Ben Hills

The Godfather bows courteously and offers his visitors hot towels, iced tea and an immaculate business card printed on hand-made paper. Nothing as crass as Murder Inc. No corporate ID at all, in fact. Just his name, his phone number, and his office address in the suburbs of the ancient imperial capital of Kyoto. 

Tokutaro Takayama feels he needs no introduction. This courtly man with grey sidelevers, dressed in pristine grey three-piece worsted, is as close as they get in Japan to a capo di tutti capi, the boss of all bosses of the yakuza, who are 10 times the size, and nearly as nasty, as the American Mafia

Just over a year ago the Japanese Government passed draconian legislation designed to exterminate them. Last month the Government admitted that after its highly-publicised war on the Mob, there were still 90,600 yakuza at large.

Mr Takayama is the living proof. He is the boss of the Aizu Kotetsu, which, according to the police, has 1,600 members (and according to an indignant Mr Takayama, double that number.) Recruiting is going along fine in spite of the new law, he says.

Aizu Kotetsu (Aizu is the ancient name for the region, kotetsu is a short Japanese sword much favoured by gangsters) is the fourth-biggest of what the police call boryukodan, the 3,570 remaining “violence gangs” who control most of the rackets from drugs and gambling to prostitution and extortion.

It is dwarfed by the 37,000-strong army of the Kobe-based Yamaguchi-gumi. But when the bosses of the Big Four met for a summit in Osaka last year to plan their strategy for fighting the new law, they showed their respect by appointing Mr Takayama the host and chairman. At 65, he is both grandfather and godfather of the Mob.

The gang’s headquarters is a modern, three-storeyed building overlooking a small stream which flows among the wooden houses and red lantern bars of Kyoto’s Iwataki-machi, a seedy residential neighbourhood. Next door is a bath-house.

The taxi driver loses his way in the maze of back alleys and stops to ask for directions. Imagine leaning out of a cab in South Central Los Angeles and asking: “Excuse me, my man, could you direct us to Local 401 of the Crips?”Instead of a faceful of shotgun, he is given polite directions. The Aizu Kotetsu sign on the building may have been taken down as a token gesture of compliance with the new law … but the neighbours all know where the Mob hangs out.

We are met by a posse of young men with impassive faces, identical oiled punch-perms, and wearing grey tracksuits with the gang’s name embroidered in gold on the pocket. Aizu Kotetsu’s corporate logo is a drinking vessel (the founder’s mentor was inordinately fond of sake) topped with the character for”large” – they could, accurately but irreverently, be called the Big Gourd Gang.

There are four large, black Mercedes and a black Seven-Series BMW parked under the building – left-hand-drive, of course – the favourite wheels of the Mob. “None of these are the boss’s … he is a modest man,” volunteers one of the grey tracksuits, noticing my interest. There is no beat-up Subaru 4WD in sight.

A lift takes us to a marble-floored corridor lined with closed doors and dominated by an enormous stuffed polar bear. Mr Takayama explains later that this was no personal feat of arms – like just about every piece in his office, into which we are silently ushered, it was a “gift from a business associate”. He declines to elaborate.

He is particularly proud of a bronze Napoleon on a horse which he says is 100 years old. In the corner is a brass grandfather clock two metres tall which punctuates the audience by booming out Big Ben’s chimes every 15 minutes. A gold-plated bonsai tree sits in a glass case. Sprays of orchids give a splash of colour to the dark wooden panelling.

Mr Takayama does not offer his hand, but a discreet check shows that he is not missing any fingers – the best-known trademark of the yakuza. If a man is disloyal to his gang, he is expected to hack off joints of his fingers -beginning with the left pinkie – wrap them in cloth and present them to the boss as a sign of atonement.

The boss of at least one gang, Yamaguchi-gumi, keeps a collection of fingers pickled in surgical spirits in a jar in his office – but Mr Takayama says he does not go in for such things, and has the fingers decently buried on a mountainside so that they can “rest in peace”.

Like many yakuza, Mr Takayama comes from a minority group marginalised in Japanese society. In his case, he was treated like an “insect” because of his Korean ancestry – many of the young dropouts he recruits also come from the so-called burakumin class, descendents of people like leatherworkers who are still regarded as untouchables, or at any rate unmarriables, in Japan.

“The first thing for you to know,” says Mr Takayama, lighting the first of a chain of Vogue Slims, “is that there is no similarity at all between the yakuza and the Mafia. We come from a long and honourable tradition of loyalty and chivalry.” That is the first of many debateable assertions.

