Feature Articles

April 2000

Sayonara, Don Corleone

By John William Tuohy

John William Tuohy is a writer who lives in Washingon, D.C.

A 61-year old, slightly overweight, underboss of an enormous and powerful mob family was sitting in a popular coffee house inside a swanky hotel with two of his top lieutenants. The conversation covered the same old ground, how the younger hoods coming into the ranks didn't understand the old traditions, they didn't respect anything, how unfair the constant negative press and government pressure used against them was. Suddenly, two men in dark suits ran into the shop, drew revolvers from inside their expensive suit coats, and released a volley of shots into the underboss and his lackeys, hitting them in the head, neck and knees. The underboss was killed instantly.

A mob hit in Manhattan?

Nope. It's a rub out in Tokyo's exclusive Oriental Hotel, and the underboss in question was Masaru Takumi, the second ranked man in the 18,000 member Yamguchi-gumi, a national crime syndicate and the head of a 1,700 member-gangster group based in nearby Osaka.

The Yakuza is the oldest organized criminal organization in the world. According to legend, a legend the hoods readily endorse and spread, as early as the 17th century, the Yakuza were already organized as itinerant gamblers, peddlers, soldiers of fortune and roving bandits. The group evolved into their current status as gangsters in the 19th century when they took control of traditional vices, prostitution, gambling, liquor distribution, and entertainment. In the 1860s, Japan transformed itself into an industrial nation, the Yakuza followed. It took over large segments of the construction and shipping dock industries and flooded those markets with gambling. The organization also began to dabble in politics in hopes of receiving official sanction, or at least a relief from official harassment. Deals were worked out, and eventually the Yakuza provided muscle and murder for various paramilitary secret societies that dominated the nation's political scene.

In the 1930s, when the Japanese ultranationalists took over, the Yakuza played a role in the several coups d'etat, the assassination of two prime ministers and two finance ministers, repeated attacks on politicians and industrialists, and ran a terrorist organization in occupied Manchuria. During the second world war, the classical Japan, Inc. arrangement between the Yakuza, industrialists and the military produced the profitable Opium Monopoly Bureau, which was, in effect, a legalized dope peddling business between the military government and the hoods. The Bureau's narcotics sales helped to raise funds for the Japanese war effort and distributed high grade dope to make the subjected populations more pliable to Japanese occupation. Its interesting, that several large Japanese firms still in existence today, including Mitsui and Suzuki were involved with the Opium Monopoly Bureau.

Also during the war, the Yakuza, in cooperation with the Japanese military machine, ran thousands of brothels for Japanese soldiers, kidnapping and forcing hundreds of thousands of Korean women into prostitution, or "comfort women" as they were called. The relationship between big business and the Yakuza continues today. Over the past thirty years, the group has acted as "jiageya," or literally "land turners," for huge national real estate conglomerates that are actively buying up Japan's limited real estate market. The hoods will visit small, family owned businesses who operate in the shadows of high-rise buildings in a downtown area and "persuade" the owners to sell their shops. Persuasion can, and often does, include blackmailing, threats, demolition, or arson.

About five years ago, the Yakuza decided to stop working for the massive real estate investment concerns and entered real estate and commercial development business on their own. Of course, true to gangster form, they didn't use their own cash, they got the money from legitimate investment banks as loans, and, in no small measure, the Yakuza is responsible for the 200 trillion yen ($1 equals 129 yen) in bad loans that have brought the Japanese economy to its knees. This year, thirty executives from top corporations were indicted for paying off other mobsters by arranging 93 million dollars in bad loans to them and then taking a kickback on the money. Another trick they use to get the loans pushed through is old-fashioned extortion. Now that the bottom has fallen out of the risky loan business, the Yakuza started the new century by opening a new market, dumping dangerous and illegal industrial waste and hazardous refuse around Japan for big money paid out by massive corporations. By February of this year alone, the Japanese national police have closed in on no less than 75 dumping operations and arrested 74 hoods. And, in a case of the dog biting the hand that feeds it, a member of the Yakuza recently pleaded guilty to extorting tens of millions of dollars out of the country's top financial institutions, by practicing "sokai," threatening to disrupt their shareholders' meetings.

The American occupation forces in post-war Japan saw the Yakuza as a threat and clamped down on the group for four solid years. The reality was that the clampdown did little to diminish the mob's power, in fact, if nothing else, it may actually have made them stronger when it rationed food in Japan, causing a boom in the Yakuza controlled black market. Realizing they could never bust up the power of Yakuza, the military occupation government reached an accommodation with the gangsters; they would be left alone by the American military, but they would have to provide intelligence information, controlled labor unions and oppose Japan's then growing communist movements. It was at this time that the Yakuza's appearance became greatly influenced by American film, a fact the membership freely admits to. They don sunglasses, expensive dark suits and white shirts, black shoes and, starting in the 1960s, crew cuts.

In the 1950s, the organization, like the American Mafia, exploded in growth. Between 1958 and 1963, the number of Yakuza members rose by over 150%, to 184,000 members, larger at that time than the Japanese Army. And the structure of the Yakuza is militaristic in its makeup. The head of the clan is the oyabun (supreme boss). He actually resides at the gang's national headquarters in the city of Kobe. Sitting beside him is his senior advisor, or Saiko Komon, or a senior advisor. The Saiko Komon is given 15 sub- gangs under his control, encompassing some 439 members. The head of the supreme bosses bodyguard detail, called the "so-honbucho" or "headquarters chief" is given six gangs, or 108 members. The underboss, or Wakagashira, controls 941 members in 41 gangs. His assistant, or fuku-honbucho, has eight gangs, 164 members. Under him are various komon (advisors), shingiin (counselors), kumicho hisho (kumicho's secretaries), kaikei (accountants), and wakagashira-hosa (underlings of the second-in-command). The number three man in the operation, the Shateigashira, has four gangs consisting of 111 members under his control. Also under him are 102 senior bosses ("younger brothers") and numerous junior leaders (wakashu, "young men"), making up some 750 gangs with 31,000 members.

By 1965, there were 5,200 Yakuza gangs operating throughout Japan, each gang staking out its territory in the tiny country. As a result, bloody and violent gang wars between them were inevitable. It was at this point that Yoshio Kodama, "The Godfather of vision" came to power and brought the warring factions together. A lifelong hood, Kodama, was jailed by the American forces that occupied Japan, because in the late 1930s and early 1940s, he worked as an espionage agent for the Japanese government in East Asia. He later worked on a major secret operation to obtain strategic material needed for the Japanese war effort.

By the end of the war, at age 34, he had obtained the rank of rear admiral, and was an advisor to the prime minister. But, at war's end, he was rounded up with other government officials, placed in Sugamo prison, an exclusive jail that held former cabinet officers, military, and ultranationalists who had built the war machine. To secure his release, Kodama made a deal with the occupation forces to spy for them and act as the principal go-between for American Intelligence and the Yakuza.

In the early 60s, Kodama wanted the Yakuza gangs to join into a national syndicate; at the same time he needed to break the power of Japan's most powerful faction, the Kanto-Kai. The alliance he put together not only broke the Kanto-Kai group, it still exists today. In the early 1970s the new Yakuza Inc. moved into the narcotics trade and in recent years stepped up their trade in firearms and other contraband.

In the 1980s, the group went worldwide, although it has been active in the US since at least the mid 1950s, when Chicago's super pimp, Charlie Fischetti, and his brothers discovered they could sell a blonde haired, blue- eyed American prostitute to their Japanese counterpart for a small fortune.

Ever since then, the Yakuza has been farming the American market, recruiting both Asian and Caucasian women to work in Japan, using the ruse of .well-paying jobs as "entertainers." Once the girl is in Japan, the hoods take her passport, limit her movements and dock her pay to cover exorbitant charges for room, board, laundry, protection, etc. To pay off their capturers, the girls usually agree to turn to prostitution. The fact is, sex is a main source of income for the Yakuza and always has been. The Yakuza, for all their posturing and yammering about honor and integrity, are nothing more than kiddie pimps, Shoguns of perverted sex. Thanks to them, Japan has become a major contributor to the flood of child pornography and child prostitution in today's world. The gangsters bring in thousands of children and young women from other Asian countries and condemn them to a life in the sex centers of Tokyo and other points in the Orient. Most of the women and children used in the industry are kidnapped from rural areas of the Philippines, although Korea is also a favorite recruiting ground for the hoods.

According to a recent investigation by the Italian government, the Yakuza's child pornography and prostitution rings are active in at least ten industrialized nations. It also found that the group is working closely in those countries, especially in the United States, with Snake Head, a Chinese Triad that deals in the trafficking of drugs and illegal immigrants between China and the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. The Snake Heads are known to pay poverty stricken rural Chinese families as little as $5,000 for a female child. Aside from a profitable working relationship with the Snake Heads and other Chinese mobs, the Yakuza has also formed agreements with organized crime groups from Sicily, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Russia, Jamaica, Columbia and the United States to work in prostitution, selling stolen computer chips, narcotics, children and weapons. Yet, while the dark shadows of the Yakuza sun rises west, its reputation as the most corporate outfit in the world is taking a beating back home. Recently in Japan, the word "Yakuza" has come to encompass almost anything and anyone dealing with the underworld, a fact that greatly annoys the true members of the Yakuza who prefer to see themselves as proud inheritors of a long historical tradition.

Another factor that the Yakuza has to concern itself with is the growing power, within their own closely guarded backyard, of the Korean and Chinese Mafia groups. Although the Chinese seem content to limit their work to Tokyo's enormous sex industry, the Koreans are far more aggressive and more prone to use violence when expanding their reach into other markets. Also, the Japanese government has implemented their version of RICO, but without the niceties of not trampling on civil rights.

The future looks bleak on other fronts as well. More and more, police officials are taking calls from Yakuza members who want to leave the operation, something that was completely unheard of just a decade ago. The defections problem within the Yakuza is so widespread that sixty major Japanese corporations have developed a sort of witness protection program for Yakuza that want to leave the life and go straight.

Often, the outfit's military-like regime that it exercises over its men, and their family members, is responsible for the recent wave of desertions. It is also thought to have led to one of its members suffering a mental breakdown earlier this year and spraying nausea inducing fumes in crowded train stations which sent over 500 commuters to hospital. To make up for these defections from the ranks, the hoods have recently started to recruit its members for the "bosozuku," or "speed tribes," what we call youth street gangs. However, these latest recruits are highly undisciplined and care little for the traditions of the past.

The Yakuza's plan to continue to hide their assets in the United States through shell corporations isn't going all that well either, since it appears that the FBI and other federal agencies are much more savvy in figuring out cash mazes than the bosses had given them credit for. But those are only chinks in their considerable armor. The Yakuza will be with us for a long time and will probably outlast the American Mafia. They remain in power because of the intricate structure of Japanese society, which is filled with several very large, very powerful, but very mainstream, secret societies, in which membership often overlaps. As a result, the line between the legal world, the underworld, and the middle world, are blurred, and, to the outsider, Japan seems forever embroiled in another messy mob scandal involving sweetheart deals and kickback schemes. The Yakuza doesn't mind the bad publicity it gets from being accused of bribing a high government official, because they know it diverts attention away from their real money maker, selling the souls of those wretched and abused children into our borders to be molested.

Mr. Tuohy can be reached at

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