Japan, stable and orderly, is a place where just rocking the boat is tantamount to rebellion. Yet, a not very well kept secret of this Japan is the presence of very well organized crime, or the yakuza. The reach of organized crime in Japan is long and powerful, and, because of it, everyday life in much of Japan today is a complicated weave of the legitimate and illegal.
Although I have lived in Japan for a long time, I have little personal experience of organized crime. I lived in Osaka for several years and had one or two acquaintances whom I am sure were rank and file yakuza members of the gurentai (hoodlum) type, as opposed to the tekiya (street peddler) or bakuto (gambler) type. One of them, with his girlfriend, befriended me once when out drinking, a habit the three of us continued at intervals for a year or two. However, on the odd occasion when talk strayed from the personal into politics, he revealed a notable touchiness – a fieriness, in fact - on the topic of Japanese power and integrity, particularly in regard to the United States, which steered me away from broaching anything beyond the bounds of the personal again. I have also briefly interviewed Japanese right wing thugs who drive loudspeaker vans. They were willing to interact with me for the purposes of the interview and were not personally hostile.
A good friend of mine, whom I have known for years, comes from Kobe. He and I have a freer rapport than the above mentioned ex-acquaintance, and recently when dining together the conversation turned to the Middle East and how the inequalities perpetrated there are the major cause of that region’s troubles. The talk soon turned to Japan where he volunteered that Japan is by no means marked by equality either; yet, like anywhere else, including the Middle East, those who suffer the brunt of inequality will always seek redress. This principle explains the rise, too, of what is now Japan’s biggest organized crime gang, the Yamaguchi-gumi of Kobe.
The traditional source of manpower for Japanese gangs has been its homegrown class of outcasts, or untouchables, the burakumin, who, in spite of being Japanese were, in terms of quality of life, hardly better off than Japan’s captive colonials. Burakumin were traditionally the class from which those who disposed of dead bodies came from. They were legally liberated in the early Meiji period of Japanese history, in 1871, when the feudal caste system was abolished, but they are still the least well educated, the poorest and the least politically represented sector of Japanese society.
Immediately after the war, Japan was in tatters. Some in the Korean and Chinese communities of Kobe, who had been forcibly brought to Japan, now had carte blanche to take revenge on their now defeated overlords, and either did so or were feared to want to do so. The police appealed to the local Yamaguchi-gumi for help in keeping order. Ironically, the largely burakumin gang members being appealed to were little better off than the one-time colonial captives and had as much, if not more, in common with them than with most non-burakumin Japanese. (Although it should be noted that there are powerful Korean gangs in Japan, too, made up of descendants of those forcibly brought to Japan from Korea in the first half of the 20th century and who, in spite of being born in Japan, are still denied Japanese citizenship.)
However, the Yamaguchi-gumi lent its muscle; but this cooperation effectively put the police in its debt, and oiled the wheels of the Yamaguchi’s ever-expanding operations in Kobe and the rest of the Kansai region.
The Yamaguchi-gumi is now a massive business presence in its hometown of Kobe, not to mention much of the rest of Japan, and is at least as powerful as the police there. It is almost impossible to do business in Kobe without appeasing the Yamaguchi-gumi. Much of the Yamaguchi-gumi’s presence has therefore been effectively legitimized, and it is not at all uncommon for ordinary citizens and businesspeople who are owed money to appeal to the Yamaguchi-gumi for help in collecting it. A gruff phone call or two made by the obliging gang member on the appellant’s behalf is usually all it takes. In the same breath, however, it must be noted that this suggestion of Robin Hood-style goodness is well and truly nullified by the egregious loan sharking that the same gangsters also engage in.
The same kind of people who make up the gangs make up the ranks of Japan’s vociferous right-wing. The Japanese gangs were sought out by both American and Japanese authorities in the Red-scare years after World War Two as a powerful force against communism. They were used primarily as union busters and as a violent counter to the Japan Communist Party. Ironically, for all the right-wing’s uncompromising Japan-first nationalism, there are not a few non-Japanese in its ranks. Interviewing Japanese right wing nationalists and listening to Japanese right wing messages howled from trucks, they are clearly represent an aggrieved and unfortunate segment of Japanese society. Theirs is a voice of outraged pain and anger.
Inequalities have all sorts of back alley ways of finding redress when they are not dealt with head on. Deep-rooted prejudice is one of the most difficult things to eliminate in any society. The presence of gangsters and right-wing thugs in Japan is testament to continued prejudice. It is a situation where most people in Japan would rather pay off the country’s underclass under the table when necessary and put up with the antics of its desperadoes than embrace it and give it freedom and equality.
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Tuesday, June 21, 2011