Reconstructing 3/11: Sometimes The Yakuza Live Up To Their Ideals
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. 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.
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, a.k.a “the yakuza.” There are 79,000 of them in the country, and when you take into consideration the scale of their organization — the thousands of front companies, affiliated industries, and associated members — they are almost a second army in Japan. As unlikely as it may seem, this army chose to be among Japan’s first responders.
I’ve been working as a reporter in Japan since 1993. I cut my teeth as a cub reporter covering the organized crime division of the Saitama Police Department and the yakuza. I’ve been doing it in one form or another ever since. I’ve always considered them an enemy of the people of Japan, a malevolent force. But it took 3/11 to actually get me to cooperate with them. On the day of the earthquake I was in New York, at the Japan Society Yakuza Film Festival lecturing on the yakuza as they are portrayed in the movies versus how they are in real life. In the movies, the yakuza are often portrayed as outlaw heroes — members of the community that help out in times of crisis and keep order when chaos reigns.
In my presentation, I argued that might have been true in the turbulent period right after the end of the Second World War but not now. Now the yakuza are Goldman Sachs with guns —increasingly white collar criminals who follow no code and who serve no function in society. I would have to revise that presentation slightly if I gave it again now. Sometimes, people live up to their mythology.
Why would crime groups help the disaster victims rather than rob them or take advantage the chaos to loot and pillage the devastated areas? This is something that surprised many. What exactly did these groups do to help out and preserve order? While covering the earthquake for various media outlets and www.japansubculture.com, I spent weeks tracking the yakuza and the role they played in the post-quake recovery efforts and was surprised at what I found. Sometimes, the worst of times bring out the best of the worst and this was one of those times. But in order to understand why the yakuza would perform a useful role in preserving the peace and providing humanitarian relief, you have to understand the role the yakuza play in Japanese society.
First, the yakuza, officially called “anti-social forces” and “violent groups” by the authorities, are not a secret society in Japan. The Japanese government tacitly recognizes their existence. They are classified, designated, and regulated — everything short of outlawed. These designated crime groups themselves, of course, do not refer to themselves that way. They claim they are “ninkyo-dantai” i.e., “humanitarian groups,” following the ninkyodo humanitarian philosophy which dictates that those following the code should protect the weak and oppressed, provide help to the needy and sacrifice themselves for the greater good.
The third largest yakuza group in Japan, the Inagawa-kai (10,000 members), has their Tokyo offices across from the snazzy Ritz Carlton Tokyo in the high-yen Roppongi Midtown area. The second largest crime group, the Sumiyoshi-kai (12,000 members) under the name Hama Enterprises, has an office building in the ultra-expensive Ginza district. The Yamaguchi-gumi, the Wal-mart of organized crime (39,000 members), has an entire city block for their office compound in Kobe.
Yes — the yakuza have offices. In fact, if you want to know the addresses of the headquarters of the 22 major designated crime groups with a total membership of over 80,000 people, all you have to do is look on the National Police Agency (NPA) web site. Yakuza make their money from extortion, blackmail, construction, real estate, collection services, financial market manipulation, protection rackets, fraud and a labyrinth of front companies including labor dispatch services, database servers, and private detective agencies. Tokyo alone has over 800 front companies. The police know who they are and where they are. And so do most people in Japan.
If you want to know who are the yakuza elite, the bosses of the bosses, all you need to do is go to any major bookstore and buy a yakuza fanzine, of which there are six (three weekly, three monthly) or any of the many yakuza comic book biographies of bosses present and past. I have one comic about the only yakuza boss ever grabbed in an FBI sting operation. The comic is particularly amusing to me because I’m good friends with the FBI Special Agent who made the arrest. It’s a small world.
