he was wearing an 8 cm diameter circular tattoo on his chest. First, when he tried to apply, the staff asked him if he had any tattoos at all, he answered honestly, and he was banned from the gym.

He said he had to wait 7 months before reapplying, hoping that the club had forgotten about him. Tom left the Costa gym earlier this year, but during the whole time he was attending the gym facilities, he could not use the shower, nor could he use the hot tub. In the changing room, he was constantly trying not to be seen by the staff members, and had to change facing the wall. It was a supreme pain in the ass. (Metaphorically.)

In Sapporo this year, Tom was also discriminated because of his tattoo on hischest. Inside the changing room of a spa, while he was getting ready to use the facility, he was kindly asked to put back his clothes and leave the onsen, when a female cleaning staff member came in and saw his tattoo.

In his four years living in Japan, Tom was discriminated twice for wearing a tattoo. At  the Language school in Osaka where he is currently teaching English, no one has treated him badly because of his tattoo.

Foreigners or tourists are not the only victims of tattoo discrimination. The surgeon interviewed by AERA also reported the case of a young Japanese woman who was discriminated over her tattoos. One of the surgeon’s patients, a young woman in her twenties, told him that a employee of a spa kicked her out while she was washing her hair, and did not let her finish bathing. She told him she remembered crying bitterly after that experience.

 Horiyoshi III, Japan’s most famous tattoo artist, and also said to be the inventor of a new and better tools for wabori (和彫り)traditional Japanese tattooing, spoke to JSRC in his tattoo studio 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.”

Horiyoshi the Third, the world's most famous tattoo artist, in his studio in Yokohama
Horiyoshi the Third, the world’s most famous tattoo artist, at work in his studio in Yokohama

Horiyoshi the Third claims that his clients are 90% “ordinary people”, among them salary men, musicians, bar hosts, “Of course I do have yakuza clients as well.” However he said that he has much fewer yakuza clients than he use 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.”

Horiyoshi III holding the original tebori XXX
Horiyoshi III is renown for using the Tebori you no nomi

It is difficult to say whether the wabori 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 electric sound of the needle.

Despite the crackdown on tattoos, Horiyoshi the Third does not believe that his art, together with the art of tattoos in general will ever die after his death. “I am a descendant of this tradition, and despite the government bans our culture has survived. The tattoo will never die. It will evolve. Since the Edo period, the tool, the designs and technologies are constantly evolving. Therefore my art will evolve, rather than disappear.”

“Ten years ago, 10 percent of my clients were foreign and this year, I have  40 percent of my clients are non-Japanese. The number of Japanese tattoo fans is continuously increasing over the years,” he added.

A mid-level yakuza boss and tattoo artist in his spare time explained to JSRC that during the Edo period, there was no real jobs related to the firemen, it was the carpenters or the workers on construction sites who volunteered in stopping fires when such accidents occurred. “They [the firemen] were the ones known for wearing whole body tattoos. It seems like this category of people were those who did the work that nobody else can do or does not want to do, like the ancestors of the current anti-social forces.”

A yakuza boss and part-time tattoo artist at work.

According to this tattoo artist on his spare time, the layer of ink inside the skin helped the firefighters to endure the heat of the fire. Whether this is true or not is hard to say–there hasn’t really been a study of tattoos and fire-fighter endurance.


John, 52, is a computer engineer currently based in California, who worked seven years in Japan in the past. He started his whole body tattoo at age 40 with Horiyoshi the Third, in Yokohama. John travels two weeks a year to Japan to get his tattoo finished year after year by his favorite tattoo master. John has been tattooed by Horiyoshi III for 12 years but the tattoo is not yet complete.

John was tattooed by Horiyoshi III since XXX
John has been tattooed by Horiyoshi III for several years but the tattoo is not yet complete

John operates in the business world, and as an educated man with a career, he admits there is a certain amount of risk concerning what his colleagues would think about his tattoos. When asked if he faces social discrimination at work in California for his tattoos, he replied: “Tattoos are not  business wear. I do not display or mention them in professional situations. I feel that concealed tattoos should not matter. It’s the same as with a suit. When the situation calls for a business suit, I must actually wear one. It does not matter how many are hidden in my closet.”

 A special agent with the Australian Federal Police said on background, “We don’t see the young yakuza coming in with tattoos or missing fingers. The new generation is all cleanskins.*

 One Japanese police officer states, “If we continue to discriminate against people with tattoos or ex-yakuza, we’ll never be able to reintegrate them into society.  Tattoos are no longer a reliable indication of whether a person is in the yakuza at present. It’s time the laws reflected the reality.”

Mr. Kazuki Kai, 42, from Kyushu said he heard about Horiyoshi III’s reputation even before he had his tattoo studio in Yokohama. Mr. Kai started to have his first tattoo of a dragon by Horiyoshi-sensei on his left arm 23 years ago. He abandoned having any tattoo for a while and started again a new tattoo of a snake on his right arm and shoulder this January 2012. (You can see the difference in the colors.)

Mr. Kai works as a harbor blacksmith for a power generation company in Kyushu. He intends to get a whole body tattoo at Horiyoshi the Third’s tattoo studio in Yokohama. He estimates that it will take him another 3 to 4 years.  The traditional methods of tattooing in Japan are close to dying out and as Japanese culture adapts to tattoos, Japanese society is experiencing some growing pains. Whether those growing pains even come close to the actual pain of a traditional tattoo is best left to the imagination.

“It is difficult to say whether the wabori 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 electric sound of the needle.”–Horiyoshi the 3rd

Mr. XXX from Fukuoka accepted to pose in the studio of Horiyoshi the Third
Mr. Kazuki Kai from Kyushu accepted to pose in the studio of Horiyoshi the Third

 *Criminal without identifying body art or physical features.

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






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.



