Bob Woodward’s top anonymous source on Watergate was nicknamed “Deep Throat.” Mr Throat’s single most quoted piece of advice to the Washington Post reporter: “Follow the money.”
Following the money is always a good approach anywhere in the world when reporting on politicians and no less so with post-World War II Japanese politicians, whose scandal quotient has been relatively high.
Thus the immediate past prime minister, Shinzo Abe, was caught up in scandals, including charges that he misused public funds to invite cronies to an elaborate cherry-blossom viewing party last year.
With that background, it wouldn’t be total effrontery to pose to recently installed Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who previously was Abe’s chief cabinet secretary and thus deeply involved in planning and hosting such occasions, questions like: “Sir, what were your 2019 photo ops with gangland types – at that very same blossom-viewing party – all about?”
Or: “With two-thirds of the people of Yokohama opposed, why have you taken the lead with a plan to bring an ‘integrated resort’ including a casino to your city?”
Or: “As a long-time Yokohama-based politician, Suga-sensei, how would you quantify your levels of obligation to powerful figures on the port city’s mob-ridden docks?”
Or: “With Nissan headquarters in your own constituency, what do you know about charges by fugitive former CEO Carlos Ghosn’s lawyers that he’s the victim of trumped-up charges rooted in a conspiracy among Nissan, government officials and prosecutors to oust him in order to prevent a fuller merger with Nissan’s alliance partner, Renault SA of France?
Behind-the-scenes machinations by Abe’s family of Yamaguchi Prefecture-based hereditary politicians attracted scrutiny from postwar Japan’s national media for three-quarters of a century.
At this point we know far less about Suga – a self-made politician from another prefecture who toiled for two decades in relative obscurity as a lawmakers’ aide and then as an elected member of the Yokohama Municipal Assembly before he ran for and won a parliamentary seat in 1996.
But we do know that he spent all those decades closely tied to the powerful and the rich. And we know that the new prime minister has not been above dealing with unsavory types. So we can lay out perhaps promising starting points for anyone who cares to become a money-following Suga watcher.
Take, for instance, those photo ops. Some fellows with highly distinctive costumes, hairstyles, tattoos and digital amputations showed up at Abe’s April 13, 2019, blossom viewing party – and a couple of members of the group had their pictures taken with Suga.
Someone purportedly acting for the bunch, which goes by the name Shimamoto Shoji, proudly posted the pictures on social media. “Shoji” is a term for a business organization and is sometimes included in yakuza gangs’ names. Shimamoto appears to be the family name of a business-suited man with reddish-brown dyed hair shown in a photo with Suga.
The group posted group photos showing the same gang, several of them tattooed in traditional yakuza style, bathing in a Singapore top-floor swimming pool.
Social media also included a shot of Suga shaking hands with a handsome, traditionally garbed fellow, his hair dyed blond. Pictured elsewhere with the Shimamoto Shoji group, he turns out to be a representative of a company that supplies champagne to nightlife establishments.
Here we start to get into at least some of the likely business interests of this Shimamoto Shoji: operating or otherwise being involved with nightclubs. Other photos from social media show the group of men hanging out with women in Japanese establishments with English names: Tokyo Burlesk and Pink. Those photos come with ads for specials in the clubs.
Asked, delicately, at a news conference last year about the presence of “antisocial” elements at the party, Suga – then still Abe’s chief cabinet secretary – replied blandly: “The definition of antisocial forces has not been clearly made.”
A foreign expert on the Japanese underworld interpreted that statement for Asia Times: “Yes, happy days are here again for the yakuza.”
Among the incredulous responses to Suga’s statement, the major daily Mainichi editorialized:
The government actually did make a definition of antisocial forces in 2007 – during Abe’s first stint as prime minister, when it adopted guidelines for measures to protect companies from such organizations. The guidelines define antisocial forces as “groups or individuals that pursue economic profits through the use of violence, threats and fraud.
What does all that amount to? Decades of on-and-off hoodlum-watching in Japan incline this writer to surmise that those colorful characters, who were so thrilled to be included in the blossom-viewing party that they indiscreetly blasted the news to the world, are not major players in running the country from behind the scenes.
