Perception and representation of the yakuza in contemporary Japan

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This literature review aims to analyze how 20 different academic, official, and public sources represent the phenomenon of yakuza, the organized crime of Japan. Additionally, it will be attempted to show how these sources can be contextualized in the broader scope of Japanese society regarding attitudes towards crime and punishment thereof in general. Although the terms 「ヤクザ」 “yakuza” and 「暴力団」 “bōryokudan” may have distinct meanings and connotations within contemporary Japan, for the purpose of this literature review they will be used interchangeably to refer to the groups and members of the various crime organizations in Japan in its entirety.

With their origins dating back to the 17th century, the yakuza have enmeshed their existence deeply into Japanese society over a long time. As one of the largest crime organizations in the world, their influence and presence on both national and international levels pose severe social questions as to interference with and safety of public life and political and legal actions against that. Since the structure of the yakuza is a reflection of Japanese hierarchical ideas in general (「家」“ie” and 「親分子分」 “oyabun-kobun”) and their self-proclaimed values are known to center around traditional and nationalistic ways of thinking, their public perception can indicate how the public agrees or disagrees with both the values themselves as well as the self-attribution of those values.

From the sources that were gathered, it was attempted to analyze the representation of yakuza in three main categories:

1) Academic publications

2) Official publications1

3) Mass media publications

It should be noted that – as a complete overview of their history or activities is too broad for the scope of this literature review – particular emphasis has been put on public perception and how this perception is represented in the sources along the basic representation of the yakuza within the three basic categories “positive”, “negative”, and “ambiguous”. Thus, rather than structuring around these (broad) positions it will be examined which of these positions is prevalent within the more objective publication categories mentioned above (“academic”, “official”, and “mass media”). This will allow discussing the perception of yakuza according to possible differences between these categories. Furthermore, as some sources do not discuss public perception explicitly, it will be attempted to infer the public image from the way these sources represent the yakuza.

Due to the sparseness of sources mainly in the first category, the term “contemporary Japan” will be interpreted more broadly referring to post-Bubble Japan in general (1991 onwards). Nevertheless, in order to understand how the yakuza are perceived and represented during this time, it will be necessary at times to compare directly to perceptions and representations of previous time periods. These will be discussed accordingly.

Although the abovementioned categories are fairly clear-cut and overlaps should be avoided, references to sources of differing categories will be made, if necessary. Passages quoted from sources in languages other than English will be quoted along with translations made by the author of this review.


1 Academic Publications

1.1 General Academic Publications

1.2 Specialized Academic Publications

2 Official Publications

3 Mass Media Publications

3.1 Positive Mass Media Publications

3.2 Ambiguous Mass Media Publications

3.3 Negative Mass Media Publications

4 Conclusion

1       Academic Publications

The academic sources can again be divided into two further categories. The first category comprises general sources that cover a broad range of topics concerning the yakuza, for instance their history, structure, activities, or relationship to the police. The second kind of academic sources discuss more specific topics, such as the legal situation only. While in both categories the yakuza are described as essentially a threatening anti-social force, the general sources contextualize the yakuza better and thus present them more differentiated. It is thus and for a better understanding of the phenomenon in general advised to start with these general sources.

1.1       General Academic Publications

Most sources point out that the yakuza itself are not a unique, Japanese phenomenon. While they do exhibit “a number of unique customs that […] set them apart” (Chemko 2002), “[m]any aspects of the yakuza’s historical and current behaviour are far from peculiar to the Japanese context” (Hill 2003: 6). Thus, in more general terms, they have a lot in common with criminal organizations in the rest of the world. While not explicated by every source, the academic interpretation of the general sources that underlies them is that of the yakuza as a business. Peter Hill (2003) – who did extensive fieldwork in Japan on the yakuza based on research, interviews, and experience – argues that “organised crime exists because it functions as a business satisfying a demand for goods and services among members of the ‘legitimate’ world” (p. 6). The yakuza thus behave just like other criminal organizations in Italy, the United States or the former Soviet Union.

They “provide extra-state protection to consumers” (Hill 2003: 10) but these consumers are not just “members of the ‘legitimate’ world” (p. 6) but because of the hierarchical structure of the yakuza groups (supra-gang syndicates and subgrouping), “subgroups are consumers of the protection by syndicate membership […] so they simultaneously produce and consume protection” (p. 18). Since individual behavior of a subgroup then represents the behavior of the bigger syndicate, there arises a need to constrain behavior because “externalities [are] borne by all criminals collectively” (p. 18) and thus they have an “interest in moderating the behaviour of all” (p. 18). It therefore seems fairly evident that the yakuza have a vital interest in their public perception as well.

Almost all of these sources suggest that “the relationship between the yakuza and the Japanese society is ambivalent”2 (Kawamura 1994: 97). The related perceptions of the yakuza are further differentiated on two distinct levels, which Kawamura (1994) calls the “ideational level and level of actual contact”3 (p. 104).

The first level, the ideational, is based on the “self-concept”4 (Kawamura 1994: 104) of the yakuza who relate themselves to the noble Way of the Samurai, the bushidō. She states that in movies “the yakuza are portrayed as the modern versions of the Samurai, the ‘outlaws’ and ‘Robin-Hoods’ of Japan”5 (p. 104). This “positive image”6 (p. 104) leads to an “identification of the public with this culture of masculinity”7 (p. 107) which can be explained with the “strong peer pressure under which the Japanese live”8 (p. 107). This identification and romanticizing thus functions as an escape into a world of phantasy that is further fueled by the consumption of movies or “serialized comics about yakuza9 (p. 97). Hill (2003) agrees that the positive image is usually mediated through media and notes that “gang members themselves see the flashy image and giri-ninjō valuesystem, beloved by Japanese film makers, as more important” (p. 83).

