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Global vice: the expanding territory of the yakuza: an interview with Jake Adelstein.

As the world furthers its interconnectedness, some criminal organizations formerly operating within a regional jurisdiction are now benefitting from transnational growth. Similar to international corporate expansion, members of organized crime in Japan, also called yakuza, have proven to be "innovative entrepreneurs," increasing their profits by extending their reach. (1) Based on his reporting on crime in Japan for more than twelve years, investigative journalist and author of Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan, Jake Adelstein, has uncovered compelling insights from the operations of modern yakuza and their reaction toward legal constraints. In an interview with Ania Calderon of the Journal, Adelstein discusses how the yakuza are transitioning into powerful organizations and becoming increasingly international. (2)

Journal of International Affairs: You have worked closely with the police in Japan on organized crime syndicates, and have been an investigative reporter with the U.S. State Department on the subject. How do the United States and Japan differ in their approaches to organized crime?

Jake Adelstein: The Japanese police are extremely limited in their investigative powers: they can't plea bargain, wire-tapping is so restrictive that it is almost useless and rarely applied, and now they are not supposed to have direct contact with members of Japanese organized crime--also called yakuza--making intelligence collection nearly impossible. There is no witness protection program and little incentive for a lower ranking yakuza to provide intelligence on those above him.

In fact, the negative incentives are huge: if he keeps his mouth shut, he gets a cash reward when released from jail, his family is looked after, and he will probably get a promotion. Since yakuza organizations usually provide lawyers to their members, if the member under arrest makes a confession or statement implicating his superiors, the organization will know. So if he cooperates, he doesn't get a lighter sentence, his organization will know he talked, and he loses financially. When he gets out of jail, he may lose his life or a finger, since there is no witness protection or witness relocation program. Who would cooperate in a case like that?

There is one interesting quirk in Japanese law: after the 2008 revision to the Organized Crime Countermeasures Act, it became possible for victims of a yakuza crime to sue senior bosses for the crimes of their subordinates. Tsukasa Shinobu, head of the Yamaguchi-gumi; the largest yakuza organization, and Goto Tadamasa, former Yamaguchi-gumi member and still a crime boss, was sued for the murder of Kazuo Nozaki, a real estate broker, in 2006. The case was settled out of court in October of 2012 for 1.4 million dollars to the family of the victim and Goto expressed his condolences.

Japan doesn't have a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, so the police use a hodge-podge of laws to arrest and suppress the yakuza. A criminal conspiracy act, which would allow the police to arrest senior yakuza for the crimes of their subordinates more easily, has been opposed by the ruling coalition for years. It doesn't help that one of the most powerful members of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and leader of the party from 2005 to 2006, Maehara Seiji, was bankrolled and supported by Shinohara Jun, an advisor to the Yamaguchi-gumi, who is registered in the police files as a Yamaguchi-gumi member. The DPJ was officially backed by the Yamaguchi-gumi in 2007. Yes, that's correct: a group of 40,000 yakuza supports a political party. Recently, the Minister of Justice, Keishu Tanaka, resigned from the job after his ties with yakuza were exposed. The top ninety senior members communicated their support to the sub-bosses orally in meetings in the spring and summer of 2007. The Inagawa-kai, another yakuza organization, did the same. In return, someone in the DPJ promised to keep a criminal conspiracy law off the books and also to get voting rights for Korean-Japanese since many of the Yamaguchi-gumi Kodo-kai (the ruling faction of the Yamaguchi-gumi) are Korean-Japanese.

Journal: As a foreigner having to learn to negotiate between the yakuza and the police, were there different rules or codes, formal or informal, that needed to be followed? If so, what are the different ways control and deterrence operate in Japan?

Adelstein: The rule is very simple: you can share information you get from the yakuza with the police, but you can never share information from the police with the yakuza. The flow of the information has to be tightly controlled. The obvious question is: why would yakuza share information with a reporter when it may go to the police? The answer is that sometimes it benefits them, because the information damages a rival organized crime group, or an internal enemy. Sometimes, because yakuza are people as well, they are horrified by the acts of their fellow yakuza and hope someone will stop them. For example, I've had yakuza tip me off about people in their own greater group who were engaged in human trafficking or child pornography. The organization may turn a blind eye to it and take the money, but yakuza who still live by their traditional code cannot stand for some of the crimes the modern yakuza are involved with.

