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Known for their striking full-body tattoos and severed fingertips, Japan's gangsters comprise a criminal class eighty thousand strong—more than four times the size of the American Mafia. Despite their criminal nature, the yakuza are accepted by fellow Japanese to a degree guaranteed to shock most Westerners. Here is the first book to reveal the extraordinary reach of Japan's Mafia. Originally published in 1986, Yakuza was so controversial in Japan that it could not be published there for five years. But in the West it has long served as the standard reference on Japanese organized crime, inspiring novels, screenplays, and criminal investigations. David E. Kaplan and Alec Dubro spent nearly two decades conducting hundreds of interviews with everyone from street-level hoodlums and police to Japan's most powerful godfathers. The result is a searing indictment of corruption in the world's second-largest economy.
This updated, expanded, and thoroughly revised edition of Yakuza tells the full story of Japan's remarkable crime syndicates, from their feudal start as bands of medieval outlaws to their emergence as billion-dollar investors in real estate, big business, art, and more.
In 1975, an unusual gangster film starring Robert Mitchum and Japanese actor Ken Takakura opened in the United States to generally indifferent audiences. The unconvincing plot, the strange and highly stylized Japanese acting, and the exotic setting didn't send Americans flocking to the box office. But viewers were probably amused by the outlandish and anachronistic swordplay, and found the finger-cutting sequences both compelling and gruesome. In any case, the movie, entitled simply The Yakuza, enjoyed a short run to nearly empty houses. It deserved better. It still plays occasionally on late-night television and it's on home video, but in 1975 Americans neither knew nor cared about the subject matter-Japanese organized crime.
By the early 1980s, that had begun to change. Americans other than Hawaiians were slowly becoming aware of the yakuza through the news media, and indirectly because of the new posture of U.S. law enforcement. Press reports of official statements about the yakuza conveyed a note of panic, with headlines like "Japanese Organized Criminals Invading West," and "FBI Chief Warns of Japanese Crime Ring."
A number of top Washington law enforcement officials, including Ronald Reagan's Attorney General William French Smith and FBI chief William Webster, warned on several occasions that the yakuza presented a threat to the nation that warranted swift action. Partly as a response to this clamor, members of the Reagan administration decided to include the yakuza in the agenda of the 1983 President's Commission on Organized Crime. Some previous panels, like the Kefauver and McLellan Senate committees, had made a discernible impact on organized crime by putting pressure on law enforcement and increasing citizen awareness. But the Reagan commission was the first to expand the definition of organized crime, observing that it was no longer the exclusive domain of the Mafia-not that it truly ever was.
California authorities recognized this change rather early, owing perhaps to the weak position of traditional Italian syndicates in that state. In the 1980s, state authorities paid less attention to the Italian groups and more to the "nontraditional" gangs, which include everyone else. In its 1981 report to the legislature, the California Bureau of Organized Crime and Criminal Intelligence (BOCCI) devoted as much space to Israeli, Vietnamese, and Japanese groups as to the Mafia. By 1984, it had become clear that this broader version of organized crime was firmly entrenched on the national level, and that it included the yakuza.
The president's commission held its second public hearing in New York in March 1984, focusing on money laundering, a requisite task of all organized crime groups, including the yakuza. Cash, according to commission director James Harmon, is "the life-support system without which organized crime cannot exist." The commission discovered that the money to be laundered for the $50 billion annual U.S. drug trade, for example, comes from all points of the compass-East Asia as well as Latin America-and that many U.S. bankers have been only too willing to oblige organized crime.
Finally, in its third hearing, held on October 25, 1984, the commission gathered in New York to address the issue of Asian organized crime, and the yakuza was to occupy one-third of the agenda. Certainly, the attention was by then justified. Verifiable police reports placed yakuza from Roanoke, Virginia, to Arizona to Seattle. The yakuza were highly involved in the Japanese tourist industry, were smuggling guns and pornography out of the country, allying themselves with American gangsters and gamblers, and laundering funds. They were, in short, getting well entrenched in America, and it was time to place them under closer scrutiny.
The first witness called before the president's commission appeared shrouded in a black robe and hood, looking somewhat like a ninja. He was led across the floor of the high-ceilinged, columned hall to a seat behind a screen that shielded him from the press and audience. Chief Counsel Harmon then revealed to the commission and audience that the man was an oyabun, or leader, in a major Japanese organized crime gang. The twelve commission members present listened carefully as the witness described tattooing and yubitsume, or ritual finger-cutting, and provided a graphic account of how that painful act is accomplished. "The actual procedure is to take ... what they in Japanese yakuza call little silver knife-on a table-and you pull it towards you and bend over and your body weight will snap your finger off.... The finger that is severed is put in a small bottle with alcohol and your name is written on and it is sent to whoever you're repenting to as a sign that you are sorry."