The origins of the yakuza are murky. The word “yakuza” itself (accent on the first syllable) comes from a losing hand in a traditional Japanese gambling game played with dice. The losing hand consisted of an 8 (ya), 9 (ku) and 3 (za) adding up to 20, which according to the rules of the time was the worst possible hand you could get. It’s a self-effacing reference to the origins of the groups, many of which were originally loose federations of gamblers. (In Western Japan, they are less humble, referring to themselves as Gokudo — the ultimate path). Some groups like the Aizukotetsukai, founded in Kyoto circa 1868, have been around for over a hundred years. In addition to the federations of gamblers who were known as yakuza and/or bakuto, there were groups of merchants called tekiya, who also were considered yakuza. The tekiya made their living as wandering merchants, selling their wares and food at the many festivals in Japan and sometimes selling stolen goods as well. However, the yakuza really came into power during the chaos after the end of World War II. In those years, joining the mob appealed particularly to disenfranchised returning soldiers: burakumin, the country’s “outcaste” class; orphans; and the many Korean-Japanese who had been brought into Japan as slave labor.
Today almost one-third of the yakuza population consists of Korean-Japanese. During the lawless period after Japan’s 1945 defeat, the Korean-Japanese, who had been oppressed by the Imperial Japanese government, made inroads into the underworld. US occupying forces designated them “third-party nationals,” treating them differently than the defeated Japanese. This gave them access to US military supplies and enabled them to run the black markets.
In some ways, the 20th-century rebirth of the yakuza in Japan was a response to the domination of the black markets by the Koreans, Chinese and other non-Japanese residents. The Koreans in particular had formed their own small gangs, which would rob and pillage from other Japanese and then sell the same goods the next day on the black market. By April of 1946, the occupying authorities (General Headquarters, or GHQ) decreed that all those residing in Japan must follow Japanese law. But before that, the Japanese police found their efforts to crack down on the yakuza hampered by GHQ’s decision to decentralize the police. In February of 1946, foreign nationals beat a senior police officer in the city of Kobe to death. In April of the same year, a police captain at the Suma Police station in Kobe was shot to death. The police reached out to Yamaguchi-gumi members to keep the peace and subsume some of their duties. In the summer of that year, a powerful politician from the newly formed Liberal Democratic Party and future senator, Ryoichi Tsukada, presided at the succession ceremony of the Yamaguchi-gumi where Kazuo Taoka became the third generation leader. For decades, relations between the police and the yakuza were friendly. Indeed in 1959, Mr. Taoka was made honorary police chief for a day at the Suijo Police Station out of respect for his efforts.
At the same time, Japanese gangs who were fighting over black market turf with the Koreans began reviving the old yakuza structure, and incorporated many Korean-Japanese into their ranks: rather than wage direct war, they began a successful policy of assimilation. In some cases, the police actually backed the Japanese yakuza groups in an effort to restore order and limit the power and breadth of the Korean gangs.
By the late 50s, the Yamaguchi-gumi had assimilated the most vicious of the Korean mob groups, the Yanagawa-gumi, into its ranks, gaining rapidly in both in power and prestige. The Yanagawa-gumi ran very organized and proficient rackets, controlling prices on food stuffs and even setting up their own talent agency and front company, Yanagawa Kogyo, to legitimize their operations. The Yamaguchi-gumi learned from their Korean allies as well, setting up front companies to run the Kobe ports and to control the entertainment industry and manage the top singers and pop-culture stars of the era (Kobe Geinosha, etc.) Meanwhile, in postwar Tokyo, the Kyokutokai, a yakuza federation of merchants and black market dealers, used their own Japanese-Korean members to recruit from the Korean side, eventually gaining partial control of the city. Over in western Japan, the Yamaguchi-gumi played both sides, promising both to restore order and suppress the violent Korean gangs. While the Yamaguchi-gumi was consolidating power in Tokyo with the aid of Korean-Japanese, the legendary Korean gangster, Machii Hisayuki, exploited GHQ’s fears of a communist takeover to build his own criminal organization; some of this is documented in Robert Whiting’s seminal book, Tokyo Underworld. In 1948, Machii created the Toseikai in Ginza, Japan’s largest entertainment district. The group took over the gambling dens, the bars, the cabaret clubs, and the sex trade. The Toseikai, like many other yakuza groups, began to grow at a rapid pace, elbowing into post-war reconstruction as well. (Even today, it’s estimated that three to five percent of all construction revenue goes into the pockets of the yakuza.)