They almost certainly are not the interi or “intellectual” yakuza who – trained in finance and backed by underworld forces, notably Yamaguchi Gumi, the largest and most deadly yakuza syndicate – are hard at work trying with considerable success to gobble up big-name corporations.
Rather, the partygoers’ schtick screams small-time. Still, the episode is worth keeping in mind.
If following the money down those partygoing wise guys’ winding road seems unlikely to lead us to anything major in Suga’s case, we still can patrol the avenue (superhighway might not be too grand a term) of global casino moguls such as Sheldon Adelson of Las Vegas Sands, who among other distinctions is one of the 2020 Donald Trump re-election campaign’s biggest financial donors.
Suga’s parliamentary constituency is Yokohama, the Tokyo area’s main port, which has assumed a leading position among Japanese cities competing for “IR” – integrated resort with casino – licenses. Yokohama and Osaka appear to be the current favorites for the first two.
The Yokohama mayor, former Nissan and BMW super-saleswoman and Daiei supermarket chain CEO Fumiko Hayashi, had alternated for a decade between aggressive promotion and coy silence about the prospect that the city would throw its hat into the ring. A little over a year ago Madam Mayor announced she would proceed.
Yokohama was the first Tokyo Metropolitan Area municipality to join the fray, which previously had been dominated by Osaka.
According to an article on her decision published in an Asia-regional trade publication, gaining a Tokyo metro location had considerable appeal to global giants in what is euphemistically called the “gaming” industry. (Never, never call it “gambling.”)
“Just three hours after Yokohama confirmed its plans to launch an IR bid,” the publication reported, “Las Vegas Sands (LVS) announced it was withdrawing its interest in Osaka to focus solely on Tokyo and Yokohama. More recently, on 18 September , Melco Resorts & Entertainment did the same by declaring its own ‘Yokohama First’ policy.”
The same article mentioned a rumor that there had been “a secret agreement between US President Donald Trump and Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe – a rumor that certainly hasn’t been negated by the speed in which LVS, headed by one of Trump’s leading contributors in Sheldon Adelson, changed its focus after Yokohama’s announcement.”
The Republican answer to Joe Biden’s mega-contributor Mike Bloomberg, Adelson last month was reported to be planning to donate an additional $20 million to $50 million for the final phase of Trump’s re-election campaign.
The article offered no details of what provisions might have been included in the rumored Trump-Abe agreement. But it emphasized that the issues that surrounded the hosting of an integrated resort – including, of course, the choice of the operator – are highly political.
Mentioned were “influential pro-IR politicians.” Having them on Yokohama’s side “is considered to be an advantage that could sway the [national] government’s preference in the city’s favor” when it comes to choosing IR locations. The article named only one such politician: Yoshihide Suga.
It quoted one unnamed “source linked to a rival city bid” as saying: “It seems like the city has a pipeline to the national government…. It’s almost a sure thing they will be approved and be able to open an IR. It’s nothing but a threat for us.”
However, the article’s writer spoke with another such player who doubted that “the consensus building of the locals will happen in time.”
Indeed, there is no local pro-IR consensus beyond Yokohama’s inner circle of business and finance people, who strongly favor the project. In polls, an IR in Yokohama has consistently drawn public opposition approaching the two-thirds level.
People were shocked with the results several decades ago after rules and machines for pachinko, Japanese pinball, were altered to raise the stakes. The changes made winning so rewarding that far more people became addicted to gambling.
Many ordinary Yokohama citizens fear the social effects of having a casino in town. A civic group seeking a referendum on the IR issue expects by November 4 to have collected the 62,000 signatures required for submitting a petition.
Although pro-IR forces seem to have the votes in local government to overrule public opinion, a more difficult problem for proponents at the moment may be the powerful, 90-year-old docks boss Yukio Fujiki.
Fujiki, with his longtime formal position as head of the Yokohama Harbor Transport Association and his informal title, “the Don of ‘Hama,” can be compared to a figure such as former American labor union leader Jimmy Hoffa.
“If you look closely into him he’s sort of like a Teamster’s Union boss,” says the foreign specialist, referring to Hoffa’s union, which became notorious for its organized crime links.