The nameless oyabun also elaborated on the organizational charts of the Yamaguchi-gumi and Sumiyoshi-rengo that the commission had provided, and explained how the yakuza are active in his own specialty, economic crime. Gangsters in Japan, he told the panel, try to find companies in financial trouble, and engage in a number of schemes to take them over. Through bogus notes and threats to company officials and creditors, they assume control of the ailing business, sell off the assets, and profit from the failure.
This yakuza had personally run high-stakes card games two or three times a month in Japan. Because of his status, he retained 40 percent of the profits, which amounted to $40,000 to $60,000. After expenses, he realized about $16,000 per game. Money, though, had to be passed up to the very highest echelons; yakuza leaders maintained control through money, and lower members rose by passing it on. Nonetheless, said the witness, "I would say that I lived a very good life, probably equivalent to the presidency of a company employing three hundred to five hundred people."
Later in the day, another hooded witness made an appearance. Also a Japanese national, this anonymous informant had been a U.S. resident for ten years, and he described yakuza activity in New York. Card games, with stakes in the many thousands of dollars, were being run by a combination of yakuza, yakuza associates, and Italian American hoodlums. The customers were both Japanese nationals and Japanese Americans. He believed that the Italians, who wore guns and sold stolen goods at the games, were actually in charge of the action.
Less dramatic than the hooded witnesses, perhaps, but equally revealing was the testimony of three American policemen, all knowledgeable in the workings of the yakuza in the United States: Inspector John McKenna of the San Francisco Police Department; Detective George Min of the Los Angeles Police Department; and Bernard Ching of the Honolulu Police Department. The three intelligence cops described in brief how the yakuza were gaining crucial footholds in their respective communities.
Bernard Ching described the Hawaiian yakuza scene in much the same terms he had used to reporters nearly three years earlier: gun smuggling, prostitution, pornography, extortion, and drugs. What was new to some observers, however, was the admission that yakuza activity was not confined to the islands. Detective Min of Los Angeles presented an impressive list of yakuza activities in the large Japanese communities of Southern California. "I have seen many crimes instituted by the yakuza," he told the panel. "We have cases of homicide, prison escape, gun smuggling, money laundering ..." Inspector McKenna, for his part, added that the SFPD had identified members of the Sumiyoshi-rengo in the San Francisco area. He believed that a pattern of intimidation and extortion existed within the Japanese business community.
None of the testimony by police, and little by the witnesses-except the finger-cutting and other exotic Japanese customs-was particularly startling crime news. Activities from money laundering to murder are, of course, the basic stuff of organized crime. No, the news was that it was Japanese, and it was occurring both in Japan and in the United States, and it contradicted popularly held beliefs. The public, to the extent that they thought about it at all, believed that the Japanese had virtually no crime problem, and that Japanese Americans were the most law-abiding of citizens. Now, the issue of yakuza coming to America would stir up some ugly ghosts from the past.
Ron Wakabayashi, the national director of the Japanese American Citizens League, told the New York Times that yakuza-hunting could "fan anti-Asian sentiment," and given the American predilection for periodic attacks on Asians, it was a well-founded warning. Because of economic competition from Japan, many Americans had begun to blame Asians-any Asians-for their problems. In 1982, for instance, two disgruntled and intoxicated auto workers in the Detroit area attacked a bachelor party of Chinese Americans, killing the prospective bridegroom with a baseball bat. The assailants' defense hinged in part on their having mistaken the victims for Japanese, and the court handed down extremely lenient sentences.
From government commissions and committees, from news reports, books, articles, and movies, the subject of organized crime from across the Pacific had crept into the U.S. consciousness ... and onto the agenda of law enforcement. By the late 1980s, Asian organized crime had become a priority for the FBI and other U.S. law enforcement agencies. Yakuza money launderers, Chinese drug smugglers, Korean prostitution rackets, and more were now of pressing interest to American cops. New hearings were held before the U.S. Congress in 1992, in which the yakuza's reach into the United States was detailed. The billion-dollar developments in Hawaii were highlighted, as were similar investments on the mainland from New York to California. It had taken U.S. law enforcement some fifty years to acknowledge the existence of the Mafia; now, some twenty years after the modern yakuza had landed in America, the Yamaguchi-gumi was suddenly a topic of national discussion.