What gave the yakuza another major infusion of capital and power was the ban on methamphetamines in the early 50s. Japan was one of the first countries to successfully manufacture amphetamines on a large scale, under the brand name Hiropon: “Hiro”, being the word for fatigue and “pon” being the sound of something hopping away. “Your fatigue will fly away with Hiropon.” It was a substance distributed widely to the Japanese army at the close of the war when food supplies were short. Hiropon was taken off the market but the demand did not diminish and the yakuza stepped in to fill the gap.
The yakuza reputation for keeping disputes between themselves and not harming citizens has protected them from the ire of the public and the attention of the police. They have been simultaneously considered a “necessary evil”, a “second police force” and a group of outlaws. But as the groups got bigger and their power became more than was tolerable, the police began to crack down. Yet, the organizations were still very much public entities, operating without fear and in the open.
The ambiguity surrounding the acceptance of the yakuza in Japanese society was supposed to have ended in 1992, when the government introduced real anti-mob legislation. The laws have been for the most part ineffective. The number of yakuza in Japan in 1993 was roughly 80,000 and last year, it was 78,000. It has been a flat line. New laws that went into effect on October 1, 2011, may change that. The news laws criminalize both paying off the yakuza and working with them in profitable ventures. If you pay protection money you are no longer “victim”, you are now an accomplice.
Ironically, in many ways, insufficient laws in the past have resulted in the yakuza moving from a traditional protection-money-based revenue model into a more corporate model, one which has seen them expand into areas they were not traditionally found, including the stock market. By 2008, the National Police Agency went so far as to say, “The yakuza inroads into the financial markets are so serious that they threaten the very economic foundation of this country.”
Yet, despite all this, the yakuza remain a part of Japanese society. Part of the reason they don’t fade away is that many still remember when they played a vital role in “keeping the peace in Japan.” Many people feel they are a necessary evil but acceptable because at least they are organized and regulated. That perception is not entirely unfounded.
The reasons for yakuza tolerance are complex, but one is that while they are bands of criminals, they share an almost universal list of standards and practices that keeps them in check. All yakuza are expected to follow these, and failure to do so results in expulsion. In theory, if not in practice, yakuza are banned from: 1) theft (including looting) 2) robbery (taking things by force) 3) using or selling drugs 4) rape 5) anything else not in harmony with the “noble way” — ninkyodo. And even though it may not be written down, the prevailing rule of thumb for yakuza is “katagi ni meiwaku wo kakenai,” “Do not cause trouble to ordinary citizens.” In short, yakuza are banned from committing street crimes. (In response to the question, “Why aren’t blackmail and extortion banned?” The reply was, “if you have something to be blackmailed about, you deserve to be punished. That’s social justice.”)
On their own turf, yakuza are brutal enforcers at keeping the peace. This is in their self-interests as well. If people don’t feel safe coming to visit the areas where they have their sex-shops, illegal gambling parlors, strip-clubs, and hostess clubs — they lose money. It pays to keep the peace. By the night of March 11, in Tokyo, Fukushima, Miyagi, Chiba and other areas in Japan, the local yakuza groups already had yakuza soldiers patrolling the areas, keeping an eye out for looters, thieves and profiteers. In the sparsely populated towns in parts of Miyagi Prefecture, the yakuza were the most visible “police presence” of them all.The yakuza are people as well. Many of the yakuza had friends and relatives in the stricken areas. As reports of violence and sexual assault started to drift in from the shelters, the National Police Agency reportedly responded by sending thirty female police officers to the shelters. A drop in the ocean.
The Yamaguchi-gumi responded by sending out 960 members across the nation to keep order within the shelters and devastated areas, particularly Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima Prefectures. Internally they were dubbed “The Yamaguchi-gumi Peace-Keeping Forces.” Members were asked to display their tattoos and walk around the shelters, to make it very clear that they were yakuza, knowing this would have a deterrent effect on the common criminal and/or sexual miscreant. Until March 21, the Yamaguchi-gumi presence at the shelters was greater than the police presence. By the start of April, officers from the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department and elsewhere were being dispatched to the disaster areas. There is a certain irony in that the first role of the yakuza in the post-quake chaos was that of law enforcer. However, their relief efforts came immediately after.
