JAPAN: Decrease in Yakuza Numbers?

CONOR FAIRTLOUGH WRITES– In Japan, the Yakuza (Japanese gangsters) has been popularized in movies and television shows. And why wouldn’t it be? The full body tattoo art, gang fights over territory, and iconic images of fingers being cut off for those who “fail” their Bosses. The hype is something that most Americans can relate to, given the popularity of the mob genre. Unlike the Mob in America, though, the Yakuza is on the decline.

However, Yakuza’s influence over Japan may be changing. The country’s economy is booming right now. It is the third largest car manufacturer in the world. As of 2018, the unemployment rate hit a low of  2.5%, and the number of Yakuza members dropped to a historic low of 30,500 total members. This is because of the government crackdown on crime and weakening tolerance of the Yakuza in 21st-century society. Overall it is becoming harder to live as a crime syndicate member, given“escalating social exclusion of members.”

The Yakuza has been an institution in Japan for hundreds of years. Its members are so involved in the daily routines of Japanese folk that one of the largest gangs–Yamaguchi-gumi— has its own website and newsletter. One can even go on Wikipedia to learn the founding locations of most Yakuza gangs. Also unlike the US, Japanese gangs are seen as semi-legitimate organizations involved not just in the underworld but in legitimate businesses such as night clubs and bars.

Politically speaking, the Yakuza, part of a transnational criminal organization originating in Japan, has always been involved in politics, especially on the conservative end, with right-wing political groups known as the “uyoku dantai”.  However, most “uyoku dantai” are fronts for the Yakuza, which function like lobbying groups, exchanging favors with politicians as well as serving as “strong men” to break up strikes and intimidate opponents.

Past movements against the Yakuza were never as successful as those of 2018,  a period of economic stability. Harsh anti-Yakuza legislation is increasing. The government has made it illegal for legitimate business owners to pay “protection money” to the Yakuza, or extortion money for the right to do business on their “turf.” This law eliminated one of the biggest sources of income overnight.  

Will the current economic boom wipe out the Yakuza or is Japan just one recession away from using them as goon squads once again?  That may depend on the Japanese economy, politics and further legislation.


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