Editorial: Yakusa - Mean Magazine - Date: September 2001

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Gambling, money laundering, protection rackets, prostitution and drug dealing- Gangsters and their talents have been around a while. America has the Mafia and assorted Irish and Jewish crime gangs, Southeast Asia has the Triads, China, Hong Kong and Taiwan have the Tong and Japan the Yakuza, arguably one of the world's oldest organized gangs.

The yakuza (or yaks)can be traced back to 1612, when people known as kabuki-mono ("crazy ones"- Jap translation) began to attract the attention of local officials. Kabuki-mono made a habit of antagonizing and terrorizing anyone at their leisure, even to the point of mutilating innocent people.

With its roots in thew bakuto, the name Yakusa stems from a hand in a card game called hanafuda (flower cards), similar to blackjack. Three cards are dealt per player, and the last digit of the total counts as the number of the hand. A hand of 20, the worst score, gives the score of zero. One such losing combination is 8-9-3, or ya-ku-sa, which began to be widely used to denote something useless.

Yubitsume, the custom of finger-cutting, is also trademark Yakusa behaviour. Historically the top joint of the little finger was ceremoniously severed, signifying a weakening of the hand, which meant that the gambler could not hold his sword as firmly. Yubitsume was usually performed as an act of apology to the oyabun ( or elder), with further infractions seeing the severing of the next joint or the top section of another finger. Nowadays such self mutilation is an honour thing, usually done as the result of some sort of on the job blunder.

The Yakusa have also long been synonymous with heavy body tattoos. Members were initially tattooed with a black ring around an arm for each offense he had committed. However, the tattoos soon became a test of strength, as they were applied by undergoing 100 hours for a complete back tattoo, they also served to underscore the heroic elitism of the gang, earmarking them as contented misfits, always unwilling to adapt to everyday society.

Within political realms, the Yak's first emerged in the middle to late 1700's. Members included the bakuto (traditional gamblers) and the tekiya (street peddlers). The bakuto were first recognized when the goverment hired them to gamble with contruction and irrigation workers in order to regain a portion of the wages the workers received.

Political involvement continued, with the yakuza taking sides with assorted politicians and officials. In the thirties, the Japanese government found a use for the yakuza as an aid to ultranationalists, who took a militaristic role in Japan's adaption to democracy.

Various secret societies were created and trained militarily, in turn educated in languages, assassination, and blackmail techniques.

The ultranationalist reign of terror throughout the 30's, saw several coups d'etat, the assassination of two prime ministers and two finance ministers, and repeated attacks on politicians and industrialists. The yakuza provided muscle and men to the cause and participated in "land development" programs in occupied Manchuria or China.

In the post-war years, the Yakuza became more violent, both on the individual and collective scales. Swords had become a thing of the past, and guns were now becoming the new weapon of choice. They chose ordinary citizens, not just the other vendors or gamblers or specific group targets anymore, as their targets for shakedowns and robberies.

Their appearances also changed, taking American movie gangsters (a la Guys and Dolls) as their influence. They started wearing sunglasses, dark suits and ties with white shirts, and began to sport crewcuts.

Nowadays, the yaks are a style anathema. Unlike the sartorial elegance displayed by their international gangster counterparts, the new millenium yak is quite comfy sporting a polyurethane track suit or flared hipsters and hawaian shirt, cutting edge fashion actually/// in their own unique way.

In the behavioural stakes, things are quite typical. Citizens of the neighborhood of Ebitsuka, a neighborhood of Hamamatsu, 130 miles SW of Tokyo, did not want yakuza activity in their backyard. The yakuza were operating out of a green building, that the neighbors quickly termed as burakku biru ("black building"). The citizens videotaped everyone who went in and out of the building, noting specifically the ones wearing flashy suits, dark glasses, short hair and hints of tattoos on their arms. The yakuza retaliated against the citizens, smashing windows of the local garage mechanic, stabbing the town's lawyer in the lung, and slashing another activist in the throat.

However, after police arresting half of the gang, they abandoned the burakku biru in an out-of-court settlement, as they did not want to stir up trouble for gangsters elsewhere.

