Where Have Japan’s Yakuza Gone?

By Jake Adelstein and Nathalie-Kyoko Stucky

Japan’s feared and resilient crime syndicates the yakuza have seen their numbers decline for the first time in years, but is that because of stricter laws or are they just going underground? By Jake Adelstein and Nathalie-Kyoko Stucky
The number of yakuza, Japan’s organized crime group members, hit its lowest record since the country’s first anti-organized crime laws passed in 1992, the National Police Agency announced this week. The number of yakuza had hovered around 80,000 for almost 18 years up to 2011 but the nationwide criminalization of paying the yakuza or doing business with them has dealt a blow to these quasi-legal organizations. However, like many things in Japan, the statistics and the reality are always slightly askew.
According to the National Police Agency, yakuza membership peaked in 1963, at approximately 184,100 members. Since the implementation of the anti-organized crime laws in 1992, the number of active members “has been approximately at the same level” of roughly 80,000. But by the end of 2011 membership was starting to seriously decline down to 70,300 members. (32,700 regular members and 37,600 associates.)
The NPA says about 4,600 members retired from regulated organized crime activities within a year, bringing the total numbers of registered members and associates to about 58,600 in 2013 down from 63,200 in 2012. Unlike most organized crime groups in the world, the Japanese mafia is recognized and regulated by the police under the organized crime control laws, but not outlawed. The groups still have offices and fort-like headquarters, business cards, corporate logos, badges and fan magazines. The Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s largest organized crime group even has their own internal newspaper and has a website in development, perhaps hoping to recruit younger members and shore up PR.

Their primary sources of revenue are extortion, racketeering, financial fraud, blackmail, stock market manipulation, drugs, the entertainment business, sports industry, film and television production, and providing labor and security to the nuclear industry. The yakuza were traditionally federations of gamblers (bakuto) and street merchants (tekiya). They acted as a second police force in the chaos after the Second World War, gaining some legitimacy. They are called boryokudan, 暴力団 (violent groups) by the police but they refer themselves “yakuza” “gokudo” and as ninkyodantai 仁侠団体 (humanitarian groups) and claim that they contribute to preserving peace in Japan, and emergency aid when natural catastrophes hit the country.