Journal: You have mentioned that "Tokyo is impossible to penetrate." What underlying factors have helped organized crime break into this city as well as into other areas of Japan?

Adelstein: Tokyo is impossible to penetrate in the sense that it was originally designed as a city with a lot of dead ends and streets that were windy so as to make it hard to invade. Kyoto, the old capital city, was laid out on a grid, according to some general principles of Chinese geomancy.

In the chaos after the Second World War, organized crime was able to gain a strong foothold in the country. At that time, joining the mob was appealing particularly to those pushed to the fringes of society. This included disenfranchised returning soldiers and many Korean-Japanese who had been taken to Japan as slave laborers. The U.S. occupying forces declared the slave laborers as "third party nationals," and for a period of time the Japanese police were not allowed to arrest them. They soon took over the black markets and for a short time, were a force to be reckoned with. The soldiers who returned from the war and had been involved with organized crime in Japan, reformed their groups and with tacit police approval, functioned as a second police force. Of course, they took the black markets over for themselves, but they did keep the peace.

In an effort to restore order and to limit the power and reach of the Korean gangs, the police sometimes backed the yakuza. During the post-war years, the Japanese syndicates fighting Koreans for black-market turf incorporated several Korean-Japanese into the ranks of the old yakuza structure. Rather than engage in a direct war, a successful policy of assimilation was put into place. Also, the yakuza have a reputation for keeping conflict between them and not harming citizens. The prevailing rule of thumb for yakuza--although it may not be written--is "katagi ni meiwaku wo kakenai," which translates into, "not causing ordinary citizens trouble." Violating this "noble way" results in expulsion. Although they are criminals, they observe standards and procedures that keep them out of public ire and police attention. In the end, this is in their best interest; if people don't feel secure around areas where the yakuza does business, including sex shops, illegal gambling parlors, strip and hostess clubs, the yakuza will lose money. Today, the yakuza are embedded into Japanese society. The major gang bosses are almost well-known celebrities. Bosses for the second and third largest crime group, the Sumiyoshi-kai and the Inagawa-kai, grant interviews to publications and television. Politicians are seen having dinner with them.

One thing worth noting is that for years the local organized crime groups--the Kanto yakuza, the Inagawa-kai, and the Sumiyoshi-kai--kept the Yamaguchi-gumi, today's largest crime group, out of Tokyo. "Thou shall not cross over the Tama-river," was the lofty agreement that was in place. But after the third-generation leader of the Yamaguchi-gumi died in 1981, the Inagawa-kai was rocked by internal conflict, and a succession issue was partially settled with Yamaguchi-gumi aid. In November 2005, the Yamaguchigumi merged with the Tokyo-based Kokusui-kai and then had a legitimate foothold in Tokyo. It has been slowly taking over the Tokyo area as well. The de facto ruler of the Inagawa-kai, Kazuo Uchibori, is a full-blood brother of a high-ranking member of the Yamaguchi-gumi Kodo-kai. The Kodo-kai is the ruling faction of the Yamaguchi-gumi. Thus, the Inagawa-kai is more or less under the thumb of the Kodo-kai at present. If you consider alliances, the Yamaguchi-gumi has close to 64,000 members, and with Japan's yakuza population at roughly 79,000, according to the National Police Agency, the Yamaguchi-gumi is clearly the majority shareholder.

Journal: As global economies have become increasingly interconnected, how has this affected the reach of the operations of the yakuza? Does this type of mafia 'jump' to global scales, crossing international boundaries? If so, are the logistics that they operate under, be it national transnational borders, distinct?

Adelstein: The yakuza are good at working in Korea, China, Macau, Hong Kong, and Singapore. The Cayman Islands and Singapore have become some of their favorite places to set up front companies for financial crimes. The meth supply from North Korea isn't what it used to be, so a lot of it is being brought in from Canada now. Yakuza operating outside of Japan, due to the old guam having limited language skills, usually try to recruit local talent. They are also more likely to resort to extreme violence, because it is unlikely to hurt their image in Japan as "humanitarian organizations." In April 2011, a former member of the Goto-gumi (another yakuza organization), Kondo Takashi, was shot to death in Thailand. Police believe his former boss, Goto Tadamasa, now head of a new organized crime group, ordered the assassination. Incidentally, Kondo was the subject of an international arrest warrant for the 2006 murder of a real estate broker in Tokyo. The real estate broker had been opposing Goto's attempt to take ownership of a building worth about $20 million.

