TOKYO -- In June 2007, as Japan's upper house elections were drawing near, the nation's largest organized crime group--the 40,000 member Yamaguchi-gumi--decided to throw its support behind the country's second leading political party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). Fifteen of the Yamaguchi-gumi's top-ranking members made the decision behind closed doors. After the die was cast, a meeting was convened at the sprawling Yamaguchi-gumi headquarters, which take up two square blocks in Kobe. The gang's most powerful executive members, the jikisan, were summoned from throughout Japan and ordered to put their full support behind the DPJ. The message was simple. "We've worked out a deal with a senior member of the DPJ. We help them get elected and they keep a criminal conspiracy law, the kyobozai, off the books for a few more years," one insider said. The next month, calls went out from Yamaguchi-gumi headquarters to the heads of each local branch across the country. In Tokyo, even the conservative boss Goto Tadamasa, leader of the 1,000 strong Yamaguchi-gumi unit called the Goto-gumi, told his people, "We're backing DPJ. Whatever resources you have available to help the local DPJ representative win, put them to work." Bosses of the Inagawa-kai, Japan's third largest organized crime group (10,000 members), met in an entertainment complex they own in Yokohama, and announced to board members that the Inagawa-kai would support DPJ as well. At the same time, the yakuza allegedly struck a deal with Mindan and Chosensoren--political and social organizations that lobby for the rights and interests of Japanese of Korean descent--to support the DPJ. Party leaders, in turn, promised both groups that they would strive to get Japanese-Koreans with permanent residence equal voting rights when they took office. According to the National Police Agency [NPA], of the more than 86,000 yakuza members in Japan, a third are of Korean descent.
An Unprecedented Deal
For decades, Japan's vast, homegrown mafia network has exercised powerful control over the inner workings of domestic politics. With antecedents as far back as the early Tokugawa period in the seventeenth century, today's yakuza came of age after World War II, calling themselves ninkyo dantai, or chivalrous organizations. Japan's longest ruling party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), has dominated Japanese politics since it was founded at the same time. The LDP couldn't have existed without the financial support of Yoshio Kodama, a right-wing activist and industrialist with strong yakuza connections. From its earliest days, gang bosses funded and supported LDP candidates and elected officers, and were rewarded with public works projects, political favors and an agreement that no serious crackdown on the yakuza would take place. Their existence would remain effectively legal. The Japan Federation of Lawyers (Nichibenren) has argued for years that while the Japanese government officially recognizes 22 yakuza outfits and regulates them, the act of recognition itself legitimizes the organizations. For decades the federation has called for an across-the-board ban on the existence of organized crime groups.
Sokka Gakkai, a religious organization represented by the political party Komeito, used the Goto-gumi, to keep its party strong and squelch dissent. Tadamasa, the Goto-gumi boss, explicitly discusses these ties in his recently published autobiography. Some LDP senators and cabinet ministers used yakuza enforcers to deal with bad debts and bounced checks. Wealthy senators such as Eitaro Itoyama used organized crime to cover up scandals and increase their wealth. When crime boss Inagawa Chihiro needed to be admitted to the United States for a liver transplant (yakuza leaders are notoriously hard drinkers), former LDP Secretary General Makoto Koga pleaded successfully with U.S. officials to allow Chihiro to enter the country.
But a seismic shift is underway in Japanese politics. For the first time in modern history, the yakuza have swapped allegiances. Two of Japan's three largest crime organizations adopted the DPJ as their official party in a single stroke. The most powerful, the Yamaguchi-gumi, has brought voters, funding and "diplomatic" aid to the DPJ. This spring it helped the DPJ suppress civil dissent and gather support for the party's proposal to move some American military facilities to Tokushima prefecture. The Yamaguchi-gumi orchestrated this through right-wing groups with local gang connections. Such political groups are often used as tools of the yakuza, because freedom of assembly and speech laws allow them to coerce and disturb under the guise of political activity. When it came to power, the DPJ promised to pay attention to Okinawa's U.S. military burden. Their request to the Americans to move some training exercises made good on that promise, while the Yamaguchi-gumi will likely profit from any new construction for the Tokushima facilities through bid rigging and kickbacks.
The Democratic Party of Japan was actually created in 1998, when reform-minded politicians from a number of opposition parties united, hoping to create an authentic opposition party capable of taking over from the ruling LDP. Few ever thought it would happen. Yet during the 2007 House of Councilors election, the DPJ won a huge number of seats, seizing control of the upper house of the Japanese parliament, or Diet. In 2009, under the leadership of Yukio Hatoyama and still backed by the yakuza, the DPJ won the general election by a landslide--the first change in Japanese government since the two-party system was adopted at the end of World War II. Hatoyama became the prime minister. The Yamaguchigumi had picked a winner.
In Broad Daylight
The yakuza are not confined to the shadows. They have office buildings, business cards, even fan magazines. They are heavily involved in construction (including public works projects), bid-rigging, real estate, extortion, blackmail, stock manipulation, gambling, human trafficking and the sex trade. They often use...