That year, the FBI publicly warned that yakuza activity had reached a major level of concern. Japanese crime syndicates exert "a growing influence on the state of Hawaii, and are significantly represented coast to coast on the U.S. mainland," the Bureau said in a report. Officials identified the Yamaguchi-gumi, Sumiyoshi-kai, Inagawa-kai, and Toa Yuai as all being active in the U.S., and warned of the threat they posed "through the laundering of ill-gotten gains and the infiltration of legitimate businesses in the United States." DEA intelligence reports, meanwhile, suggested that Japan had become a major trans-shipment point for narcotics. It was an ideal situation for smugglers. Because of Japan's squeaky clean image, U.S. Customs did few if any checks on cargo coming from there. DEA agents in Tokyo found that between 1987 and 1989, at least 750 kilograms of heroin were shipped through Japan to the U.S. by Thais, Chinese, Nigerians, Americans, and Japanese.
Over the years, American law enforcement gained an education in Japanese organized crime and began to realize that this was no passing fad. By 1994, for instance, the FBI had eight Japanese speakers on its payroll. Police bulletins informed intelligence units of developments in the yakuza, and law enforcement groups devoted to Asian crime were meeting regularly. All this began to produce results. During Japanese holiday seasons, alert Customs and Immigration officials have stopped hundreds of yakuza attempting to enter the United States. One watchful Customs inspector even found a yakuza with a false fingertip. A few years earlier, these characters would have slipped by undetected. By the end of the '90s, yakuza investigations had occurred in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Honolulu, New York, and Denver. Police had even identified yakuza tactics such as jiageya under way in areas like San Francisco.
Yet there was still something of a fad in the approach to tackling Japanese organized crime. Instant experts abounded in law enforcement, often with little clue of how the gangs really operated. This held true regarding much of Asian organized crime, which for too long had been shielded in America by a bamboo curtain that separated immigrant communities from the rest of the country. Few cops on Asian gang squads were even aware, for example, that Japanese crime syndicates not only had a future in America, they had a past.
The Cotton Connection
The history of Japanese organized crime in America actually dates to the early twentieth century. As in other immigrant communities, organized crime arose nearly as soon as the Japanese population grew large enough to support permanent gangs. By and large, those gangs controlled vice, principally gambling. By 1910 there were over 70,000 people of Japanese descent in the United States, with at least a third of those living in and around Los Angeles. The center of Japanese activity in the United States was in the downtown L.A. community of Little Tokyo. And controlling all the gambling, as well as other aspects of the community, was the Tokyo Club, situated atop a three-story building at Jackson Street and Central Avenue.
Based in Los Angeles, the Tokyo Club had branches-or more correctly, franchises-all over the West, from Seattle to the Mexican border. The bulk of the operation was in California, with eight Tokyo Clubs in the Central Valley alone. It was a very successful operation. In the 1920s, it counted a profit of more than $1 million a year, a considerable sum in those days. Because it held the biggest accumulation of capital in the Japanese community, the Tokyo Club functioned as a bank as well. It also supported sports teams and lined the pockets of police and city officials.
The men who ran the Tokyo Club were businessmen-gangsters. Recalled Howard M. Imazeki, the late editor of Hokubei Mainichi, San Francisco's Japanese American daily, "We didn't call them yakuza then, but now I think that's probably what they were." Power struggles frequently occurred within the club, sometimes erupting into gunfire.
Wrote criminologist Isami Waugh, "In the cases of insubordination and disobedience Club President Itatani was severe in meting out the penalty; he sent his gang of powerful burly men to take care of these rebels in the Chicago gangland manner ... In two or three extreme cases, so the grapevine reported, men were actually murdered and their bodies were disposed of so well that even the police detection failed."
Small-time rackets were not the only criminal interests of America's forgotten yakuza.
Excerpted from Yakuza by David E. Kaplan Alec Dubro Copyright © 2003 by Center for Investigative Reporting and David E. Kaplan. Excerpted by permission.
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|About the Authors|
|Preface to the New Edition|
|Prologue: Enter the Yakuza|
|Pt. I||Early History|
|1||The Honorable Outlaws||3|
|Pt. II||The Kodama Years|
|3||Nexus on the Right||56|
|4||The Black Mist||83|
|Pt. III||The Modern Yakuza|
|7||The Keizai Yakuza||175|
|8||The Collapsing Bubble||196|
|Pt. IV||The Move Abroad|
|9||Meth, Money, and the Sex Trade||223|
|10||Old Markets and New||251|
|11||Across the Pacific||277|
|Epilogue: A New Yakuza||325|
|A Note on Research||335|
Posted November 16, 2008
No text was provided for this review.