It’s a hand grenade! Pretty poetic, don’t you think? I heard the term last week when a cop was discussing a series of incidents in Fukuoka Prefecture in which the trucks of a landscape gardening company had grenades tossed inside them while the drivers were away, none of which exploded.
It seems like a very evocative word for those little instruments of mass destruction. Of course, I probably seemed like an idiot asking, “Why would yakuza throw fruit inside a truck? Does a pineapple have some sort of cultural significance?”
Sometimes a pineapple is just a pineapple; sometimes, it’s a grenade.
This is an interesting article from The Independent about “the John Gotti” of Japan turning over a new leaf. Personally, I kind of wish I hadn’t made the remarks in the story at 5 am in the morning, but then again, they are kind of funny—in a black humor sort of way. Maybe Goto really does regret his depraved life and is seeking spiritual salvation. It would be nice if took some of his ill-gotten gains and donated them to charity to show his “sincerity” but I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. At the very end of the story is a photo of what allegedly is the statement that Goto passed out at his Buddhist priest initiation ceremony. I’m working on a rough translation although some of the words are fairly esoteric.
One of Japan’s most feared yakuza has renounced violence and found Buddhism. A genuine conversion? Or a desperate attempt to avoid assassination at the hands of his enemies? David McNeill reports
Picture the scene: a fleet of black limousines crunches up the driveway of a Buddhist temple nestled in lush pine-carpeted mountains an hour west of Tokyo. The precious cargo of limousine one – a violent but ageing mob boss – steps out into the sun, surrounded by four sumo-sized bodyguards and is welcomed by a priest. As cherry blossom petals blow gently in the wind, the gangster enters the shrine and proceeds to be solemnly ordained into the Buddhist priesthood.
It sounds like the opening of a terrible yakuza movie, but this is what took place in this picture-perfect setting when Tadamasa Goto, one of Japan’s most feared mob bosses, stepped out of the shadows this week and into the path of God.
Unsurprisingly, he was watched – at a safe distance – by a 40-strong media scrum. It was as if the infamous mafia don John Gotti, a man with whom Goto is sometimes compared, had ditched his dapper suits for priests’ robes at the local Catholic church.
Note: I’ve been working with the Polaris Project Japan, a non-profit organization that combats human trafficking and sexual exploitation of women and children, since 2005 and recently agreed to be their temporary public relations director. In the last year, a lot of the calls coming to Polaris Project Japan were concerning Japanese teenage women who appeared to have been forced into the sex industry–not foreign women. It does seem that the Japanese government has been enforcing the anti-human trafficking laws to the point where there are significantly fewer non-Japanese women being made sex-slaves. However, it seems they have been replaced by young Japanese teenage girls, many of them runaways or abused children.
Polaris Project Japan had the brilliant idea of reaching out directly to these girls by making a mobile-phone web-site aimed at them, that was user friendly, and could offer some good advice. Young schoolgirls don’t read newspapers, don’t watch as much television as they did, and most of their communications is over cell-phones and social networking sites. Unfortunately, such sites have also becoming prime hunting grounds for pimps, low-life yakuza, and pedophiles who seek out fresh meat to use themselves or sell to others.
The contents of the consultations that Polaris Project Japan and their partner organization Yukon have gotten are quite unpleasant.
● From Host Club Patron To Forced Prostitution
A male Host asked a young victim come visit his club without worrying about money. After his begging continued, she went to the club a few times. Then, a different man from the club asked her for a few hundred thousand yen (a few thousand dollars) for the food and drinks she had consumed. She received threatening phone calls and was even ambushed at her own home. The men kept pressuring the girl to pay the bill, coercing her to go and work in the sex industry. Around that time, she was put in touch with Polaris, and after consulting with the police, she is safe once again.
Note: I covered incidents like this one as far back as 2000, when I was still a police reporter assigned to the 4th district. It’s a classic technique that yakuza or general low-lives use to force young women into the sex trade. Host clubs seems to be the equivalent of trafficking recruitment centers in many parts of Japan.
● A 14-year-old farmed out as a prostitute by her classmates
Her friends told her that she had a bad attitude, and forced her to apologize by paying money earned from prostitution. A few months later, through some website, she was introduced to a customer, and forced into prostitution. It had already been taken up as a case as a juvenile victim when she contacted this organization. She says, “I’m out of the situation, but I have nowhere to go. I always feel depressed.I let myself get picked up for casual sex, abuse my body, and start crying for no reason.” Polaris Project Japan provides her regular counseling and the support she needs.
Anyway, these are some of the cases that have come up in the last year, there probably are a lot more. Below is the press release for the web-site. The press conference was held April 1st (Japan time) at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Japan.
