Japanese police hail diminished yakuza numbers but gangs may simply be waiting to pursue casino cash
Authorities attribute the steady decline to a number of new laws introduced in 2011, including legislation that made it illegal for owners of legitimate businesses to pay protection money to gangsters
Membership of Japan’s once feared yakuza underworld groups has fallen below the 40,000 figure, according to new police statistics, although watchers of Japan’s underworld warn the apparent decline may mask more sinister intentions.
The National Police Agency has issued a report stating that there were 39,100 members of organised crime groups in Japan, down 7,800 individuals and below the 40,000 figure for the first time since the authorities first started tallying yakuza numbers in 1958.
The total number of members declined for the 12th consecutive year, the police said. Membership of the Yamaguchi-gumi, the largest underworld group in Japan, fell from 14,100 to 11,800.
Similarly, the number of arrests of gang members came to 20,050, a decline of 1,593 from the previous year.
The authorities attribute the steady decline to a number of new laws introduced in 2011, including legislation that made it illegal for owners of legitimate businesses to pay protection money to gangsters. Overnight, that law severed a significant revenue flow for the gangs.
Other legal revisions made it possible for authorities to prosecute gang leaders for crimes committed by their underlings, a provision police used to prosecute mob bosses who had effectively been above the law by being at arm’s length from day-to-day operations.
But while the authorities have hailed the effectiveness of their crackdown, Jake Adelstein, author of Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan and an expert on Japan’s underworld groups, warned the war on organised crime was far from over.
“Initially, the cull was of people who could not make a living as a yakuza because the new laws made it impossible for them to rent an apartment, for example,” he said.
“Those laws really were a body blow to organised crime, but the reason for the continued decline in membership is because the government here has passed legislation that permits the operation of casinos – and that is the new opportunity that they have their eyes on.”
By disassociating themselves from underworld groups, gang members will effectively have a clean record in five years, around the time Japan’s first casinos are expected to open, Adelstein said.
The casinos are expected to attract even more foreign visitors to Japan, but there have been numerous expressions of concern about the negative impact they will have on Japanese society. And Adelstein believes those fears will be borne out.
By putting their own staff inside casinos, or co-opting other employees, there are opportunities to skim money, he said. Equally, gamblers who are indiscreet or lose large sums of money can be blackmailed, there are opportunities for gathering private information on customers and business opportunities revolving around sex and drugs.
“Casinos will become gigantic money-making machines for the yakuza and all they have to do is be patient for a couple of years,” he said.
“So in the short term, it looks like more and more of them are going straight, while in reality they are just cleaning up their act and distancing themselves to take advantage of this great new business opportunity down the line.”