Further fun in 1984, when members of the yakuza ambushed and stabbed filmmaker Itami Juzo over an anti-yakuza movie entitled "Minbo no Onna" (A Woman Yakuza Fighter). A boryokudan defector commented on the attack, and was later found shot in the leg.

Yet not all Yakusa activity is blood and guts streetcrime, with political activity still high on the yak agenda.Fast forward to 1987, Noboru Takeshita was elected prime minister in Japan.

Fuelled by suspicions of his gangster ties in the election, Takeshita was finally questioned on the accusations in 1992, he subsequently denied knowing me that the yakuza were involved, yet the Liberal Democratic Party kingmaker forcibly resigned from politics in October 1992 after he admitted to receiving Y500m (US$4M) from a delivery firm, Sagawa Kyubin.

Hiroyasu Watanabe, the owner of the firm had paid the kingmaker for trying to help save his business. Watanabe admitted to asking Ishii Susumu, the late head of the Inagawa-kai, to silence the group. In another incident closer to home, West Tsusho, a Tokyo-based real estate firm, bought two American companies with help from none other than Prescott Bush, Jr, President Bush's elder brother. What wasn't known at the time was that West Tsusho is an arm of the a company run by the Inagawa-kai's leader, Ishii Susumu.

Tsusho purchased Quantum Access, a Houston-based software firm and Asset Management International Financing & Settlement, a New York City-based company. Bush received a $250,000 finder's fee for Asset Manangement, as was promised another $250,000 per year for three years in consulting fees. Bush was apparently unaware at the time that he was being a middleman for mob activity.

So what of the future?Between the years of 1958 and 1963, the number of yakuza members rose by over 150%, to 184,000 members. More than the Japanese Army. There were some 5200 gangs operating throughout Japan, with assorted Yakuza gangs staking out their territories.

By the mid 1990's, a Japanese National Police Agency survey estimated that there were 53,000 gang members as of November 1993, some 10,000 fewer than a year earlier.

Between April 21 and May 25 of 1992, police stations in many prefectures received nearly 145 calls from gangsters and their families asking advice on how to leave the gangs and go legitimate. In response to this, over 60 companies in Japan offered to take in reformed yakuza as employees.

Many attribute the fall in numbers to a poor economic climate and the introduction of the anti-yakuza countermeasure act, or Boryokudan Countermeasures Law.' The law saw the introduction of new money laundering statutes that came into effect at the end of l992.

The law prohibits designated organisations from realising profits from forms extortion that were not specifically illegal under pre-existing law, such as demands for payoffs from a restaurant in return for 'protection', without any explicit threat of reprisal in case of refusal. In all the law bans eleven activities. Its effect has been to deny the designated groups access to previously lucrative sources of income.

In March of 1992, wives and daughters of yakuza members marched in protest of the new laws through the Ginza. The following month, high-ranking yakuza argued that they are not truly evil; their code of chivalry (similar to bushido, the Way of the Warrior) and samurai values calls upon them to defend the interests of society's weaker members, and their conduct expresses their noble values, not violence. Even outsiders of the yakuza have protested the new laws against them. Over 130 lawyers, professors, and Christian ministers proclaimed that the yakuza countermeasures were unconstitutional, basically on the grounds that they infringed basic rights, such as the freedom of assembly, the choice of occupation, and the ownership of property.

Still, for the remaining yaks willing to move with the times, a careerist path is far from over. According to research conducted by national Japanese broadcaster, NHK two in five Japanese companies have had connections to organized crime, while 5 per cent still have links to the underworld.

Three hundred major companies were surveyed after an executive of Sumitomo Bank was shot dead on September 14 at his apartment. Responses were received from 205 companies. ... typical of links were the making of loans to gangsters and the paying of extortion money to avoid violence, sabotage or embarrassment at annual meetings. Forty-six companies, or 22 pe cent, said their executives had received threats from mobsters - from shots into their homes to blackmail.

Despite the uncertainty, the Yakusa will survive in Japan, moving back into the underground where they hid during the occupation, or perhaps they will just move their operations elsewhere, amongst the Triads of southeast Asia, with whom they already have had good relationships and business.

Written by Craig Stephens

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