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Sunday, May 3, 2009
Outsider looking in
By TOMOKO OTAKE
Born the son of a yakuza boss in Kyoto, Manabu Miyazaki is now a best-selling author. His life may read like fiction, but he raises social, political and media facts in a manner that's as frank as it is hard-hitting
Manabu Miyazaki is a man with multiple faces. To many Japanese, he is even thought to bear an uncanny resemblance to the "fox-eyed man" depicted in a police sketch as a suspect in a series of bizarre corporate extortion cases in the 1980s — including one in 1984 in which a company president was kidnapped, naked, by two armed men while taking a bath at home in Kobe.
The victim later escaped from his abductors, who had intended to hold him for ransom, but Miyazaki was questioned by police investigators, though he was never arrested as he had a solid alibi.
In fact, Miyazaki shrewdly turned this episode and his newfound celebrity to his advantage, using it as an opportunity to publish a book about his roller-coaster life. Indeed, he says now he is "extremely grateful" for that notoriety — and that he "made ¥100 million" through his book.
Titled "Toppamono: Outlaw, Radical, Suspect — My Life in Japan's Underworld," the 1996 book — in which toppamono means "someone who pushes ahead" — was, significantly, published before the statue of limitations on the extortion cases ran out in 2000. Not only has it sold 600,000 copies in Japan, and been translated into English, Chinese, Korean and French, but at home it also won Miyazaki a cultlike following widely referred to as "the fox-eyed bunch."
Now aged 63, Miyazaki's life, as he tells it in his book, has been nothing if not exceptional and eventful. Born as the second son of a yakuza boss in Kyoto, he grew up interacting with reckless but warmhearted members of the extended underworld "family," which also ran a demolition business.
Then, influenced by his left-leaning private tutor, he was won over to Marxism while in high school, and soon after he entered the prestigious Waseda University in Tokyo in 1965, he was busy networking, organizing and demonstrating as a member of the Japanese Communist Party in that decade's numerous, and often violent, student protests against "injustices," such as tuition-fee hikes and issues such as Japan's postwar treatment of its Korean residents.
However, like many others who were deeply involved in that movement, Miyazaki ended up dropping out of college. Then, after a brief stint as a reporter at a weekly magazine, he went back to Kyoto to take over the troubled family business, trying to meet one bank debt obligation after another.
Along the way, he says, desperation drove him to start getting involved in riskier business deals. The debts, though, kept growing, and the demolition company finally went bankrupt owing ¥2.5 billion on Oct. 25, 1980 — Miyazaki's 35th birthday. Persuading angry creditors to write off the debts exasperated him further, especially when some took to threatening him personally with swords and pistols. Then, in an unrelated incident, on one occasion in 1986 two gunmen stormed into a Kyoto cafe and shot him and the two men he was with. Though he recovered from the bullet that went through his stomach, his companions both died on the spot.
But Miyazaki's drama-packed life wasn't all bad during that decade in which Japan's asset-inflated bubble was growing at its most heady rate. In fact, he rode the wave in style, amassing huge sums — and spending lavishly — by landing one real-estate deal after another as a jiageya (land shark), whose job it is to nudge or intimidate individual owners of small parcels of land to sell them and make way for major property developers to move in.
Now single after twice marrying and being divorced from the same woman, Miyazaki, who is the father of three children with her (and several more out of wedlock, he says) spends much of his time and effort these days expounding his views on social issues — including what he sees as the sorry state of journalism in Japan. Especially critical of those in the media he blames for too often "just copying and pasting things they find on the Internet," in 2006 — along with several prominent figures including TV anchor Soichiro Tahara and the indicted Foreign Ministry official turned award-winning writer, Masaru Sato — he cofounded the nonprofit group Forum Jinbocho, named after its venue in Tokyo's Jinbocho district. As well as openly challenging the mainstream media through workshops and symposiums, Forum Jinbocho has also recently launched the independent Tahara Soichiro Nonfiction Award to honor the best up-and-coming nonfiction creators, either in print or broadcast media. (Applications are being accepted, in Japanese only, at www.forum-j.com/bana024.html through July 31.)
Miyazaki recently sat down at a Tokyo hotel to talk through a haze of cigarette smoke about his life, the yakuza, world politics and the police, including how yakuza members arrested in one prefecture in western Japan must be prepared to lose all of their teeth during interrogations. Apparently, smart- thinking yakuza on the wanted list of that infamous prefectural police force flee to a neighboring prefecture to be arrested in order to avoid physical abuse by investigators.
