Suddenly, The Japanese Mob Is Out Of The Shadows

Japan's gangsters are easy to spot: They're missing fingertips from ritual act-of-contrition amputations. Sometimes their neck-to-knee tattoos of intricate dragons and cherry blossoms can be glimpsed as well. On street corners in neon-lit districts of Tokyo, the yakuza can be identified by their short, stiff, permed hairstyles, semidark sunglasses, dark polyester suits, white shoes, and light ties. Their cars also are distinct. Tokyo bosses have switched to cream-colored Mercedes Benz models, while groups in Osaka still drive even more obvious Lincolns and Imperials.

The National Police Agency estimates that Japan's underworld is home to some 3,300 yakuza gangs with nearly 90,000 members. They make more than $10 billion a year from a combination of extortion, drug trafficking, debt collection, and prostitution. They also specialize in terrorizing land owners into selling out. Another specialty is getting the goods on a top executive and threatening a noisy confrontation at the annual shareholders' meeting if they aren't paid off.

WINKS AND NODS. Like U. S. mobsters, the yakuza have become more active in opening legitimate companies as fronts. That's one factor behind the forced resignations of the presidents of Nomura Securities Co. and Nikko Securities Co. Wink-and-nod deals to cover stock losses of favorite clients have long been tolerated. But buying $29 million worth of memberships in a golf club owned by Susumu Ishii, retired godfather of crime family Inagawa-kai, cost the presidents their jobs. Nomura and Nikko were also blamed for lending Ishii huge sums, and Nomura was cited for helping him manipulate the shares of railroad company Tokyu Corp. Both deny wrongdoing.

One reason that dealings with the yakuza strike a nerve is that the gangsters helped fuel the steep rise in real estate and stock prices in the late 1980s, hurting smaller investors and pushing the cost of homes out of reach for many Japanese. Cash was funneled through land, golf-club memberships, or stocks. Traders estimate that some $3.6 billion of yakuza loot is still in the stock market--about half the 1989 peak. Traders say Kobe-based Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan's largest crime family, with more than 26,000 members, is the most aggressive stock player.

CLOSING RANKS. The yakuza are also expanding overseas. Prosecutors in Hawaii and California have special units to handle them. And this month, Securities & Exchange Commission documents revealed that George Bush's brother, Prescott, acted as a consultant for Ishii-backed companies in buying small American companies. (Bush declined comment.) Gangs are also closing ranks in Southeast Asia to smuggle weapons, recruit prostitutes for Japan, and horn in on the Golden Triangle drug trade.

It's highly unlikely that Japan's law-enforcement officials will ever subject the yakuza to the same pressure the Mafia has faced in the U. S. One reason is that the yakuza are a big source of funding for powerful right-wing, nationalist politicians. They're also radically pro-emperor.

Police are handcuffed in going after the yakuza because it's illegal for them to go undercover. Until recently, they weren't empowered to investigate a business just because a gangster owned it. In May, Japan's parliament passed an antimob law that gives cops and prosecutors more clout to prevent yakuza from infiltrating mainstream businesses. But no one expects a frontal assault anytime soon.

Some Japanese admire the yakuza for their feudal concepts of loyalty and duty. And the yakuza aren't very violent. Turf battles are on the rise in Tokyo as the Kobe mob tries to move in. But ever sensitive to public perception, crime bosses have been known to call press conferences to apologize for letting the skirmishing get out of hand.

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