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Saturday, April 26, 2003

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How to tell if your neighbor is a yakuza


Several years ago as I was taking a taxi to work, the taxi driver took a shortcut down a small side street through an old neighborhood. When we rounded a corner, we were met by about 50 men dressed in suits lining both sides of the street and making deep bows. The taxi driver stopped behind a large black car with tinted windows that was sitting on the street in front of a house.

"What's going on?" I asked the taxi driver.

"Oh, a prominent yakuza member has just been released from jail. They're welcoming him back home," he said casually, as if he had heard this information on the morning news along with the weather forecast.

Back home? You mean the Japanese mafia lives in this neighborhood right next to the school where I work? But my students walk past this house every day! Then I realized that not only did my students pass here every day -- some of them probably even lived inside that house.

There are about 120 members of the Asano syndicate in the tiny town where I live. It may not seem like a large number, but in a small town where you know almost everybody, you start wondering just who your neighbors are.

Yakuza make up one of Japan's designated "boryokudan," groups that commit violent acts. There are 25 yakuza syndicates, the biggest being the Yamaguchi-gumi with over 17,000 members. Yakuza are involved in everything from real estate to hostess bars, pachinko parlors and love hotels.

It's only a matter of time before you run into boryokudan members in some way. You may just be sitting in noodle shop when a man comes in and -- in a very loud voice -- demands 10 bowls of noodles, then walks out without paying. Or, it may be the terror the "bosozoku" biker gangs give as they whoop and holler while plowing through a crowd of pedestrians, giving everyone just enough time to get out of the way.

Although I've witnessed both these, I didn't recognize the perpetrators -- they were definitely not my neighbors. They were someone else's.

According to the National Association for the Elimination of Boryokudan (whose symbol is an animated sun punching out "boryokudan"), gang member numbers have decreased significantly since the 1960s. However, gangs still have a significant presence in Japan.

Nowadays, as gang members try to blend in with society, punch perms, "irezumi" (tattoos), and "yubizume" (cutting off pinkie fingers) are dying traditions. Members have also stopped wearing their gang's emblem on their lapels, and the gang name no longer appears on their business cards. Heck -- how do we know who the gang members are then?

To find out if your neighbor is a yakuza, or if you just want to know who to avoid, ask yourself these questions:

1. Does your neighbor take part in nocturnal motorcycle revving? This is a favorite activity of the bosozoku, many of whom go on to join the ranks of yakuza or other organized crime groups.

2. Is your neighbor constantly talking on one of five different cell phones using difficult-to-trace, prepaid phone cards?

3. Does your neighbor call any of his friends "aniki," the term used to refer to a senior gang member?

4. Has your neighbor been seen standing outside the door at your company's annual stockholder meeting collecting cash to ensure he won't disrupt the meeting? These "sokaiya" corporate racketeers often have yakuza connections.

5. Has your neighbor recently come to your house demanding 100,000 yen to 10 million yen in cash as a donation or as protection money?

If you suspect your neighbor may be affiliated with organized crime, don't panic. Now you know what to do: Give him 10 bowls of noodles.

Check out Amy Chavez's new column, "Parents Do the Strangest Things," at www.amychavez.com.


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