UPDATE: Japan’s 3rd Most Powerful Yakuza Boss Arrested On Money Laundering Charges

This week Kazuo aka Kazuya Uchibori, the de facto head of the Inagawa-kai, Japan’s 3rd largest organized crime group, turned himself into the Tokyo Metropolitan Police. He was wanted on charges of fraud and money laundering charges.  This may be the first case in which the payment of association dues (上納金/jonokin) is prosecuted successfully as a money laundering case, and if it stands up in court–which appears unlikely—it could be the beginning of the end for the modern yakuza.  The jonokin system is the financial spine of Japanese organized crime groups. Fortunately for Mr. Uchibori, the current Minister of Justice, Keishu Tanaka has long been a close associate of the Inagawa-kai. A great time to have friends in high places!

Japan’s organized crime groups are essentially franchise operations–think of Amway crossed with Bain Capital–then add guns, tattoos, loyalty oaths and swords. The organizations are pyramid structures with people on the bottom paying their way up to the top. Up until now, there has not been a solid case for cracking down on the payment of jonokin (dues) as a criminal activity.

Tokyo Reporter has the details.

TOKYO (TR) – The Tokyo Metropolitan Police on Tuesday morning arrested the number-two boss of the Inagawa-kai organized crime group for accepting proceeds acquired through a credit card fraud that facilitated payments to sex clubs, reports the Sankei Shimbun (Aug. 20).

Officers from the anti-organized crime division of the metropolitan police took Kazuya Uchibori, 59, into custody for receiving proceeds generated by criminal activities — a violation of the Act for Punishment of Organized Crimes.

Uchibori has reportedly denied the allegations. “I don’t know what you are talking about,” investigators quoted the suspect.

In an ongoing sting, officers have thus far made 12 arrests, including last month’s apprehension of two other Inagawa-kai upper members, Takashi Yamaguchi, 62, and 46-year-old Hirofumi Matsuyama.

The scheme involved establishing fake restaurant businesses that served to broker payments for customers at 30 sex clubs that were not able to accept credit cards. A 20 percent premium — as reported by the Mainichi Shimbun — was then added to the sex club fees, which was collected by the gangsters.  In March and April of this year, Yamaguchi and Matsuyama are alleged to have received 650,000 yen in funds provided by lower-ranking Inagawa-kai boss Kimihiro Tsukada, 65, currently on trial for computer fraud, through the gang’s jonokin system in which junior members funnel money to upper bosses.

Go here for the rest of the story

Notes: Mr. Uchibori had previously been arrested and found guilty of obstruction a public auction in 2009. He was given a suspended sentence. If he had been arrested before the date he turned himself in, the suspended sentence could have been put into effect, in addition to the new charges. This could have resulted in a very long jail sentence. Some members of the Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s largest organized crime, criticized Uchibori for not turning himself into the police as soon as an arrest warrant was issued–as was the yakuza custom in the past–but under the current circumstances it probably made sense to show up late to the party.

The money laundering case against Mr. Uchibori appears to be weak and the odds are that after spending two more weeks in jail, that he will be given bail, and not prosecuted. Mr. Uchibori is officially the number two of the Inagawa-kai, serving as the Chairman of The Board, under Mr. Jiro Kiyota, the 5th Generation Leader. However, in yakuza fan magazines photo-shoots of the organization, Mr. Uchibori, is always standing at the helm of the organization and his blood-brother relation (兄弟分)to Mr. Takeuchi, in the Yamaguchi-gumi Kodo-kai (山口組弘道会)makes Mr. Uchibori extremely influential and powerful.



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

Sometimes, a picture is worth a thousand words. Of course, if it’s a thousand words of bullshit–the picture isn’t actually that useful. Hopefully, this is worth at least 800 words.

Understanding organized crime in Japan isn’t always easy. It gets more and more difficult as time goes by and the yakuza move underground. The first anti-organized crime laws in Japan went on the books in 1992. (暴力団対策法). Yakuza groups could no longer openly display their group emblems or their names. So what they did is incorporate themselves, setting up companies or associations, creating what Takashi Arimori called “The Yakuza Company” aka “front companies.”  As the anti-organized crime laws have gotten stricter, these front companies have evolved and the yakuza associated businesses have diversified.

Last year,  in Tokyo and in Okinawa, organized crime exclusionary laws (暴力団排除条例-boryokudan haijojorei)  went  into effect, thus making all of Japan a lot less yakuza friendly; it’s the start of the Big Chill. The laws vary in the details, but they all criminalize sharing profits with the yakuza (aka Japanese mafia) or paying them off. The laws were designed to help crush the front companies and cooperative entities that increasingly bring in major revenue for organized crime.

In other words, if you pay protection money to the yakuza, or use them to facilitate your business affairs, you will be treated as a criminal. You may be warned once, your name released to the public, and fined or imprisoned, or all of the above, if you persist in doing business with the yakuza.

However, what is particularly vexing to the yakuza, is that any payments to the yakuza are criminalized. For example, if the yakuza are blackmailing you or extorting cash from you and you pay them off, you are no longer a victim–you are also a criminal under the new laws. Thus, for most people the benefits of throwing yen at the yakuza to keep them quiet start to fade. Blackmail/extortion is a huge money maker for the mob in Japan. Roughly 45% of all people arrested for the crime (恐喝/kyokatsu) in Japan are yakuza members (circa 2010).  Hush money is big business but only when people will pay you to hush up. When they start going to the police as soon as you try to shake them down, the business model falls apart.

To give you an idea of the scale of organized crime front companies in Japan, in Tokyo alone, there were over  1,000 at the end of 2010. And those are simply the ones that the police were able to identify. If you include new venture companies that were bankrolled by the yakuza behind the scenes, the numbers go even higher. A noted economist once called the yakuza Japan’s second largest private equity group. It makes sense. Yakuza are gamblers and there is no greater gamble than betting on a new company or business model. Of course, if you own a number of auditing firms, securities companies, and have the capital to manipulate stock prices—it helps get the company off the ground successfully. Sometimes an organized crime group will raise up a company, pull back, and make sure they get a steady kickback. Most of the time when the yakuza bank roll a company, they nurture it until it’s successful, often breaking the law in the process–pump up the stock prices, sell at a profit—and then loot the company out of all its assets before it goes under and start all over again.

