In a whispered voice…“Yakuza…”. Just saying the word makes me want to look around and make sure nobody’s standing behind me. Yakuza or やくざ is the Japanese term for the Japanese syndicate or for a Japanese mafia member. It’s a subject I have yet to discuss* on this blog, but it’s one that I can’t overlook. Although I don’t have any personal experiences with any it’s members (not that I know of anyway), the yakuza are undoubtedly a much darker, yet influential part of Japanese society.
*Maybe it’s because I don’t want to be shanked by a samurai sword.
What compelled me to write this post? As you know I was Odaiba recently, which is home to Fuji Television (in the Odaiba post, it’s famous Japanese building with the sphere at the top). I saw a news report about this Japanese press conference. In this conference, there was a man (closely associated with Fuji-TV), on the verge of tears, who was bowing deeply before a crowd of mic-toting reporters and flashing cameras. I could make out some of the Japanese in the report, not all of it, but I didn’t need to. It’s always the same pattern. Whenever I see a press conference on Japanese TV where a man or woman is crying, lots of cameras are flashing, and the conference ends with the crying man or woman doing a deep, long, apologetic bow…more often than not…it’s important Japanese news.
**There was a similar conference when the Kabuki actor, Ichikawa Ebizo was involved in a early morning brawl or when Noriko Sakai (a famous Japanese actress) was found guilty of drug charges.
I went to the internet to find out more about the story, and pulled up the story of comedian turned Fuji-TV executive, Shunsuke Shimada (I’ve included a link to the article below this post).
Apparently, Shimada called the press conference to announce his rather sudden retirement from the entertainment industry. Although it’s not completely clear to me what crime he committed, it seems as though in the Japanese entertainment industry, you are guilty just by association: Shimada had a yakuza friend and when that came to light, he came under fire for it.
In the United States I am certain that mob ties still exist, but not nearly to the extent that it did thirty plus years ago. In Japan I figured it would be the same. Over time stricter laws should eventually reduce the power of organized crime, right? Maybe not.
In Japan, from what I gather, the biggest mafia connections come in entertainment and sports. It is none more prevalent than in the sumo stables. Sumo has a long reputation of incredibly deep mafia links that continues to this very day, namely in the form of gambling. Just six short months ago, a major Tokyo tournament was cancelled because of match-fixing.
Another example. I am huge martial art fan and I remember when Pride used to be one of the top mixed-martial arts fighting events in the world. My sister used to do some announcing for Pride and she would send me books with the real signatures of some my martial arts heroes. I used to get those books and just wish that I could go to Japan some day. Sadly, I’ll never get to watch a PRIDE fight because the organization is now defunct. DREAM tried to rekindle the mixed-martial-arts glory here in Japan, but unsuccessfully. Rumor has it that the crumble of the PRIDE organization may have been yakuza-related, but it’s hard to say for sure.
There here are media influences as well, including video games and television shows that have yakuza themes. As far as media goes though, I can’t say I blame companies for making these types of games…they sell! Also if I blamed the, I’d be a total hypocrite: I rather enjoyed watching the Godfather movies (not part III), Casino, Goodfellas, and playing Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto III. Whether people care to admit it or not, there is (and always will be) an interest in all things shady/mysterious. Even if we take the mafia out of it, and use a more wholesome example, when I saw Star Wars, I was as interested in the Sith as I was the Jedi. It’s that whole “love to hate them” mentality I guess.
There are other enduring instances as well. I think it’s because of the yakuza influence, anybody that has a visible tattoo won’t be allowed into an onsen (spa) or a many of the public, Japanese pools. I have friends with tattoos who I know for certain aren’t yakuza, but because of their tattoos, onsens are out of the question for them.
In the end it seems like the Japanese mob has their hands in a lot of things “behind the scenes” here in Japan. I can’t claim to know the extent of it but I’d be curious to see just how far the links go.
What do you think? Why are yakuza ties still so strong here in Japan?
P.S.-Here is the link to the article I was telling you about:
P.P.S.- I also found an interesting video about The Japanese Underworld and the Yamaguchi crime family. I learned the expression “gokudo” (ごくどう or 極道) from this video which can mean gangster, yakuza, or organized crime. It doesn’t seem to be recent, but it’s interesting.
P.P.P.S.- Just for kicks
1. If you’re talking to a Japanese friend who’s eerily too cool for their own good…they’re probably a Yakuza member.
2. If you crack a joke on a Japanese man and he turns around and proceeds to start stabbing you with a knife…he’s probably a yakuza member.
3. If you run into a man who’s missing his pinky finger…he’s probably a yakuza member.
4. If you meet a man or woman who’s entire body has more ink than your local newspaper…yep, that’s right, they’re probably yakuza members
5. If you see a high-ranking political official kneeling and kissing the ring of some strange man or woman, the person standing…is probably a yakuza member.
Honestly, aside from tattoos…maybe…I can’t think of any true ways to spot someone who’s a member of the Japanese mofia. I mean, you can walk up and ask, but at your own risk!