Tokyo Report

Japan’s Once Powerful Criminal Underworld Hits Record Low Membership

Hit hard by police crackdowns and aging, the number of people leaving Japan’s yakuza has reached a 15-year high.

Thisanka Siripala
Japan’s Once Powerful Criminal Underworld Hits Record Low Membership
Credit: Pixabay

The once secretive and terrifying “yakuza” gangs have been featured in many fictional mobster tales in Hollywood and Japanese cinema alike. But in reality the allure of making it and living luxuriously as a gang member has lost its appeal to the younger generation of Japanese.

Japan’s National Police Agency reported that the number of gangsters in organized crime groups dropped to a record low of 30,500 in 2018. An increased arrest rate of current and former gang members and public exposure of member identities have left these groups weak and with few places to hide.

While these criminal gangs are typically involved in serious offenses such as drug trafficking, commercial drug possession, gambling, and human trafficking, they are also responsible for a sweeping wave of petty crime operations across Japan such as phone scams targeting the elderly and fake invoice fraud.  

Members, who are often recruited young as juvenile offenders or from low socioeconomic backgrounds, earn a reasonable living running sex and entertainment industries, talent agencies, and drinking establishments where illegal money is laundered and redirected into property and to finance investments.

In an effort to counter the growing influence of criminal gangs, the Japanese government introduced a series of anti-gang laws in 1992. A gangster exclusion ordinance restricts maintaining any connection or relationship with gang members. Convicted former gang members are barred from access to national health insurance, opening a bank account, applying for a car licence, gym membership, or even nursery school care for dependents. It’s a criminal offense for current or former gang members to hide their affiliation at their place of employment or in applications.

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Japan’s banking industry formed strong links to the yakuza by providing unchecked loans. However, local authorities in Fukuoka, Japan’s most southern prefecture, have taken the lead in making banks more accountable in limiting the economic gains of gang member-affiliated bank accounts and business contracts.  

As for the power held by each organization, the largest — the Yamaguchi clan, which is headquartered in Kobe — has shrunk by 10,000 members. The organization, which celebrated 100 years of operation in 2015, boasted during its peak a membership of 40,000 people. Currently, Yamaguchi clan membership is now believed to have fallen to 9,500. The second largest gang, the Sumiyoshi clan, stands at 4,490 members, and the third largest, the Inagawa clan, comprises 3,700 members.

Since the government began recording statistics for crime syndicates in 1958, total gang membership reached a high of 183,000 in 1963. Japan’s bubble economy in the 1980s fueled an explosion of willing gangsters with a new level of business opportunities. However, with the benefits of being a gangster diminishing, police say the number of people leaving has steadily increased. The transition toward rejoining society and finding employment, however, is a mammoth struggle coupled with social ostracism and legal disadvantages.

The National Center for the Promotion of Ending Violence reports that the number of people being referred to them has averaged between 500 and 600 annually. Attempts to streamline local rehabilitation programs to help prevent former gang members from reoffending have been met with some opposition. A social rehabilitation program offered by the police between 2010 and 2017 recorded that only 2.6 percent of 4,170 former gang members found steady employment — raising questions about what happened to the remaining 97.4 percent.

The National Police Agency decision to release arrest data has been viewed as suspicious and possibly exaggerated. Industry experts point out that the statistics don’t make a distinction between regular gang members and associate members. Within criminal organizations, apprentices within offices who are the lowest ranked members are calculated as being “regular members” despite being relegated to cleaning, administration, reception, and tea pouring duties. With sophistication and profit goals like a regular company, some workers within these enterprises may not even be aware that the business is owned and operated by the yakuza.

Experts believe that if gang member affiliates were to be arrested, they ought to be categorized separately as “quasi” members rather than full time “regular” members — the distinction being knowledge of the enterprise’s criminality. There are concerns that people who are arrested based on being affiliated with yakuza members unknowingly, such as neighbors, are also being considered in the overall statistics, which would skew the rate of arrests on organized crime. It also puts into question the effectiveness of police crackdowns in targeting the larger players of the criminal underworld.