Goodwill Group. Ltd,, a temporary staffing agency/rest home manager, now delisted,  is a prime example of what was once considered a great promising young company eaten alive by the yakuza. Whether the yakuza were on board from the beginning or not is unclear–but they were involved in feasting on the flesh of the corpse–that’s for certain. Suruga Corporation is another example of a yakuza front company that got its wings clipped.  Recently, the  Inoue Kogyo case showed how the Yamaguchi-gumi can profit from a cooperative entity. The police and the regulatory authorities have been clamping down on the nine-fingered economy increasingly since 2008, but the yakuza connections don’t always surface. For the authorities, if they can put the firms out of business–that’s enough.


The Front Company (フロント企業)is the source of major revenue for the modern Yakuza.



Killing Yourself To Make A Living: In Japan Financial Incentives Reward “Suicide”

TOKYO — Tadahiro Matsushita, the Minister of Financial Services, was found dead on September 10, on World Suicide Prevention Day in what police are investigating as a suicide. He allegedly hung himself in his own home. He would not be he first Japanese government minister to kill himself and he won’t be the last. It was reported that he was struggling with the pressures of his job.*

According to Jiji Press and other sources, the weekly magazine Shukan Shincho, was getting ready to print a story involving Matsushita and an affair involving a woman. Shukan Shincho editors were not available to comment. The last time a cabinet minister committed suicide was in 2007, when agriculture minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka hanged himself after allegations of fiscal misconduct.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said, according to Reuters, “I’m shocked to hear the sad news. He always gave me encouragement when things were tough.”

Japan’s Suicide Problem

The timing of Matsushita’s death underlines the scale of Japan’s suicide problem. Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, according to the World Health Organization. Despite laws and outlines adopted by the government to tackle Japan’s high suicide rate, the number of suicides has remained over 30,000 per year for 14 years. While there have been rises and ebbs, the numbers stay high even as Japan’s population continues to shrink.

Suicide hotlines in Japan are so overloaded that getting through to a live operator can take thirty or more calls. Many don’t have that patience.  And there’s a new documentary released in Japan this week that examines why the Japanese government is unable to significantly reduce Japan’s high suicide rates. Suicide in Japan does not have the same nuance it does in the West. It’s not a religious taboo. The Japanese have a curious history of finding beauty in the act of suicide. Taking one’s life is sometimes considered more heroic than defeat.

The Japanese word for the act is remarkably straight-forward: 自殺 (ji-satsu). It literally means “kill” (殺) “oneself“(自)”.  Few-euphemisms are used for the word. Suicide in Japan has a long tradition of being a means of apology, protest, means of taking revenge, and dealing with illness.

Life Insurance Spurs People To End Their Lives?

Rene Duignan, director of the documentary Saving 10,000: Winning a War on Suicide in Japan which was released in Tokyo just prior to Suicide Prevention Day says: “Nobody tries to highlight the real problems and most importantly what to do about them.” Mr. Duignan explained his reasons for putting the documentary together as follows, “A complete sense of desperation about the apparent hopelessness of the suicide situation pushed me to buy a movie camera and ask a 22 year old former student of mine to operate it. It was a completely ridiculous thing to attempt. Most documentaries on this topic like to show corpses and feed on the tears of tragedy, I call them tragedy vampires. Nobody tries to highlight the real problems and most importantly what to do about them. I planned to interview 10 people but it turned out to be 100. I think people like underdogs and admired the complete futility of the task we were attempting so very few turned down our request for interviews. With so many people helping out, I think we can call this movie a genuine grassroots effort.” Tokyo English Life Line,  which offers free counseling and emotional support on its Life Line, had the first-ever screening of the film as part of raising awareness of World Suicide Prevention Day.

The documentary poses a very good question:  “Why is it that life insurance companies pay out on suicide? Stop paying people to kill themselves. Stop incentivizing people to die and leave their families alone.” Etsuji Okamoto, a researcher at the Japanese Institute of Health, makes the same arguments convincingly in his 2010 essay “Suicide and Life Insurance.” [An English translation is at the bottom]

Saving 10,000: Winning A War On Suicide in Japan examines the cultural/ financial incentives to commit suicide in Nippon.

In post-war Japan, people would sign a life insurance contract. And go straight out, and kill themselves under the nearest train. Eventually, the life insurance companies started putting in one-year exemption clauses in their policies, so people would sign a contract and they must wait one year before killing themselves to get the money. It was still a very good deal for desperate people, so the suicide rate spiked on the thirteenth month. The insurance companies extended the exemption period to two years. The result was that suicides spiked on the twenty-fifth month of the contract.

Insurance agencies and the police say some men laid off from jobs have killed themselves to enable their families to live in comfort. “Japan has no law mandating how insurance companies deal with policy holders’ suicides,” said Masaru Tanabe, spokesman for the Life Insurance Association of Japan famously told the Associated Press in 1999. In March 2004, the Japanese Supreme Court ruled that insurers “must pay for suicides” if the death occurs within the terms of the insurance agreement.

Suicide Is Easy: Buy A Manual, Pick a popular spot

Novels, movies and the spread of the Internet suicide chat rooms have contributed to the suicide boom in Japan. They have also popularized some areas as suicide landmarks. A forest near the Mount Fuji became the ideal site for committing suicide when a 1960s novel by Seichō Matsumoto was published. The novel tells a story of a couple who meets their end in Aokigahara forest. Others attribute an increase in the number of suicides to Wataru Tsurumi’s description of Jukai (the ocean of trees) as “the perfect place to die” in his 1993 perennial best-selling book The Complete Manual of Suicide. Both books are reportedly often found along with human remains in the forest.

