Yakuza's decline is a crime: Japanese mafia has seen better days, say oldsters
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 29 July 2003)

Kids today! Do they respect their elders? No, and they don't respect tradition, either. That's why, everywhere you look, things are in decline. Listen to poor old Kakuji Inagawa, in his day the most esteemed gangster in Japan. He saw the rot setting in long ago. When two American writers came to ask his views in the 1980s, he predicted a dark future for his people. "The yakuza," he said, "must respect morals and regulations and obey them -- but that tradition is fading." He blamed it, of course, on youth.

Those who think the world is going to hell in a handbasket can find plenty of old yakuza geezers to back them up. Young yakuza just won't honour the ancient ways. Some of them refuse to have full-body pictorial tattoos, shoulder to calf, showing dragons, mountains, seascapes, etc. In the good old days, large-scale tattoos were mandatory. Today, instead of enduring hundreds of hours under the needle, yakuza defy their heritage and settle for wimpy little drawings on their backs.

They may even be giving up self-mutilation. To atone for a serious mistake, a yakuza of the classical school would cut off part of a little finger, at the first joint, and present it to his boss, suitably wrapped, as a symbol of apology. But there are signs that this tradition, too, is being abandoned.

Today, yakuza sometimes get into gunfights in the streets and violate the ancient code by endangering innocent bystanders. Worst of all, some have testified against their chiefs, which a few years ago would have been unthinkable.

But if they are losing their historic roots, yakuza are far from dying off. David E. Kaplan and Alec Dubro describe the impressive economic and political power of Japanese organized crime in the second edition of their much-admired history, Yakuza: Japan's Criminal Underworld (University of California Press).

The first edition, published in the United States in 1986, has been the standard work for years, though it took a while to appear in Japan. Eighteen publishers turned it down before it was accepted by a relatively small house. That company's audacity was rewarded when publication in 1991 coincided with a yakuza scandal, making the book a best-seller.

Meanwhile, the British edition mysteriously vanished from the stores after selling 30,000 copies in three printings. The authors, baffled for a while, eventually learned that the late Robert Maxwell, who owned their publishing company, had ordered all remaining copies withdrawn and shredded. They believe this was a favour for his friend Ryoicho Sasakawa, now also dead. Sasakawa appeared in the book as a major war criminal who ended up connected to both the yakuza and their political allies, the neo-fascist nationalists.

The first thing you learn about the yakuza is that they are Japan's equivalent of the Mafia. The second thing you learn is that they aren't like the Mafia at all. True, they make money from drugs, gambling, loan-sharking and prostitution; they often covertly invest in legitimate businesses; they frequently use violence; and they buy any politicians who are for sale. Even so, the differences between the two national crime networks are more notable than the similarities.

The yakuza have a few peculiarly Japanese tricks, like threatening to create a riot at a corporate annual meeting unless the executives pay them off (once paid, they make sure no stockholders upset the proceedings with nasty questions). But the larger differences are in their numbers and their place in society.

The National Police Agency in Japan says there are about 80,000 yakuza; the American Mafia, in a country twice as populous, has 20,000 members at the most. Moreover, the yakuza are as public as the Rotary Club and believe Japanese society should accept and honour them. In 1992, when the government put through an anti-yakuza law, wives and daughters of gang members marched through the Ginza in Tokyo as a protest. Some yakuza gangs have offices with their logos on the doors, and some publish newsletters that offer members everything from legal advice to poetry. The biggest confederation of yakuza, Yamaguchi-gumi, based in Kobe, prints an 18-page internal telephone directory and issues gold lapel pins to accredited members. Many carry business cards.

Yamaguchi-gumi began in 1915 with 25 members and apparently has 20,000 today. In 1978, a would-be assassin seriously wounded its chief, Kazuo Taoka, in a Kyoto nightclub. The gunman was from a rival faction, Matsuda, whose boss had been killed the previous year by Taoka's soldiers. According to Kaplan and Dubro, the Matsuda gang members had swallowed the ashes of their boss in a ceremonial pledging of revenge.

In the months after the Taoka shooting, at least five Matsuda members were killed. This attracted unwelcome attention from the public and the police, so Taoka negotiated a treaty with Matsuda. The two gangs celebrated the new era of peace by inviting 60 journalists to a press conference at Taoka's mansion. Statements of reconciliation were read out in flowery Japanese, and the texts were included in a press kit. Senior yakuza went on TV to apologize for the trouble they had caused.

In general, yakuza like publicity; they love it when people say yakuza threw themselves into relief work during the Kobe earthquake of 1995. They adored the low-budget yakuza films that used to be made by the hundreds, but when it comes to critical movies they lack a sense of humour. After the late Juzo Itami ridiculed them in a film, Minbo -- or the Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion (1992), three yakuza went to Itami's home and slashed his face with knives.

Probably the slashers were part of the unruly younger generation. A few years ago, Tokutaro Takayama, the septuagenarian godfather of a powerful family, gave an interview to reporters in his office in Kyoto, and posed for pictures. He was surrounded by bodyguards and lieutenants in sharkskin suits, some of them with parts of their little fingers missing. He was not feeling happy. He, too, found yakuza youth a disappointment. "Today, they don't care any more about obligations, tradition, respect and dignity," he said.

In his opinion, the undisciplined, undignified yakuza are courting trouble. "I would never want to join the yakuza of today," he admitted. Everywhere, the great old cultures are dying.

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