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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

OCTOBER 22, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 42

When Times Get Tough
Japan's gangsters head over to the other side
By ANASTASIA STANMEYER and MURAKAMI MUTSUKO Tokyo


Once high-flying gangsters are opting for legitimacy as life gets tough for crooks. Matthias Ley for Asiaweek
It's not easy to be a yakuza these days. These organized criminals, who have dominated distinct pieces of Japanese life from annual corporate meetings to backdoor mahjong betting for decades, are now finding that once-easy marks, like protection-seeking restaurants, have become non-paying deadbeats because of the recession. And new laws against crime syndicates have made their lives more difficult too. What's a gangster to do? Many are yearning for legitimacy and want out.

Easier said than done. Yakuza bosses are often not keen on letting their thugs fly the nest. Nevertheless, many underlings are making the effort. "Now that I'm expecting my third child soon, I would like to leave this job and have a straight job," says a yakuza member in Kumamoto, a city in Kyushu island, who sought release from a life of crime. His immediate supervisor told him darkly to discuss the matter with the top boss. Another gangster in Saitama, north of Tokyo, also wanted to leave his mobster career. "How can I accept [your resignation] in the face of other young peers?" asked his less-than-sympathetic boss. And in Hokkaido, a man made up his mind to resign from the business. He might have had second thoughts, however, when he was told of the price: "You mean you are prepared to have your fingers chopped off? Once you are in, there is no way out."

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How's that for an incentive to stick with your job? Yet in Crisis-ravaged Japan, gangsters involved in illegal activities ranging from petty misdeeds to organized crime are joining millions of others seeking new employment. The total number of gangsters has reportedly dropped from 68,800 in 1990 to 43,500 in 1998. Surprisingly, many are calling it quits with help from their former arch-enemies: the police. In Osaka, police issued 70 special orders - legal documents that act like injunctions - from January to July this year to stop gangster bosses from trying to keep their underlings from quitting or forcefully recruiting new members. That's three times as many as in the first seven months of 1998. Says Harada Yoshihisa, police superintendent in charge of organized crime control at the National Police Agency: "The recession is definitely one of the major factors behind the trend."

Indeed, easy money is a thing of the past for yakuza. Their slide began when Japan's economic boom ended a decade ago. At the time, Japan's crime syndicate was at its height, raking in more than $12 billion annually. But the days of huge windfalls from shady property deals, securities manipulation and corporate blackmailing died with the bursting of Japan's economic bubble. Now, even low-level scams are becoming tougher: Restaurants and pachinko parlors are refusing to pay protection, and illegal gambling tables are becoming rare.

The once-steadfast relationship between Japanese executives and sokaiya, corporate racketeering gangsters who are often related to yakuza, also has weakened. Many corporations used to pay sokaiya to help keep order at annual shareholders' meetings and prevent potentially embarrassing questions from coming up. In 1997, however, the Commercial Law was amended to make it easier for company executives to stand up to gangs. Under the ordinance, gangsters can be arrested for demanding money from corporations.

It's not only low-ranking yakuza who want a career change. Mob bosses also are deciding to trade their gangster-issue Mercedes for domestic-made cars. One 40-something local boss living near Tokyo could hardly support his own family on his waning income, so he decided to call it quits and, in the process, laid off 12 subordinates. The yakuza's parent organization in the national hierarchy of gangsters didn't approve of the move, so the local boss asked the police to help him out.

Some, however, want to stick with the yakuza and have tried making money by raising membership fees on subordinate gangs. But small gangs that once paid $273 in dues balked when the cost went to $455 monthly. Other gangster bosses have developed new business niches. In the mid-1990s, they began forging telephone cards and pre-paid pachinko gaming tokens. More recently, they've helped debtors who are hounded by loan collectors or by interfering with public auctions of assets belonging to bankrupt owners.

But for the ones who want out, it is sometimes hard to compete in the job market because many have a hard-to-miss sign of their former profession: They are missing fingers. That's where a Tokyo prosthesis maker is helping out. Britain-trained Maria Niino opened her New Body Institute about 10 years ago to offer silicone fingers, ears and other body parts for people missing appendages. Without her realizing it, her products have become famous among mobsters, and she has unwittingly assisted a lot of them in going straight. Whenever a local magazine does a story on her, she gets 200 to 300 inquiries from gangsters wanting to change careers. In Japan's ongoing recession, it's a growth industry.

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