The manual of suicide seems to have been written in a way to “encourage” readers to choose an easy way of getting rid of problems. “If your children have a copy of that book in their room, you should be aware that something might be going wrong in his life, and do everything possible to prevent suicide by detecting early signs of suicide,” says Duignan.

Suicide or Murder? 自殺か他殺か

There is one question that Saving 10,000 does not examine in depth.

It’s the possibility that many so-called suicides are actually homicides.

In 2010, the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest paper reported that police conducted autopsies in only 4.4 percent of the cases determined to be suicides the year before. The lack of proper autopsies was only brought to the attention of the media after a several cases of a killer being caught after successfully staging murders as suicides.  Sometimes suicides are only found to be murders after a criminal confesses his or her past crimes to the police. Suspicious deaths in Japan only have a 10 percent autopsy rate compared to 50 percent in the United States.

The Life Insurance Association of Japan finally agreed to fully cooperate with police requests for information on the insurance status of the deceased in a suspicious death case in June of this year, according to the Sankei Newspaper. However, the new measures won’t be implemented until April of 2013, at the earliest, when a unified data system goes on-line.A retired homicide detective noted that Life Insurance companies are not enthusiastic about cooperating with murder investigations. “For an insurance company, it’s a cheaper pay-out if the victim kills themselves or dies a natural death. If someone is murdered, there’s no room for negotiation–they have to pay the full amount.”

According to the National Police Agency, since 1998, there have been 16 cases of “overlooked” deaths that later turned out to be murders committed for gaining life insurance money.

There is a serious shortage of medical examiners nationwide, resulting in low autopsy rates. As a result, and as noted above, the Japanese Police have faced as series of embarrassing cases that were first ruled to be natural deaths or suicides by the authorities and later discovered to be homicide. The most recent case was that of Kanae Kijima, who was believed to have killed at least three men after swindling them out of their money. The first deaths were ruled as suicides. She was convicted of murder this year and sentenced to hang. She might have been arrested if the police had only done an autopsy on her first, in 2009. It has been pointed out many time, that Japan’s low autopsy rate makes it possible to disguise a murder under the guise of suicide. The case is well argued in Low autopsy rate seen abetting murderers by Natsuko Fukue, in The Japan Times. A National Police Agency source speculates, “the number of murders disguised as self-killings that have come to light are probably only the tip of the iceberg.” There are some experts that suggest that up to 5% of Japan’s reported suicides are actually homicides.

There’s no doubt that people are killed and the murders sometimes staged as suicides so the criminal can collect the insurance money. But very often, the simple truth is the insured kill themselves for the sake of their family or to pay off their debts.

The Final Loan Payment….

“In Japan, if you have lost your job, you have been cut in all of the employment cutting that is going on, but you still have a mortgage of twenty years left to pay and you have children’s education fees to pay. What do you do? Well you go and get the solution, it’s very easy. All your debts are paid. Your mortgage repayments are finished. And your children will have a great education, you’ll get maybe 300,000 Dollars or so, and all you have to give is… your life.”—Saving 10,000

Debt and economic troubles were blamed for the death of about 8,500 people in 2000, a fourfold increase from a decade earlier. Many victims had gotten into trouble with debt collectors or people that owned companies that went bankrupt. With Japan’s finance laws, when a company goes bankrupt, the individuals who owned it or were guarantors for the firm are deemed responsible and they go bankrupt too. Japan’s consumer loan industry and loan sharks, both who often have yakuza connections aggravate the situation, by preying on the financially destitute. The loan sharks and/or the servicers will sometimes goad a debtor to kill themselves so that they can claim the money owed, from the family, after the life insurance is paid off.

Insurance agencies and the police say some men laid off from jobs have killed themselves to enable their families to live in comfort. “Japan has no law mandating how insurance companies deal with policy holders’ suicides,” said Masaru Tanabe, spokesman for the Life Insurance Association of Japan famously told the Associated Press in 1999.

In March 2004, the Japanese Supreme Court ruled that insurers “must pay for suicides” if the death occurs within the terms of the insurance agreement.  In 2006, during a session of the Diet, in reply to a question from a DPJ representative, the Financial Services Agency admitted that Japan’s 5 largest consumer loan companies had been the beneficiaries of 3,649 debtors who had committed suicide  (for the fiscal year 2005). In other words, Promise, Takefuji, Aiful and others were able to claim the money owed them from the life insurance pay-offs—after the borrower killed themselves. Of course, the number of people who had been driven to commit suicide by “illegal” loan sharks was unknown.

The lessons to be learned from the documentary are many but the primary point seems simple to understand: the exclusion of suicide from death benefits would probably greatly enhance suicide prevention.  It wouldn’t change the Japanese cultural viewpoints on suicide as an acceptable means of dealing with a problem but it would remove the financial incentive and that might be a good start.

Taiki Nakashita, a Buddhist priest, social activist, and counselor to those contemplating suicide, says that there is no one way to prevent suicide and no easy answers to the problem. He believes that Japanese society needs to change to support the disadvantaged and poor, adding, “Most people don’t kill themselves because they want to die. They kill themselves because they don’t know how to go on living. We need to make Japanese a place easier for people to live.”

"Better to light a single candle then curse the darkness a thousand times."

*Note: portions of this article were originally published in The Atlantic Wire. The candle photo was provided by courtesy of Tokyo English Life Line.  There is a long string of commentary of the original article here. Japan’s Finance Minister Commits Suicide on Suicide Prevention Day

New Anti-Yakuza Laws Pass; Instant Arrests Now Possible (Fast As Ramen?)

On July 26th 2012, the National Diet approved the revisions of the Organized Crime Group Countermeasures Law (改正暴力団対策法). Under the new laws, the police can specially designate organized crime groups as “extremely dangerous” and then may arrest any member of that group, without issuing a cease and desist order, if he (or she), makes unreasonable or illegal demands towards ordinary citizens.

