This Week in Asia

Japan gives yakuza criminal gangs the finger

"I was a member of the Inagawa-kai from my teenage years and served 15 years in prison for that incident," he says. "It was while I was in prison that I realised I no longer wanted to be a member of a yakuza group."

Now 69, Aoki was sufficiently resilient to follow through with an idea that had formed during his incarceration when it might have been easier to slip back into a life of crime. In January 2014, he opened the doors of Olive House, a small property in Kumamoto City that takes in anyone who has been in trouble with the authorities - including a good number of gang members who have decided that a life of organised crime is no longer for them - and helps them go straight.

Thai police parade Japanese crime boss Shigeharu Shirai - and his tattoo filled torso - 14 years after he went on the run. Photo: AFP

"There are many cases in which people who were found guilty and sentenced to a prison term later wanted to change their ways but found themselves out on the streets again once they had completed their sentences," Aoki tells This Week in Asia. "I have seen it happen myself and when it does, it is understandable that they would go back to their previous lives.

"I wanted to help them in some way. It would not only be a place where they could stay, but a protective facility where they are truly able to reintegrate into life through a deep fellowship with other people who have been in similar situations.

"And, as a Christian, that is what I decided I wanted to devote the rest of my life to achieving."

It was a brave move, given that the gangs in the past have not taken too kindly to anyone who wants to leave their ranks or those who help them do so.

Kobe citizens protest at yakuza near the headquarters of Japan's largest organised crime syndicate Yamaguchi-gumi. Photo: Reuters

Members who upset the boss are invariably punished, with the worst transgressions requiring the perpetrator to carry out yubitsume, or cutting off their own finger. Others simply disappear and there are occasional reports of decomposed bodies being found in mountainous regions of Japan or washing up on beaches minus any potentially distinguishing marks.

Founded in 1949 in the seaside town of Atami, southwest of Tokyo, the Inagawa-kai grew rapidly and members earned a living from illegal gambling, drugs, blackmail, extortion and prostitution, but it never shied away from confrontation with other groups when it felt they were encroaching on its territory and there have been dozens of clashes down the years.

Supported by religious groups and financial help from the government, Olive House has to date welcomed 71 people, including people serving suspended prison sentences, youths and members of organised crime groups.

As well as giving them a place to stay for up to six months, Aoki helps them look for work.

Participants in the annual Sanja Matsuri festival in Tokyo show off their traditional Japanese tattoos. In Japan, full body tattoos are associated with criminal gangs. Photo: AFP

Not everyone who enters the house turns things around, Aoki admits, and about 10 per cent of people slip back into bad habits, but a police crackdown on underworld groups across Japan means that Aoki believes that his support is going to become increasingly important in the years to come.

"The police are tightening up on criminal gangs and fewer and fewer people are able to make a living in those underworld groups," he says. "It is getting to the point that these groups will soon not be able to survive."

The evidence suggests Aoki might be correct.

Membership of Japan's various yakuza groups declined to a record low of 34,500 in 2017, according to the National Police Agency, the 13th consecutive year that numbers have fallen and the lowest total since statistics were first compiled in 1958. The peak year for membership was 1964, with more than 184,000 gangsters across the country.

Across Japan, membership was down by about 4,600 from the previous year, with those identified as "core members" of yakuza groups standing at 16,800. The figure for core members fell below the 20,000 figure for the first time in 2016, the police said. The remaining 17,700 were classified as "semi-regular" members of gangs, or those who are more loosely connected with their activities.

Yakuza first emerged as gangs of unaffiliated samurai. File photo

Yakuza are believed to have first emerged as gangs of unaffiliated samurai in 17th century Japan and still have strict codes of conduct that they adhere to, even if they have diverged into a life of organised crime. Officially described by the police as boryokudan, meaning "violent groups", they were traditionally powerful within set geographical areas of Japan but expanded swiftly in post-war Japan in tandem with the nation's economic miracle - and when pickings were particularly rich.

Marked out even today by their traditional full-body tattoos, which explains the continued aversion of ordinary Japanese to skin art, they operate illegal gambling dens and the sex trade in the big cities, as well as running protection rackets and selling drugs and weapons.

As the authorities have cracked down on their operations in the past couple of decades, however, many groups have set up front companies in an effort to appear legitimate. Many are in the property and construction sectors, but they also expanded into financial services.