True, scores of Japanese movies glorify the exploits of the bakuto – bands of gamblers dressed in serge hoods and capes and carrying short swords – who roamed the tollroads of 18th century Japan and are widely imagined to be the ancestors of the present-day yakuza. They are often depicted in Robin Hood roles, robbing the rich and defending the poor townsfolk against the ravages of the samurai.

However, Japan’s leading expert on the Mob dismisses this as having little relevance to the yakuza, 1993. Hiroshi Ishizuki is head of the organised crime intelligence division of the national police – a man dedicated to wiping out the yakuza.

“In the past,” he says, “they have found it useful to promote an image of Robin Hood or … what is the equivalent in Australia … Ned Kelly? However, since about 30 years ago they have been just gangs – violent gangs involved in organised crime.”

Mr Takayama still insists that Aizu Kotetsu has a long and honourable tradition – it was founded in 1861, and when he was installed as boss seven years ago he was only the fourth leader in its history. The portraits of his predecessors, clad in black ceremonial garb, hang from the walls.

When I took sake I felt the heat behind my eyeballs,” he says, referring to the initiation ceremony in which the new recruit sips sake with his gang boss in front of a Shinto shrine and pledges that he will be a yakuza till the day he dies. “The boss said, ‘If anyone is cold, take off your kimono and give it to them. If anyone is hungry, give them your food. This is the chivalrous way.’ ”

However, pressed as much as is prudent in the circumstances, Mr Takayama concedes that not everything he has done has been chivalrous. “I have done things I should not have done,” he says, singling out dealing on the black market after the war. He also admits having spent a total of 10 years in the”pig pen” following three convictions for what he described as “fighting”. It turns out later that this is something of a euphemism. One of the “fights” was in fact a full-scale gang war which broke out over control of gambling at a bicycle racetrack. A total of eight people were murdered, including several hacked to death with swords.

Mr Takayama is keen to emphasise that – unlike the Mafia – the yakuza gangs do not deal in hard drugs. But again, police intelligence flatly contradicts this assertion.

So how powerful are the yakuza – and how effective the new legislation in controlling the gangs? If it were a country, the Japanese Mob would be a place with a gross national product somewhat larger than Kenya. The latest estimate by the National Police Agency is that its annual income – in spite of being hit by the economic downturn like every other business – is $15 billion.

The biggest source of revenue (34 per cent) is amphetamines – a racket the yakuza got into during the war when substances like “ice” were handed out by the handful to workers and soldiers. Nineteen per cent of yakuza income comes from legitimate businesses, particularly the construction industry. Sixteen per cent is from gambling, while the rest is protection money, prostitution, mediating disputes, collecting debts, terrorising shareholders at company annual meetings and other standover tactics.

Heroin use, once rare in Japan, is also increasing – there were 15,000 arrests last year, nearly half of them yakuza-related; 163 kilos of heroin and 31 kilos of cocaine were seized.

The most recent alleged yakuza outrage involves the internationally-known film director producer Juzo Itami, who attempted to debunk the yakuza myth with a warts-and-all film called Minbo no Onna. He was brutally beaten by a gang near his home and had his face slashed. Five men associated with the Yamaguchi-gumi gang have been charged.

“There is nothing romantic about it,” says Mr Ishizuki. “They may deny it -a thief will deny he has stolen something – but (Aizu Kotetsu and the other boryukodan ) are involved in activities hostile to individuals and companies -drugs, firearms, extortion, murder.”

Mr Ishizuki is convinced that the new law is making inroads into the Mob. Under the legislation, police have the power to declare an organisation to be gang-controlled. Once that happens, they can take out orders barring members from dealing with businesses such as entertainment, construction, refuse, bars and restaurants.

So far, 76 per cent of the known gangs have been designated, including Yamaguchi-gumi, Aizu Kotetsu and the 16 other largest groups. More than 150 gangs have gone out of business, and the number of yakuza is declining, says Mr Ishizuki.

Several hundred orders have been taken out preventing “tens of thousands”of crimes. In conjunction with this, tens of millions of dollars have been spent establishing a nationwide network of anti-yakuza centres. Here, citizens can get advice on how to resist extortion, and gangsters are given rehabilitation assistance.

Citizens, says Mr Ishizuki, are beginning to stand up to the Mob. In Gunma Prefecture, for instance, restaurant owners have stopped paying $50 to $200 a month each for phoney advertising dodgers. In Tochigi, pachinko (pinball)parlours have also refused to pay protection money.

However, in spite of Mr Ishizuki’s optimism, a closer look at the figures reveals a rather different story. Makato Endo, a lawyer representing the Yamaguchi-gumi in a challenge to the constitutionality of the new law, says that the gangs which have disappeared have in fact just been taken over by larger gangs – Yamaguchi-gumi actually increased its membership during the year.

