What Are The Yakuza Like In Japan These Days?

by Justin Sevakis,

Khada asks:

I'm Italian and we have the "Mafia", however the situation with them is different from the past.. Usually they just have abusive property or ask for money in people's shop, but they are not a big treat like in the past, everyday police just find and arrest mafia members. Is the same with Yakuza? What exactly they do, and how are their conditions now?

Yakuza, or "gokudo," are organized crime syndicates that operate in Japan (and other places). They have traditional roots that go back centuries, but their clearest ancestors are edo-period shady peddlers of stolen and fake goods (tekiya), and those who were involved in underground gambling (bakuto). Takuto would set up networks, and charge protection money to vendors during festivals. Generally, they have always been misfits and delinquents, and they often take in young gang members, and other kids of lower social status.

Yakuza are not technically illegal, and in many ways operate in plain sight. They have business cards and buildings with their logos on them. In fact, there are yakuza fan magazines, and yakuza manga are a popular genre. Despite that, most of their business activity is indeed illegal: drugs, gambling, international human trafficking, uncensored porn, loan sharking, blackmail, and any number of other unpleasant things are generally orchestrated by yakuza in Japan.

There are several major Yakuza syndicates -- once numbering 21 -- that run their businesses across Japan and outside of it. They had their hands in everything from entertainment and talent agencies to nuclear power (and indeed, they came up a lot in the days following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear incident). The syndicates are similar to Italian Mafia "Crime Families" in that they each have a hierarchy and have turf wars occasionally.

The yakuza have not been having a great time in the last few years. Starting in 2009, Japan's National Police Agency declared war on the yakuza. In 2011 Japan finally made protection rackets illegal, and made it possible to prosecute mob bosses for crimes committed by their underlings. Over 20,000 gang members were arrested in 2016 alone, and that's actually DOWN from 2015. People are leaving the groups in record numbers. In fact, by 2015 JNPA only had record of 53,000 yakuza members left, nearly half of those belonging to one major syndicate, the Yamaguchi-gumi. This year, the JNPA says there are less than 20,000 full-time yakuza left. Compare that to 1963, the peak of the yakuza, in which they numbered 184,100.

In addition to police crack-downs, there have been lots of internal fights that have really cut into the yakuza's numbers. In August 2015, the Yamaguchi-gumi split into two groups. The following November, the head of the clan, Tatsuyuki Hishida, was found beaten to death.

In reaction to all of these changes, the yakuza have been trying to adjust. The aforementioned Yamaguchi-gumi now forbids its members from selling drugs, defrauding people, and robbing people. They're moving into new areas of business that don't involve force, such as robbing ATMs and cybercrime. Additionally, many members are now forbidden from having the clan logos on their business cards! (This is actually a deal-breaker for a lot of thugs.)

I don't think anybody expects the yakuza to die off completely. The police are concentrating their efforts on the most visible targets, the ones who don't cooperate with police and appear on TV. However, these days they are definitely being forced underground. What that scene will look like in even a year is anyone's guess.

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Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for nearly 20 years. He's the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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