On the level of actual contact with yakuza Kawamura (1994) makes a shift towards a negative image, mostly because of the yakuza’s retreat from their “shadowy existence”10 (p. 111). She argues that their “aggressive appearance”11 (p. 111) made the broader public more aware of them which in turn “probably causes not unjustified fears”12 (p. 111). This affects potential new members as well, since recruitment depends on public perception. The sources agree that recruitment is getting harder and that “rather than being seen as glamorous, yakuza life is now perceived as kitsui, kitanai, and kiken (arduous, dirty, and dangerous)” (Hill 2003: 51)13. As to the reasons, as we have seen Kawamura (1994) attributes it to the “aggressive appearance” (p. 111), Hill (2003) supports this position by noting an “increase in crimes targeting ordinary citizens and businesses” (p. 52) and stating that

“With the diversification of yakuza into new predatory business activities, the perception of a romanticised yakuza code became increasingly tarnished in the minds of straight (katagi) society” (p. 52).

While Rankin (2012a) also notes “a shift from consensual activities (such as gambling and prostitution) toward more predatory activities (such as loan-sharking and theft)” and recognizes that public opinion is turning against the yakuza due to those “predatory activities”, it is the “infiltration of the business world” that has attracted most attention from official side with implementing several countermeasures. This shift is supported by the changing criminal nature of the yakuza, becoming less violent and instead looking for non-violent means of obtaining money.

It is interesting to note that while usually aggressive behavior (especially towards the public) is brought up as a reason for their growing negative image (see Hill and Kawamura), Rankin observes that “[i]n 2010 yakuza gang members assaulted and/or injured roughly 5,000 members of the public, about half as many as in the 1980s”. In fact, the author goes on to state that “the yakuza are among the least murderous crime gangs in the world today”. Thus, the usual image of the yakuza as being a severe danger to society is being relativized by contextualizing it in an overall view of crime statistics. Yet, it is obvious that a shift towards financial crimes is also attached to “aggressive behavior” and that physically violent behavior alone does not constitute the full extent of their potential danger. There is thus only a disagreement in nuance between the sources.

Rankin (2012b) is, along the Police White Paper of 2013 (NPA 2013), the only source to mention public campaigns against the yakuza. It is stated that “[t]he new century has seen the rise of vigorous anti-yakuza campaigns” and “loud demonstrations” although it is indicated that these do not represent negative attitudes towards the yakuza per se but more towards their potential negative (financial) effect on the area since similar attitudes can also be observed with regard to pachinko halls and funeral parlors.14 Yet, activists seem to have increased their efforts to raise public awareness. It is said that there are about “4,000 anti-yakuza volunteer groups in Tokyo alone” that collect and distribute data about “suspected gangsters and collaborators and then circulate them to estate agents, landlords, hotels, and small business owners”. Still, this and similar acts have raised concerns about being “purely discriminatory”, so while Rankin (2012b) may highlight a raised public awareness and activity against the yakuza, he is also critical of them.

Most importantly, he concedes that “[s]upport for the anti-yakuza movement is not universal” since some people argue that these only pose as “a strategic distraction from more serious problems such as rising poverty […] and chronic social inequality”. Furthermore, some – admittedly a “small but solid minority” – “accept the role of the yakuza as unofficial enforcers in Japanese society” and that they still serve as a necessary evil. This “ambivalence of public attitudes” is acknowledged by the police as well who see themselves in this context confronted by the yakuza trying to “encourage this tendency”. Furthermore, in combination with their overall image regarding their criminal activities, the author concludes that “awareness of the fundamental criminality of the yakuza does not preclude a degree of respect for their achievements”.

While the aforementioned sources had a stringently descriptive character, Chemko (2002) – who presents the yakuza as a global player that in recent years started endeavors on an international scale due to heavier repercussions nationally – adds to that descriptive part a normative one, emphasizing that “something must be done to curb the activities and the connections of the yakuza […] before they become a part of too many more areas in the world”. Although there seems to be international awareness of that problem and “it is hard to say whether or not their influence is on the increase or they are just declining”, in light of their diverse activities all over the world she puts forward an emphasis on the necessity of countermeasures.

1.2       Specialized Academic Publications

These activities and countermeasures constitute the bulk of academic articles of the second kind, namely those that focus on specific topics regarding the yakuza. These sources generally present the yakuza as an anti-social force, the distinct “bad” as opposed to the “good” represented by state and police.

One of the key countermeasures is the Bōryokudanin ni yoru futō no kōi no bōshi nado ni kan suru hōritsu15 (“Law Regarding the Prevention of Unjust Acts by Bōryokudan Members” (Hill 2003: 137)), usually abbreviated as bōtaihō, or “Anti-yakuza law” in English, that came into operation in 1992. Andreas Schloenhardt (2010) gives, in accordance to what Hill (2003: 138-146) writes, a concise contextual explanation as to the reasons of the law’s implementation at that particular point in time:

“In the late 1980s, concerns arose over the growing involvement of yakuza groups in legitimate and quasi-legitimate business enterprises. Simultaneously, some groups sought to influence political and administrative decision-making through violent interventions in civil affairs, a practice known as minbō. Furthermore, some high-profile conflicts between several gangs (sometimes killing innocent third parties) and corruption scandals in Japan led to further calls to legislate against criminal organisations. Lastly, pressure from the United States and the international community was growing on Japan to increase its efforts to suppress the illicit drug trade and other forms of organised crime.” (Schloenhardt 2010: 128)

Schloenhardt assesses that while the mere existence of the law – in light of the fact that “the organisations [i.e. yakuza] and their members are firmly entrenched in Japanese society” (Schloenhardt 2010: 131) – is a “milestone of great symbolic significance” (p. 131), he concludes that the actual implementation is faulty and incomplete. He admits that the law “may be helpful in identifying and labelling some criminal organisations” but “is of no use to act against flexible criminal networks” (p. 134). It is noteworthy, though, that Schloenhardt bases his assessment on drawing upon other academic literature regarding the law. So, while agreeing with Hill that the law fails in “reducing the many other, more overtly criminal enterprises, in which the yakuza are engaged” (Hill 2003: 167), he also makes mention of counter-positions such as from Japanese scholar Saeki Hitoshi who sees an advantage in the “fact that the Law does not ban certain organisations per se and does not create membership offence” (Saeki as quoted in Schloenhardt 2010: 132).