The new law also allows the Prefectural Centers for The Elimination of Organized Crime to initiate legal procedures to forbid the use of organized crime offices, in lieu of the local citizens.

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."

Southern Japan has been rocked by an escalating gang war between three factions, the Kudo-kai (工藤会), Dojin-kai (道仁会), and 九州誠道会 (Kyushu-seido-kai). The gang wars have escalated to the point where gangsters are shooting at each other with machine guns and using explosives.  Japan’s Fukuoka Prefecture Police, where the Dojin-kai is located,  began to offer cash rewards to anyone who reports finding a hand grenade (or “pineapples” in yakuza slang) from this April.  A long-running gang war in the prefecture has raised public fear in the area, and the handy hand-grenade has increasingly become the weapon of choice amongst rival gang members. Civilians in Japan have also been killed in the cross-fire.


Organized Crime Groups in The Kyushu Area will probably be the first targets of new stricter anti-organized crime laws.

The police are also worried that the Kyushu gangs have begun to move into the Tokyo area. Former Yamaguchi-gumi boss, Tadamasa Goto (後藤忠政元組長) is known to have been aligning himself with the leader of the Kyushu Seido-kai as he reforms his own yakuza group, operating under the name Goto-Shoji (後藤商事), in Tokyo,  according to police sources. The Kyushu Seido-kai now operates several front companies in the greater Tokyo area. The group’s penchant for extreme violence is not welcome by the police in the Kanto area nor the traditional local yakuza.

The police are expected to designate one or more of the groups listed above “extremely dangerous” in the very near future.

Yakuza Go On The Record About 3/11 Relief Efforts In July Fanzine (実話時代)

The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”—Yakuza saying.

It’s partly about living up to the slogans they profess for the yakuza doing the relief work–about helping the weak and fighting the powers that be. That’s the so-called humanitarian way (任侠道)they espouse. It’s also about getting a stake in the reconstruction of Japan. Construction is big business.” –Suzuki Tomohiko, author of Yakuza and The Nuclear Industry, investigative journalist, former yakuza fan magazine editor.

When you think of the first responders in a disaster-ridden country, you think of doctors, firemen, police officers—not usually the mafia, let alone the Japanese mafia aka the yakuza.

There are 79,000 of them in the country, and when you take into consideration their thousands of front companies, affiliated industries, and associated members—they are almost a second army in Japan, and as unlikely as it may seem—they were among Japan’s first responders. I’ve written the best account I could in Reconstructing 3/11 but as time goes by even more details emerge.

Yakuza fanzine JITSUWA JIDAI describes the post disaster relief efforts of one group in detail this month.

When I first wrote about the yakuza and their relief efforts in the Daily Beast after the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown that devastated Japan on March 11th last year–it was greeted with some skepticism. Admittedly, it wasn’t an easy subject to write about. Public opinion had turned against the yakuza, with good reason, and many of the tattooed gentlemen involved in the work were afraid that media coverage would force the police to crackdown on their relief efforts. There was also a legitimate concern, amongst the yakuza I spoke with, that works done in good faith would be seen as 売名行為 (baimei-koi)  or”self-advertisement.”

In this month’s yakuza fanzine, 実話時代 7月号, (Jitsuwa Jidai July 2012 edition), one yakuza group based in Tohoku (東北)aka northern Japan, the Inagawa-kai Koryu Ikka (稲川会紘龍一家)finally goes on the record about their efforts to help out in the crisis. Although there has been some reporting on relief work in the past, other than my own reporting, most of it has been very vague and lacking in details.  Jitsuwa Jidai has done an excellent job in detailing the efforts of one local yakuza group in helping their community deal with the aftermath of 3/11. Of course, the nature of the magazine is that they lavish tremendous praise on the group without recognizing that the yakuza are in general a parasite on Japanese society, involved in loan-sharking, financial fraud, extortion and other anti-social activities.

The article focusses on the damage, both from radiation and the earthquake in Koriyama, where the Inagawa-kai Koryu Ikka is headquartered. There is a detailed description of how the Inagawa-kai head office working with the local office collected diapers, chopsticks, cup noodles, flashlights and other daily essentials for the disaster victims–and how they carried the supplies to local city halls and shelters, by truckloads, under the cover of the night. I was unable to independently verify all of the article. Some it rings true–about the city distributing cup noodles but forgetting to distribute chopsticks. Cans of powdered milk but no milk bottles.

The article also points out that not only the Inagawa-kai but many other yakuza groups quietly did their best to help the displaced victims anonymously.  The piece closes with a yakuza boss explaining the reasons behind the group activities post 3/11:

“The Inagawa family motto is one word 我慢 (gaman/endurance).  This is a time when that motto is very important–in the face of a rain of falling spears or radioactive fall-out. We did our best to protect the people in our local turf. We looked out for the victims and the refugees, without fanfare, as best we could.”

I’d never argue that a few decent acts justify the existence of an organized crime group but we also have to admit that sometimes “bad people” may do good things, and in the face of disaster as a common enemy, there is a short time that we all are friends.


Note: Reconstructing 3/11: Earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown-how Japan’s future depends on its understanding of the 2011 triple disaster is available as a free download today, June 11th. The book is written by several worthy authors but proceeds are not earmarked for charity. I’m giving my cut away and other individuals are doing the same. Just so there’s no confusion. All profits from the predecessor to this work Quakebook went to The Red Cross.

Reconstructing 3/11 is an excellent book on Japan's triple disaster and its meaning for Japan's future as well as lessons learned. Reconstructing 3/11: Earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown – how Japan’s future depends on its understanding of the 2011 triple disaster eBook: Jake Adelstein, Michael Cucek, Kiyoshi Kurokawa, Philip Brasor, Our Man in Abiko, Sandra Barron, Dan Ryan: Kindle Store



Police Arrest Yakuza Labor Broker In “Nuclear Mafia” Crackdown; Investigation Continues

Portions of this article were previously posted on The Atlantic Wire and have been updated.

