Q&A with Jake Adelstein, Author of ‘The Last Yakuza’

Last week, former Liberal Democratic Party Senator Koichi Hamada was arrested in Japan on corruption and 'breach of trust' charges. Hamada was mentioned in Jake Adelstein's article 'The Last Yakuza' as a former Inagawa-kai (a yakuza group) member, according to police and organized crime sources.

The World Policy Journal spoke with Mr. Adelstein on his article
and his experiences as a gaijin reporter on the police beat in Japan.

Who is the ‘last yakuza’? Is there actually a serious crackdown coming?

The ‘last yakuza’ refers to the old guard yakuza who obeyed some unwritten rules of peaceful coexistence with the political and law enforcement sphere. The crackdown has already begun since September of last year.  The police are doing everything in their power to eliminate spheres of yakuza influence. That includes not just busting yakuza on petty charges, but pressuring convenience store chains not to stock yakuza fan magazines, convincing banks to not give yakuza members’ accounts, and to get the sumo association and other sporting associations to ban yakuza from attending the matches.

What had prevented the government from cracking down on yakuza before?

Japan doesn't have a Ricoh act. It has limited wire-tapping. There is no plea-bargaining allowed. There is no witness protection or witness relocation program. There is no incentive for a low-ranking yakuza to rat out the people above him and a hundred reasons for him to keep his mouth shut.  For these reasons, most investigations often peter out before really getting off the ground. The branches get clipped, the roots remain untouched.

The yakuza really is a generic term to refer to the top 22 organized crime groups, which are essentially criminal trade associations, with their own offices and business cards. That's why you can have yakuza fan magazines in Japan and not in Italy. It's not a crime to be a member of a yakuza, although being a proven member has disadvantages in normal daily life.

Were the yakuza a deciding factor in the 2007 and 2009 elections, where the DPJ won an unprecedented number of seats?

I wouldn't say the yakuza were a deciding factor. They are one factor. If you put the Inagawakai and the Yamaguchi-gumi together that's about 50,000 people. Add on their relatives, families, and related businesses, you have a powerful little lobby.

Now that the DPJ is faltering, are the yakuza switching political allegiances?

I wouldn't say "the yakuza"—I would say the Yamaguchi-gumi and all organizations under their domination, which includes the Inagawakai, are reassessing their place on the political landscape. Kan Naoto is now the DPJ PM and their allies within the DPJ don't include him.  

Meanwhile, the National Police Agency (NPA) is very publicly arresting members of the Yamaguchi-gumi Kodokai (the ruling faction) on any possible charges and vigorously pursuing the investigation of links between the sumo world and the Yamaguchi-gumi, shaming the Yamaguchi-gumi and ruining their public image. The National Police Agency is doing this in spite of what appear to be attempts by politicians to quash the investigation. It does appear, at least, that the Yamaguchi-gumi seems to have one of their people inside the Sumo Association to keep things quiet and has help from above in making sure the investigation doesn’t go too far.

How did you become involved with the police in Japan?

I was a reporter for the Yomiuri Shinbun, Japan's largest newspaper, from 1993 to 2005. I started on the police beat in Saitama Prefecture along with all the other new hires in 1993. By the end of 1993, I was primarily covering the organized crime task force of the Saitama Police Department. Other reporters covered homicide, or white collar crime, my beat was organized crime.

Why does the NPA go after the yakuza now, after years of laissez-faire?

Because the Kodokai, the ruling faction of the Yamaguchi-gumi, has broken the unwritten rules. They have harassed police officers, photographed their family members—they have challenged the police. They don't take that well. And by parading their presence at the Nagoya sumo tournament last year, they basically spat in the face of the police as well. As if to say, "we even have claim to Japan's national sport. We're VIPS wherever we go. You can't touch us."  It also doesn't help that the acting head of the Kodokai, Takayama, is rumored to be of North Korean ancestry.

What differences are there between the yakuza factions? Is there a lot of competition or do they cooperate on joint ventures?

There are major differences in financial power, manpower, internal rules, and ethnic/cultural backgrounds between most groups. Yes, there is competition but also cooperation. And as surprising as it may seem, yakuza bosses often send New Year's Greeting Cards to the homes of gang bosses of other rival gangs. Everyone knows each other.

What accounts for the yakuza's popularity and romanticization in Japanese pop culture?

Yakuza represent some traditional virtues of Japanese society. Silent endurance. Loyalty. Obedience. Self-sacrifice. Reciprocity. There are also many who believe the yakuza are a necessary evil—keeping the streets safe from muggers, purse snatchers and foreigners, like myself. The yakuza are good at playing on Japan's general xenophobia and most yakuza fan magazines have regular columns devoted to crimes by foreigners—suggesting only the yakuza keep Japan safe from the barbarian masses.

Also, the Japanese media is really scared of reporting anything scandalous about the yakuza or good investigative journalism into them. They've attacked journalists before, very flamboyantly, and film directors as well. Most people in the media know that the film director Itami Juzo didn't kill himself but was offed by the yakuza because of a film he was planning to make.  

It's a country where no one would touch my article about Goto Tadamasa making a deal with the FBI to get a liver transplant at UCLA, and his three other cronies also getting liver transplants. I had to write it up for the Washington Post after the one magazine I was counting on also got cold feet.  There are things in police files that have leaked out onto the internet that the mass media here will not write, because they are afraid. There are some powerful politicians with yakuza patrons who can put pressure on a newspaper not to write bad things about their friends. Yoshimoto Kogyo and Burning Productions, two of Japan's largest talent agencies, are involved with the Yamaguchi-gumi and exert pressure on television and newspapers when they need to. Write the wrong thing about a yakuza group or yakuza-affiliated talent agencies, and suddenly you won't have access to the actors and actresses, the celebrities, and the singers anymore. It hurts sales.

This interview was conducted for the World Policy Journal by Nestor Bailly. Read his synopsis of recent scandals involving yakuza and sumo wrestling.

Photo via Flickr, user Sushicam