Retired Japanese crime boss Shigeharu Shirai, 72, is shown to the press in Thailand to show his gang-style tattoos at a police station after his arrest in Lopburi. Shirai had been on the run for more than 14 years. He was caught after photos of his yakuza tattoos and a missing little finger went viral on social media. Photo: AFP/ from Royal Thai Police
Retired Japanese crime boss Shigeharu Shirai, 72, is shown to the press in Thailand to show his gang-style tattoos at a police station after his arrest in Lopburi. Shirai had been on the run for more than 14 years. He was caught after photos of his yakuza tattoos and a missing little finger went viral on social media. Photo: AFP/ from Royal Thai Police

Spare a thought for yet another industry in apparent decline: organized crime. Japan’s National Police Agency (NPA) recently announced that numbers of organized criminals – known as yakuza or boryokudan – are at their lowest level in years, continuing a long downward trend.

But statistics only reveal so much; yakuza are not suddenly becoming elementary school teachers. Several issues explain the stated decline.

A series of regulations enacted prefecture by prefecture in Japan, from 2010 to 2011, made life harder for yakuza by making it illegal to hire them, share profits with them, or pay them off. Regulations also make it difficult for them to rent apartments or even get cellphone contracts.

All this makes it somewhat harder for them to shake down businesses, their key skill-set.

Some yakuza have decided that affiliation with a known gang brand – essentially, renting its name and its fearsome reputation – is more trouble than it’s worth, owing to the regulations (which home in on the most infamous mobs). Better to be independent, which holds the added advantage of cleaning one’s record after some years, thus being even freer to do gangster-ish things.

Yakuza organizational structures are pyramids. Each “franchisee” pays a fee upwards, so the higher, the better. This means those at the bottom really have to hustle for money, and many at this lower-end exit gangs – or at least formal membership.

Moreover, mobsters are as affected by Japan’s aging population as any organization, while the national labor shortage similarly hampers recruitment. And yakuza life is tough. It demands unquestioning respect to bosses, even at the risk of one’s life. There are better job prospects for young Japanese, including zainichi (Japanese-Koreans), who have historically been disproportionately represented in yakuza ranks.

Japanese don’t like yakuza, but…

Most Japanese dislike the yakuza. There are dedicated officials at all levels doing their best – with anti-organized crime cops deservedly well-respected.  There are also fearless lawyers who specialize in taking down yakuza. (Though one of the best, Toshiro Igari, died in the Philippines under curious circumstances.)

And occasionally, politicians act. This is usually when a public outcry is raised – say, after yakuza debt collectors demand a debtor sell a kidney to pay off loans – or when yakuza (generally, poor shots) gun down a bystander during a shootout. But such excitement is rare: An average weekend’s carnage in Chicago makes a yakuza gang war look like a kindergarten squabble.

And sometimes they overreach, as when one notorious gang targeted organized crime cops and their families. This was a serious breach of decorum and the gang was severely cracked down on, by an unusually dynamic police chief (although it did not go out of business).

All this notwithstanding: Do the NPA statistics indicate a lessening of yakuza influence?  Probably not.

When Shinobu Tsukasa, the godfather of Japan’s largest gang, the Yamaguchi-Gumi, was released from prison (for “firearms offenses”) in 2011, an interviewer asked him to comment about the new regulations.  His terse response: “We’ll adjust.”

Indeed, declining official numbers are more reflective of yakuza’s adaptability than of success in eliminating organized crime.

A Katana samurai sword, favored by some yakuza in Japan. Photo: iStock

Good pay for foul play

The international image of a yakuza man is a tattooed badass with missing fingers. Such men exist – but only at one end of the spectrum.

At the other, are yakuza who are best viewed as “businessmen”. Indeed, they are among Japan’s most risk-tolerant and savviest entrepreneurs, with a keen eye for up-and-coming firms, who often work hand-in-glove with the political, financial, and business elite.

