In October last year, Minister of Justice Keishu Tanaka was forced to resign — ostensibly for health reasons — over his links to yakuza bosses. Around then, too, Finance Minister Koriki Jojima spent months dodging claims that a yakuza front company had helped finance his election campaign. The controversy only ended when Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda called a general election and Jojima lost his seat in the Diet.
So, although their numbers are down these days from the heady, cash-swamped 1980s and ’90s, yakuza still have clout: The government regulates them but doesn’t ban them; the police contain them but don’t crush them; and companies still pay them off — but more discreetely than before.
Last month, it was reported with great fanfare that Japan’s most powerful crime group, the 27,000-strong Yamaguchi-gumi, had published its own quarterly newspaper, titled Yamaguchi-Shimpo (Yamaguchi In-house Organ). You can’t pick it up on the newsstands, and it’s plainly stamped “Not for Sale” — but after a board meeting on July 5 it was handed to the top bosses in brown envelopes as they left the group’s fortress-like HQ in the port city of Kobe.
In fact other organized crime groups publish their own periodicals, though in a less obvious fashion — and it’s not even the first-ever Yamaguchi-gumi newspaper. In July 1971, Kazuo Taoka — its third-generation leader from 1946 until he died in 1981 — created the Yamaguchi-gumi Jiho (Yamaguchi Times), and before it was wound up in January 1975 it was published 11 times.
Known as “The Godfather of Godfathers,” Taoka was a brilliant, charismatic leader who greatly expanded his gang’s territory and was masterful at manipulating public opinion. His autobiography, which is still in print (though the photo of him as honorary police chief of the day at Sujio Police Department in Kobe is no longer in current editions), is a fantastic read and was made into a 1973 movie titled “Yamaguchi-gumi San-daime” (“The Third-generation Boss of the Yamaguchi-gumi”), which starred famed actor Ken Takakura (“Black Rain” etc.).
Taoka also kept his troops in line, and one of his famous dictums — to have a real job (in addition to being a yakuza) — helped expand the Yamaguchi-gumi into the financial and business worlds. He was a firm believer in the yakuza having a code they must uphold in order to be tolerated in Japanese society — and when he was in power, that code was upheld.
The first edition of the Yamaguchi-Shimpo is a professionally produced, full-color tabloid emblazoned on the front page with the group’s diamond-shaped insignia and — across the very top in ornate cursive lettering — its kōryō (code of conduct). As well as carrying a lengthy tribute to Taoka, who would have been 100 this year, it features a wide variety of content: a travel story on Mount Fuji, a piece on “the flower of the month,” asagao (morning glory) — and snarky poems that capture the bliss of yakuza married life, e.g.: “My wife nags, ‘Toss out the trash,’ (not knowing) she’s oversized garbage herself.”
The top story is an editorial by the boss, Shinobu Tsukasa, in which he reminds the yakuza that they are not, as the police say, “a violent group” but a humanitarian organization that has helped the nation in times of crisis — such as in the chaos of postwar Japan and after the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, which devastated Kobe and surrounding areas and claimed around 6,500 lives. He also admonishes the younger members to behave themselves and uphold the traditional yakuza code of honor. (Not to steal, rob, engage in sexual assault or attack civilians). He concludes by declaring: “Even in times of crisis there is hope.”
And it really is a time of crisis for the Yamaguchi-gumi, because, after the avuncular old-school boss started serving time in December of 2005 for weapons possession, the gang morphed into something far removed from the ideals he espoused.
In 2007, the Kodo-kai faction hired private detectives to snoop into the lives of investigating police officers — and even got cellphone company staff to hand over their phone records. They also used crooked lawyers and an outfit called the Garu Detective Agency to gather information on their enemies — for intimidation, or more.
Then, in violation of a longstanding agreement with the authorities to keep to the shadows, in 2009 the minions paraded themselves in front of the cameras at a sumo tournament being televised by national broadcaster NHK — as if to say to the police, “We’ll do whatever we want.”
The police were not amused.
Meanwhile, Tadamasa Goto, one of the top executives, was moving into the stock markets and the realm of venture capital, and his thugs ruthlessly intimidated and even killed people who stood in his way. Last year, after he and Tsukasa were sued by a victim’s family, Goto paid up $1 million and apologized; Tsukasa did not pay — not only was he in solitary confinement at the time, but he didn’t condone the murder.
In 2010, low-level thugs burned down a cabaret club in Nagoya that wouldn’t pay protection, killing one employee. In May this year, the parents of the deceased sued the yakuza associates involved for ¥150 million, and last month a woman who had been paying protection money to the group sued to get all her money back, plus damages. In her court filings, she said she was warned that if she didn’t pay, the gang would burn her bar down. From past cases, that probably wasn’t a bluff.
The group’s savagery began increasing after Tsukasa went to jail, leaving his ruthless second-in-command, Kiyoshi Takayama, to run the show. But Tsukasa was released in 2011, and now the newspaper represents a step back to the time when the yakuza used to communicate with the public and had an uneasy alliance with Japanese society. It also represents the leader’s “back to roots” policy.
The Yamaguchi-Shimpo is the descendant of the Yamaguchi-gumi Jiho. Whether it will have any effect in reversing the gang’s descent from a shadowy but principled organization into a sheer ruthless mob — well, for that news, watch this space.
Investigative journalist Jake Adelstein is the author of “Tokyo Vice,” a board member of Polaris Project Japan and a contributor to The Atlantic Wire and japansubculture.com. His email address is email@example.com.