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Gangs have had their heyday in Japan, or have they?

  • March 31, 2022
  • , The Asahi Shimbun , 5:36 p.m.
  • English Press

Being a mobster in Japan is not what it was like 30 years ago when money was no object and members lived life to the hilt. A raft of legislation drawn up to drive gangs out of business is said to be taking its toll. Maybe.


The enactment of anti-organized crime legislation that underwent numerous revisions, coupled with the passage of prefectural ordinances, has cut into all areas of life where gang members try to make a living outside the law, law enforcement authorities say.


The number of gang members nationwide has plummeted from about 90,000 in 1991 to 24,100 at the end of 2021, according to police figures.


Time was when simply being a member of a gang affiliated with the Yamaguchi-gumi in the Kansai region was like wearing a badge of honor, said a high-ranking gang member reminiscing about the days when he first started out. The Yamaguchi-gumi is the largest crime syndicate in Japan.


The man was just 16 years old when he threw in his lot with a gang more than three decades ago.


He took immense pride when the gang boss issued him with a set of business cards.


“I was so happy that I handed out 100 cards over three days,” he said.


Gangs in general enjoyed their heyday in the 1990s, soon after the asset-inflated economy collapsed.


The economic turmoil that ensued led to a major turnover in bars and restaurants and the man soon found himself involved in helping out many new establishments, often looking out for them in return for receiving protection money.


In those days, he said it was not uncommon for him to earn around 5 million yen ($41,000) a month. He also siphoned revenue from a loan shark as well as through ties with the entertainment industry.


“In the best months, I earned about 20 million yen,” the man said.


But that was then. Many of the bars and restaurants that he extorted money from have since closed and the man said he now receives only one-third of the amount of protection money that was funneled his way in the past.


The passage of the anti-organized crime law in 1991, coupled with stinging prefectural ordinances, also led to stricter handling of gang business cards.


The gang member explained that the legal changes made it easier for anyone who received a gang business card to later go to the police when they felt their physical safety was at risk for whatever reason. Police would use the business card as evidence of suspected blackmail.


The anti-organized crime law quickly made its presence felt as steady streams of revenue, such as protection money, started to dry up. Police around Japan issued around 50,000 warnings to gangs ordering them to desist from such unsavory activities.


Later legal revisions made gang bosses liable to pay compensation for any damage caused by underlings.


By 2011, all prefectures had passed ordinances designed to drive out gangs from their jurisdictions.


The changes led the Kansai area gang member to point out, “Now, having the police know that someone is a gang member is nothing but a negative factor for us.”


That mindset led to stricter handling of business cards, with some higher-ups ordering affiliated gangs to turn in the cards of their members.

“Organized gangs in the past earned money by having their members show they belonged to a gang,” said Atsushi Mizoguchi, a journalist who has made a career of covering organized crime. “Recently, there has been a change to earning money more discreetly by using a false identity.”


Some gangs resorted to all sorts of scams to turn a buck, but the Kansai area gang member was scornful of such low-brow tactics. For many years, scams were considered beneath the dignity of what organized gangs stood for.


“We were always told scams were uncouth and senior citizens, especially, should not be defrauded,” the gang member said. “It is also embarrassing to read about scams involving payouts for the COVID-19 pandemic and money going to bars and restaurants that cooperate with local government requests to shorten their business hours.”


Gang members with even an ounce of pride would never stoop so low, the man said. However, he acknowledged that some do so out of desperation because other sources of revenue have dried up.


The man also revealed that gang bosses increasingly are ordering subordinates not to get involved in tacky schemes.


This stems from the risk they face in being held liable to pay compensation when rank-and-file members cause financial damage to the public sector.


Some bosses have gone as far as to take steps to boot out members who cross this unwritten rule.


But there is another side to the legal restrictions that police contend are closing the era of gangs operating brazenly in the open: More gang members are simply going underground.


“We have about five times as many members as the number the police believe belong to our gang,” said another high-ranking member.


Police face another headache, dealing with young gang members who have no direct ties to organized crime, but have become increasingly more active in criminal activity over the last decade.

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