Polaris Project Japan Launches a New Mobile Website:
To help victims of child/teen prostitution
and child pornography and prevent further exploitation
The Polaris Project Japan (PPJ) is the Japanese branch of Polaris Project in Washington DC.PPJ has been operating a hot-line for human trafficking victims for several years In the last year, PPJ has been receiving more and more calls not just from the traditional human trafficking victims–foreign women ensnared in the sex industry–but Japanese teenage girls who have been lured or forced into the sex industry and can’t get out, and sometimes even been asked by their own parents to work in the industry to make money for their family members.
Contrary to the popular picture of Japanese teenage prostitutes as clueless teenagers who just want to earn money to buy a designer bag–many of the girls now in the industry are there because of financial necessity and a lack of support for abused girls and boys who run away from home.
Many of these victims are recruited over the internet and or/are sold over social networking sites by their pimps–like commodities.
The National Police Agency reported in 2008 internet Profile sites and Social networking sites are the hotbeds of child sex crimes, surpassing the net dating sites (which were originally the hub of sex trafficking).
It is hard to measure the extent of the problem because no Japanese government agency has attempted a comprehensive survey, and the laws protecting children are administrated by many different government agencies and ministries that do not share information or work together.
To provide an effective and systematical intervention to prevent sexual exploitation of adolescents and help victims, Polaris Project is launching a website:
¨To provide an environment to seek counseling in a safe and anonymous way.
¨To give information to questions like “What happens if….”, rather than sending simple “Stop” or “Danger” signs.
¨To eliminate the embarrassment and fear of seeking counseling face to face by allowing contacts via website and phone.
¨To inform the victims of additional channels of help available.
Polaris Project will also be working with The Children’s Human Rights Committee of the Japan Lawyer’s Association, Prefectural Women’s Centers, and Children’s Shelters to make sure that the children calling receive the best care and advice possible. It will also advertise on sites popular with Japanese youth to make sure the message reaches those who are most vulnerable.
【About Polaris Project】
Polaris Project is a non-profit organization that combats human trafficking and sexual exploitation of women and children. It was established in 2002 in Washington D.C., USA. In 2004, the Japan office was launched in Tokyo. Our activities and projects include victim outreach, multi-lingual hotline, victim support, and workshops for public and government agencies in positions of direct contact with victims.
It’s a more than a memoir and more than just about yakuza. It contains tales of dog breeding serial killers, the strange world of Japan’s red-light district, a look at human trafficking in Japan, the story of how four Japanese gangsters were able to get liver transplants at UCLA and why I think that’s a travesty, and an introduction to the rituals of Japanese daily life and especially those of a police beat reporter. And sometimes, it’s funny. Black humor, yes, but it’s there. It’s also everything I learned over the last fifteen years of wandering through the darker side of the land of the rising sun. There was a lesson to be learned there. Somewhere.
Posted here is an interview I did with Ken Cukier at The Economist in February. The article he wrote about why the yakuza are still flourishing was very insightful and certainly took an unusual angle in explaining the situation.
If you know me, you may be surprised that I sound reasonably lucid in this interview. That’s those years of working in public radio finally coming in handy.
I’ve been reading the book, Black Money （ブラックマネー）by Suda Shinichiro, which is a fairly good description of Japan’s nearly 20,000,000,000,000 yen underground economy. Yes, those figures are correct, by the way.
The yakuza invasion of Japan’s financial markets in recent years has been amazing and rapid. Prime Minister Koizumi (who’s grandfather was a member of the Inagawa-kai crime group) , under encouragement from the Bush administration and with the advice of Miyauchi, the chairman of the Orix group, instituted a widespread relaxation of previous laws and regulations of the finance industry which made it possible for organized crime to get their foot in the door, and once they got inside the House Of Commerce, they decided to stay.
The modern yakuza, or the 成人ヤクザ, make their real money in loan-sharking, stock manipulation, real-estate speculation, and IPOs. They need a veneer of legitimacy to do this and that is usually done by creating a dummy corporation—front companies.
One of the things I liked most about this book is the section where Suda discusses how the yakuza have changed over the years, and the very nature of the yakuza front company has changed as well. Personally, I feel kind of nostalgic for the days when yakuza were idiots. They’d use their own gang offices as the company registration and put their own members on the board of directors. If you had a roster of yakuza names or a good database, it wasn’t hard to determine whether it was a front company or not. Hell, you could to the office and watch the tattooed guys in bad suits come and go and pretty much figure it out instantly.
There is a very good book, long since out of print, by Mizoguchi Atsushi, called Yakuza Front Company. I think it was issued around 1992, or 1991. I don’t have a copy with me right now. In that book, he gave a very credible explanation of why the Yamaguchi-gumi, the Wal-Mart of organized crime in Japan, holds such a large number of front companies. Back in the day, when the Yamaguchi-gumi had agreed to stay out of Tokyo, they weren’t able to open gang offices. However, front companies were a different thing. It allowed them to operate in Tokyo but not necessarily as “the Yamaguchi-gumi.” In many ways, the front companies paved the way for the Yamaguchi-gumi invasion of Tokyo with the “merger” between the Yamaguchi-gumi and the Kokusuikai （国粋会）in November of 2005.