It’s not just hostess clubs, strip joints, loan sharking, sex and porn0 shops that keep yakuza busy. During the 1980s bubble era, the yakuza infiltrated Japan’s vanilla economy to the point that, today, a large part of yakuza business is legitimate. There is no sector in which yakuza are not active – including outright ownership or equity investment.

In Tokyo, one could start one’s day with pastry and coffee; buy a puppy at a pet shop; book a foreign vacation; rent an apartment; shop at a department store; slurp ramen; practise English conversation; and enjoy a concert – all at yakuza enterprises.

And yakuza believe in globalization. Southeast Asian newspapers have run ads touting Tokyo real estate developments operated by yakuza affiliates.

Although recent laws are intended to choke off underworld funding, and times are sometimes tough at the lower end, gangsters are still doing nicely at the top end.

Yakuza are reportedly doing well from the multi-billion-dollar cleanup following the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. They’ve long been deeply involved in the financial world and are even – “green gangsters” – key players in solar. As key labor dispatchers, the nuclear industry can’t survive without them or the workers they provide: Japan has no background checks on nuclear workers.

The yakuza are looking forward to the 2020 Olympics. Photos have appeared of the vice chairman of the Japan Olympic Committee hobnobbing with Shinobu Tsukasa – and other mobsters. Officialdom’s response? Shoulder shrugs.

Then there are the casinos set to land in Japan with upcoming regulatory change. Officially, Yakuza won’t be allowed in – just as bid-rigging has long since been outlawed in Japanese construction projects.  The respected late-police official Raisuke Miyawaki once commented, “The only people who can keep the yakuza out of the casino business are the yakuza.”

Hoods with connections

Is this all politically tolerated? It is. The yakuza are akin to political action committees:  They are reliable voting blocs and funding sources, and provide protection against blackmail and other problems. In return, the yakuza get public works projects and such considerations. Once ties are established, they tend to be long-term.

Relationships extend to the very top. One former prime minister’s photo appeared of him schmoozing with yakuza; he later admitted to attending a yakuza family wedding. He remains a major figure in Japanese politics.

And in March, a well-known politician who once admitted to receiving $5 million from a prominent Yamaguchi-Gumi advisor was fawningly interviewed. Nobody was surprised: After retiring from his former career and entering politics he took on the persona and manner of a yakuza.

His former career? Policeman.

No Japanese politician is outspoken about the yakuza. Nor are there aggressive Rudy Giuliani-style prosecutors taking on the gangs.

True, Japan has passed laws cracking down on the yakuza – starting with the anti-Boryokudan Law in 1992. But such laws sometimes appear superficial, perhaps designed simply to save officials from embarrassment at G7 anti-organized crime meetings, where Japan is the only country lacking related laws.

Finally, visitors to Tokyo will sometimes come across “uyoku” (right-wing ultra-nationalists) – and their black bus loudspeakers spewing venom at Koreans, Russians, Americans, and others. Although usually referred to as “political activists” the difference between uyoku and yakuza is mostly academic.

A friend once rode an uyoku bus for a day; and when he entered, a couple of yakuza or uyoku were sharing cheesecake with two Tokyo Metropolitan Police detectives. Ukoku are tolerated, as right-wing politicians share their views (to greater or lesser extent). Left-wing politicians fear them.

There is a credible belief that the cops have a list of every yakuza – if not every villain – in Japan. But this list has never been all-inclusive.  Indeed, one needs to meet surprisingly restrictive requirements to get onto it. Also, there is a huge number of people (many times more than actual yakuza) who cooperate with the yakuza, but who never make the official list.

The Tokyo police routinely stop me while riding my bicycle to verify I’ve not stolen it. I advise Tokyo’s finest that while they are upholding the public good by collaring a retired US Marine officer and former diplomat, there is a yakuza headquarters a half mile away (there always is) to which their attention might be better directed.

And this is why one needn’t worry about the yakuza going extinct anytime soon: They are too deeply entrenched in society.

Regardless of the latest national police data.