Sun, Jan 23, 2011 - Page 4 News List

FEATURE: Japan gets tough on ‘yakuza’ gangs

GRAYING SYNDICATES:Japan’s most famous organized crime groups, which saw their heyday in the heady days of the 1980s, now reflect society’s economic malaise


A sign that says “Gangsters not welcome” at the gate of construction site of Tokyo’s Sky Tree telecoms tower is pictured on Dec. 7.

Photo: AFP

Call it a sign of the times for Japan’s yakuza crime syndicates — placards on the fence around one of Tokyo’s most high-profile building sites warn: “Gangsters not welcome.”

Developers of Tokyo’s Sky Tree broadcast tower, set to be the world’s highest when it’s finished next year, are doing what long seemed unthinkable, shutting the door on the tattooed tough guys of the Japanese underworld.

Their bold stance comes amid a police offensive against crime groups since 2009 that has also emboldened local governments and citizens’ groups to voice their opposition to mobsters long deemed untouchables.

Late last year, police arrested the man alleged to be Japan’s most powerful gang boss still outside jail — 63-year-old Kiyoshi Takayama — on extortion charges.

A force of 140 police officers joined the pre-dawn raid to net Takayama, who allegedly led the Kodokai faction of the largest yakuza group, the 50,000-member Yamaguchi-gumi.

Takayama — who has one eye permanently shut, reportedly from a sword fighting injury — was said to be the Yamaguchi-gumi’s de facto leader after its boss, Kenichi Shinoda, 68, was jailed in 2005 for gun law violations.

Last month, police struck again and arrested the Yamaguchi-gumi’s alleged No. 3, Tadashi Irie, 65, on suspicion of paying the relatives of a hitman who is in jail for a gangland killing.

The arrests came after crusading National Police Agency chief Takaharu Ando declared war on the yakuza in September 2009, shaking up a long-standing and uniquely Japanese live-and-let-live consensus.

Like crime groups elsewhere, yakuza have made money off illegal gambling, drugs, prostitution, protection rackets and loan sharking, as well as white-collar crime and through front companies.

However, unlike Chinese triads or the Italian mafia, yakuza groups are not secret societies and operate openly out of corporate headquarters that have signs at their front doors and are listed in phone books.

Fanzines, movies, manga comics and videogames have long celebrated the exploits of the crime families that have a near-monopoly on extrajudicial violence in a society famous for its very low crime rates.

One in 10 people under the age of 40 consider the yakuza “a necessary evil,” according to a recent local survey by the Nara Prefecture police department.

After the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, the yakuza there earned kudos with the shell-shocked public by being first to open soup kitchens, beating bungling government authorities in a time of desperate need.

The yakuza, who call themselves “chivalrous organizations” claiming a samurai code of honor, have long and famously had links with conservative politicians and the massive construction sector, a major cash-cow.

Upon joining gangs, members sever their family ties and pledge total loyalty to their crime family — and, in case of transgressions, famously atone for them by cutting off a little finger and handing it to their boss.

Police have tended to leave them alone, grateful they kept down street crime, as long as they adhered to rules such as not harming civilians and occasionally having a member confess and do jail time, experts say.

That consensus was broken by the 4,000-member Kodokai, says Jake Adelstein, an expert on the Japanese underworld and author of Tokyo Vice, a book about his decade as a police reporter for a major Japanese daily.

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