The response of the Sumiyoshi-kai in Tokyo was fast and furious. They opened their offices to those stranded in Tokyo, as all major forms of transportation shut down. In a surprising gesture of civility, they even reached out to the foreign community, offering shelter to Chinese and Americans who were unable to make it home that day, providing futons to sleep on and food. I was surprised to have one yakuza member write to me directly and ask me to get the word out to other foreigners in the area.
In Saitama, the Sumiyoshi-kai immediately began piling trucks with supplies and foods and sent them to Ibaraki prefecture. Within a week, the Sumiyoshi-kai had mobilized 60 cars and trucks and over 100 drivers to carry supplies into the devastated areas. In heavily stricken Sendai, they had 100 of their toughest thugs patrol the streets and stay at the shelters keeping the peace.
The Matsuba-kai, which has a strong presence in the devastated areas including Fukushima, rounded up 100 trucks and 121 drivers to carry water, blankets and other essentials to the stricken areas.
The Inagawa-kai was enormously effective. Within one week, they had sent 100 trucks with over 280 tons of supplies to Hitachinaka City and other devastated areas in Japan. It helped that they have at least one trucking company affiliated with the organization. They went under the cover of night — all clad in long sleeve shirts as not to reveal their telltale tattoos. They dropped off the supplies directly at shelters and in front of city halls.
The response of the Kyokutokai was what you would expect from a historically tekiya group, traveling merchants and food vendors. They sent food supplies and went themselves to the areas and provided hot meals. By April 14, they had sent two tons of sugar, 15,000 bottles of water, 700 boxes of cooking oil, 80 portable generators, 600 light bulbs, 1,000 flashlights, 400 boxes of batteries, 250 boxes of miso for soup and seasoning, 30 tons of food supplies and 80 portable food stands. To do this they mobilized a total of 110 trucks, microbuses and cars. They travelled on roads where they existed, and made their own where they couldn’t find them and had their members carry the supplies into areas where vehicles could not reach. The members cooked meals at some shelters, left supplies at city halls, and then came back to the Kanto area.
Of course, the most efficient and fast-moving group in the relief effort was the Yamaguchi-gumi, who have a history of post disaster humanitarian work. After the great Kobe earthquake in 1995, the Yamaguchi-gumi (which has their fortress-like headquarters in Kobe) gathered supplies from all around the country and brought them into the devastated city, dispensing hot food from their offices and patrolling the streets to keep down looting. They were lauded for being faster and more efficient than the government in getting supplies to those who needed them. They’ve been capitalizing on the goodwill generated by those events for over a decade now.
During the Tohoku disaster, the Yamaguchi-gumi, under heavy police scrutiny, did most of their work via civilian allies, called kyoseisha (cooperative entities)in police lingo. The acting leader at the time, Tadashi Irie, of the Takumi-gumi faction, organized most of the support. The Yamaguchi-gumi Okuura-Gumi leader (based in Osaka) chartered several trucks and sent all 200 of his subordinates into disaster-stricken areas with supplies, allegedly even setting up temporary bathing facilities in Miyagi Prefecture and making sure victims got hot meals. The boss himself cooked up food and served it to the victims.
A former Sumiyoshi-kai executive explained the efforts simply: “For a brief time, the usual societal divisions were meaningless. There weren’t yakuza and civilians or foreigners and Japanese. We were all just survivors. Just people. Now there is money to be made. Back then it was about saving lives and helping each other out. Ninety-five percent of all yakuza are human garbage. Maybe five percent uphold the rules. For a short time, we were the yakuza of legend. It’s one of the few times we can be better than we normally are.”
Even a senior police officer agrees, speaking under condition of anonymity. “I have to hand it to the yakuza. They have been on the ground from day one providing aid where others didn’t or couldn’t do it. Laws can be like a two-edged sword and sometimes they hamper relief efforts. Sometimes, outlaws are faster than the law. This is one of those times.”
