The power of the yakuza, Japan's legendary crime syndicates, reaches into all areas of Japan's economic life and politics. Composed of some 3,000 separate, tightly-knit gangs, with over 80,000 members, the yakuza survive despite Japan's 1992 Anti-gang law and other government measures. While the range of their traditional activities has been somewhat reduced, they have compensated by turning to more sophisticated types of crime and by expanding their operations abroad - mostly to Southeast Asia, parts of Latin America, and the U.S. Estimates of their annual income from criminal activities and their 25,000 legitimate "front" organizations run to as high as 70 billion dollars, with some 500 million dollars traced to the U.S. The author examines the history, societal context, organizational structure, activities and tactics of the yakuza and concludes with an assessment of how, and the extent to which their power and criminal operations can be curbed.
Some of the wealthiest, most organized and sophisticated of these international organized crime groups are 300 year-old Japanese groups called the yakuza. The majority of these yakuza syndicates operate in and out of Japan; however, there are many yakuza syndicates expanding their operations all over the world to every expatriate Japanese community. This international expansion of the yakuza and their activities will probably continue due to their increasing involvement in the drug and gun trade, and, more importantly, because of their ever increasing involvement in highly sophisticated financial crimes which have the potential to affect the economies of foreign nations. More importantly, the yakuza syndicates, unlike other ethnic organized crime groups, are, to a certain degree, readily accepted by Japanese society and heavily connected to the highest levels of government; factors which will make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to eliminate them from the national and international scene. Therefore, it is important that governments and law enforcement officials around the world understand the history, organization, structure, "business" practices and tactics, and the future of these yakuza syndicates, if they are to combat the "new" wave of organized crime groups in their countries. To understand the motivation and mechanisms of the yakuza, it is essential to have some knowledge of their long and complex history.
The history of the yakuza is filled with tales of yakuza Robin Hoods coming to the aid of the common people. The heroes of these tales are society's victims who bettered their lives and lived the life of the outlaw with dignity. These tales stand at the heart of the yakuza's self-image, and of public perception as well. The police and most scholars challenge the accuracy of these Robin Hood tales, but the feeling persists among the Japanese that organized crime in Japan bears a noble past. To understand this romantic image of the yakuza, one must go back nearly four centuries to an era that is the source of countless modern legends in Japan where the sword and the samurai reigned supreme.
The yakuza, particularly the early yakuza groups, follow, to some degree, the values embodied in bushido, the code of the samurai. Like the samurai, the yakuza would prove their manliness by the stoic endurance of pain, hunger, and imprisonment, and violent death for the yakuza was an honorable fate. But at the heart of the yakuza's and Japanese society's values, which bind people together, lie the concepts of giri and ninjō.
Ninjō roughly means "human feeling" or "emotion". Among its many interpretations is "generosity or sympathy toward the weak and disadvantaged, and empathy toward others. By adopting giri-ninjō, the yakuza enhanced their standing in society, showing that, like the samurai, they could combine compassion and kindness with their martial skills. According to Kakuji Inagawa, former head of the Inagawa-kai, "the yakuza are trying to pursue the road of chivalry and patriotism. That's our biggest difference with the American Mafia, it's our sense of giri-ninjō. The yakuza try to take care of all society if possible, even if it takes one million yen to help a single person."
The Inagawa-kai (稲川会) is the third largest of Japan's yakuza groups, with approximately 15,000 members. It is based in the Kantō region, and was one of the first yakuza organizations to begin operating overseas. The Inagawa-kai was founded in Atami, Shizuoka in 1949 as the Inagawa-gumi (稲川組) by Kakuji Inagawa. Most of its members were drawn from the bakuto (traditional gamblers), and illegal gambling has long been the clan's main source of income. It has also expanded into such fields as drug trafficking, blackmail, extortion, and prostitution. February 2009 saw the Inagawa-kai 'Honbu' (Head Office) relocate from the Roppongi district of Tokyo to Akasaka. There is currently strong resistance from the local political groups and residents of Akasaka meaning that the location of the new Honbu may change yet again.
The Inagawa-kai quietly helped to provide relief in the wake of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami by sending supplies to affected areas. As a whole, the group shipped over 100 tons of supplies, including instant ramen, bean sprouts, paper diapers, batteries, flashlights, tea and drinking water, to the Tōhoku region.