The Invisible Yakuza And Those That See Them
Maybe it seems like we glorify the yakuza on this website, and perhaps we do a little. But they are called 暴力団 (boryoku-dan –violent groups) by the police for a reason–violence is the source of their power and wealth and they do not hesitate to use it. The following letter was sent from Sam P, who did an exchange program in Nagoya several years ago, about his encounter with the yakuza as they are. Nagoya is not only home to Toyota, it’s also home to the Kodokai （弘道会）, roughly 4,000 members, and the ruling party of the Yamaguchi-gumi with 40,000 members. They are the most violent and belligerent of all the remaining factions. The yakuza Sam P. witnessed may or may not have been Kodokai members, but it’s highly likely that they were. More about the Kodokai follows after the letter.
Tonight I suddenly understood a mystery which had been eating at me for the last four years.
As a high school exchange student in Nagoya I witnessed an event which left me rattled. I was returning from a field trip with my class. We were across the street from Nagoya-station, waiting to cross to the station’s entrance when all of a sudden a burly man came, and for lack of any artistic phrase, literally kidnapped a middle aged salary man standing in front of me, grabbing him and pulling him away. Nobody did anything. Everyone stood where they were. Mind you, there were at least 30 people watching all of this; high school students and adults on their way to work.
As this was four years ago, I was not yet fluent and felt incapable of expressing my disbelief in anything but English. I am ashamed that I was also one of the people momentarily paralyzed. But thankfully the shock wore off within seconds. Unfortunately, by that time the man was hauling off that salary man down the sidewalk to an alleyway. A fellow student and I quickly yelled at our teacher (sensei) to do something. She refused. Just then we remembered there was a koban (police box) across the street in Nagoya station. We ran to the koban and tried to give as coherent an explanation as possible recounting what we had witnessed. The policewoman thanked us, but we never learned what happened.
Back at school I was furious no one had done anything. I yelled at people and expressed my disgust at all that had transpired that morning. I then turned to my sensei and asked her why she did nothing. She said, “He was probably yakuza. I don’t want to get involved!” At that time I knew nothing other then yakuza were Japan’s equivilent of the mob. Moreover, I did not know just how powerful the yakuza were and what the roles they played in Japanese society were. I was ignorant at best. Therefore I could not comprehend her answer. I could only see her and the other adults at the crime scene as having failed as ethical people. And even though I read your book back in December, my realization that my sensei had true fears of all too real consequences for getting involved did not occur to me until tonight when I read your January 27th blog entry. To this day I am still rattled by these memories.
I never told my parents what had happened. What was I supposed to say? “Oh, the day was good, but by the way a man standing next to me was abducted, and no one did anything to stop it.” I suppose it is because I felt guilty of not having done more at the time. It’s a shame that has bored a hole into me which I do not know what to do with.
Personally, I think that Sam did far more than most people would do in a similar situation. It’s not a bright idea to play hero when a yakuza is beating the crap out of someone but going to the police or calling 110 (the Japanese equivalent of 911) is certainly worth doing. Whether the police will do anything is another issue.
For many years in Japan, the yakuza could do whatever they wanted; they were above the law–they were, in a sense, invisible. In certain places, they still are. We have received several letters from people with similar stories. The worst of the yakuza are the ones that have no qualms about attacking civilians, although the unwritten rule has always been “we don’t bother ordinary people” (かたぎにめいわくをかけない／堅気に迷惑をかけない）. And lately some factions don’t seem to be afraid of the police either.
The Kodokai has always been the most belligerent of Yamaguchi-gumi factions. Traditionally, relations between the police and the yakuza were civil. Police detectives visited the offices of organized crime members and had reasonably polite exchanges of information. When major crimes occurred, the yakuza groups involved would would turn over the criminal over someone to take the rap, or someone willing to take the fall for the crime, and the person would make a full confession.
Contrary to traditional patterns, the Kodokai will not let police into their offices, their members are ordered to not make confessions, thus they do not confess and do not cooperate with law enforcement in any way, and their antagonism to the police is abnormal for organized crime groups in Japan.
When In 2009, it became widely known that the Kodokai was collecting information on the police officers and detectives assigned to investigate them–photographing their families, tailing them to their homes, and illegally obtaining records of their car registration. The National Police Agency decided that action was warranted. Since 2006, local police officers have known that the Kodokai engaged in such practices but the NPA did not make an issue of it until recently. In 2007, while speaking to the FBI and the National Police Agency as a guest lecturer at the FBI Seattle bureau office, I mentioned the Kodokai harassment of the police and caused several NPA officers to turn green as their FBI counterparts grilled them as to ”Why the f*ck do you let those guys get away with it?” The NPA representatives didn’t have a good answer.
On September 29th, 2009, the NPA sent out a directive to police headquarters nationwide to concentrate their efforts on dismantling and policing not the Yamaguchi-gumi itself, but specifically the Kodokai. In a meeting the same day of organized crime division chiefs from across Japan, Ando Takaharu, the Commissioner General of the NPA stated: “The Kodokai has powered up their antagonistic stance towards law enforcement. They are the driving force behind the Yamaguchi-gumi,” and suggested that crippling them would weaken the Yamaguchi-gumi. This remains to be seen.
Since the NPA announcement, the Yamaguchi has begun trying to cultivate a more positive image, giving the media better access to their annual rice-cake making party at headquarters, and doing things like distributing cash gifts to the local neighborhood children in Kobe in late December of 2009 as “New Year’s gifts” (otoshidama) from “Uncle Takayama”. This has been reported with a mixture of scorn and bemusement by the mainstream press. The police, in particular, have not been amused. For many people, when the yakuza commit violent crimes in front of them, they simply pretend not to see it. A legitimate fear of retaliation and the lack of a witness protection program helps keep the yakuza invisible and keep the public “blind.” But these days, for the police at least, the yakuza aren’t invisible anymore. It may take some time for the general public to see them as well.
“He who is present at a wrongdoing and does not lift a hand to prevent it–he is as guilty as the wrongdoers.” —Apache Indian saying.