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Sunday, Feb. 1, 2004

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

WEAKENED GANGSTERS

Japanese Mafia struggles


THE JAPANESE MAFIA: Yakuza, Law and the State, by Peter B.E. Hill. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003, 323 pp., $35 (cloth).

In this superb book Peter Hill challenges prevailing interpretations of the yakuza and, in doing so, explores the pathology and dynamism of contemporary Japan. He dismisses the widely held view that the yakuza and police maintain a quasi-symbiotic relationship and points to legal and economic changes that are undermining their presumed role in crime control. As with many other aspects of contemporary Japanese society, what were once considered ineradicable verities are now yesterday's news.

Hill writes with authority and panache, demonstrating a command of the literature while alerting readers to the pitfalls of various data. In looking under this rock, he tells a compelling story about Japan's underworld, showing us how it is far more significant and changing much more rapidly than is commonly assumed. A wry wit and judicious doses of colorful anecdotes leaven this complex and revisionist interpretation of the relationship among the yakuza, law and the state. "The Japanese Mafia" explains why monolithic views of both the yakuza and police obscure significant differences within both organizations that have influenced evolving relationships and the impact of recent anti-yakuza legislation.

The yakuza's high-profile ties within the corridors of political power during much of the latter half of the 20th century are remarkable. Hill writes, "The links between the postwar yakuza and, usually rightwing, politicians are well known. This is not so much due to fearless investigative journalism or mass arrests of corrupt politicians as to the extraordinary degree to which these links were openly displayed for much of this 'period.' " Politicians have relied on the yakuza to help battle radical groups ("hammer of the left") while also using them in campaigns for fund raising, voter organizing and digging up dirt on rivals.

Since the 1950s Japan has gone through a period of tremendous socioeconomic upheaval that helps explain why the yakuza-state relationship has also been in flux. The well-known crime control function and symbiotic relationships of the past have given way to more confrontational relations, most notably the 1992 Boryokudan (Yakuza) Countermeasures Law. Although this law appears mild compared to mob- busting laws in other countries, the author argues that "This, and other new laws, combined with the impact of Japan's long-running economic malaise, leave the yakuza facing the twenty-first century in a significantly weakened state. Unfortunately, the social consequences of this are not entirely beneficial."

Not beneficial in the sense that the yakuza have had to diversify and expand their activities beyond the bread-and-butter businesses such as protection, labor broking, loan sharking and prostitution. For example, the prolonged economic downturn has generated a brisk business in bankruptcy management, demonstrating that the yakuza are flexibly responding to shifting opportunities. More troubling has been the increased reliance on amphetamines as a source of income. As more yakuza rely on drug peddling, the resulting supply glut has driven prices down and boosted the number of users.

It is not only the recession and harsher legal environment that are battering the beleaguered yakuza. They are now facing a labor shortage and increased foreign competition. For many young Japanese, the lure of the underworld is not what it once was. Today's "increasingly soft and pampered youth" look on mob work as kitsui, kitanai and kiken (arduous, dirty and dangerous) forcing some gangs to advertise in employment magazines!

The police also are taking a less benign view of yakuza activities and face growing pressures to crack down on them. "As the gangs had become perceived as increasingly violent and involved in non-consensual crimes in which ordinary citizens have become victims, the police have come under growing pressure to take serious steps against them."

Hill makes it clear that it is not easy being yakuza. They have had to constantly reinvent themselves to secure new sources of income. They also have a lifestyle that involves heavy boozing and tattooing, both of which take their toll in liver-related ailments. Apparently yubitsume (ritual act of cutting off the little finger at the joint) is much less practiced, but other signs are not as encouraging. Hill concludes, "The yakuza of the twenty-first century must therefore contend with a number of different challenges. Not only do they have to face the double punch of the burst bubble and the Botaiho (the countermeasures law), they also have increased legal problems in the shape of a pincer attack: from the side of criminal law the three new anti-organized crime laws and a trend to a harsher sentencing regime; from civil law, increased competition in the market for dispute resolution and the risk that they may have to pay damages for the misdemeanors of their minions." The mob elite are coping just fine, but those in the lower echelons, who Hill waggishly calls the "lumpen-yakuza," are squeezed between demanding bosses and more aggressive policing.

According to Hill, the decline of the yakuza is not an unmitigated boon. Ironically, the restructuring and weakening of the yakuza as a result of new legal initiatives has rendered them less capable of controlling crime. And, the volatile mix of a weakened yakuza, foreign gangs and a more confrontational police leads Hill to predict greater violence.

Jeff Kingston teaches history at Temple University Japan.


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