It is tough to be in the organized crime business in Japan. The latest figures provided by the National Police Agency (NPA) show that core membership of the 21 largest yakuza groups has fallen steadily in the last three years, but the decline was more marked in 2013.
According to the NPA, there were 58,600 registered gang members in 2013 -
25,600 identified as full members of recognized groups and 33,000
classified as "associate members."
That total figure is down by 4,600 from the previous year and the lowest
since the Anti-Organized Crime Law first took effect in 1992, while
arrests of gang members was put at 22,861 over the year, down 1,278 from
The law has been updated several times in the last 22 years, points out
Jake Adelstein, author of "Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the
Police Beat in Japan" and an expert on Japan's underworld groups. The
most significant change came on October 1, 2011, when it became a crime
for anyone to pay protection money to a gang member.
Down from 80,000
"Membership was hovering around the 80,000 mark for years and years, but
the law that criminalized paying protection money has really hit them
hard," Adelstein told DW.
"Traditionally, a lower-ranking yakuza earned his money from protection
in his neighborhood," Adelstein said. "He earned an income, paid his
dues to the group, had the right to use the organization's name in his
'business' and generally terrorize people.
"But when these people could no longer pay their dues, they were no
longer part of the gang and - like any corporation - they went out of
business." And life for these relatively unskilled and unqualified
members of Japanese society - some indelibly marked with the tattoos and
missing fingers that single out members of the Japanese underworld - is
Adelstein says his research indicates they often end up in the
construction industry or driving trucks, but many eventually resort to
crimes that are taboo in the yakuza world, such as theft and robbery.
Many end up in prison and the suicide rate for former gangsters is
higher than in general Japanese society.
Japanese gangs are also facing a challenge to their monopoly on the
market here, with groups from China, Korea, Russia, Iran and elsewhere
making inroads into their traditional heartlands.
Foreign crime groups
Some groups, such as those from Vietnam and Pakistan, specialize in
stealing cars and jewelry and then ship their loot abroad. Others focus
on importing heroin through Malaysia and other narcotics from Africa.
But another factor imperiling a segment of society that has always been
considered a fact of life among the Japanese public are the nation's
well-documents economic and demographic problems.
"It's a two-tier labor market and we're seeing the same thing in
contractions in Japanese schools and corporations," said Jun Okumura, a
visiting scholar at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs.
"It could be argued that the yakuza were at the forefront of the
downsizing movement here in Japan, turning to more irregular, part-time
workers to complement their work force," he said.
And that means that income for the lowest level of gangsters is so
pitifully low that the gangs are attracting fewer recruits. Combined
with a falling birth rate, leading to a smaller pool of potential
employees, the outlook for the underworld appears bleak.
New business opportunities
One possible way out is for gangsters to look overseas for
opportunities. One of the most popular new areas they are examining is
casino operations, in Macau, the Philippines and Cambodia.
"In Cambodia, there is no mafia presence, the entire political structure
in the Philippines is corrupt so it's just a case of making sure you
pay the correct people, while the underworld groups in Macau are not
very strong," said Adelstein. "Others are setting up investment
companies in Hong Kong and Singapore to manipulate stock market prices
and make money in that way," he added.
As well as Asia, the yakuza's tentacles stretch as far as shell
companies in the British Virgin Islands and Amsterdam, while one group
is so brazen in its operations that it has little hesitation in
sponsoring its own golf tournaments.
Overseas operations are, however, full of potential problems for crime
syndicates that have previously focused their illegal intentions on the
relatively easy domestic market. The most obvious threat to any business
setting up in a foreign market is upsetting the local operators, as
well as the need to carve out a new market for whatever sector that
organization is working in.
And despite a history that stretches back to the 17th century, the
yakuza are even fading in significance and influence in Japanese
society. "When was the last time we saw a movie that glorified the
yakuza?" asked Okumura. "That says something about this society. The
yakuza just don't sell any more and maybe that is a result of social
pressure not to glorify these people."