It is interesting to view Schloenhardt (2010) not so much as a representation of the yakuza itself but more of a representation of the relationship between the yakuza and measures undertaken by the state. More concretely, the defining lack of critical success with police operations carried out under the bōtaihō16 poses the threat of the yakuza to the society not in terms of what they actually do but in terms of how the state reacts to that – and the reaction indicates a future in which there has to be an dramatic improvement with regard to that point. Apart from the current activities of the yakuza, the author sees the possibility that “outlawed groups will consolidate, move further underground, and engage in more clandestine, more dangerous, and more violent operations” (p. 134), a pattern that was already pointed out in other sources.17

Another source that deals with legal management of the yakuza and their activities is 浦川 Urakawa (2010). Schloenhardt already notes with regard to their structure that the “pyramid-style structure […] separates senior leaders from lower levels […]” and “insulates the upper levels from criminal prosecutions as the directors and financiers […] generally do not physically engage in criminal activities” (Schloenhardt 2010: 125). This point is further examined by Urakawa who discusses the necessity of prosecuting clan bosses as perpetrators of their clans’ actions saying that the binary inner structure of the yakuza (A–B, B–C) makes it difficult to prove the indirect chain of command (A–C).

The author bases his study on observations that it is now a phenomenon more often to be observed that “under the authority of the yakuza”18 (Urakawa 2010: 145) their members profit from involvement in the “daily lives of ordinary citizens”19 (p. 145) more and more. He argues that because of the limitations of victims laying claim mostly only to the lower levels of the structure, it is at the moment „impossible“20 (p. 146) to get to the top levels effectively.

He thus sees a necessity to provide a legal framework within which it is made possible – for the sake of „support for victims“21 (p. 146), as he says – to be able to get at the top people who in the end make a profit by interfering in public life. He points out that with the current formulation of law there are difficulties in obtaining who is really responsible in cases where no regular members but a “third party”22 (p. 150) instead is involved.

To illustrate his argumentation, the author raises some rare examples where yakuza were involved in crimes against the public that were in the decisive frame of the boss and which were able to be prosecuted against (for instance the murder of a Korean exchange student who was mistaken for an alleged Korean assassin of a yakuza member, cf. Urakawa 2010: 154).

Other sources focus on some specific range of activities that the yakuza engage in, for instance the aforementioned increase in enterprise-related activities. 吉村 Yoshimura (2011) aims to look at how legitimate businesses can be protected against actions from the yakuza.

The author argues that recently “public interest in and society’s demand for an eradication of the bōryokudan has started to heighten”23 (Yoshimura 2011: 211) but admits that there exists a lack of empirical research concerning measures to eradicate yakuza (cf. p. 211). He argues that the yakuza have the same „basic strategy“24 (p. 212) as other businesses or organizations when it comes down to the purpose of existence in terms of securing financial means for their members (cf. p. 212).25 The main difference is that their method of acquisition is in their “idiosyncrasy decisively more distinct”26 (p. 212) and thus poses a clear danger as an anti-social force. Yoshimura looks at how organized crime is fought overseas, mainly the United States and Italy, but concludes that measures like in those countries – namely, targeting and prosecuting whole organizations instead of individual members – would not be effective since they did not prove to be able to eliminate the Mafia (cf. p. 220). He says that instead, risk control and management, and crisis management should be improved because they would provide a “solid basis”27 (p. 220) for further anti-yakuza measures.

Although Shikata (2006), the remaining source in the category of “academic publications”, provides a description of yakuza in the context of financial crimes, it also takes a somewhat combined stance in being short, yet particular about a general assessment of the yakuza as well as what the abovementioned countermeasures are implying. Thus, this is the aspect that will be focused on.

The author points out the yakuza’s “decreasing transparency” (Shikata 2006: 417) which can be seen by their membership statistics that indicate the number of regular members to be decreasing while the “number of associate members is increasing” (p. 417). This reflects a tendency of “changing their styles and behaviors and [to adjust] to a changing society” (p. 417), a claim that was also made by Rankin (2012a).28 The author assesses that “current Yakuza do anything profitable” (Shikata 2006: 417) which seems plausible given a more restrained public image due to the bōtaihō that “successfully changed people’s consensus, that nobody should be tolerant with and utilize the Yakuza” (p. 419). In calling the yakuza “still an important threat to the safety of the Japanese society” (p. 420) he admits to the countermeasures undertaken to be “not enough” (p. 420).

While this study was, as mentioned before, motivated by a general discussion too – and thus it would have fit into the subcategory of “general academic sources” as well –, its stance on the yakuza in general is not so differentiated and more negative.29 Thus, it is more in line with the overall negative image that the “specific academic sources” that were discussed before have painted of the yakuza.

Now that the academic sources have been analyzed, the official sources can by analyzed.

2       Official publications

The term “official publications” refers to those made by organizations that are associated with institutions like the police (as represented by the National Police Agency, NPA) or the government. Of course, in such cases a bias has to be expected so the sources should be read and interpreted with caution. As Hill points out:

“[I]t cannot be said that governmental agencies universally enjoy an entirely unblemished record of openness and honesty in their presentation of information to the outside world” (Hill 2003: 2-3)

Nevertheless, these sources provide an important aspect of the yakuza’s representation as these publications serve for the government or the police to communicate their stance on organized crime. Two sources were considered for this category, the first a chapter from the Police White Paper30 of 2013 (NPA 2013) that deals with organized crime and the effectiveness of countermeasures, and the second a governmental survey on public perception of the yakuza. While the former thus presents only the official side, the latter takes public opinion into consideration.

