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Ranks of Japan's once-feared 'yakuza' shrink

August 15, 2022

The COVID pandemic has been another nail in the coffin for underworld groups in Japan. They were already struggling to overcome economic decline, an aging membership and aggressive government eradication campaigns.

Lots of police officers enter in Yamaguchi-gumi headquarters to make a domiciliary in Kobe City, Hyogo Prefecture. Yamaguchi-gumi is the Japan's largest yakuza organization and one of the largest criminal organizations in the world
The Japanese crime syndicate was founded in the 17th century and its activities have included an array of criminal and non-criminal activities. Here, police raid a yakuza headquarters in 2018Image: Tetsuya Kikumasa/The Yomiuri Shimbun/AP/picture alliance

In a letter circulated last month to the heads of all the other "yakuza" underworld groups in Tokyo, the leadership of the Anegasaki-kai announced that it was voluntarily disbanding and thus no longer a part of Japan's notorious crime syndicate.

The group was one of the smallest in the land of the rising sun and not considered by police to pose much threat to the public, but its passing is symptomatic of the challenges facing Japan's once-feared gangs. 

Traditionally based in the heart of Tokyo in the Asakusa district, the Anegasaki-kai was founded around 1915 and made its money by scalping tickets for concerts and sporting events as well as running stalls for food and trinkets at summer festivals. 

Investigative sources told the Asahi newspaper that there were around 700 members of the gang as recently as 2003, but that figure had tumbled to just 85 individuals last year. 

The reasons for falling membership are identical to the problems that other gangs are facing, analysts say. Numbers are shrinking because fewer young people see yakuza as an enviable career path, existing members are aging and earnings are shrinking as a result of a number of legal changes that have given the police far greater powers to bring the gangs under control. 

And just as in other parts of Japan's economy, the businesses traditionally operated by underworld groups across the country — illegal gambling, the sex industry, protection rackets, the drugs trade, loan-sharking and so on — have suffered during the downturn brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. 

Membership falls sharply

A report issued earlier this month by the National Police Agency indicated there were a total of 24,100 members of recognized underworld groups at the end of 2021, a decline of around 1,800 individuals on the previous year and the lowest number since statistics were first compiled in 1958. It is a far cry from the gangs' peak years in the early 1960s, when they could put out more than 184,000 foot soldiers across the country. 

The government statistics show that the Yamaguchi-gumi is still the largest single underworld group in Japan, with around 4,000 members, which is actually an increase of around 200 people on the previous year. That growth in membership is due largely to an ongoing feud with a splinter group, the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi, and around 200 members opting to return to their previous affiliation. 

Three of the remaining four major gangs have lost members over the past 12 months, the police figures show. In tandem with the falling membership, police brought charges against 11,735 yakuza members in 2021, down by 1,454 from the previous year. 

"Membership has been in steady decline for a couple of decades now for a number of reasons," said Jake Adelstein, who detailed his encounters with the underworld in "Tokyo Vice: An American reporter on the police beat in Japan," which has subsequently been turned into a television series. 

"The authorities have been very aggressive with a whole series of new laws designed specifically to target the leaders of these groups, and that tactic has been successful," he told DW. Under one of the new laws, a yakuza leader can be held personally liable for a killing that it carried out by an underling in his gang. 

"One of the most creative new laws makes it illegal for any company to do any form of business with a gang member, which means, for example, that an insurance company can no longer insure a gang member's car," he said. And while that may be an inconvenience that might not on its own dissuade anyone from a life of crime, Adelstein added, the little problems quickly accumulate and become increasing irritants. 

Aggressive new laws

"New laws have also made it illegal for small businesses to pay protection money to a gang, which has cut off an important source of income," he continued. "But you have to also remember that these have long effectively been businesses, and as such they are not immune from economic challenges and, just as importantly, a leadership that is reaching retirement age."

Shinichi Ishizuka, a law professor and director of the Criminology Research Center at Kyoto's Ryukoku University, said the writing was on the wall for underworld groups as far back as the 1980s as Japanese society was becoming tired of the frequent bouts of violence they brought to the nation's streets. On top of that, successive governments have been determined to halt their nefarious activities.

"The authorities effectively declared war on the yakuza in the 1980s, but they have been helped by the economic and demographic problems the gangs have faced ever since," Ishizuka said. "A lot of gangs tried to legitimize their operations during the peak of Japan's bubble economy years and going into finance, but they lost heavily when the bubble burst."

"For the last 20 years, young people in Japan have had little interest in joining a gang because it's poorly paid, long hours and a violent way of making a living; people don't want that and they would rather have a proper job," he added. "So gang members are inevitably getting older and not being replaced."

Yet Ishizuka does not believe the gangs will disappear entirely. 

"They are a tradition, part of our society," he said. "I think they will stay, but they will continue to get smaller and the weakest gangs will be integrated into the more powerful groups."

Drugs and theft

"There might be some violence as the surviving gangs argue over which one will be the biggest in the country and in control, but we may even end up with just one yakuza group," the professor concluded.

Adelstein is less convinced, pointing out that the latest crime statistics tell an "interesting story."

Among the 11,735 gang arrests in 2021, 2,985 were linked to narcotics, followed by 1,555 cases of fraud, 1,353 assaults resulting in injury, 1,008 arrests for theft and 91 charges of murder. 

"This is a story of yakuza morality, if you want to call it that, breaking down even further," he said. "Selling drugs and theft were two things that would have gotten you kicked out of the yakuza 10 years ago. Now they are among the top crimes they are being arrested for."

"That's a sign of desperation," he added. "The numbers show a yakuza population that is dwindling, desperate and ignoring the unstated social contract that allowed them to exist in Japanese society."

"Yakuza without a code of ethics are just garishly tattooed criminals."

Edited by: John Silk

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea