Japan’s notorious home grown mafia, the Yakuza, is different. Sure they are a gang, but to compare them to Columbian drug lords or the Bloods or Crypts of Los Angeles is not fair. Operations, publicity, and even acceptance of Yakuza are on a different level than other criminal enterprises. The Yakuza do care about their public image and that is reflected in their evil and good (!) activities.
An argument for evil
This shouldn’t be too hard, right? The Yakuza are criminals. They are a gang that commits many illegal activities, partly because they are allowed to do so. It is interesting to note that Yakuza offices are out in the public. This helps them mark their territory and no doubt is an ego boost for the local bosses. Yakuza are not going around and telling every person walking down the street of the crimes they commit. Yet even if the crimes are reported, Japan does not have legislation similar to the US RICO Act, thus it is much harder to tie gang leaders to crimes their underlings participate in. Growing amounts of legislation are putting a damper in gang activities, but the mere fact they can have public property openly shows the Yakuza do not consider the police a real threat.
The Yakuza tend to be more sophisticated in the crimes they indulge in. It is true things like shoplifting or muggings are happening with a bad economy that has affected everyone, but things like credit fraud or business takeovers are becoming more common. This is done through various blackmail, extortion, money laundering attempts and some greased wallets of police or community organization. This shows a step away from their traditional and still much more popular bread and butter of drug dispensing, prostitution and sex industry services, gambling and hitting up local shops for protection money. Semi-legal tactics of playing loud music, constant harassment at inconvenient hours, or refusing to leave businesses are also a well used tactic for Yakuza to get what they want.
In a way, Yakuza are contractors. They do jobs for money, yet the jobs are not always legal. They provide a service for the public, but then attack them for not making payments on high interest loans or compensating them for false grievances. In a hard hit economy, people and businesses can turn to Yakuza for money that banks would never loan. If paid back, this can be seen as a positive attribute of the gang’s services, but more often than not something “happens” where the Yakuza need more money than before and then the real trouble starts.
An argument for good:
The Yakuza have done their best to portray a noble image within the public sphere. They dress nicely, are respectful, and talk politely–when not trying to make money. Violence for the most part happens between gang branches or non-Yakuza gangs within Japan. The Yakuza punish their own, sometimes infamously forcing the person who did wrong to remove the tip of a finger as a form of apology. The Yakuza are even known to reduce some crime. The Japanese Mafia, as they are sometimes called, will often police themselves. Have you ever been through Tokyo’s Kabukicho entertainment district? Take a look next time. For such a crowded place you might expect an iconic police box or at least cops patrolling, but nope. Yakuza do protect places they collect money from because they don’t want other people to take that money. A petty thief or drug dealer looking for a new territory often thinks twice before operating in Yakuza turf. The police catching you may be scary to a criminal, but worse is considering what the Yakuza might do to you.
Perhaps the strongest argument that Yakuza do good came during some of the biggest disasters in recent Japanese history. After the 1995 Kobe earthquake and the more recent tsunami disaster that hit Tohoku last year, Yakuza were there first to provide aid. Some have said that since Yakuza have been strongly connected to the construction industry they were just scoping out legal and illegal work for the rebuilding process, but others like to think the gang members have a heart. Gang members are people to, even if they are not the best role models of an outstanding citizen. The Yakuza used their gang connections and efficiency to move supplies to unaffected areas to the people that needed food, blankets, and medicine. They even opened up offices and facilities to those affected and rented a transport helicopter for faster relief when it came to the Kobe incident. The government was much slower and less organized. When people are in trouble they want someone they can depend on and for the second time when disaster struck, the Yakuza were there.
Are the Yakuza more than mere criminals? By reducing petty crime and violence they often make local streets safer. They also were there in some of the darkest moments of Japan helping out fellow citizens. At the same time they murder, sell drugs and firearms, and practice extortion, human trafficking, and scare tactics. Even with a mountain of politicians, lawyers, police, and organizations trying to expel the Yakuza from society, they are not leaving. In fact, because the crime syndicate turns so many wheels in Japan from gambling and sex paid by demanding Japanese customers, to raising funds for political parties, it is hard to imagine society able to operate if the Yakuza did not exist. So are these well dressed thugs good or bad? For the time being, the Yakuza in Japan find themselves a necessary evil.