The NPA (2013) in their latest annual white paper assesses the yakuza’s activities mainly with regard to their biggest syndicate, the Yamaguchi-gumi. They are mentioned under a separate point and the NPA points out that “they are in a position to expand their influence to a great number of other bōryokudan31 (NPA 2013: 115). There seems to be „arising a situation of an overly concentration towards the Yamaguchi-gumi32 (p. 115) which the NPA notes with concern.

With regard to their activities, the description of activities is somewhat interchangeable between the Yamaguchi-gumi in particular and other organizations in general. The NPA indicates that its “activities to obain capital are getting more elaborate and opaque”33 (p. 121). This is a sentiment often encountered up to this point,34 and indicates that the NPA is aware of what it is facing and is admitting that (and maybe its own shortcomings) to the public.

Yet, it is stressed that civic anti-yakuza groups are increasing because in light of further infiltration of “ordinary society”35 (p. 114) public awareness and activism has increased. These groups’ activities include, according to the NPA, support and defense of civil victims of yakuza violence (cf. p. 122).

With the “dissolution/destruction”36 (p. 115) of 213 yakuza groups in 2013 (to which 1,336 members belonged), the NPA states that “[a]ctivities to eradicate bōryokudan are continuing, as is the effective execution of the Law Regarding the Prevention of Unjust Acts by Bōryokudan Members37 (p. 114)

However, as a sort of inverted point of view on the perception of the yakuza, Rankin (2012b) stresses that the “chivalrous image enjoyed by nineteenth-century yakuza stemmed in part from public disgust for corruption and violence by the police” which “confronts the NPA today” as well. Thus, it is more complex to critically assess efforts by the police to operate against the yakuza because the police itself seem to have an image problem. As further evidence for this point, Rankin (2012b) quotes “veteran police officer” 仙波敏郎 Senba Toshirō as saying: “The largest organized crime gang in Japan today is the National Police Agency” (Senba as quoted in Rankin 2012b). Several cases of recent bribery incidents are presented giving rise to the problem of “bribery and protection agreements”. Furthermore, according to Rankin (2012b), not just has the arrest rate of yakuza members stayed “unchanged in two decades”, but the actual “prosecution rate of yakuza arrestees has declined since then”. This offers a picture of the yakuza as being effective in coercing police members to either “ignore minor legal violations” or “forewarn local bosses about impending police raids” and thus shed a critical light on the evaluation of police sources.

While the NPA promotes their efforts to operate against the yakuza and the image they present of them is clearly negative, the context within which the police presents these results leave a skeptical and critical note on their representation.

The next and last source in this category provides an assumingly more differentiated point of view since – while it is a governmental survey – it presents an evaluation of interviews with Japanese citizens concerning their knowledge of and attitudes towards the yakuza. The Cabinet Office (内閣府政府広報室 2002) has undertaken the survey in 1993 but it presents the most recent governmental survey to the knowledge of the author of this review.

3,000 citizens over the age of 20 were selected by the government of which 2,166 (72.2%) were able to be interviewed. They were presented with a set of 22 questions. The questions were from ‘one answer only’ to multiple choice.

When asked how they saw members of the yakuza (Q2, 回答票2) – being able to give two answers at most – the two most given answers were that the yakuza are just „puffing up“38 (p. 2) and that they „always do bad things“39 (p. 2), with answer rates of 57.2% and 45.2% respectively. While only 1% believes they are „manly and cool“40, 34% and 10.8% of the answers given were that they are „unfortunate people who are not taken in by society“41 and that they „value giri and ninjō42, respectively.

And yet the survey reveals that some part of the public fears the yakuza, indicating that their image of them is an aggressive one. 20.1% of the interviewees said that, if asked by police to cooperate as an eye witness in a yakuza-related incident (Q17, 回答票21), they would “rather not cooperate”43 (p. 5) or “cooperate under no circumstances”44 (p. 5). The reason given in 60% of those cases was that they feared a response from the yakuza.45

So it can be seen that the overall picture – while being ambiguous – is one that tends to show a clear differentiation of an ideational level and a level of actual contact in the Japanese mind – just in line with what Kawamura (1994) suggests.

3       Mass Media Publications

While the official sources remain negative with regard to the yakuza – albeit with an ambiguous representation of their public perception –, in the last category, mass media publications will be analyzed. These consist mainly of online newspaper articles. The nature of newspaper articles is that they concentrate on the description of events, so an idea as to the public reception of those events will be tried to be inferred based upon how these articles describe events involving the yakuza.

The following sources will be presented according to whether they represent the yakuza positively, ambiguously, or negatively. It has to be noted, though, that all of these sources were written in English and some of them were published on sites of “Western” newspapers and news agencies. Thus, it has to be cautioned that these sources do not necessarily represent the way Japanese mass media present the topic and that the interpretations provided do not necessarily reflect Japanese interpretations. While foreign journalism can run the risk of being influenced directly by the yakuza,46 since most of these sources only report about the yakuza either based on non-intervening observations or on existing Japanese articles, it can be assumed that these sources exhibit some degree of non-bias. Still, the abovementioned influence on foreign journalists – be it even through the simple fact that they get to interview yakuza more freely and openly than their Japanese colleagues – can and probably does affect the general image of the yakuza in non-Japanese countries. Thus, even if these sources in particular do not fall into this category, articles of such a category are an existing element of journalism that contextually affects the way the following sources can and must be interpreted.

3.1       Positive Mass Media Publications

The first mass media publications to be discussed is an online article by Amy Takahashi (2014) published in the Tokyo Reporter but that was originally based on a Japanese article (“Feisubukku ni hishi no yo mon ga Yamaguchi-gumi kumi-cho akaunto no shingan”) published in the weekly Shukan Asahi on July 25.

The article is about the (alleged) Facebook account of the then-boss of the Yamaguchi-gumi, Tsukasa Shinobu. The article provides impressions from people whom Tsukasa (supposedly) has befriended on the social network or who have posted on his public page. It appears that Tsukasa was active with the account (cf. “I received a ‘like’ from him”), but did not post anything himself although there were public messages that were directed at him (cf. “Boss, thank you for your acknowledgement”).

However, the article addresses the question of authenticity of the account as well. The argument provided for the account being a fake is rather unconvincing, though. A journalist “who covers the underworld” believes that the yakuza would not bother about such “kinds of simple pranks” because these do not interfere with their “money-making venture”. While this might be true in principle, it is in this context unconvincing because it does not provide real evidence why the account should be considered a “simple prank” and – more importantly – because the reason that it does not interfere with their business is a shortsighted one. It is true that the account does not interfere with their business but the account, which was associated with “600” friends on Facebook, is undoubtedly at a mediating position to relate the yakuza to the public. Thus, it seems highly unlikely that an organization caring about their image would leave be a fake account that has the potential to damage their reputation.

The contrary perspective provided – an argument for the account’s authenticity – is a little bit more convincing. An “employee in the IT industry” argues that since the account was not reported for six months, it indicates a possibility of the account being real. Together with the actual postings mentioned above, this seems to make it more likely that the account was real. Furthermore, the fact that there was an account in the name of the then-boss of the Yamaguchi-gumi is presented within the context of an earlier website of the organization that was motivated by a ban of narcotic drugs.47

Although this website has been taken down as well – and regardless of the authenticity of both – the very fact of reporting about these instances presents the yakuza in a social-media environment as being close to normal people. They seem to become – remote in their virtual actions as they are – private people instead of members of a criminal organization.

The next two sources that present the yakuza somewhat positively deal with contact to civic people on a larger scale. They both report about relief efforts after major natural disasters, namely after the Kōbe Earthquake of 1995 and the Tōhoku Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011, respectively.

James Sterngold (1995) published an article in The New York Times a couple of days after the Kōbe Earthquake of 1995 that deals with the situation of relief efforts after the earthquake. The Yamaguchi-gumi – who have their headquarters in Kōbe – is reported to be handing out “food, water and diapers” and being “more efficient than the Government”. Citing other news sources as well, the government is said to be “harshly criticized” for being unable to coordinate the efforts properly (cf. “Newspapers have been filled with complaints about disorganization in Government relief efforts”) and that it starts “suffering the embarrassment” of the involvement of the Yamaguchi-gumi.

While the author is aware of “increasingly violent activities, including killing bankers” in “recent years”, he also resurfaces the idolized image of the yakuza in the “difficult years after World War II”, where they “developed a reputation as street toughs with hearts”. Although he mentions that after the police “relied on yakuza to check random street violence and to control left-wing groups”, they more recently adopted “a high-profile campaign to break the group’s [the Yamaguchi-gumi] influence”, in the context of the overarching report about the yakuza’s relief efforts, they are portrayed more positively than in the abovementioned digressions.

This impression is further strengthened by the fact that the one person cited directly in the article is “Toshio Masaki, who described himself as the secretary to the crime family’s [the Yamaguchi-gumi] oyabun”. A substantive input of this article coming from inside the yakuza, it undoubtedly is suggestive in constructing a positive image of the yakuza by pointing out that “[t]he yakuza have a sense of chivalry, of public spiritedness” and that they are “available” and have the “ability to do this [i.e. providing relief efforts]”.

It can be speculated whether this is just a PR measure by the yakuza to boost their public image or whether they are really concerned about the people – which is more likely considering that they are part of that local social environment as well. Nevertheless, their openness and readiness to help point to an overall positive image of the yakuza in addition to being more efficient than even the government – another example of an “inverted point of view on the perception of the yakuza” (see above) whereas now the contrast between the inability of the government as opposed to the ability of the yakuza leads to a positive image of the yakuza.

The next source is an online article published via Reuters by Terril Yue Jones (2011) and illustrates relief efforts (mostly food supply) from the yakuza in the devastated areas after the Tōhoku earthquake of 2011. It is being reported that around 70 trucks with supplies worth $500,000 were dispatched by various yakuza groups.

In contrast to 1995 – when, as we have seen, the yakuza also provided relief efforts after the Kōbe earthquake –, in 2011 they avoided making their efforts public.48 The article ascribes this to stricter legal measures after the initiation of the bōtaihō and to “increased crackdowns by the National Police Agency over the past year“.

The yakuza are again being presented as people who do it altruistically because they themselves are people who have to “fend for yourself”. Their work is furthermore considered not a PR stunt but “good intentions” by Mizoguchi Atsushi, a prominent and important writer on the yakuza, a position that contrasts Rankin’s (2012b).

3.2       Ambiguous Mass Media Publications

While the above sources portrayed yakuza as men of the people, the following sources provide a more mixed image of how the public is presented with the yakuza.

McCurry (2013) reports on a group-internal magazine of the Yamaguchi-gumi. The magazine is said to contain “haiku poetry, articles on the innocent pursuit of angling and entreaties to its reader to perform good works” and was sent to regular members of the Yamaguchi-gumi. It is reported that the publication of the magazine comes after “a damaging seven-year turf war” in Kyushu has ended, in an “attempt to show the public that it’s an old organisation that upholds traditional Japanese values” (Jake Adelstein as quoted in McCurry 2013). Although not publicly available, it is conceded that the yakuza “knew that the details would leak out” thus assuming it was a calculated signal towards the public.

It is furthermore argued that since in recent years the yakuza have been faced increasingly by “anti-mafia ordinances that bar them from opening new bank accounts and signing real estate contracts” (a police source in the Mainichi Shimbun as quoted by McCurry 2013), they are struggling not just with pressure from the Japanese legal system but with a negative public image as well. The aforementioned financial issues are also a source of pressure for the yakuza internationally since the “Obama administration said it would start freezing the Yamaguchi-gumi’s US assets and ban it from conducting business in the country”.

While the author uses other newspaper sources and expert opinions as well, he presents the yakuza as an organization with active interests in their public reception and although “[t]he magazine may not succeed in recruiting member, […] it at least offers light relief to those already leading lives of crime”. This indicates that they take care of their members but also that the organization is the entity in charge. This point is further stressed by the emphasis on “loyalty and discipline” on the front page that is directed towards its readers. It can point, however, to a “tendency for less loyalty between members” (Chemko 2002) as well. This would mean that not the vertical lines along the organizational hierarchies are to be valued, but more a general faith in humanity since “between members“ implies a horizontal relationship, referring to attitudes between peers. This can be interpreted with regard to the “turf war” (McCurry 2013) that has ended, pointing to the killing of peers.

In the end, the article leaves a somewhat mixed impression with only a light undertone in mentioning their violent side as contrasted by a perspective aimed at showing how they are struggling and trying to recover after the “turf war”.

Jake Adelstein – known for being the first non-Japanese staff writer at Yomiuri Shimbun where he started to report on crime scenes, thus becoming one of the most prolific and prominent writers on the yakuza in English – wrote an article in 2014 for the Japan Times that delineates an incident a month earlier (September 2014) where photographs of “several members” of Abe’s newly appointed Cabinet “socializing with members of an anti-Korean hate group”, the Zaitokukai, were exposed to the public. It is revealed that the Zaitokukai “had a tight relationship with Nihonseisha, a right-wing group that is part of the Sumiyoshi-kai”, itself the “second-largest yakuza syndicate in the country”.

The article mainly revolves around Yamatani Eriko’s, then-chairwoman of the National Public Safety Commission, involvement in the incident. Her stance towards Nihonseisha (cf. “some politicians in Japan, Yamatani included, have expressed tacit approval for Nihonseisha’s ‘patriotic’ activities”) is juxtaposed with “Nihonseisha’s other activities – intimidation, extortion, fraud and tax evasion”. Yet, although as Adelstein notes that “associating with and providing support to anti-social forces is a crime under the city’s Organized Crime Exclusion Ordinances”, there seem to be no repercussions to Yamatani’s behavior – even after she lied during a press conference about not knowing who the people of the Zaitokukai were she was photographed with.

While the author shows to be very critical of Yamatani and Abe as well,49 he is somewhat ambiguous about the yakuza. Despite pointing out the abovementioned “other activities” of the Sumiyoshi-kai, they are said to have cut all ties with the Zaitokukai after the author’s inquiry for a comment. Distancing themselves from a hate-group prompts the author to state that “even the yakuza are now willing to repudiate Zaitokukai by name”. Since this is a move which politicians failed to take – and in the opinion of Adelstein a move they should have taken –, it is not so much by the yakuza being portrayed as “an angelic organization” but by the politicians as being portrayed this negatively50 that the impression of the yakuza is somewhat ambiguous. This article thus shows that the representation of the yakuza is modified in a complex way when paralleled with the behavior of politicians (and the political sphere in general) implying a need for a broader consistency in Japan as a whole when describing yakuza and a necessity to be able to apply the same standards to politicians as well as criminals.51

The last source that presents the yakuza in an ambiguous way is an online article published in the Tokyo Reporter (2014) without a specific author mentioned. It reports on the case of yakuza members who have used an online mapping application, Google Street View, to plan thefts. Although it is a very short article, it provides an interesting and unusual perspective on the activities of hierarchically low members of the yakuza. The article states that over a two-year period clothing stores and offices in 17 prefectures had been robbed by the suspects with a total value of the thefts estimated at 152 million Yen for clothes and cars. One of the suspects is suggested to have said that he did it to “obtain living expenses”.

First of all, it is interesting that such a comparatively simple kind of crime – by admittedly unusual means – gets medial distribution. It nonetheless indicates a struggling daily life of the low-level yakuza (if the money was really for living expenses alone)52 or at least a somewhat disorganized impression of the yakuza in the sense that the suspects were likely acting on their own and not under the guidance of the organization. It is lastly indicative of the use of technology for crimes in general and raises – albeit very implicitly – the concern of potential dangers of the role of technology in crimes.

3.3       Negative Mass Media Publications

The following, remaining sources shed a generally negative light on the yakuza, mainly by highlighting and raising different scandals with yakuza involvement and connections to politics.

Lucy Craft wrote an article for NPR in 2010 that deals with then-recent gambling scandals in the world of Sumo and alleged connections to organized crime. The main allegations concern “revelations of illegal gambling and mob connections at sumo’s highest levels” (Craft 2010) resulting in the potential suspension from the next tournament or complete expulsion of many wrestlers and stable masters.

The yakuza are said to have played a role in placing the bets for the wrestlers and are criticized for being allowed to have front-row seats because this allows them presence on television in order to communicate loyalty to their convicted bosses. It is said that “sumo and the yakuza have a long and complicated history” (Doreen Simmons, a “[v]eteran sumo commentator”, as quoted in Craft 2010) because the fighting is attractive as a money-making business (in form of bets) in which the yakuza were also involved.

What were until then only rumors about “match-fixing” concretized into serious allegations when the ties to the yakuza became obvious. Temple University professor and director of Asian studies Jeff Kingston assesses that “the fact that the yakuza and the sumo sit uncomfortably close together in the media […] is raising suspicions” (Kingston as quoted in Craft 2010). This has led to NHK receiving “angry letters from citizens” who see in the illegal actions and mob-ties a heavy violation of the ethical code of wrestlers. More than that, the usual “higher standard” (Kingston as quoted in Craft 2010) with which wrestlers are commonly associated is in serious danger for it is unbecoming of this national sport to be associated with organized crime. This is one of the few sources that directly address public reactions to yakuza involvement and the yakuza are presented as a corrupting and disruptive force.

Another source by Jake Adelstein, published in 2010 in the World Policy Journal,53 is a reportage that delineates close ties between high members of politics and the yakuza throughout (modern) Japanese history.

The more recent incident it focuses on is the general election of 2009 which saw the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) winning against the leading party, the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP), that almost unprecedentedly had lost an election that year. The DPJ’s election campaign was backed by two syndicates that “adopted the DPJ as their official party” (p. 64) some time after the DPJ was founded in 1998. The connection played an important role for the yakuza since “[i]n 2007, the Yamaguchi-gumi felt its very survival at stake” (p. 68). The author goes on to elaborate that the Yamaguchi-gumi’s support reflected “a direct response to fears that a strong LDP electoral triumph would embolden its leader to act against their interests” (p. 68).54 The yakuza are presented in this context as having been subjected to “several waves of crackdowns” (p. 68) under Ishihara Shintaro, then-governor of Tokyo. And although the connection helped both parties (yakuza and DPJ) in the short run, it had serious repercussions for both in the long run.

The DPJ for one was coming under more scrutiny that revealed and problematized these very yakuza-ties (cf. pp. 68-69). The yakuza in turn were thence faced with the situation that the DPJ started to back off from them. In the latest instance, several high members of the DPJ who were believed to have had contacts to the yakuza (cf. p. 71) resigned. Under then-new Prime Minister Kan Naoto, the outlook for the yakuza to play a significant role in the DPJ’s policy diminished since Kan “oppose[d] any back door deals with criminal elements” (p. 71).

With regard to the history of the yakuza’s relationship with politicians Adelstein shows a decreasing (transparent) involvement in the political sphere, thus implying that concerns of politicians socializing with criminals are starting to get taken seriously. Furthermore, since the (negative) image of the yakuza clearly has repercussions for the politicians involved with them, it further decreases the image of the yakuza by attributing a corruptive effect as well.

The last source that portrays yakuza negatively is an article by John D’Amico that was published in the Wall Street Journal in 2014. This short article reports that a former leader of a yakuza gang, Takamizama Tsutomu, was executed for ordering the “deaths of two mobsters and [killing] another personally” after being convicted in 2008.

The fact that the execution of a yakuza-affiliated member is “rare” is mentioned very mundanely. It yet implicates a complex relationship between yakuza and the state and indicates maybe even a taboo. Still, the very fact of mentioning this incident sheds a negative light on the yakuza, not so much from the representation but from the fact itself. It can be interpreted as a sign that yakuza (bosses) who kill or order to kill are not being treated differently by the legal system as other dangerous criminals – while the conviction to the death penalty for such crimes happens, its execution is quite rare. Yet, it is a poignant case where a yakuza boss is brought to justice and thus might indicate a step towards the policy put forward by Urakawa (2010)55 since Takamizama was also convicted for ordering killings, thus implying an indirect hierarchy of orders.

4       Conclusion

The phenomenon of yakuza has been discussed by many Japanese and international scholars and media, the latter press providing more academic and mass media publications. This is on the side of international mass media likely due to the interest in Japanese yakuza as an exotic phenomenon that at the same time invites international press by being more open than to Japanese media, and on the side of Japanese press due to a certain degree of taboo and social and political entanglement.

Yet, since the yakuza constitute an anti-social force, their portrayal has mostly been negative or at least mixed and ambiguous. While it is admittedly hard to argue that all of the sources categorized as “positive” in this review are completely positive in their portrayal, they showed the greatest tendency towards a positive depiction by focusing on altruistic deeds and employing the image of yakuza as “Robin Hoods”.

Negative representations pointed out the inherently violent and disruptive nature of the yakuza as to be expected from a criminal organization. This has led to increased public awareness in form of civic anti-yakuza groups that started to voice their protest more broadly and thus underpinning a shift towards a negative image within the public.

Scholars, however, are eager to present a more differentiated view of the yakuza by contextualizing them into Japanese history and society as a whole and arguing that it is thus unlikely that the phenomenon can fully be eradicated. According to the scholarly view, the public seems to be maintaining a rather ambiguous relationship to the yakuza – albeit an admitted tendency towards a more negative image compared to the immediate post-War years.

However, most scholars argue that this is mainly due to the discrepancy in ideational and actual attitudes towards and encounters with members of the yakuza who seem to be moving away from the idolized view of upholding traditional values. Still, statistics show that physically violent encounters of the yakuza and citizens have decreased over the years so violence is either not the only factor determining public perception or – and this is an inclusive “or” – its weight in influencing public opinion can be argued to be extremely high because such acts – if they happen – tend to get more medial distribution and thus public awareness than non-violent crimes.

Yet, when examining such representations, it is important to keep in mind that not one or another has entirely correct conclusions. By weighing how each author presents and contextualizes the issue – as has been done in this review –, a more refined understanding of the phenomenon at hand can be achieved.




1 This category refers to police records or governmental surveys.

2 “[D]as Verhältnis zwischen der yakuza und der japanischen Gesellschaft ist ein ambivalentes”.

3 “ideelle[] Ebene und […] Ebene der tatsächlichen Berührungspunkte”.

4 “Selbstkonzept”.

5 “werden die yakuza als moderne Version der Samurai, der ‘outlaws’ und ‘Robin-Hoods’ Japans dargestellt”.

6 “Positiv-Image”.

7 “Identifikation der Bevölkerung mit dieser Männlichkeitskultur”.

8 “starken Konformitätsdruck, unter dem die Japaner leben”.

9 “Fortsetzungscomics über yakuza”.

10 “Schattendasein”.

11 “offensives Auftreten”.

12 “vermutlich nicht unberechtigte Ängste auslöst”.

13 Cf. also Rankin (2012a): „the yakuza lifestyle is a lot less attractive than it used to be“.

14 Cf. Rankin (2012b): “No one wants to eradicate funeral parlors; people just don’t want one near their own home or place of business”.

15 「暴力団員による不当な行為の防止等に関する法律」.

16 Cf. Schloenhardt (2010: 134): “the expectation that this law will achieve what no other law, policy, or law enforcement strategy – however harsh – has ever accomplished has not been met with success”.

17 Cf. Rankin (2012a) and (2012b), Hill (2003), and Kawamura (1994). Furthermore, see Section 1.1.

18 「暴力団の威力を背景に」.

19 「一般市民の日常生活」.

20 「不可能」.

21 「被害者救済」.

22 「第三者」.

23 「暴力団排除に関する国民的関心や社会的要請が高まってきている」.

24 「基本戦略」.

25 This again underpins the general assumption mentioned in the beginning of this review that the yakuza are a business.

26 「特異性は極めて顕著」.

27 「準備」.

28 “Changing patterns in Japanese society have erased or diminished many opportunities for purveyors of violence” (Rankin 2012a).

29 Cf. Shikata (2006: 416): “In Japan, there are more than 80,00 regular or associate Yakuza gang members, and they deteriorate people’s daily life in Japan” [emphasis by the author of this review].

30 『警察白書』.

31 「大半の暴力団に影響を及ぼし得る地位を獲得しており」.

32 「山口組への一極集中状態が生じている」.

33 「資金獲得活動が巧妙化・不透明化している」.

34 Cf. Shikata (2006) and footnote 17.

35 「一般社会」.

36 「解散・壊滅」.

37 「暴力団員による不当な行為の防止等に関する法律[中略]を効果的に運用するとともに、暴力団排除活動を推進している」.

38 「虚勢をはっている」.

39 「あくどいことばかりしている」.

40 「男らしくて格好がよい」.

41 「社会に受け入れられないかわいそうな人たちだ」.

42 「義理、人情を重んじる」. For a brief overview of these two terms, please refer to and

43 「あまり協力したくない」.

44 「絶対に協力したくない」.

45 「暴力団の嫌がらせや仕返しが怖いから」.

46 Cf. Rankin (2012b): “Yakuza are conscious of their international notoriety and welcome attention from foreign journalists, whose gullibility they exploit to disseminate yakuza propaganda”.

47 Cf. Hill (2003: 70): “[L]arge syndicates officially maintain a policy of non-involvement in the drugs business”.

48 And yet, it is rather here than with the example of Kōbe that Rankin (2012b) speaks of a “mock-heroic response”. (Although you could argue that it is mock-heroic because they were not directly affected by the catastrophe, as opposed to the earthquake in Kōbe. My point rather stresses the extent and publicity of the relief efforts.)

49 Cf. Adelstein (2014): “Abe should be held to account for putting her there [i.e. in the post as chairwoman of the National Public Safety Commission] in the first place.”

50 Note also the sarcastic introduction: “In most countries, police officers and criminals are supposed to be on opposite sides of the law, […] but Prime Minister Shinzo Abe doesn’t appear to think this is necessary. (Adelstein 2014).

51 It is interesting to note that the category the article is in is entitled „Dark Side of the Rising Sun“. It is described as “a monthly column that takes a behind-the-scenes look at news in Japan” (Adelstein 2014).

52 The article seems to omit the part where the robbed items were made to money since it is doubtful whether “brand items and cars” in themselves can be used to cover living expenses.

53 And while this initially might have qualified it as being considered an “academic publication”, since it is a reportage it was categorized as a “mass media publications”.

54 This is a clear reference to the bōtaihō and other measures that were mentioned in previous sections of this review (cf. Section 1.2) and that were implemented and executed under leadership of the LDP.

55 Cf. Section 1.2 of this review.


– (2014). Osaka yakuza used Google Street View to plan string of thefts. In The Tokyo Reporter, December 5, 2014.

Adelstein, Jake (2010). The Last Yakuza. In World Policy Journal, Vol. 27, Issue 2, 63-71.

Adelstein, Jake (2014). Yakuza do what Abe Cabinet pick can’t. In The Japan Times Online, October 4, 2014.

内閣府政府広報室 Cabinet Office (1993). 暴力団に関する世論調査. Updated July 16th, 2002.

Chemko, Victoria (2002). The Japanese Yakuza: Influence on Japan’s International Relations and Regional Politics (East Asia and Latin America).

Craft, Lucy (2010). Sumo Wrestling Grapples With Gambling Scandal. In NPR Online, June 28, 2010.

D’Amico, John (2014). Japan Executes Yakuza Boss Behind Three Murders. In Wall Street Japan Online, August 29, 2014.

Hill, Peter B. E. (2003). The Japanese Mafia: Yakuza, Law, and the State. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 323 pages.

Jones, Terril Yue (2011). Yakuza among first with relief supplies in Japan. In Reuters Online, March 25, 2011.

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McCurry, Justin (2013). Yakuza magazine – for the well-read gangster. In The Guardian Online, July 11, 2013.

NPA (2013). 第3章:組織犯罪対策. In 平成25年警察白書 (NPA White Paper 2013), 113-136.

Rankin, Andrew (2012a). 21st-Century Yakuza: Recent Trends in Organized Crime in Japan – Part 1. In The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 10, Issue 7, No. 1, February 13, 2012.

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