Soft-spoken and reflective, he has the cultured manner of a best-selling writer — most of the time. His demeanor changed suddenly when a waitress came around offering to refill his glass of water. 'No," he said sharply, causing the waitress to flinch visibly before fleeing after a few quick words of apology. Shortly afterward, as he fielded a phone call from what sounded like an old acquaintance, his voice changed again. "Oh no, I'm soooo sorry about that," he whispered sympathetically, switching to the Kyoto dialect. "Don't get too depressed, all right? Call me when the funeral date is confirmed."
It's been 13 years since you made your best-selling debut as a writer with "Toppamono," and about three years since it was published in English. What reactions have you had to the book?
What I found interesting was that people from non-English-speaking countries responded to the English version, with journalists from Switzerland, Italy and France asking for interviews. And of course there have been ones from the United States, too, and the FT (Financial Times).
What were they most interested in?
They were most interested in my background and particularly in the existence of the yakuza in Japan. They were also curious about the philosophical and religious backgrounds of the yakuza, though a lot of the interest was purely legal. In other words, in Japan the yakuza is not illegal just for existing, whereas many countries in the West outlaw their yakuza (organized-crime gangs). In Japan, being a yakuza group or member in itself is not illegal.
Why do you think it is that, in a modern society such as Japan's, a yakuza group involved in such things as prostitution, drug-dealing and human trafficking is legally allowed to openly set up offices, put their name plates on the wall outside and register those offices with the government?
Strictly speaking, they don't register themselves with the government; it's that the government acknowledges them as yakuza. In Japanese law, there is nothing that says the yakuza themselves are illegal, so it's perfectly OK for them to have their offices. Another point is that prostitution, drug-dealing and violence exist all around the world, not just in Japan. Such activities are indeed illegal, but if you ask me who's the world's biggest inflicter of violence, I would say it's the United States. Without question. The (U.S.) government is in fact the biggest gangster group. That's why they are engaged in acts of torture at Abu Ghraib prison (in Iraq) and confinement (at the Guatanamo Bay detention center in Cuba). Compared to the level of atrocities committed in these places, acts committed by Japanese gangs probably rate only about one 100-millionth.
I don't believe that the world has a certain level of peace and human rights running through societies. I'll give you three examples of countries in history in which the yakuza have been eradicated: Germany under Hitler, Cambodia under the Pol Pot dictatorship and North Korea.
You mean the regimes in those countries are more scary than the yakuza?
If you allow me to be paradoxical, I think the yakuza show the maturity of a country's democracy. I think a society with the yakuza is a sound society.
Laws are like a double-edge sword; they terminate the one (bad) side while terminating the other (good). So drugs, murders and prostitution have existed throughout human history, and the yakuza have just been an agent of such things. Where the yakuza aren't involved, nations are. That does not mean I tolerate such acts, and if they break laws, they should be heavily penalized.
So you do think the yakuza should be punished.
Yes — give them penalties when they break laws. My point is, it's wrong to penalize them when they are breaking no laws. The modern law says everyone is equal before the law — without a clause that says, "except those who are yakuza."
Are many people driven into yakuza groups due to economic circumstances?
The root cause of people joining gangster groups is poverty and discrimination. I think it's the same everywhere in the world. Today, the number of people becoming Islamic fundamentalists is growing rapidly, for example. I often go to southern Thailand, and I get the feeling that the gangs are growing there exponentially, and that absolute poverty is behind that trend. When you are in absolute poverty, and when you face absolute discrimination, you sometimes have no other choice but to break a law — simply to survive. Also, people who are discriminated against grow up with anger, so you can't expect them to turn into ideal gentlemen. That's often why people enter the underworld.
Recent National Police Agency statistics show that killings of children by their parents, and vice versa, are increasing. That means that families, which are the smallest social unit, are falling apart. A family is something that protects you from society, but that kind of mutual support network is being eroded. People in the yakuza do bad things at times, like killing people and selling drugs, but they do maintain a mutual support network, whether it's used for good or bad purposes. In a yakuza community, you feel the warmth of people that present-day society has lost. The coldness of society today is not there, so it's often more comfortable to live in a yakuza society.
Has the 1992 Law for the Prevention of Wrongful Acts by Members of Organized Crime Groups made the yakuza's coexistence with society difficult?
Very difficult. Since that law, the Yamaguchi-gumi (Japan's biggest yakuza group) has grown. That's because large organizations have the knowhow, such as how to contact a lawyer when you are investigated by police, or how to support your family when you are arrested. Groups that didn't have such knowhow have disappeared, and people belonging to those groups have joined the Yamaguchi-gumi. That law was intended to attack the Yamaguchi-gumi, but ironically it has ended up making the group grow. This kind of thing happens often; when the United States introduced Prohibition (1920-33), it made Al Capone rich.