Japanese yakuza show off their tattoos. An interesting parallel appears between the three-way prime ministerial race and a civil war raging with the country's largest organized crime syndicate. Photo: AFP

Japanese politics is often viewed as a deadly dull business. And indeed, the race to take over the premiership, following the August 28 resignation announcement of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is not proving to be high drama.

However, if one views the leadership race through the prism of a yakuza (Japanese organized crime) internal power struggle, it makes sense. In fact, it becomes almost exciting, given the way the three-horse premiership race mirrors the three-way civil war currently wracking Japan’s biggest crime syndicate.

For those dismissive of the correspondence between the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and the Japanese mob, consider this. Abe, a big fan of gangster movies, has said several times over the years that when he leaves politics he’d like to be a yakuza film producer. 

Abe’s grandpa, Nobusuke Kishi, who was arrested as a war criminal and later became prime minister, had a long history of associating with yakuza. This may explain why Abe, who was essentially raised by his grandfather, is fascinated by the fabled mobsters.

The LDP leadership race, which will climax with an intra-party election on September 14, is important because the LDP controls the lower house of parliament. This means the new party leader will serve the remainder of what would have been Abe’s term as prime minister, through to September 2021 – unless unforeseen circumstances intervene.

Currently it looks almost certain that Abe’s loyal henchman will take over. That is good news for Abe, who like every self-respecting yakuza boss, is in trouble with the law. 

The cover page of the August 30 edition of the Tokyo Sports Shimbun reports on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s fascination with the yakuza. Photo: Jake Adelstein

The LDP’s badass background

The LDP may look as stodgy and boring today as the ruling party in any democracy – arguably, more than most – however, its roots are serious gangsta.

It was founded in November 1955 with the help and funding of war criminal, fixer, and yakuza associate, Yoshio Kodama. The CIA archives put it bluntly: “Yoshio Kodama…was instrumental in founding the LDP, had a hand in naming several Prime Ministers. He commands the allegiance of Japan’s ultra rightists and is blood brother to a number of yakuza (leaders of the of the Japanese underworld.)”

Today’s LDP is not the beast it was in 1955. However, it has remained rightist, self-serving and often corrupt, while organizational structure and internal struggles for power mirror the intrigue of any yakuza group. Of course, violence is no longer acceptable, but LDP scandals involving the mob are countless, and yakuza bosses have played a part in determining past prime ministers.

Moreover, the yakuza and the LDP both claim to be organizations upholding traditional Japanese values, maintaining order and keeping foreign influences from ruining society.  If their members are occasionally involved in criminal activity, well, those people are bad apples, and are expelled. 

The LDP, like most gangs, is not a unified entity. Multiple factions are constantly jockeying for power. Abe, for example, belongs to the Hosoda faction, with 98 members.

Each faction is led by a charismatic leader to whom junior members pledge allegiance. Some LDP loyalists refer to their political mentors as oyabun (“father-figure” or “godfather”), just like the yakuza. And just like the yakuza, factions usually decide on the next leader via backroom machinations. 

The godfather race

Three men have hurled their hats into the ring to succeed Abe – to nobody’s surprise, there are no women contenders.

Least likely to win is former foreign minister Fumio Kishida, 63. He was once considered Abe’s hand-picked successor and currently serves as LDP policy chief.  Last week, at least one weekly magazine in Japan predicted he would be the next premier. However, when he sought out Abe for support, Abe made it starkly clear he did not have Kishida’s back. 

He is followed by Shigeru Ishiba, also 63, who is a former defense minister and the only vocal critic of Abe in the race. He is the most favored candidate by the public: In a recent Kyodo News poll, Ishiba had the support of 34.3% of those who took part in the survey, while Kishida had 7.5%. 

If the LDP paid attention to public opinion polls or party members, Ishiba would be a serious contender. However, the key issue is that among the party elite he is unpopular. Abe – who, like mob bosses everywhere, maintains power by rewarding loyalty and punishing dissent – dislikes Ishiba with a passion.

This seems to leave the path to the premiership open to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, 71, who has been Abe’s right hand man since he took office.

Indications are that Suga had been secretly anointed successor prior to Abe’s resignation as he made a whirlwind of TV appearances over the summer while Abe appeared to be convalescing from his illness or hiding from the press.

From July, Abe, Suga and LDP Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai, 81, were reportedly meeting to figure out how to insert Suga into the top spot. Nikai is considered the king-maker within the party, with a goal of ensuring that nothing really changes. 

Curiously, Suga got into some trouble last year when it emerged that yakuza had attended an annual cherry blossom-viewing party hosted by Abe. And certainly, the LDP, like all yakuza, have problems with police and prosecutors.

Cabinet Secretary and Abe henchman Yoshihide Suga is well positioned to win the race to be the LDP’s new boss. Photo: AFP

Ducking the law

Meanwhile, several scandals involving Abe and the LDP are bubbling away, and no-one in power wants these deeply investigated.

