The Samurai Meets The Godfather

The ties that bind Japan's yakuza to banks and real estate companies are scarcely a surprise to Japanese in the Kansai region, an area encompassing Osaka, Kobe, and Kyoto. The headquarters of Japan's biggest gang, the Yamaguchi-gumi, is located in a posh residential neighborhood in Kobe and has become something of a landmark. The gang even won kudos for pitching in with food and supplies after last year's earthquake in Kobe, which killed more than 6,000 people.

Nor was it much of a shock when yakuza representatives showed up at a fund-raiser for Osaka Governor Isamu Yamada this past summer at the swank Royal Hotel. Unlike Western countries, where the gangs keep a low profile, in Japan the yakuza have long been an accepted part of the system. Members are glamorized as misunderstood social outcasts and guardians of Samurai notions of honor.

CULT FIGURES. Throughout Japan's postwar history, political and business elites have turned to the gangs in time of need. During the 1960s, ruling Liberal Democratic Party governments used the yakuza to put down radical left-wing labor and student protests. And until recently, the government tolerated some company's use of gangsters called sokaiya to keep unruly investors in check at annual meetings. "In a dysfunctional political system like Japan's, the yakuza thrive," muses Raisuke Miyawaki, a former yakuza investigator who now advises companies on how to respond to gang threats.

Changing their image won't be easy, given the sentimental treatment of yakuza characters in popular culture. These are men who sometimes cover themselves with tattoos and are willing to have finger joints ritually amputated as a token of loyalty. Osaka attorney Yukio Yamanouchi, a former legal adviser to the Yamaguchi gang, earns $200,000 annually cranking out breathtaking yakuza tales. His best-selling novel, Kanashiki Hittoman, or Lonely Hit Man, even became a smash-hit film in 1989. Yamanouchi and others have generated public sympathy by portraying the yakuza as a haven for burakumin, the untouchables, members of the lowest caste of Japanese society.

Maybe so, but Japanese police authorities have trouble feeling sorry for the yakuza. In addition to traditional rackets such as gambling and prostitution, the gangs are the force behind Japan's growing drug trade and gun-running operations that contribute to violent crimes. And though an antiracketeering law in 1992 has reduced the overall number of yakuza, power has since been concentrated in the hands of the three major outfits: the Yamaguchi-gumi in Kobe and the Inagawa-kai and Sumiyoshi-kai in the Tokyo area.

Now that the Finance Ministry and Japan's new Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto have pledged to drive the yakuza from the banking world, the public may see a less romantic view of the gangsters--namely, as extortionists who have contributed to Japan's economic slump. Says National Police Agency investigator Takafumi Shimoda: "The yakuza have been romanticized by the public, but they are really social parasites." Until that becomes the consensus view, however, count on the yakuza to continue swaggering in public view.

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