I agree with him. On the day of the earthquake, I decided to return to Japan from New York as soon as possible but not without bringing supplies that were needed. I had contacts in the Inagawa-kai. I knew they were trucking supplies into the radioactive wasteland near the Fukushima Reactor — with no protective clothing, no Geiger counter, and no potassium iodide to stave off thyroid cancer — the most common radiation sickness for those exposed to a nuclear accident. I ordered what I could get off of Amazon and I asked my yakuza contacts what people needed in the shelters. I brought back three suitcases crammed full of water purification tablets, blankets, batteries, flashlights, warm socks, potassium iodide pills, a radiation meter and other necessities with me to Japan. On my way to Japan, United Airlines stopped me and was about to charge me an astronomical fee for going over my baggage weight limit. However, when I explained to the man at the counter why I was bringing so much luggage, he nodded and gave me a break. He told me, “My family survived a terrible earthquake in Chile years ago. I understand how bad things can get. Bundle the bags a little better — and go. Good luck.”
When I got to Tokyo, I handed the bags over to a yakuza foot-solider. Within 18 hours, almost everything I had given him was at a shelter near Iwaki City. When he came back from the run, he showed me a photo of them unloading the supplies.
I wanted to do my part, to volunteer. I asked to go on a run with him. He looked at me and said, “You’re scrawny and unhealthy looking. Your sentiment is appreciated and I know your intentions are good but you’d be a burden rather than help. We have to haul these supplies for hours over areas where there are no roads. We might have to haul you back and that would be a waste of resources.” And so I didn’t go.
Good intentions don’t only pave the road to hell; they can be obstacles to getting things carried down the road as well. It was better to stand aside and let the yakuza play the good guy for a change.
Other police officers see another side of the story. One retired detective in the organized crime control division of the TMPD explains, “The earthquake relief provided good cover for girikake or fund raising. The yakuza do this for funerals and other events. They ask all the lower members of the franchise to chip in funds and thus collect large chunks of cash. They’ve been doing it this time as well. It’s a great cover for collecting huge funds right from under our noses. Not all the money collected from the lower rungs of the pyramid makes it to the victims. Certainly, it gets skimmed a little or a lot along the way.”
Of course, since the yakuza are not registered non-profit organizations, it’s very hard to get a look at the books. Anecdotally, it seems like most of the money went to buy supplies for people who needed them and they were distributed.
Tomohiko Suzuki, author of The Yakuza and The Nuclear Industry,and one of Japan’s foremost experts on the Japanese mafia, was also skeptical. “On the ground level, there were some real heroes. And in the Inagawa-kai, some top bosses emptied their own savings to help their people back home. And it’s true — many yakuza shunned publicity. They weren’t promoting their good deeds. But at the end of the day, the top echelon of many yakuza groups were calculating that the goodwill they generated then would serve them well in getting a piece of the recovery and reconstruction pie later. The heroism for many yakuza was a cold-blooded investment — not a pure altruistic act.”
Chairman of the Kyokutokai Matsuyama Shinichi once said about the rules of being a yakuza, “The most important thing is to help the weak. The second is to fulfill your duties, obligations and be true to your feelings. The last thing is not to betray anyone.”
They are good words. I know very few yakuza who have lived up to them, nor many civilians for that matter.
One of the Kyokutokai members who has made three trips to the earthquake areas, paid deference to those words, saying, “We can only do what we know how to do. We’re the guys cooking yakisoba at the festivals. There’s something tragic about taking the equipment and food stuffs we use at happy occasions like the Sanja festival, and setting up shop for those mourning the loss of their loved ones and their homes. Hardly a joyous occasion. I hardly know what to say. A hearty welcome seems out of place, but so does silence.”
There was a brief time after the earthquake when Japan welcomed the yakuza and they welcomed the victims with whatever aid they could provide. As time passes most of them (the yakuza) go back to doing what they really do to make a living: blackmailing, extorting, threatening and defrauding the general populace of their money and engaging in whatever crime they can get away with.
But in the midst of the dark days that followed the great earthquake, there was a time when the yakuza lived up to their claims to be humanitarian groups, and it was oddly inspiring. For a brief time, the yakuza, the people and the police all had a common enemy: natural disaster. And as the saying goes, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” and for that short time — it seemed like we were all friends.
*Memo: A faction of the Inagawa-kai went on the record last year and discussed their reasons for humanitarian actions after the 3/11 disaster and what they did, which we wrote about here. While there are certainly yakuza who helped out for ulterior motives, yakuza are also human beings and some of them went to extraordinary efforts to do some good. Even bad guys sometimes behave like good guys.