Furthermore, says Mr Endo, the total number of gangsters (if you include those the police quaintly classify as “associate gangsters” or part-timers)decreased by only 400, to 90,600, in 3,490 gangs. Of these, 56,600 were full-time yakuza – by comparison, at its height in America, the Mafia is reckoned to have had no more than 5,000 full-time members in 24 “families”. And if a measure of success is a reduction in crime, then the campaign must be judged a total failure.

Although Japan remains enviably low on the international crime table – the whole country has fewer murders than New York – the number of cases of major crime such as murder, robbery, arson, rape and kidnapping, increased more than seven per cent last year to over 10,000. Crime clean-up rates dropped to 36 per cent, an all-time low.

Mr Takayama, for one, is not surprised by the figures. They are, he says, a direct result of the police pressure on the yakuza. The Mob, he says, exercises discipline on its members – “anyone I find touching drugs gets excommunicated”. However, since the new law came into force, many of the younger gangsters have broken away to become freelancers, and have turned to drugs. He says the rehabilitation centres have been a total failure. “They are just amakudari (a soft job) for retired police … I wish they would spend my taxes in a better way.”
The Godfather is also incensed at the way his charity is now being rejected. He likes to be thought of as a social benefactor. However two years ago, when he tried to donate $100,000 to the Red Cross hospital where his grandmother had been treated before her death, it was dubbed “dirty money”. This year, for the first time in 20 years, the Kyoto City Council refused his annual New Year’s gifts of food, drink and several thousand dollars cash.

He is now banned from entering America, the Philippines, and Australia, where many of his colleagues in crime repair in the winter … strictly for a holiday, of course. Aizu Kotetsu has no interest in real estate, or any other business, Down Under.

In response to what they describe as harassment – police even raided his locker at the golf course, “looking for guns” Mr Takayama says sarcastically -the leaders of Japan’s top crime syndicates met in Osaka last year to formulate a plan of action.

In spite of their well-known historical connections with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party – it has recently been revealed that yakuza helped former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita get elected – the Mob had been unable to prevent passage of the legislation through the Diet. Now it was time for a new strategy.

It must have been quite a sight as more than 20 big, black American limousines sped through the city to the rendezvous in a local hotel. There, hosted by Mr Takayama, the creme de la crime sat down to talk, surrounded by several dozen of their top lieutenants: Yoshinori Watanabe, head of the Yamaguchi-gumi, Yuko Inagawa, of Tokyo’s feared Inagawa-kai, and Shigeo Nishiguchi, boss of the rival Sumiyoshi-kai. Between them, they command more than 90 per cent of Japan’s gangsters.

Only a few years ago, such a summit would have been unthinkable. In 1985, in an ambush described as the St Valentine’s Day massacre, the boss and two top lieutenants of Yamaguchi-gumi were shot at an apartment building in Osaka, triggering a two-year war in which 26 mobsters were murdered.

However, faced with a law they obviously feared more than gunfire, the four gang bosses agreed to a truce – and to join forces in a legal challenge against the law. For the first time in the 300-year history of the yakuza, relative peace prevails as the Mob’s mouthpieces argue in various courts that the new law is discriminatory, unconstitutional, and a deprivation of civil rights.

At his office 400 kilometres away in Tokyo, Mr Ishizuki seems confident that this will not interfere with his pursuit. In fact, later this year, even tougher measures will come into effect, making it illegal to cut off one’s finger tips.

Aged 47 – young enough to be his arch-enemy’s son – he says he hopes to see Mr Takayama and the rest of the yakuza put out of business for good before he retires.

Down in Kyoto, practising his putting in his spacious office, Mr Takayama smiles at the news. He looks up at the portraits of his predecessors, staring stony-faced down from the wall. “No, I will not be the last boss … Aizu Kotetsu will go on for ever,” he says.

The Japanese mob: Yakusa
Annual income: $15bn Australian
34% Amphetamines.
19% Legitimate businesses (particularly construction).
16% Gambling
31% Protection money, prostitution, mediating disputes, collecting debts, terrorising shareholders.
Gangsters: 90,600 (3,490 gangs)
Of these: 56,000 full-time yakusa.
Japan: Murders, rapes, robbery, arson, kidnapping increased 7% to over 10,000.
Crime clean-up rate dropped 36%.

Source: National Police Agency


Publishing Info

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Wednesday 19 May 1993
Edition: Late
Section: News and Features
Sub section:
Page: 15
Word count: 2740
Caption: Hey, we’re great guys, really … Tokutaro Takayama, boss of the Aizu Kotetsu gang, with a portrait of a predecessor.
Table: The Japanese mob: Yakusa. Source: National Police Agency