They also sought to develop similar businesses overseas, such as in the US and Southeast Asia, although cross-border crime-fighting efforts are making it increasingly difficult for them to evade the scrutiny of the authorities.

The Yamaguchi-gumi remains the largest single yakuza group, with an estimated 4,700 core members, according to police statistics. The Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi, a splinter group, has around 2,500 core members, while the Sumiyoshikai has an estimated 2,900 followers.

Aoki's old gang has fewer than 2,000 key members.

Police statistics also indicate that gang members were investigated in 17,737 criminal cases in 2017. Of the total, 4,693 cases involved drugs, 2,095 were in relation to incidents of bodily harm and 1,874 were for theft.

The yakuza are infamous for a rigid honour system that calls on them to chop off fingers for even minor transgressions. Photo: AFP

The authorities attribute the steady decline in membership to a raft of new laws that began to be rolled out in 2011, including legislation that made it illegal for owners of legitimate businesses to pay protection money to gangs. Overnight, the measure severed a significant revenue source for underworld groups. Another new law holds a yakuza leader legally responsible if one of his underlings kills or injures another person. The law means mob bosses are no longer able to distance themselves from the day-to-day deeds of their followers and has been used to sentence senior gangsters to prison terms, going some way to reducing violent incidents.

There is also a growing rejection of yakuza among the public, who in many cases are no longer afraid to stand up to gangs that operate in their neighbourhoods. Such opposition has even in some instances forced organised crime groups to close their offices in residential districts.

Local authorities are also becoming more creative in devising ways to drive a wedge between the gangs and their members. In February, the local government in Fukuoka Prefecture - still notorious as a hotbed of underworld activity - set up a programme that provides financial assistance to gang members who are broke and want to try to get a legitimate job. The prefecture has set aside 4.2 million yen (HK$297,000) in its annual budget for accommodation and travel costs to attend job interviews.

Yakuza expert: Jake Adelstein. Photo: AFP

"The gangsters in Fukuoka and northern Kyushu are a rough bunch - the prefecture is still offering US$1,000 for anyone who turns in a grenade to the authorities - so I am not surprised to see this sort of creative initiative to reduce gangster numbers there," says Jake Adelstein, author of Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter On The Police Beat in Japan.

"It's a very smart move; not only does the prefecture give them some money to get them out of organised crime, but they also get them to register with the authorities, which bestows a certain degree of police protection on them," he says.

"It could be argued that these sorts of measures should have been taken a long time ago, but the bottom line is that they are in place now and they are having a positive effect in dismantling these organisations."

The mascots for Japan's 2020 Olympics. The Games may be something of a last hurrah for the yakuza. Photo: AFP

Adelstein says he believes the gangs will be able to hold out until the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo - a cash cow for organised crime - but after that their downfall will be rapid.

"The final nail in their coffin is likely to be when the clean-up at the Fukushima nuclear plant gets to the point at which they no longer need workers who are paid by the day to do jobs that no one else is willing to take on."

With nowhere else to go and few transferable skills, however, it is likely that Aoki's Olive House and other organisations like it will be busy for a few more years helping reformed yakuza reintegrate into society.

Japanese authorities are generally reluctant to permit people to alter the details entered in their family register at birth, but the court was convinced the man would be in danger if steps were not taken to mask his identity and that failure to protect him would deter other gang members from testifying against their erstwhile colleagues.

The man was a long-standing member of a Tokyo-based underworld gang who police convinced to turn informant. As a result of his cooperation, the head of the gang was arrested.

The man was given a temporary pseudonym and lived under police protection, but was unable to provide documents for banking, at city hall or for buying a mobile phone because they might have revealed his whereabouts.

Officially changing his name took several years - including an appeal against an earlier ruling by the Tokyo Family Court that denied his request on the ground that it would "cause confusion in society".

In Japan, paperwork and the "accepted way" of things are considered inviolable. The koseki tohon is the all-important family register that lists an individual's personal details, yet the inflexibility of the bureaucratic system here means it has no provisions for same-sex marriages, for example, or foreign residents and their Japanese spouses and children.

Changing a family name falls into the same category.

"The family court was really reluctant to accept it and I felt it was a hurdle," the man said. "I want them to create a mechanism to protect those who cooperate in investigations."

The man's lawyer echoed that idea, saying, "To alleviate the unease of those who cooperate in investigations, the family court should be flexible and accept name changes for those in such situations."

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP).

Copyright (c) 2018. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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