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Japan Subculture Research Center

A guide to the Japanese underworld, Japanese pop-culture, yakuza and everything dark under the sun.

The Invisible Yakuza And Those That See Them


Feb 22, 2010

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.

8 thoughts on “The Invisible Yakuza And Those That See Them”
  1. Any thoughts on how the media or an NGO could calculate the real crime rate in japan? I have heard so many bystander crime accounts that I am suspicious if the serious crime rate isn’t as high or higher than a typical american city.

    A friend of mine living in Kachidoki had police detectives come to his bank office about 10 years ago. The Japanese man living above his apartment was murdered, and the police wanted to know if he had heard or saw anything. Amazingly after carrying the body out in a bookshelf the gang had lived in the victims apartment for 2 weeks. My friend scanned the newspapers for weeks and it was never reported. Are these cases included in the official police statistics?

    I’ve also had a warning from my daughters’ school last year of a predator. A friend of mine had his child driven to school by an unknown man as described in his blog.

    There are also many many robberies and break-ins in apartments and houses in Tokyo.

    It would be great if a media outlet would embarrass the japanese police by proving that the crime statistics they report are completely inaccurate, and this would also help the public to be more aware of the precautions they need to take. From the insight in your book it would appear that no major newspaper would be willing to really confront the police on this issue.

    1. I have grave doubts about the validity of crime statistics as they are reported. I’d love to see someone do an alternative count but I don’t know how it could be done.

  2. You have clearly had some incredible and scary life experiences, Jake. While I’d never want to glorify criminal life, it certainly makes for interesting reading. I am curious, what theoretically would happen if a naive foreigner had intervened in a situation like you described (obviously unaware of whom and what he was dealing with)?

    I noticed a few dodgy incidents in my time in Tokyo, but didn’t get involved since at that point there hadn’t been any physical altercation (I loitered around just to make sure … I know, probably not a smart thing to do). I don’t think they were actual yakuza, perhaps just junior wannabes, but I certainly wouldn’t have had the experience to differentiate either way. I guess I ask this because in spite of your own warnings about not trying to be a hero, I’d feel compelled to do the right thing regardless of consequences. I think most decent people would, and certainly wouldn’t think beyond the moment about repercussions until it was too late. Is that just being stupid?

    Cheers, I enjoy reading the stories here — yakuza related or not.

    1. I think directly intervening in a yakuza quarrel is highly risky for a foreigner and probably not advised. Most yakuza carry knives and they know how to use them. I would say if you possibly can, call the police. They often will do their job and do it well. Sometimes, sometimes they don’t–because the yakuza are scary and they fight intensely. Unless you’re a martial arts wizard, don’t take on more than one yakuza. Fighting, in general, is best avoided. Sometimes, though, you have to take a stand. But still my advice is when seeing the yakuza victimizing someone is to call the police and document what happened if you can, or at least pay attention.

  3. Does Japan have no military apparatus that could assist the police in curbing organized crime? Or is it just too widespread now? Maybe like the Italian Mafia in the US, people in the places where the Yakuza are active find them to be a sometimes-positive presence.

    I’m intrigued that society seems to have no recourse but to tolerate–and, to whatever extent, be held hostage by–an entrenched criminal culture.

  4. Interesting article and it brought back a scene for when I lived in Aichi.
    I was around the JR Nagoya Station that day, and at the front of the station, nearer to the Kintetsu Dept. Store was parked one of those rightist sounds trucks, with a speaker atop it, haranguing the passerby’s and those few who stood listening.
    While I was watching, a man came up and voiced his uncomplimentary opinion about what was being said and about rightists in general. He was immediately given a 袋たたきbeating by members of the group standing in front of the sound truck; and also, no one intervened.

    1. Thanks for sharing that. I had right-wingers throw a full can of beer at my head once in Saitama, near the Kencho. I opened it and drank the beer in front of them. It was delicious. Of course, there were about five cops standing between me and them so you can say it wasn’t a very brave thing to do but I did enjoy the moment. I did spray myself with a little of the beer, so it wasn’t as cool as a moment as it could have been but still, ya know.

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