IMPRISONED in a Japanese hotel room with a Beretta 9mm pistol pressed against his temple, a grim calculus of life and death began to play out in the mind of Australian businessman Miro Mijatovic. Death, as he saw it, was a possibility but not a certainty.
"I am 6'6" [1.98m] and I was pretty sure they were going to struggle to deal with getting a body the size of mine out of the hotel," he recalls.
The hours rolled by as Mijatovic sat slumped in a chair in a corner of the room, the air filled with cigarette smoke from the chain-smoking yakuza - as Japan's mafiosi are known - and the sour scent of his own fear-induced sweat. "Every now and again [their leader] would just explode and start screaming, 'You don't know what you are up against!' and thumping the table," recalls Mijatovic.
For three days the martial arts fight promoter was held like this while the yakuza demanded he relinquish his role as "power agent" in the booming fight industry. It was only when he agreed to sign his fighters over to the yakuza that he was released unharmed on the proviso that he flee the country for good. Instead, Mijatovic, who at one time looked after swimmer Ian Thorpe's interests in Japan, went to the police and launched a probe that resulted in the collapse of the hugely lucrative Japanese fight game.
After several years spent in hiding with a contract out on his life, Mijatovic is finally prepared to reveal how he took on the yakuza and exposed one of Japan's largest sporting scandals. "The two yakuza groups involved in extorting me have now been broken up," Mijatovic told The Weekend Australian Magazine when he arrived at The Australian's Tokyo bureau to tell the story of his abduction. As he sees it, a concerted campaign from law enforcement is hurting the gangs and that has encouraged him to give his personal account.
The yakuza's role in Japanese society is complex. The image of the tattooed gangster, perhaps with a missing little finger, is a popular perception of gang members, and the yakuza's involvement in the sex trade and protection rackets is widely documented. Less well known is the extent of its integration into Japan's cultural, political and commercial life. A tacit tolerance of the yakuza has evolved in Japan since its emergence in the 1600s, allowing gangs to operate openly with official business cards and premises bearing their name.
But that is all beginning to change. Mijatovic says the suspected murder of anti-yakuza lawyer Toshiro Igari in a Manila hotel room in 2010 (which followed the killing of Nagasaki's mayor by a yakuza chief in 2007) sparked unprecedented unity among municipal governments, which have passed uniform anti-yakuza laws across Japan."That has really emasculated a lot of the yakuza groups," he says. The yakuza are continuing to wage what amounts to an existential struggle, which is at its most intense in the traditional crime stronghold of Kyushu in southwestern Japan, but there is a growing consensus their glory days are well and truly over.
"I have seen a change in Japanese society over the past 10 years," says Mijatovic, who is still based in Japan and now runs a hotel and sports management business in Tokyo. "Back in 2003 or 2004 - when I was held hostage by them - they were pretty much accepted as a fact of life here."
He runs his hand through his dark mane as he recalls his ordeal at the hands of an offshoot of the most feared yakuza group, the Yamaguchi-gumi. "Almost all my hair fell out during that period," he says with a wry smile.
Mijatovic, 45, grew up in a blue-collar migrant family from Croatia, in the tough western Sydney suburb of Penrith. As a tall kid who was good at sport he managed to dodge most scraps, and those he got into were mostly settled in his favour. His parents worked hard to send him and his brother to the local Catholic school and Mijatovic booked his ticket to bigger and better things by getting into law at Macquarie University.
He topped the class in his final year and found work at a firm with a blue-chip list of Japanese clients including Toyota and Mitsui, which led to a secondment in Tokyo and a career handling legal work on big resource and infrastructure projects in Asia. Seven frenetic years and one failed marriage later, a more world-weary Mijatovic - by now a longterm Tokyo resident - was seeking a fresh start.
That's when he chanced into sports promotion and began looking after Thorpe in Japan, where the swimmer enjoyed huge popularity after he blitzed the Fukuoka World Championships in 2001. After that, Mijatovic looked after the Croatian soccer team during the 2002 FIFA World Cup in Japan and South Korea. Eventually, his path crossed with that of a shaven-headed, cocksure mixed martial arts fighter who also hailed from Croatia. Taking on the management of Mirko "CroCop" Filipovic was a move that would transplant Mijatovic into a shady, vodka-soaked milieu filled with sullen, musclebound men from the former Eastern bloc who could kill with their bare hands.
It's hard to believe that orderly and gentle postwar Japan had become such a hub for the brutal, almost no-holds-barred "cage fights" staged by mixed martial arts organisations such as Pride and K-1. But as anyone who has lived here will say, there are many different Japans - parallel worlds that superficially bear little relation to each other. At the time, three of the six mainstream free-to-air TV stations in Japan were showing mixed martial arts or kickboxing bouts on Friday nights in prime time, beaming the fights into millions of Japanese homes and vying to become the dominant player in the industry.
"It was just as big as baseball, sumo and various other major league sports here at that time," Mijatovic says. The lure of big money drew fighters from the former USSR and the Balkans to Tokyo. But most, including Mirko Filipovic, found the lion's share was retained by the promoters or skimmed off by others.
"Mirko was having problems with the management of K-1. I took over his management and turned him into the hottest fighting property in all of Japan," Mijatovic recalls. He soon signed up other aggrieved foreign fighters and then put himself firmly on a collision course with the yakuza with his plans for a televised New Year's Eve fight event in the city of Kobe, the base of the feared Yamaguchi-gumi, in 2003.
"Had I opened my eyes a bit more I might have seen that those guys were involved [in the fight game]," Mijatovic concedes. "The first thing they did was interfere with my fighters. They started paying them to get injured. I started to retaliate by signing up their fighters, and that's when it got out of hand. In December I started getting threats. Japanese people would tell me I was pissing off the yakuza. Things started to escalate and I would have guys showing up and offering me protection. The closer it got to the fight, the more they started making explicit threats."
Mijatovic moved out of his home and secretly checked into a hotel to buy himself time to hold the event, which attracted a crowd of 44,000. Two days after the event, the yakuza made their move. "They basically grabbed me and held me hostage for three days," Mijatovic says.
He says he was told by his assailants - who cannot be named for legal reasons - to hand over his fighters to a company aligned with the Pride organisation. "When I pushed back and refused to sign those contracts, the guy on my right-hand side pulled his pistol out of his holster and put it on the table. When I continued to push back on signing the contracts, he raised the gun and said, 'If you don't sign, you know what happens next.' At that time I believed - probably rightly - that if they were going to shoot me, they weren't going to shoot me in the hotel. That would have been pretty messy ... and carting out a big body like mine would have been pretty obvious."
Mijatovic insisted they redraft the contracts in English. That bought him some time, but after three days the yakuza lost patience and he was forced to sign his fighters over. He took his family back to Sydney the next day. "As soon as these guys left we jumped on a plane ... I had a young baby, one month old, at the time," he says.
While Mijatovic was scared, he wasn't keen to give in. He had spent almost all his working life in Japan and these guys had simply muscled in on what was his. To make things worse, his business partner had run away with $1 million of the proceeds from the Kobe event, leaving him nearly broke. Little by little his fear crystallised into anger. After a month in Australia he returned to Japan, determined to take revenge. "I basically became a police plant into Pride and I started working with the police for the whole next year to bring the organisation down," he says.
Mijatovic kept most of his ordeal secret from his Japanese wife, who was still breastfeeding their first child, and made sure they remained in Australia. Meanwhile, he flitted between several rented apartments in Tokyo near the US, Russian and Chinese embassies, taking advantage of the heavy security presence. He knew the yakuza had a contract out on his life.
Mijatovic says that one of the discoveries made during the police investigation was that the hotel room where he'd been held hostage was booked on the credit card of Kiyoshi Takayama, a top leader within the Yamaguchi-gumi and one of Japan's most notorious gangsters. Takayama, who has only one eye (having lost the other in a sword fight), was arrested in a raid by more than 140 police in 2010 and charged with extorting $500,000 from a construction firm.
"The police attention suddenly turned away from the guys I was after, to the guys they were after," Mijatovic says. "I told the police I wasn't really that keen on suddenly becoming the guy taking down the number one mafia boss in this country. I knew that no matter what I did, that would probably be a fatal decision. The police then brokered a deal that was sort of like a ceasefire between me and the yakuza. For me, that was enough justice. Here I am - still alive, which is a pretty good result."
The late anti-yakuza lawyer Toshiro Igari, who aided Mijatovic in making his complaint to the police and helped broker the deal that ended his ordeal, wrote about Mijatovic's abduction in a book published posthumously; that book corroborates the key details of Mijatovic's story as told to The Weekend Australian Magazine. The deal saw the contract on Mijatovic's life scrapped, although he had to agree not to return to the fight game and to cease pressing his criminal complaint over his abduction.
The mixed martial arts organisation Pride was taken off-air, and in 2007 ceased to promote cage fights. But the yakuza still had plenty of fingers in other more lucrative pies, and its involvement in sumo and other sports was yet to come to light fully.
Traditionally, yakuza have traded on the prevailing view among some Japanese - even police - that it's better the devil you know; home-grown gangsters at least impose a structure on the underworld and spare society from the menace of more brutal and ruthless crime syndicates from abroad.
The yakuza have also pulled off publicity coups, none greater than after the 1995 Kobe earthquake when the Yamaguchi-gumi trumped authorities by mobilising their own resources, including a helicopter, to provide a more rapid crisis response than the regular emergency services.
Now, though, thanks in part to public outrage over the death of the crusading lawyer Igari, Japanese law enforcement has declared war on the yakuza. "The unwritten rule for yakuza is you don't kill politicians and you don't touch police or prosecutors," says Mijatovic. "Once we had seen those lines crossed, we saw the pushback from the Japanese institutions and the new anti-yakuza laws."
The man who headed Japan's National Police Agency until October last year, Takaharu Ando, summed up the new mood by regularly vowing to cleanse the nation of organised crime. Meanwhile, Barack Obama's administration has put the squeeze on yakuza operations abroad and the US president has signed an executive order placing financial sanctions on the Yamaguchi-gumi, as well as Takayama and the group's godfather, Kenichi Shinoda.
Shunichi Inoue, a member of the Tokyo Bar Association's anti-organised crime committee, agrees with Mijatovic that the new laws have the yakuza groups fighting for their lives. "There is no doubt that Japanese organised crime is in dire straits these days," says Inoue. "What is significant about these new laws is that they put the onus on civilians and companies not to deal with organised crime. So major companies started pressing their suppliers and contractors to guarantee they were not associated with organised crime and companies began to proactively research the links that their business partners might hold."
Despite the setbacks for the yakuza they are still strong in number. The National Police Agency estimates there are about 70,000 in Japan. On the southwestern island of Kyushu police are battling thousands of gang members in an attempt to suppress yakuza-related violence.
And the disaster last year at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, according to investigative journalist and yakuza specialist Tomohiko Suzuki, has given the yakuza a much-needed lifeline. Suzuki worked undercover at the stricken nuclear plant and emerged with evidence that yakuza were supplying it with day labourers; these people also happened to owe the yakuza money. In a press conference, Suzuki said one in 10 workers at the plant, including three of the fabled "Fukushima 50" who braved massive radiation levels to try to stabilise the reactors soon after the quake, had yakuza connections.
Miro Mijatovic Fight Back Against the Yakuza Full article
Link to article in the Weekend Australian Newspaper