After the arrest of a yakuza boss for his alleged role in supplying workers to TEPCO’s Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Plant, we are learning the details of how Japan’s nuclear industry relied on organized crime. Since July of last year, a few months after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami resulted in a triple meltdown at the Fukushima plant, investigators have been probing possible yakuza links to TEPCO and the nuclear industry under the guidance of the National Police Agency.

“Yakuza involvement in the nuclear industry is believed to go back to 2007 or earlier,” said a police source, “and the gangs involved were dispatching yakuza to nuclear sites all over Japan.”

The yakuza boss arrested has been identified as Makoto Owada, a high-ranking member of the Sumiyoshi-kai (住吉会) crime group, the second largest organized crime group in Japan with roughly 12,000 members. Owada is charged with illegally dispatching workers to the reconstruction site from May to July of last year. The Fukushima plant is located in Sumiyoshi-kai territory (in yakuza parlance nawabari). However, in his initial statements to the police at the time of his arrest, Owada admitted that he had dispatched workers, including his own yakuza soldiers, to nuclear power plant construction sites all over Japan from as early as 2007.

“If we didn’t do it, who would?” asked one mid-level yakuza boss, who defended the criminal groups’ involvement. He even praised the yakuza workers as heroes in the aftermath of the disaster. “When everyone else was running away as Fukushima melted down, our people stayed to avert disaster. We’re not the bad guys.”

Sumiyoshi-Kai Fanzine (2007)

Police suspect that Owada was also working with Japan’s largest crime group, the Yamaguchi-gumi, in providing labor to areas outside of the Sumiyoshi-kai turf in a “joint business venture.”  Organized crime in Japan tends to be extremely organized. (At right is an issue of a yakuza fanzine that is dedicated to the Sumiyoshi-kai.) And, in fact, one of the business partners, Yamaguchi-gumi Oshuaizukaikka, which also calls Fukushima Prefecture home, has been praised for their fast and effective relief efforts after the quake—even providing hot food and security from possible looters at disaster shelters. The other business partner, the Yamaguchi-gumi Shimizu-ikka was founded by one of the four yakuza who received a liver transplant at UCLA under controversial circumstances.

However, it’s becoming apparent that yakuza involvement in Japan’s nuclear industry is not limited to the Sumiyoshi-kai and Yamaguchi-gumi. In January of this year, the Fukuoka Police Department arrested an executive at a front company for the Kyushu-based yakuza Kudo-kai, for her role in illegal labor contracts with the KEPCO (Kansai Electric Power Company) managed Ooi Nuclear Power Plant.

Police and underworld sources said that starting in late May of last year, Owada allegedly dispatched several people, including gang members, to the devastated Fukushima nuclear power plant where they did cleanup work and reconstruction of damaged areas. According to these sources, Owada did not directly dispatch workers to the nuclear power plant; he first sent them to an official TEPCO subcontractor in Tochigi Prefecture. These sources say the way the scheme worked is that Owada then received the extra hazard pay (危険手当) that TEPCO was giving to workers at the radioactive Fukushima site. Some of that money was allegedly kicked back to the Sumiyoshi-kai as “association dues.”

While most firms in Japan now have in place exclusionary clauses in all contracts that forbids the use of organized crime or affiliated companies, TEPCO has been fairly lax about taking similar measures. Last July, according to the National Police Agency and TEPCO, the firm began meeting regularly with officials from the National Police Agency to discuss rooting out organized crime influence at the company. Up until October 1, 2011, however, it was not necessarily illegal to employ yakuza at nuclear facilities or work with their front companies. It is now.

The involvement of the yakuza in Japan’s nuclear industry has gone on long before last year’s disaster. According to Japanese government sources, Yakuza have been supplying labor to Japan’s nuclear industry since the late 90s. TEPCO and other firms have paid off yakuza groups in the past to remain silent about safety problems at their nuclear plants and other scandals. In 2003, the Japanese media reported that TEPCO had been making protection payments to a Sumiyoshi-kai front company for over ten years. The June 2005 issue of the political and news magazine, SEIKEI TOHOKU, had an in-depth expose of TEPCO pay-offs to a Yamaguchi-gumi boss. Police sources also confirmed that TEPCO ties to organized crime dated back to the late nineties.

“The yakuza provide the labor for a job no sane person would do considering the crappy working conditions,” said Tomohiko Suzuki, author of Yakuza and the Nuclear Industry: Diary of An Undercover Reporter Working at the Fukushima Plant (ヤクザと原発-福島第一潜入記-鈴木-智彦). “The only way to get the yakuza out of the atomic power business is probably to shutter all the reactors. Even then, like savvy vultures, the yakuza will be living off the cleanup work for years to come.”

Yakuza and the Nuclear Industry: Diary of an Undercover Reporter Working at the Fukushima Plant, Tomohiko Suzuki

TEPCO also had a history of illegally hiring minors to work at their nuclear power plants, most recently a 17-year-old boy.  Police sources state that the subcontractor who dispatched the 17-year old to the work-site is suspected to be a yakuza front company but would not elaborate while the investigation is underway. In 2009, TEPCO was also admonished for allowing 4 boys under 18 to work at the site in violations of the labor standard laws. While the authorities scolded TEPCO, only the labor dispatch company, ACTO, was criminally prosecuted. While it may surprise many, background checks on nuclear power plant workers in Japan are not mandated, although Japan’s Nuclear Energy Commission thinks doing so might be a good idea. Almost anyone can get a job there, raising some concerns about the potential for terrorism.

Considering the intimate entanglements between organized crime and nuclear power in Japan, it would not be a shock if this investigation has a very short half-life.  “The arrest of Owada is just the tip of the iceberg but how far the investigation will go or be allowed to go is difficult to say,” said the police source. “Things don’t change overnight.”

Jake Adelstein

Dear yakuza, ex-convicts, & deadbeats. You’re welcome at Japan’s nuclear power plants. Just let us know, okay?

