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Out of the shadows
Despite a police crackdown, traditional, tattoo-covered organised criminals still wield extraordinary power in Japan. In a rare encounter, a high-ranking gang member tells David McNeill why his country needs the Yakuza
19 August 2003
If you bumped into Mitsunori Agata on the street, you might mistake him for a retired civil servant. From his neatly trimmed silver hair to his sensible shoes, little marks him as out of the ordinary except a certain hardness lurking behind the crinkly pensioner's eyes.
But here in his office in Kabukicho, in the licentious pink heart of Tokyo's vice trade, it's clear that Agata is a Very Important Person. The evidence is in the many photos around the room of Agata bonding with flinty-faced men in expensive suits. Or the way his male assistant approaches and retreats on his knees, his shaven head almost touching the floor.
The dead giveaway, though, if you didn't know that this nondescript man was a high-ranking Yakuza gangster, is the layout of the room. Agata sits dead centre, flanked on either side at the highest possible point by pictures of the most important figures in the Yakuza hierarchy - his oyabun, or boss, and the Emperor. "Everybody in our organisation knows their place," he says.
To the grovelling assistant, and others who enter, this holy trinity of the Japanese mob - local boss, big boss and the man they still regard as the symbolic head of the Japanese family - is designed to intimidate.
Allegiance to the Yakuza fatherhood means submerging personal ambition and even logic to the dictates of the "organisation," which is why the self-willed Japanese gangster, although terrifying, can be useful to powerful people.
We discuss this later. But first, will Agata reveal his tattoos? "No problem," he says, slipping off his kimono. Agata is, after all, a Japanese gangster and therefore very polite, unless you're on the wrong side.
Like many Yakuza, he has endured hundreds of excruciating hours under an inky needle for his full-body tattoos, presumably while lying back and thinking of the Emperor. The tattoos, like the importance of physical fortitude, are part of Yakuza tradition, which appears to have survived intact into the 21st century.
Despite more than a decade of economic slump and the impact of the 1992 anti-mob law, which was supposed to rein in the Yakuza, there seems little danger of them becoming extinct. While the number of full and associate members fell from 90,600 to a low of 79,300 in the immediate aftermath of the law, the mob ranks have steadily recovered to an estimated 85,300 last year, according to the police.
Moreover, while income from crime has undoubtedly shrunk along with the rest of the economy, the Yakuza have steadily worked their way into legitimate businesses. A recent government-funded study found that as much as 42 per cent of bad loans from banks, mainly to construction-related companies, involved organised crime. The Yakuza, observers say, are as much a part of Japanese life as dodgy builders and corrupt politicians, helping to explain why an FBI vs Mafia-style war is not on the cards.
"The authorities and the Yakuza are in each other's pockets," says the journalist Tomohiko Suzuki, who specialises in crime writing. "They've achieved a kind of balance where they basically accept each other's existence but pretend otherwise. It's very Japanese. The 1992 law was a kind of performance for the public."
Agata agrees. "The law was introduced because some politicians thought we were becoming too big and dangerous. It's had a small impact on what we do, but more important is the economy. We're very sensitive to recession, so some of us have been hard hit, but look at Yamaguchi-gumi [Japan's largest Yakuza group]. They are getting bigger and bigger."
To get a sense of the Yakuza's place in Japanese society, a visit to the headquarters of the Yamaguchi-gumi is recommended. Set off the street in a quiet, upmarket
suburb of Kobe, 100 yards from a police station, one of the world's most powerful
crime syndicates, with a full-time membership of 17,900 members - more than five
times the size of the American Mafia at its peak - posts a large sign reassuring the
locals that they don't permit underage workers, the selling of drugs, or the discarding
of cigarette buts on their patch. "They're nice people," says a smiling pensioner next
door. "They come around twice a year with gifts and they keep the neighbourhood
safe. We've never had any trouble from them."
This neighbourly harmony is only mildly disrupted on the fifth day of each month by a whispering fleet of Mercedes and Lexus cars ferrying local mob bosses here from locations all over Japan. The monthly gatherings are observed by detectives but never interrupted. "Unless they break a specific law we can't intervene," says Takao Hamada of the Hyogo Prefecture Police Organised Crime Division.
To those expecting the war against organised crime to be red in tooth and claw, this oddly genteel relationship between the underworld and law-abiding society appears surreal. Japan's top two dozen crime syndicates, including Agata's Sumiyoshi-kai, have published addresses, often in the best areas of the largest cities, with members proudly bearing namecards and corporate insignia. Mob bosses have for years been on first-name terms with corporate presidents and senior politicians. Former prime minister Nobusuke Kishi once helped to organise a Yakuza funeral; another premier, Yoshio Mori, gave a speech at a wedding attended by Yuko Inagawa, the boss of the Inagawa-kai crime syndicate. When this was reported by a weekly magazine, he said he "didn't realise who Inagawa was".
