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Hard times for Japan’s yakuza gangsters

The tattoo that typifies Yakuza membership.

The tattoo that typifies Yakuza membership.

Syndicated News
Written by Syndicated News
HIMEJI — October 21, 2015: A decade after retiring from a life of crime, Satoru Takegaki now spends his days helping other ex-gangsters find regular jobs and adjust to life outside Japan’s notorious yakuza mob.

The former mafia boss bodyguard hopes he will see a lot more disaffected yakuza on the doorstep of his anti-gang support group, as Japan’s underworld faces its biggest shakeup in years.

In September, the Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s largest organised crime gang, was shaken by the high-profile defection of about a dozen top leaders who formed their own group.

The split prompted police warnings of a possible repeat of a 1980s gangland bloodbath, but also revealed the internal struggles and fading influence of the Japanese mafia, once infamous for a rigid honour system that called on them to chop off fingers for even minor transgressions.

“Looking back, there was nothing to earn by being yakuza, except for some temporary pleasure,” 64-year-old Takegaki told AFP, his voice thick with an accent long associated with Japanese gangsters.

“We no longer live in a world where yakuza can do business in the open. They’re no longer needed,” he said from his home here, not far from Kobe where the Yamaguchi-gumi are based.

Observers said the turbulence highlights the fact all is not well in Japan’s quasi-legal organised crime groups, as a poor economy and steadily falling membership hurt the bottom line.

Less organised rivals are also muscling in on traditional yakuza territory, while at the same time public tolerance for their actions is disappearing.

“The split means both sides get weaker — you cannot deny that Japan’s mafia is fading away,” said Atsushi Mizoguchi, a freelance journalist and expert on Japan’s organised crime.

Long tolerated as a necessary evil for ensuring order on the street and getting things done quickly — however dubious the means — the yakuza blossomed from the chaos of post-war Japan into a multi-billion-dollar criminal organisations involved in everything from gambling, drugs and prostitution to loan sharking, protection rackets and white-collar crime.

‘Mob uprising’ 

Yakuza numbers have been falling steadily for years, last year there was estimated to be 53,000 yakuza members — down from 180,000 at their peak in the sixties.

The Japanese mafia’s self-professed claims of operating with honour took a blow when a financially struggling mobster murdered the mayor of Nagasaki in 2007 because of a grudge against city officials.

It is estimated around 10 per cent of the Yamaguchi-gumi’s 23,000-strong membership have now defected to a breakaway group leaving its leader — Kenichi Shinoda, also known as Shinobu Tsukasa — vulnerable to charges of tax evasion like those that toppled Chicago mobster Al Capone, Mizoguchi said.

“Those that split off are believed to have data about how much Tsukasa has pocketed” over the years, Mizoguchi, adding that defectors might pass the sensitive information to police. A rival crime boss was arrested this summer on tax evasion charges.

The breakaway mobsters left after becoming angry at the millions of dollars which they had to hand over to top brass annually, including their dapper boss who is known for donning expensive Italian suits.

“What was behind the break-up is that the Yamaguchi-gumi’s top management was syphoning off too much money — (prompting) an uprising among members,” Mizoguchi said.

Tsukasa was released from prison in 2011 after serving six years for gun possession and the 73-year-old has since demanded about 30 million yen ($250,000) a year from each of his gang’s 70-odd factions across the country, along with other gifts.

“The head of the Yamaguchi-gumi is estimated to have an annual income of about one billion yen,” Mizoguchi told AFP.

“On the other hand, a low-ranking yakuza member feels rich and happy with a 10,000 yen bill in his wallet — that is how much the income gap has widened.”

Legal grey zone 

Unlike the Italian Mafia or Chinese triads in other countries, yakuza have long occupied a peculiar grey area in Japanese society — they are not illegal and each group has its own headquarters in full view of police.

But “the law is not meant to recognise them as legal entities to protect — it is meant to control their activities”, said Kazuhito Shinka, who heads up Japan’s organised crime unit.

Now, stiffer anti-mafia regulations are making life a struggle as businesses are banned from dealing with yakuza and mobsters struggle to even open a bank account or receive mail at their office.

The changes have even led to a handful of lawsuits filed by legitimate businesses against mobsters to recover years of protection money.

Takegaki — who still keeps “heartfelt” letters that his late Yamaguchi-gumi boss sent to him while doing prison time —  said the loyalty and brotherhood that he insists once typified the yakuza are long gone.

“Everything seems to revolve around money now, not ‘giri’ (duty) and ‘ninjo’ (humanity),” said Takegaki, whose life of crime started at the tender age of 21.

“I’m hoping the breakup will convince more yakuza members to leave that life and become upstanding members of society.”

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