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The worst of times can bring out the best in everyone, even the yakuza.


Mar 19, 2011

I wrote this piece for the Daily Beast and supplied them with confidential materials to vet the article as well. I’d like to say that I’m not an advocate of the yakuza; I don’t consider them generally a force for social good or social welfare.There will certainly be yakuza who take advantage of the crisis to rake in ill-gotten gains; they aren’t boy scouts. There will also be ordinary people doing the same thing.

However, even yakuza are capable of doing heroic acts. There are members of the Inagawa-kai driving trucks of supplies to areas in Tohoku as far as they can get on vehicle and then hiking eight hours, carrying backpacks full of supplies to those in need, even in areas where radiation levels are high. Each individual doing it has their own motives; I can’t read their minds. I think some of them are doing it simply because they want to help their fellow citizens.
It would be an easier world if everything was black and white but often it’s a world in shades of grey.  Sometimes, even “bad guys” can do good things, and ordinary citizens in times of crisis can do awful things. It works both ways.

As far as I’m concerned, everyone risking their life to help the victims of this tragedy, the police, the fire-fighters, the self-sacrificing staff at the nuclear reactor staying on the job, the Japan Self-Defense Forces, the US military, the good  journalists covering the earthquake and nuclear disaster in great detail–they are all heroes.  I’m not counting myself amongst them.

Even Japan’s infamous mafia groups are helping out with the relief efforts and showing a strain of civic duty. Jake Adelstein reports on why the police don’t want you to know about it. Plus, more coverage of Japan’s crisis.

The worst of times sometimes brings out the best in people, even in Japan’s “losers” a.k.a. the Japanese mafia, the yakuza. Hours after the first shock waves hit, two of the largest crime groups went into action, opening their offices to those stranded in Tokyo, and shipping food, water, and blankets to the devastated areas in two-ton trucks and whatever vehicles they could get moving. The day after the earthquake the Inagawa-kai-稲川会- (the third largest organized crime group in Japan which was founded in 1948) sent twenty-five four-ton trucks filled with paper diapers, instant ramen, batteries, flashlights, drinks, and the essentials of daily life to the Tohoku region. An executive in Sumiyoshi-kai, the second-largest crime group, even offered refuge to members of the foreign community—something unheard of in a still slightly xenophobic nation, especially amongst the right-wing yakuza. The Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s largest crime group, under the leadership of Tadashi Irie, has also opened its offices across the country to the public and been sending truckloads of supplies, but very quietly and without any fanfare.

for the whole article

UPDATE: The April 4th issue of the weekly magazine 週間大衆 (Shukan Taishu), one of three weekly magazines that features yakuza stories, had a small piece about the impact the earthquake on yakuza society. For example, the memorial service of a Matsuba-kai yakuza boss was called off and other yakuza groups canceling succession ceremonies. The article discusses how the Yamaguchi-gumi was very active in community services after the Kobe earthquake in 1995. At the end of the article, it says that “there are more than a few yakuza who are doing volunteer activities to help the survivors”.  Several yakuza bosses were quoted but neither their names or their group affiliation were disclosed. The article does mention that the three major crime groups were delivering food and water to stricken areas.  A few years ago, fan magazines would have had glossy photos of the yakuza in action but these days, the nine-fingered tribes are all keeping a low-profile amidst the police crack-down. I guess they haven’t discovered good PR firms yet or maybe they’re more concerned about getting the job done than good publicity. Your guess is as good as mine.

This week's 週間大衆 (Shukan Taishu) has a small low-key article on yakuza doing humanitarian work in post-quake Japan.
8 thoughts on “The worst of times can bring out the best in everyone, even the yakuza.”
  1. So, is there anyway we can donate to a yakuza group involved in the reconstruction of Japan? and can we deduct that as well from our taxes? any recomendations?

  2. This was a really interesting article. Groups like the yakuza and Hezbollah being involved in both violence and charity shows how the nature of humans isn’t all black and white.

  3. Your byline reminded me of a conversation I had with my Father. I am your age but my Father was born during the beginning of the Taisho era. I do want to mention that my Father and Mother both came from mukashi no families that were part of Japanese history in different eras. My Mother was raised in the city, but my Father was raised in the inaka. and neither family ever associated with or was a part of the Yakuza. I say that because of this comment that my Father made to me shocked me. He told me that in the city, the Yakuza were considered evil, but in the inaka, they are like Robin Hood. The Japanese government and most of their people are still so prejudiced that there are many people who are treated like second class citizens. Japanese of Korean ancestry, Burakumin, people who have trouble conforming to Japanese ideals of what is socially acceptable and even the people from the inaka. My Father said that the Yakuza had a history of stealing food and supplies and bringing it to the people in the inaka. I think that because of the way they were treated, they could empathize with other groups. I realize that you know this but it kind of bares repeating because the Yakuza will always exist as long the government doesn’t fix these inequities in a way that isn’t just a quick fix.

    1. I know some elderly people who have said the same thing. If the government really intends to dismantle the yakuza, they will need to find jobs or create some way to integrate the 80,000 of them into Japanese society. There aren’t enough prisons to hold them and the social inequities in Japanese society just keep growing. What’s ironic is that a huge part of this was created by the “reform” of the temporary working laws which allowed for systematic exploitation of outsourced workers and put a huge dent in the “employment for life” dream that created stability in Japan. And part of that reform was influenced by advisors to Prime Minister Koizumi with strong yakuza ties. Yakuza backed companies like Good Will Group made huge profits in the new labor outsourcing market. It benefitted the underworld enormously at a great cost to the general public. 雇用融解 (Employment Meltdown) by a reporter from 東洋経済 magazine does a wonderful job of of looking at this but doesn’t really go into the yakuza related ties to “labor reform”.

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