UPDATE: May 22nd 2012

The Fukushima Police Department Organized Crime Control Division arrested a senior executive of the Sumiyoshi-kai (住吉会) crime group for illegally dispatching workers to the reconstruction at the TEPCO run Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Power Plant. According to reports by Sankei Shinbun and other sources, the Sumiyoshi-kai boss dispatched men, including yakuza members to a construction subcontractor in Tochigi Prefecture, and these men were sent into the nuclear plant area where they allegedly participated in containment work for the damaged facilities. The charges pertain to labor dispatches from May to the end of July last year. The labor dispatch laws forbid dispatching workers to construction sites. This is the first time a yakuza boss was arrested in relation to nuclear power plant reconstruction work. Japan’s nuclear industry has long been fraught with yakuza connections which we first wrote about in June of 2011 for The Atlantic Wire . TEPCO is not the only nuclear power plant operator in Japan to get in trouble for using yakuza supplied labor. KEPCO (Kansai Electric Power Company) also had workers illegally supplied by a Kudo-kai front company working at their Ooi Nuclear Power Plant. A Fukuoka Police investigation in January uncovered the problem. The Kudo-kai is an extremely violent yakuza group based in Kyushu, and like other southern Japan gangs they are known for their fondness of pineapples.

TEPCO is due to be effectively nationalized by the Japanese government. The firm’s legacy of cronyism, incompetence, cover-ups, and organized crime connections were a large part of the decision to remove TEPCO from private hands. Hopefully, a change in command will result in a change in safety, compliance, and working conditions at the nuclear power plants they have operated.


originally posted on February 18th, 2012.  updated on May 3rd, 2012

On February 10th, an expert panel of Japan’s Nuclear Energy Commission submitted a report urging the government to make it  mandatory that workers and contractors involved with nuclear facilities have background checks conducted before hiring them. The panel indicated that it could be problematic to have debtors, convicted criminals, organized crime members, and other possibly anti-social elements working with nuclear energy. The report didn’t suggest that these individual be banned from the sites or handling radioactive materials but that background checks should be conducted before hiring these anti-social elements. We guess this is so that no one is surprised when these unsavory elements steal dangerous materials and sell them to terrorists. In the United States and Europe, background checks on nuclear power plant workers, including Homer Simpson, are mandated by law.

Japan is getting ready to really crack down on criminals working in the nuclear industry, although perhaps not the criminals running it, or maybe not even the ex-convicts working in the plants either. illustration by @Mari_Kurisato

The panel suggested that not only should the people operating the nuclear power plants be subject to background checks, but even the subcontracted workers as well. The panel reportedly took into account the poor management of labor by Tokyo Electric Power Company after the nuclear meltdowns began on March 11th, 2011.

In fact, TEPCO’s history of malfeasance and the nuclear industries unsavory connections to organized crime is one reason the firm is on the verge of meltdown.

Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the monolithic corporation that controls all electric power in Greater Tokyo, and runs the Fukushima Daichii nuclear plant that experienced a triple meltdown following the March 11 earthquake, is on the brink of nationalization according to Japanese government sources. The official reason is that the firm may not be able to handle the massive compensation payments it owes to victims of the meltdown without going bankrupt. Unofficially, the firm has such long-standing ties to anti-social forces, including the yakuza—that some members of the Diet, Japan’s national legislature, feel the firm is beyond salvation and needs to be taken over and cleaned up. A Japanese Senator with the Liberal Democratic Party stated on background, “TEPCO’s involvement with anti-social forces and their inability to filter them out of the work-place is a national security issue. It is one reason that increasingly in the Diet we are talking de facto nationalization of the company. Nuclear energy shouldn’t be in the hands of the yakuza. They’re gamblers and an intelligent person doesn’t want them to have atomic dice to play with.”

In June we reported that yakuza were working at the Fukushima nuclear power plant as cleanup crews and manual labor, but the post-meltdown yakuza ties were only the tip of the iceberg. This month, a new book was published, Yakuza and The Nuclear Industry: Diary of An Undercover Reporter Working at the Fukushima Plant (ヤクザと原発-福島第一潜入記-鈴木-智彦) in which a former yakuza fan magazine editor Tomohiko Suzuki reports on the nuclear business-industrial-political and media complex in Japan known as the “nuclear mafia” and Japan’s actual mafia: the yakuza. The book is already generating controversy and renewed examination of Japan’s “dark empire” and its ties to the underworld. It presents more solid pieces of evidence that Japan’s nuclear industry is a black hole of criminal malfeasance, incompetence, and corruption.

It is not that the industry ties to anti-social forces were previously unknown. Engineers who worked for the firm noted the practice dated of employing yakuza members at nuclear plants dates back to the 1990s. Police sources also recognize that yakuza having been supplying labor to the area for decades. In the Japanese underworld, the nuclear industry is the last refuge for those who have nowhere to go. One yakuza explains it as folk wisdom, “Otoko wa Genpatsu, Onna was Seifuzoku・男は原発、女は性風俗”–, in other words, “When a man is has to survive doing something, it’s the nuclear industry; for a woman, it’s the sex industry.”

The Fukushima plant is located in the turf of the Sumiyoshi-kai, which is the second largest yakuza group in Japan with roughly 12,000 members; it has a well-known office in Tokyo’s Ginza District and operates under the banner Hama Enterprise. One mid-level executive in the organization even defends the role of his members in the Fukushima disaster. “The accident isn’t our fault,” he said. “It’s TEPCO’s fault. We’ve always been a necessary evil in the work process. In fact, if some of our men hadn’t stayed to fight the meltdown, the situation would have been much worse. TEPCO employees and the Nuclear Industry Safety Agency inspectors mostly fled; we stood our ground.”