Last week, Shizuka Kamei, a senior member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), acknowledged receiving ¥300,000 in political donations from the leader of a group of loan sharks affiliated to the Yamaguchi. He also told reporters: "Since we receive donations from numerous donors, it's virtually impossible to confirm their backgrounds."
"Politicians always say things like that," laughs Agata. "Look, I go to a lot of political events with well-known people. Many know me, and if they don't, when I'm dressed up in my full regalia they know what I am, the same way we always know a detective when we see one. They don't admit it because it would cause them political damage, but they all call on us when they need something."
What the author Karel van Wolferen calls this "ultimate symbiosis" between the authorities and the Yakuza is partly a pragmatic recognition by both sides that, if there's going to be crime, as least it should be organised. The worst thing anybody wants in orderly, disciplined Japan is chaos on the streets.
An illustration of how this works could be seen last week, when an Osaka cop who broke up a prostitution ring run by a group of teenagers was quoted in the press as saying: "We let the boys know that if the Yakuza found out what they were doing, they would have made mincemeat out of them. You should have seen how pale their faces went when they heard that."
It is also, though, a reflection of the mob's usefulness in certain situations. Yakuza have been employed by corporations to break strikes and demonstrations, to protect politicians and businesses from other gangsters, and extensively to intimidate people standing in the way of construction projects, which make up a huge chunk of the Japanese economy.
Agata provides a textbook case of how this works. "The Tokyo city government was trying to build a highway through this area but they couldn't get people to sell their land. The route along the road looked like a mouth with half its teeth missing. They employed a number of big famous construction firms to do the work, who subcontracted to smaller real-estate firms and so on, and eventually someone calls us in to force people out. There's no way the people in the city office don't know this."
A spokesperson for the Tokyo Metropolitan Government said they could not tell what went on in some "disreputable" firms, but acknowledged that this sort of thing was "not unheard of". Being at the wrong end of what are called jiageya, or Yakuza land sharks, is a very unpleasant business. "First they call dozens of times a day and tell you to sell out or else," says Shizuko Motomatsu, a Tokyo property agent. "They threaten to do horrible things to you and your family. If that doesn't work, they come round with baseball bats and worse."
Nevertheless, Agata thinks that his organisation is "socially necessary". "The government could try to break us up, but then what would happen? You'd have thousands of little thugs on the streets threatening people and tearing the place up. We give people discipline. That's why we don't like the term 'violent groups' [as the Yakuza are often called in Japan]. We prefer to be called ninkyodan [chivalrous groups], a bit like other civic groups. Of course we have our own internal rules, but our violence is controlled and targeted and doesn't spill out among the public."
Not true. A long-running feud between Agata's Sumiyoshi-kai and the Yamaguchi-gumi has claimed a number of innocent lives, including three people killed in a bar earlier this year when a Sumiyoshi mobster opened fire on a rival. This being Japan, though, the culprit voluntarily surrendered to what may well be a death sentence rather than cause problems for his organisation by going on the lam.
Potentially more threatening to the status quo than the perennial but mostly predictable gang warfare, however, is Japan's mob-dominated loan sharking, which has snared an estimated two million debt-ridden Japanese, enough to worry the government that the problem is getting out of hand. That's why television viewers tuned in last week to see snarling gangsters confront 100 police who had come to raid the office of the Yamaguchi-affiliated Goryo-kai, an organisation that controlled 1,000 Tokyo loan sharks.
A sign, perhaps, that war has finally been declared between the mob and the authorities? Not likely. The Goryo-kai boss Susumu Kajiyama walked into a Tokyo police station the day after his arrest warrant was issued, restoring equilibrium.
Was Agata happy that the police hammer had fallen on his rivals? "No, of course not," he says. "People like to make out that we all hate each other, but we all basically have the same philosophy. When we see the police really hassling Yamaguchi-gumi, our sympathies lie with other Yakuza. There are a lot worse people out there than the Yamaguchi who could be loan-sharking. Why don't the cops go after them?"
So what's the worst thing that can happen in this business? "Everyone has got to know their place. If a group from somewhere else starts interfering in our business here in Shinjuku [in central Tokyo], which we've run for years, that's a recipe for trouble," Agata says. That might refer to rumours that the Chinese mob have invaded Sumiyoshi-kai's territory. Last year two Sumiyoshi-kai soldiers were shot, allegedly by Triads, in a café near Agata's office. Not that they were hard to find - the Kabukicho café is a famous Yakuza haunt, well known to police, journalists and politicians.
"Things have changed, that's for sure," Agata says. "I used sometimes to go drinking
with the police, but we don't do that any more, now they've started to frame people
like me. And the business is getting more difficult. But we will always be around.
There's all kinds of trouble in this world, and as long as this exists you'll have people
who need our strength and expertise."
As we get up to leave, Agata asks me where I'm from. "Ireland," I say. He turns sad. "The problem between England and Ireland is very complicated," he says. "We used to think of England as peaceful and the home of the gentleman. It's hard for us to imagine such terror and violence originating from there."