Well, anyway, things used to be a lot simpler when I was a cub reporter. The basics of yakuza operations were gambling, prostitution, extortion, violence, blackmail and shakedowns. They certainly have diversified over the years. I’m having to read books on finance and forensic accounting to keep up. If you don’t understand the stock markets in Japan, you can’t understand the modern yakuza.
Recently, I found a front company for a front company of a front company. In other words, it took me three layers of digging to find out the real company I was looking at and another layer to figure out which organized crime group was really running the show. It’s like peeling an onion and the onions keep getting bigger.
However, one yakuza boss did dispute my whining that yakuza money-earning activities （シノギ）had really changed in the last fifteen years.
“The yakuza started at gamblers （博徒). Gambling was always a source of great revenue for us, whether we received protection money from the bakuchiba (博打場・ばくちば=casino）operating on our turf, or whether we actually ran the bakuchiba ourselves. Yakuza, the word itself, refers to a losing hand in Japanese gambling. And when we run the casinos, we always set it up so that the house wins more often and wins bigger. The Japanese stock market–all it really is a virtual bakuchiba, and it’s not hard to rig. Nowadays they call it ‘insider trading’ but it’s really just a crooked card game of sorts. 如何様の博打に過ぎない. We have the capital to play the game and win every time. Monthly dues to the organization alone from lower ranking factions are tremendous revenue. The Osaka Stock Exchange–might as well be Caesar’s Palace for some of us. The difference is that we’re not ordinary customers and we already have our own dealers on the inside. How could we lose?”
As Japan’s economy weakens, what are 80,000 gang members to do?
By Justin McCurry
Published: February 5, 2009 18:35 ET
TOKYO — Kazuhiro Yamada may describe himself as an innocent victim of the recession, but he is unlikely to win much sympathy.
Until he lost his job last year, Yamada, who prefers not to reveal his real name, was a member of the Sumiyoshi-kai, one of Japan’s most notorious crime syndicates, or yakuza.
As a mid-ranking mobster in greater Tokyo, his duties included shaking down businesses for protection money, chauffeuring his bosses around town and, on occasion, providing muscle when his gang’s relations with associates threatened to turn sour.
Then, at short notice, he was unceremoniously dumped for not paying his dues, a non-negotiable condition of yakuza membership from the lowliest mobster to the men at the very apex of their criminal careers.
“Without the organization behind me, what am I supposed to do? Who’s going to hire an old man covered in tattoos with a missing digit?” he says of his vanished pinkie, hacked off in a ritual act of penitence for a past misdeed he’d rather not discuss.
From 2006 to 2007, I worked on US State Department sponsored project to study human trafficking in Japan, and contributed a large portion of the final report. At the time, Japan had serious problems with a thriving trafficking industry. I would reluctantly have to say that things have improved a great deal since the original report was written. Human trafficking in Japan hasn’t been eradicated but there seem to be fewer victims and the harsher penalties and enforcement have made it a less profitable business venture. However, you may find the report interesting in its discussions of links between anti-social elements and Japanese politicians. The link to the documentary and the printed report should be available by clicking the red map of Japan.
Takayama Wakagashira : The Defacto Leader of the Yamaguchi-gumi is alive and well….more or less.
2009 should be an interesting year for us all and an especially interesting year in the world of organized crime. Around the close of the year, Takayama Kiyoshi （高山清司), the number two in the Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s largest organized crime group, collapsed at a “company function” and was briefly hospitalized in Kobe. The cause of his collapse was a heart-attack. Apparently, dealing with the failed coup by Goto and his minions and other issues creating conflict within the Yamaguchi-gumi have taken their toll on him.
Rumors abounded that he was in critical condition or close to dying–but as you can see in these pictures, taken over the New Year–he is still very much alive.
The ruler of the Yamaguchi-gumi, Tsukasa Shinobu, is also said to be in poor health, possibly suffering from prostate cancer. Medical care in Japanese prisons is terrible so you can’t help but feel a little sorry for him if it’s true. In any event, with the two defacto heads of the Yamaguchi-gumi in poor health–strife is sure to follow.
The second photo is from the Yamaguchi-gumi’s annual rice cake making festival (餅つき大会）which is open to the public, and usually performed in front of their massive Kobe Headquarters. Who can dislike gangsters that make such delicious traditional Japanese treats?
JSRC has been in hibernation for most of November, while I’ve been re-evaluating my place in the world after Goto Tadamasa’s fall from power, making a living, and working on the Japanese draft of TOKYO VICE. The book may end up coming out in Japanese before it comes out in English.
Many interesting things have happening in Japan’s underworld while we were away and we hope to share them with you by the end of December. By the way, if anyone has questions about the yakuza, crime in Japan, the latest strange trends in the country, or suggestions for something you’d like to see on this site–feel free to write in.