Japan is known for its low crime rate and absence of corruption. According to the OECD, the country has the second lowest homicide rate of any member state in 2012 (after tiny Iceland), with just 0.5 murders per 100,000 inhabitants.
The one infamous exception is the Japanese organized crime syndicates known as the Yakuza. These groups have a long history in Japanese society, going back at least to the 18th century and are known for their strict hierarchy, traditions and political connections. Most major Yakuza families operate as legal “associations,” can be found in the phone book and advertise their hangouts with bronze placards. According to The Economist, some Yakuza members even carry business cards and have pension plans. Although the number has fallen steadily over the last decades, there are apparently still around 53,500 registered members today.
The Yakuza continue to make up the majority of Japan’s organized crime. Although each organization has specific rules regarding their activities, various Yakuza groups are behind a majority of drug smuggling, human trafficking, and extortion taking place in Japan. Furthermore, in order to evade unwanted attention from the authorities, many Yakuza organizations are becoming more involved in harder-to-trace financial crimes.
The legality of the Yakuza organizations is based on two factors. First, Japanese organized crime has a history of close relations with politics: during Japan’s turbo-charged modernization, they reached deep into the economy. After World War II they grew powerful in black markets. Their might peaked in the 1960s with an estimated membership of 184,000. At their zenith, the Yakuza had strong links to conservative politicians and were used by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Japan’s post-war political behemoth, to break up unions and left-wing demonstrations. Such ties may not have completely faded.
Secondly, one of the often-quoted reasons on why Japan has so little visible crime is due to the Yakuza’s influence. The major crime families keep drug dealers and other unpleasantries hidden in order to avoid confrontations with the police. As long as the Yakuza’s activities don’t harm anyone outside the criminal underworld, they are mostly tolerated by the government. As The Economist states, “Japan seems to prefer organized crime to the disorganized alternative.”
Furthermore, the Yakuza try to portray themselves as a benevolent force in society. Different Yakuza groups organize charities, give to the poor and homeless, and even host neighborhood parties for children. The Yakuza even helped organize a rapid relief effort after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, something that was contrasted with the government’s slow reaction.
However, few things are more dangerous than when mob families go to war. The largest Yakuza crime family, the Yamaguchi-gumi, has recently fractured: Thirteen smaller clans affiliated with the organization split from the group, apparently after disagreements on how it should move forward. The Yamaguchi-gumi had 10,400 members in 44 prefectures as of the end of 2014. The number would be 23,400 if quasi-members were included, accounting for 43.7 percent of all organized crime members in Japan. This split has caused alarm in the Japanese government, which fears a mob war in Japan’s underworld.
This fear seems to have been vindicated. According to the Asahi Shimbun, both the Yamaguchi-gumi and the thirteen splinter groups have been busy buying up weapons and lining up hitmen. The first shots in this mob war might have already been fired outside a hot spring facility in Iida, Nagano Prefecture. The 43-year-old man who was shot and killed outside a bathhouse on October 6 wanted to leave a Yamaguchi-gumi affiliate and join the newly formed rival organization consisting of the rebel gangs.
In what might be retaliation for this murder, a boss in the original Yamaguchi-gumi was killed on Sunday. Tatsuyuki Hishida was found tied up in his apartment after being bludgeoned to death. Police report that the killing was most likely in response to the Yamaguchi-gumi’s split.
The Japanese government has good reason to fear a gang war. Between 1985 and 1987, 25 Yakuza members were killed and around 70 were injured in a feud involving affiliated rival gangs. That bloodshed was triggered in part over disagreement over who should become the head of the Yamaguchi-gumi. A few years ago, another war broke out between two rival gangs on the southern island of Kyushu, in which mobsters attacked each other with machine guns and grenades.
Japanese politics needs to get rid of the Yakuza. Perhaps it’s time for the government to make them an offer they can’t refuse.