Weve become strays.
Thats what an unnamed source muttered to Dr. Noboru Hirosue, Ph.D., a sociologist studying the yakuza. Even if you want to quit the yakuza, society doesnt want you back, so your only option is to go on welfare. For many, its better to stay and be a man than ask for charity. What would make a proud yakuza member, who surely must have been through hell and back, sound so dejected?
It all started when the yakuzas position in Japan changed.
In 2015, the Japanese mafia found itself at a crossroads. With the September split of the Yamaguchi-gumi, the biggest yakuza group around, Japans bustling commercial areas held their breath in nervous anticipation. Yamaguchi-gumi boasted over 23,000 members and, according to Fortune magazine, profits exceeding 80 billion yen (~ $650 million) making them the largest criminal organization in the world. How then did they end up splitting up?
The direct cause of the 2015 split was money. The Yamaguchi-gumi levies a tax on all of its affiliated factions to the tune of 1+ million yen (~ $8,100) a month. However, not being able to bear such an expense any longer, certain factions decided to rebel and form the new Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi organization. The fact of the matter is that the underworld syndicate thats made a fortune through nefarious means now finds itself scrambling for money.
Thanks to the 2008 revisions of the Organized Crime Group Countermeasures Law, it became possible to prosecute yakuza bosses for crimes committed by their subordinates, including blackmail or extorting protection money from restaurants. Each year, the business activities of the yakuza (known as Shinogi) became more and more difficult which made it harder and harder to pay their monthly taxes. (Noboru Hirosue)
Any split of a criminal organization weakens it, which is exactly what Japanese society really wants. However, there was a time when the word yakuza meant something more than just a criminal organization.
Weve seen it in the films of Takeshi Kitano which have won numerous Golden Lion awards at the Venice Film Festival, or Ridley Scotts Black Rain, all of which show that the yakuza werent always considered mere criminals by Japanese people. The movies depicted them as proud men who would never harm civilians because of their strong sense of justice and humanity. They were seen as symbols of masculinity willing to go to any extreme necessary, which is how they earned the name Gokudo (lit. extreme way.) Even today, the yakuza is trying to keep that image alive by giving away candy to the neighborhood children every Halloween and New Year. Furthermore, after the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995 hit Kobe (where the headquarters of the Yamaguchi-gumi are located) the yakuza was the first to deliver aid to people, even before the government. So, to the public, the yakuza might be a criminal organization, but from time to time, theyve also been known to help out those in need.
Its hard to explain the yakuza to foreigners. The American mafia is an organization thats only interested in making money, and which isnt officially recognized by the law. However, in Japan, where the population admires the yakuzas devotion to justice and humanity, the gangsters were able to come out into the light as legally-recognized designated organized crime groups.
However, ever since the police began designating them as organized crime groups, the public opinion about the yakuza has begun to change. Soon, the image of the yakuza slowly went from symbols of rebellion against the establishment to an antisocial criminal organization. Since the early 21st century, under the revised Organized Crime Group Countermeasures Law, Japan has been enacting Organized Crime Exclusion Ordinances all over the country, and now, the yakuza has a friend in neither the law nor the public. According to current legislation, its not only illegal to do business with the yakuza, but also to socialize or have any sort of relationship with them. As for the gangsters themselves, they arent allowed to open bank accounts or rent real-estate, and have to hide their identity if they want to enjoy a round of golf during their day off. Society is now targeting the yakuza by depriving their members of their human rights.
That doesnt mean they will all suddenly stop being gangsters, though.
According to the Organized Crime Exclusion Ordinances, even criminals whove quit the life will continue to be considered yakuza members for five years after leaving their organization, making it harder for them to reenter society. Many businesses are unwilling to hire ex-yakuza members out of fear that they will be publically branded as yakuza associates on the internet. The exclusion ordinances might have rid society of criminals but at the same time they created a topsy-turvy world where people who want to quit a life of crime cant. Noboru Hirosue laments the situation.
Making it impossible for ex-yakuza members to get a job for five years, even after theyve cleaned up their act, is like telling them to go die a dogs death. If you cant make a life for yourself or support your family, why would you ever quit? Your only choices are to remain in the yakuza, or to become an outlaw and commit even more heinous crimes. With the recent split of the Yamaguchi-gumi, there must be plenty of yakuza members who want to go clean and return to civilian life but our society just isnt equipped to take them back. Without a place to go, theyll inevitably become strays.
By excluding yakuza members, we might actually be driving them deeper and deeper underground, Dr. Hirosue warns. For example, even yakuza organizations have strict rules against dealing stimulants to minors but because of the recent split, there are worries that those rules will be relaxed. The yakuza may have been operating outside the law but theyve always honored their Organizations Rules and Regulations. What we are doing now, though, is reducing them to desperados who do not care about rules of any kind.
With its aggressive exclusion policies, Japans managed to almost halve the yakuzas numbers, bringing them down from 90,000 to 50,000. However, all it did was back the yakuza into a corner and transform regular criminals into outlaws who might now start committing more heinous crimes than anything weve seen before. The danger of that happening has never been higher, and it only continues to rise. We havent considered the full ramifications of the exclusion policies, and now, were just waiting for the yakuza problem to blow up in our faces.