Fujiki, he continued, is “not a ‘made man,’ as such, but thoroughly intertwined with such people. The Harbor Transport Association guys are the ones who really run the docks, whereas in the US it would be the longshoremen throwing their weight around.”
He adds: “Back in the mid-1990s when the US government was negotiating with the government of Japan to open up Japanese port operations to US companies, the Japanese negotiators asked the Americans to be as forceful as they possibly could. The reason, as they put it: ‘We don’t want the yakuza to kill us. And if you make us give in, we’ll be safer.’ And the organization that they were most afraid of? Japan Harbor Transport Association.”
Fujiki liked the initial proposal to build the resort on his 47-hectare (116-acre) Yamashita Pier. He conveyed his approval to Suga, whose political career Fujiki had sponsored for decades according to reports.
But then he publicly changed his mind, saying experts had persuaded him of the danger of casino addiction. Now, he has formally retired from his post as head of the port’s Harbor Transport Association, avowedly so he can devote his time to opposing the IR plan.
More than a few listeners doubted that problem-gambling worries were the full story behind Fujiki’s switch. “I’ll bet a small amount that it is not because he’s got society’s best interests in mind,” said one.
The publication Gendai Business in due course offered another explanation: Fujiki had mistakenly imagined that he and other port interests would get their cuts of an IR; he experienced a change of heart when he realized that the laws governing integrated resorts give development control to the winning bidders – international companies – along with the government.
Indeed, announcing a rival plan called “Yamashita Pier Redevelopment without Casino,” Fujiki complained that the IR scheme would “only feed money into overseas businesses.” He vowed: “Even if the city tries to evict me, I will not go.”
To complicate matters further, the coronavirus came along and wrought havoc with the casino and resort industries globally.
There were already doubts that an IR could attract sufficient customers to a Japan location – lacking the handy, built-in English- and Chinese-speaking customer bases that had contributed to making places such as Las Vegas and Macau huge draws.
In May, when the virus closed down even the worlds’ most famous casinos, Las Vegas Sands said it was giving up on Yokohama. Wynn Resorts, an American company, also has pulled out of its Yokohama office.
Will one or both of them rejoin the competition? Industry watchers have their eyes on the postponed 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which – the whims of the virus combined with Tokyo’s notoriously unpleasant summers permitting – could conceivably score a success in 2021.
That might well boost the hopes of Yokohama IR-boosters including Suga, who recently said on local television: “I think that IRs are indispensable for our tourism promotion efforts. Although people tend to focus only on the casinos, the government intends to promote IRs as places with various facilities and hotels where families can come and stay during international conferences.”
As if all that weren’t enough to keep track of, Suga-watchers should also be on the alert for the impending release of a tell-all book by Carlos Ghosn and a French journalist collaborator. The volume is due out in French next month and is being translated into Japanese.
There have been reports that Ghosn – now a fugitive after his cloak-and-dagger December 29, 2019, escape from Japan, where he was under house arrest, to his home in Beirut – will name government officials who, he alleges, conspired with some of his ambitious and/or xenophobic Japanese subordinates to have him locked up.
Suga is rumored to have provided political cover to an operation by dissident Nissan executives cooperating with public prosecutors. Nissan is the biggest of his Yokohama constituents.
A few days after Ghosn absconded, then-prime minister Abe was quoted as saying: “Originally, I had wanted Nissan to deal with [Ghosn’s case] internally.” Some reports have cast that comment as a criticism of Abe’s right-hand man, Suga, for having gotten the government involved in the Ghosn matter.
On an afternoon in 1979, a tattooed, shaved-headed, swordfight-scarred yakuza, from a seated position across the living room of the yakuza’s own Kawasaki apartment, propelled a throwing knife up to its hilt into the upholstery of a sofa. The knife’s entry point was about a sixteenth of an inch from the left shoulder of Bradley Martin, who, notebook in hand, had asked what, precisely, might be the man’s role in his gang. Learning from that reply that the fellow – who, by the way, had apologized to his boss for three separate foul-ups by chopping an equal number of finger joints off his non-throwing left hand– was employed as his boss’s bodyguard, Martin became permanently hooked on stories about the underside of Japan. He also watches North Korea.