28 Mar 2012


A vist to a yakuza gangster’s headquarters in a Japanese war zone 


Although I had long hung out with junior members of the Sumiyoshi Crime Family, the bosses remained elusive. There were a few brief encounters like the time I approached a fancy looking car to tell them it seemed to be leaking water. Several heavies quickly surrounded me and, after figuring out I was not after the boss in the car, told me to back off. It turned out it was just water leaking from the air-conditioner.

My big break came thanks to a lawyer on a mission to bring justice to banks. Early in her career she had helped a young gangster get a light sentence on charges of gun possession. She uncovered a deal between gangsters and police to use him to clean the ledger on a whole assortment of unsolved gun crimes. The gangster insisted on pleading guilty -as ordered by his bosses. Still, the lawyer used her knowledge of the deal to get him a light sentence. He owed her a debt. Luckily she owed me a debt. I helped expose corrupt finance ministry officials and thus save one of her clients from getting ripped off of his fortune by a bank. In return, she agreed to introduce her ex-client, now a boss.

This was no ordinary boss. He was in charge of the most dangerous district red-light district in Japan. His gang had just finished, and won, a brutal war with Chinese triads. His 70-man division had killed about 15 people over the past several years. This figure does not include those who simply vanished. The Yakuza prefer that bodies are never discovered so they can avoid being forced by the police to give up one of their members to face arrest for the crime.

Bodies are disposed of in several ways: boiled into broth for ramen noodles, minced up and mixed in with fish cake, dissolved in acid and, most common of all, buried in shallow graves in the mountains. People in debt to the gangs are sent to work on fishing boats and, they are told, have their wages garnisheed to pay the debt. In reality they are heavily insured and get “washed overboard.”

The boss agreed to meet me one evening at his office. I was told to wait by a certain phone booth where a mean looking guy with a shaved head came to get me. A couple of touts saw who I was with and looked at me with pity in their eyes. “Watch your language when you meet the boss,” the guy warned me.

The only way up to the office was up several flights of stairs exposed to the street. At the top of each flight was a steel door. Some were open, exposing rooms full of rough looking, tattooed men wearing shorts and t-shirts. The boss was waiting for me at the top floor.

Everybody except the shaven-headed guy was kicked out. The bald guy sat by a steel desk at the back of the office where he kept a wary eye on me. The boss invited to sit across from him on a sofa. He was a small guy with a red nose and thick glasses. There was nonetheless a very tough air about him. This guy had obviously been through a lot.

“I owe the Sensei, and that is why I am talking with you,” he said, “but, there is not much I can tell you.”

“I understand you have many things you cannot tell a journalist and I do not want to do anything that causes you trouble,” I said. “I hang out with a top boss from the Yamaguchi-gumi crime syndicate and there is so much stuff that he tells me that I could never use because it would get him in trouble,” I said. “For example, he told me they got rid of bodies by turning them into kamaboko (fish cake).”

“Really,” he said, his interest perking up, “we turn them into noodle broth. If you boil long enough everything dissolves except the fillings and you can just melt those.”

“Anyway, what I am after is stories” I continued. “Most guys live like dogs on a leash dreaming about life as a wolf, you guys live like wolves. I want to hear stories of your adventures, stuff that has already hit the statute of limitations or stuff you know about other gangs or the police, things that it would be to your advantage to tell.”

“I see,” he said. “Come here, I want to show you something,” he said. He took me to the back of his office. There was a big photograph on the wall of about 100 or so old guys in black suits. It was a group photograph of bosses of the 12,000 member Sumiyoshi Rengo Kai or confederation. “You see this guy,” he said, pointing to a mustache bearing guy close to the center of the front row, “he killed these four guys,” he said, pointing to four other men on the front row. “After that he was expelled from the gang and his subordinates went to work for other groups.”

He then pointed out another guy. “He killed four people but a fifth escaped, injured, to the Philippines. We had him shot in the emergency room of a hospital there,” he said.

The yakuza boss then when on to explain that the gang or Gumi, he belonged to was now on its 13th generation boss. He was the 5th generation boss of his division of that gumi. “I have been nothing but a yakuza since I was 15 years old,” he said.

“So,” I asked, “how do you guys earn a living.” “Mostly we are yojimbo, or guard men, for sex-shops and bars,” he said. “We also run underground casinos,” he said. “Some of the younger guys sell amphetamines and marijuana,” he went on.

“How are your relations with the other gangs?”

“This is our turf and nobody else is allowed in here!”

“What about if another gang wants to open a bar or something?”

“If it is just business, then it is OK,” he said.

“Ok, how do you decide who gets to guard which business?”

“It is first come, first served. If the Yamaguchi gang gets there first, then they get to guard it.”

“You guys act like lawyers too right?” I asked. “What happens when there is a conflict and the two sides ask their Shiri-Mochi (literally ‘someone who guards your ass’) to intervene.”

“We usually know each other well. The two bosses will sit down and discuss the case and come to a solution. The solution really depends on the individual case but there is usually and exchange of money,” he says.

“Why do people go to gangsters instead of the police?”

“The police and the courts are very slow and inefficient. Also, the police will only interfere if there is a crime. For example if a customer in a bar is violent and shouting but does not actually break anything, the police will not help. Yakuza will come right away, regardless of the circumstances.”

“What about the Chinese gangs, aren’t you afraid of them?” I asked.

“The Chinese are gone. They shot some of our guys so we shot their five top guys, they are not in our district anymore,” he said. “The police were glad to get rid of the Chinese but they still insisted we turn someone in for the crime,” he went on. “We did not want to but they started arresting the bosses for little things like parking infractions until we agreed to surrender up a young guy who would take responsibility for the shooting.” A large photograph of him was prominently displayed on the office wall, together with six other gangsters who were serving time.

“He will get a big promotion when he comes out 8 years from now,” he said.

“So, have you ever personally killed anybody?” I asked.


“What does it feel like?” I asked.

A serious look came over his face, a sort of sad, guilty and ashamed look. “It is not a nice feeling at all,” then, after a long pause added “but I had no choice, it was either kill or be killed.”

Changing the subject, I asked him what he thought of the police.

That seemed to hit a nerve. He got up excitedly an ran to the window beckoning me to follow. He pointed to a shrine and several shuttered shops. “Do you see those two shops, they were shut down by the police, but see that building attached to the shrine, that is a whorehouse that is allowed to run its business. They pay money to the police, who also get to fuck there for free. They have a license that was given to them thanks to a politician. You should write about that, it is a scandal.”

He had a good point。The shrine is owned partially by Tokyo Metropolitan Government. The open space in front of the shrine, the fountain, the statue in front of it and the garden are all owned by city. The Shrine building itself is owned by the property owner’s association. They rent out what used to be the shrine’s kura or warehouse, to a brothel. In a way, you could call it mayor Shintaro Ishihara’s whorehouse.

For the gangsters the police are just another form of gang.

When I went to the club to check it out, I noticed a sign on their door saying no foreigners were allowed. I took a photograph of it. When a guardman from the shrine came to try to take the camera away from me, a bunch of the gangsters came out to shout that I was taking a picture of their office and to leave me alone. It was nice to have them on my side.

Overall, these guys were tough, but nice. I honestly believe there must be a way to integrate these guys into society. They would probably be cheaper and more efficient than the police in dealing with minor incidents in entertainment districts.

Talking to them made me realize that in many ways the worst gangsters in Japan are the police. The police lobby to keep pachinko and fuzoku illegal not for any moral reason but because they want to extort money from the industry.

No comments:

Post a Comment