A peek into Japan’s seedy underbelly and the yakuza

Contract law and ordinances – those are the elements author and former journalist Jake Adelstein says have led to a dramatic fall in the number of Japanese mafia members since the 1990s.

Growing up in Missouri, Adelstein moved to Japan at the age of 19 to study Japanese literature. A few years later, he became the first non-Japanese staff writer at Yomiuri Shimbun, one of the country’s largest newspapers, where as a rookie reporter he was put on the police beat.

Before long he was immersed in the underbelly of Japan, reporting on organised crime and the shady dealings of yakuza bosses.

Adelstein’s first book, a dramatic memoir entitled Tokyo Vice was published in 2009, and eventually turned into a popular television series by HBO Max. Now he is poised to release the follow-up, Tokyo Noir, which has been billed as equal parts history lesson and true crime expos√©.

He told RNZ’s Saturday Morning the status and power formerly enjoyed by the yakuza had lessened as a result of “really good legislation” which Japan’s national police agency began implementing “prefecture by prefecture” in recent years.

A “combination of contract law and ordinances” saw clauses begin to be inserted into all sorts of contracts – such as those people sign when checking into a hotel or a sports club – that essentially stated “I am not a member of an organised crime group, and I understand that you can refuse service to me if I am”, Adelstein said.

“If you sign that and you are a yakuza you’ve already committed fraud, in which case [the business] can call the police and you go to jail for 23 days at least while they interrogate you – and maybe more if they prosecutors actually take the case.”

Though it took two years to get those laws on the books in every prefecture, “by the time they were done, it had a huge blow to the yakuza’s businesses”.

It also led to a shift in societal perceptions about those who paid the yakuza, he said.

Investigators of Kyoto and Fukuoka Prefectural Police conduct an investigation at an office of the Japanese yakuza group Kudo-kai in Kasuga City, Fukuoka Prefecture on November 3, 2022.

Whereas in the past those who had been shaken down for protection money, were seen as victims, the legislative change meant “if you’re paying the yakuza, you are complicit in their crimes … and you are a criminal”.

“When you do that – when you criminalise paying them – suddenly, people don’t want to pay the yakuza anymore.”

In addition, “because now everything you do in Japan has an organised crime exclusionary clause in it, yakuza that are still around … cannot get a car, they can’t rent an apartment, the banks close their bank accounts”.

Those were monumental changes for the Japanese mafia world, which for many years had operated very visibly, he said.

“I don’t think it’s easy for people to understand how much in-your-face the yakuza used to be …

“You used to be able to buy a comic book history of living yakuza bosses at a 7-Eleven.”

Another change was that outward expressions of yakuza membership were on the decline.

“The irony is that the young yakuza, who are the people entering the group, they don’t get tattoos anymore because that’s a detriment to business,” he said.

“They’re not chopping off their fingers when they make mistakes; it isn’t fruitful to be identified as a yakuza anymore.”

In the 1990s, there were about 80,000 yakuza the Japanese police were aware of, but that number had now fallen to 20,000, Adelstein said.

“That’s not a decimation but that’s a huge number of yakuza leaving the business or being driven out of the business.”

Jake Adelstein and the cover of his book 'Tokyo Noir'

On the trail of those doing business with the yakuza

Following his years as a journalist, Adelstein worked for the US State Department on a study of human trafficking.

Just as that work was finishing up, Japan’s government had begun “cracking down on all banks, including foreign banks that were doing business with the yakuza – and there were a lot of them”, he said.

“They essentially made an example out of Citibank by taking away their private banking licence,” Adelstein said, which served as an alert to all the other investment banks in Japan, that they had better “shape-up”.

“I was sought out by a couple of places and they were like ‘could you help us clean up our Rolodex?’ and I thought, you know, I’m not a fan of the yakuza and the money that they offered was incredibly good and I’d kind of burnt out on journalism a little bit, so I said ‘yes, I’d love to do it’. And that’s what I did for several years.”

The work was interesting and “not that much different from investigative journalism”, he said, except the reports were longer and “you go from having about 10 million readers to three – which is your boss and the person above them”.

His knowledge of Japanese was an advantage too, he said, recounting an interview his team carried out with a businessman from a company they suspected had organised crime ties.

“I sat there sort of pretending to not understand anything that was going on and we waited long enough that he called one of his bosses and spoke in Japanese and clearly, he was aware of what we shouldn’t know, that we were aware of … then my boss came back in and we continued the interview and then I began speaking to him in Japanese and he realised that everything he had said I had heard, and that made the interview much easier.”

‘You get into some tough situations’

Reflecting on his life covering the yakuza as a journalist, Adelstein admitted there were dangers.

For a time, he hired an ex-yakuza to be his driver and bodyguard – though that bodyguard later returned to the fold of organised crime, he lamented.

The Japanese police’s term for the yakuza translated as “violent groups”, Adelstein said, and he did not know anyone who had reported on the yakuza for a long time who had not had some sort of physical altercation.

“If you deal with people who are violent and short-tempered and sociopaths, you get into some tough situations.”

But Adelstein, who is also a Zen Buddhist priest, is philosophical and likened the experience to looking down a mountain after completing a rock climb and thinking “oh my God, if I’d fallen I would have died – but you’re not thinking that at the time you’re rock climbing without ropes, you’re just climbing as best you can trying to focus on the situation”.

“It’s a crazy time, but it was also kind of fun.”

According to the news on Radio New Zealand

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