There is the ongoing trial of Abe’s former Justice Minister Katsuyuki Kawai. Kawai and his wife, upper house member Anri, are accused of bribing Hiroshima officials to ensure Anri Kawai won her political seat. LDP Headquarters provided nearly $1.5 million for her campaign, some of which may have been used as bribes.

It’s not clear who authorized the payments. Kawai allegedly said that the vote-buying yen was from Abe, the LDP’s head at the time. 

A possible misuse of public funds to hold cherry blossom viewing parties for Abe supporters is another potential scandal that involves more than just Abe. 

Jin Igarashi, a political science professor emeritus at Hosei University in Tokyo, theorized on the real reason for Suga’s rise in evening tabloid, Nikkan Gendai

“The purpose of having Suga run in the election is to put a lid on all the scandals the Abe administration has accumulated,” Igarashi wrote. “If anyone other than Suga becomes PM, all of this could be investigated, and that’s dangerous. That’s why Nikai and Suga rigged the whole thing.” 

Ishiba is the only candidate who might actually consider reopening investigations. 

Knobbling Ishiba

The problem for Abe and Co is that Ishiba is popular among the LDP regional organizations and party members.

The LDP has not ordered Ishiba to cut off any of his fingers, but on Tuesday, the party made a decisive move by disallowing rank-and-file members from voting in the leadership election.

Ostensibly, the LDP General Council decided to hold a simplified vote to avoid a political vacuum amid the coronavirus epidemic, but the reasoning seems self-serving.

The decision limits voting to Diet members and delegates from local party chapters. This means there will be 394 votes granted to LDP Diet members and 141 to prefectural representatives. However, the 394 votes customarily assigned to rank-and-file party members are not in play, they have been shunted aside in this plebiscite.

This decision to limit votes effectively disembowels Ishiba.

Suga, with the support of Nikai and Abe, has rallied the support of almost all the major factions in the Diet. He has more than 260 votes pledged, including those of Nikai’s faction. 

In other words, the race is already run. 

Shigeru Ishiba is popular with the public, but not the Liberal Democratic Party power brokers. Photo: AFP

LDP race vs. yakuza civil war 

Coincidentally, the current power struggle in the LDP closely mirrors a civil war raging inside the Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s largest organized crime group.

The current godfather, Shinobu Tsukasa, has been ruling since August 27, 2005. The gang is similar in structure to the LDP, although it makes its money from extortion, racketeering, real-estate and construction, rather than political donations. 

In August 2015, a faction unhappy with his autocratic rule broke away to form the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi, led by Kunio Inoue. Then in 2017, Yoshinori Oda, an Ishiba-like rebel, broke away from both groups to form the Ninkyo-Yamaguchi-gumi. 

If you recast the current Yamaguchi-gumi civil war as the LDP power struggle, it works surprisingly well. 

If Abe was in the Yamaguchi-gumi, he would be Tsukasa, the charismatic, dapper and long-reigning leader, who has no plans to really relinquish power. 

Suga would be the gang’s number two – Tsukasa’s enforcer, Kiyoshi Takayama, who, like Suga, is older than his boss. Suga and Takayama are the strong arms of their leaders, acting as deal makers and punishers. Both men lack any sense of humor.

And Takayama is widely considered the successor to Tsukasa, just as Suga is almost certainly going to replace Abe. 

Kishida, once considered Abe’s heir, is now leading a rebellion that will probably fail. He resembles the bespectacled and balding Kunio Inoue of the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi. Both men have a charisma problem; both are fighting battles they can’t win.

They are short on numbers and lack popular appeal. Kishida’s faction has less than 50 members; the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi has less than 1,000, while the Yamaguchi-gumi has 8,000 or more.  

Ishiba is a rare voice of conscience within the party. He has alluded to the problem with Abe’s heavy-handling of unpopular legislation and the neverending corruption scandals.  He has also openly criticized Abenomics, asking, “Has it really benefited Japanese individuals and mid-level businesses?” He also criticized the consumption tax rise as unfairly burdening the middle-class and poor.  

This makes Ishiba the LDP’s version of Oda, leader of the Ninkyo Yamaguchi-gumi (literally, “Humanitarian Yamaguchi-gumi”).  Oda wanted to return the yakuza to its roots, working for the public good, keeping neighborhood peace like a corps of tattooed boy scouts.

The group is barely surviving, outnumbered by both the bigger factions. While Oda boasts of a few hundred loyal followers, Ishiba has just 19 members in his faction. They are in their own way idealists: ill-equipped to survive in the dog-eat-dog world of real gangsterism/real politick. 

New boss, old boss 

In the yakuza, big bosses never really step down. If they did, they would risk retaliation from their many enemies, internal and external.

In the Yamaguchi-gumi, when Tsukasa “retires” he is likely to be named sosai (“grand director”) while Takayama rules in his place. But as long as he is alive, Tsukasa will wield backdoor power. 

Suga looks set to be “Abe 2.0.” He also looks set to protect his godfather, as he did for more than seven years as his proxy. 

After Suga announced his candidacy at a surprisingly rowdy press conference on September 2, he repeatedly reiterated that he would continue Abe’s policies. And naturally, he dismissed any notion of reopening investigations into Abe-era scandals.