However, while the symbiotic relationship between TEPCO and the yakuza has existed for decades, the relationship is officially “unacceptable.” The controversy became so great after the accident thatTEPCO pledged on July 19 to try to keep yakuza members from participating in the reconstruction of the power plant and related projects. They have been working with the Japanese National Police Agency (JNPA) to accomplish this but sources inside that agency are dubious as to whether there have been any real results. TEPCO officials met with the National Police Agency and 23 subcontractors in July and created a conference group on organized crimes issues according to government sources and they have met several times since. TEPCO explained at the time, “we want to people to widely know our exclusionary stance towards organized crime.”

According to TEPCO and police sources, since the reconstruction project has picked up speed, the number of workers has dramatically increased to several thousand. The JNPA has directed TEPCO from as early as June, to keep the yakuza out—although many of the subcontractors of the subcontractors are known yakuza front companies. Over 140 workers have been found to have used fake names when getting jobs doing reconstruction work and are presently unaccounted for. In reporting for Yakuza and the Nuclear Industry Tomohiko Suzuki was able to get into the reactor as a cleanup worker under false pretenses partly by using organized crime connections. According to Suzuki, three of the fabled “Fukushima Fifty” who stayed behind during the most dangerous days of high-level radiation leaks were local yakuza bosses and soldiers. He does not specify which groups they belonged to.


Even before the meltdown, it was very common for TEPCO to use temporary staffing firms that that would ultimately outsource work to organized crime front companies such as M-Kogyo in Fukuoka Prefecture and Yokohama which is backed by the Kudo-kai (工藤会). Organized crime groups from Kyushu are bringing workers as well. Many of the workers are homeless people, debtors to yakuza loan sharks, or former yakuza who have been expelled from their group.

In fact, in May, TEPCO’s Public Relations Department, when asked by this reporter, if TEPCO’s contracts with subcontractors have what are now standard “organized crime exclusionary clauses” (暴力団排除条項), a spokesperson replied, “We don’t have them standardized into our contracts. We don’t check or demand that our subcontractors have them in their contracts. We are considering doing so in the future.”

TEPCO has not responded to recent requests for clarification on any changes. or whether they have fully implemented the Japanese government issued guidelines for corporations who wish to avoid doing business with organized crime. TEPCO also refused to name the companies they use for outsourcing labor, background security checks, and general security at the nuclear power plants, “because to do so would be in non-compliance with personal privacy information protection laws.”

At the conferences with the police, TEPCO was supposed to share information with the police, learn the proper methods of dealing with organized crime shakedowns, and study how to do the paperwork to require the subcontractors to exclude organized crime from their businesses. However, TEPCO will probably not be held responsible for the second or third tier firms to which the work is further subcontracted. A senior National Police Agency officer, speaking on grounds of anonymity said, “I doubt these meetings with TEPCO have produced any great results. TEPCO has a history of doing business with the yakuza that is far deeper than just using their labor. Under the new laws that went into effect on October 1st, providing capital or profits to anti-social forces becomes a crime. The TMPD (Tokyo Metro Police Department) may have to issue TEPCO a warning. After the warning, there could be arrests.”

The same source noted that a TEPCO employee was arrested for insurance fraud along with a Sumiyoshi-kai member in May of this year but there was no evidence that TEPCO itself or any other TEPCO employees were involved in the crime. It only indicated that at least one TEPCO employee had organized crime connections. In January of 2003, it was reported that TEPCO had been making pay offs to the Sumiyoshi-kai for over twenty years via leasing plants and buying green tea from them. TEPCO also allegedly paid an Yamaguchi-gumi associate and former member, Takeuchi Yoichi, several thousand dollars to stop writing about safety problems at the Fukushima nuclear reactor in the 1990s. As Isao Mori reports in the recently published book Dirty Money (泥のカネ), after Mizutani Construction was named a sub-contractor on TEPCO’s Fukushima nuclear reactor waste disposal project, it paid Takeuchi’s front company “consulting fees” of around ¥120 million (roughly $1.5 million). The same firm also allegedly paid over a million dollars in under the table political donations to Ichiro Ozawa, former “kingpin” of Japan’s ruling party, the Democratic Party of Japan. (Ozawa is currently on trial for violations of thepolitical funds control law.) Mizutani Construction executives have admitted in court that it was standard practice to pay off local yakuza groups and politicians to obtain construction contracts, including those in the nuclear industry.

One National Police official responsible for the Fukushima District said Takeuchi and his involvement with TEPCO were well known among law enforcement. “I know the name very well. There are credible reasons to believe that he shook down TEPCO in the past and he has certainly been the beneficiary of contracts related to Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant construction. Whether TEPCO was victimized by him or the relationship was more symbiotic, I can’t say.”

Police and underworld sources also allege that a Matsuba-kai related front company is handling waste disposal at TEPCO plants and that TEPCO executives as recently as this summer were going on golfing jaunts with Matsuba-kai members. The Matsuba-kai is one of the ten largest yakuza groups in Japan with a strong presence in Tokyo but not a major powerhouse.

The Inagawa-kai, the third largest organized crime group in Japan, with offices across from the Tokyo Ritz Carlton has also been involved in the reconstruction efforts. Most of the yakuza involvement is in procuring workers to do the jobs of laying pipes and cleaning up debris while being exposed to high levels of radiation. The yakuza bring the laborers there but do not labor there. However, heavy constructions and other work is being done by yakuza front companies or firms with strong yakuza ties.

When asked what were the major differences between the yakuza and TEPCO the same Senator paused for a minute. “The primary difference between TEPCO and the yakuza is they have different corporate logos.” He explained, “They both are essentially criminal organizations that place profits above the safety and welfare of the residents where they operate; they both exploit their workers. On the other hand, the yakuza may care more about what happens where they operate because many of them live there. For Tokyo Electric Power Company, Fukushima is just the equivalent of a parking lot.”

UPDATE: At the end of April, TEPCO was effectively nationalized by the Japanese government.

Note: Parts of  this article were originally published on The Atlantic Wire.