Journal: Considering the history of the yakuza, do you think they have recently gone through any major transitions in their operations?

Adelstein: Yakuza are recognized as legal entities in Japan. They have the same rights as any corporate entity and their members have the same rights as ordinary citizens. Even in cases where they do not own their office property and are simply renters, the yakuza are very well aware of how the law protects their rights to live and operate where they wish and they will not easily be removed. The modern-day Yakuza is an innovative entrepreneur. Rather than a bunch of tattooed nine-fingered thugs in white suits wielding samurai swords, as I have mentioned elsewhere, a more appropriate description would be "Goldman Sachs with guns."

According to "An Overview of Japanese Police," an English document by the National Police Agency that was distributed to foreign police agencies in August 2008, "Boryokudan (yakuza) groups pose an enormous threat to civil affairs and corporate transactions ... They are also committing a variety of crimes to raise funds by invading the legitimate business community and pretending to be engaged in legitimate business deals." In general, I think what happened in Japan, when the government introduced the toughest antimob legislation in a generation in 1992, is that the initial crackdowns failed. They simply encouraged the yakuza to go underground. This forced them to set up front companies that hide their activities rather than simply work out in the open, collecting protection money, doing small-scale loan-sharking, or running gambling dens. Ironically, the weak laws Japan put in place, rather than dismantling the yakuza, simply pushed them into new business arenas. An examination of the front companies of the three major crime groups in Japan--the Inagawa-kai, the Sumiyoshikai, and the Yamaguchi-gumi--by the National Police Agency in 1998, listed construction, real estate, finance, bars and restaurants, and management consulting as the top five types of yakuza front companies.

The war on the yakuza, which began in 1963, has been less successful than the war on terror and has lasted longer. The number of yakuza between 1992 and 2011 has remained around 80,000. Recently, the police have used a combination of contract laws, civil laws, ordinances, and criminal laws to arrest the yakuza more frequently, and, now that many banks, auto-dealers, and real-estate agencies have organized crime exclusionary ordinances in their contracts, life is harder for the typical yakuza. If he signs up for a credit card and checks the box stating, "I'm not a member of an organized crime group"--bam! That's fraud. Off to jail.

At the same time, a number of nontraditional gangs are now gaining power in Japan because they do not fall into so-called designated violent groups category and skirt some of the more serious regulations and penalties applied to the twenty-two designated organized crime groups. A designated crime group has a certain number of members with a criminal record and the Japanese government determines the designation. A designated crime group is regulated but not outlawed. But the state still hasn't made membership of a criminal organization illegal or given the police the antimob tools long considered crucial in other countries: wiretapping, plea bargaining, and witness protection. It seems unlikely that such radical tools to dismantle the yakuza will be given to the Japanese police forces soon. In many ways, the yakuza are stronger than ever despite almost thirteen years lapsing since the first laws targeting them went on the books.

As the yakuza continue to evolve and get into more sophisticated crimes, the police will have a tough time keeping up. The so-called marubo cops, who are organized crime control division detectives, are used to dealing with simple cases of extortion and intimidation, not massive stock manipulation or complicated fraud schemes. The old days when there was give-and-take between the police are gone. Cops used to go have tea at the yakuza offices, chit-chat, and exchange information. Not anymore.

The yakuza have more money and more power than they ever had before, and the consolidation of the Yamaguchi-gumi has made them a huge force to be reckoned with. In many ways, the Yamaguchi-gumi is the Liberal Democratic Party of organized crime, operating on the principal that "power is in numbers." They have capital, they have manpower, they have an information network that rivals anything the police have, and they are expanding into every industry where money is to be made. Today, the Yakuza are increasingly international, working with Chinese organized crime groups, expanding into casinos in the Philippines and Macau, setting up front companies in Singapore and the Cayman Islands, hiring bilingual henchmen, manipulating the Japanese stock markets from overseas accounts, and working with foreign banks including Citibank, Credit Suisse, and possibly HSBC.


(1) Jake Adelstein, Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan (New York, Random House Inc., 2009), 88.

(2) Japanese names in this article follow the Japanese convention: family name (surname) followed by a given name.
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Publication:Journal of International Affairs
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:9JAPA
Date:Sep 22, 2012
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