The Yakuza – Or, What Do You Mean I Can’t Take A Picture?

“Please don’t take a photo!” I was scolded as I raised my camera.

“Why not?  What’s the problem?” I stubbornly questioned.

“I brought you here because you asked me to.  Not because I want to get into trouble.  Let’s keep walking.”

Jeez.  It wasn’t like I was hauling some hulking 35mm Nikon but a small point and shoot camera.  What was the big deal, anyway?

“They’re yakuza.  They don’t like to have their picture taken,” my guide-for-the-day nearly hissed.

That was the point.  It was precisely what made them so interesting—that, and the fact that they looked like a Japanese version of the rat pack.

I had a day off in Kyoto and there was a lot of ground to cover.  I had to see Nijo Castle, the Golden Pavilion, Kiyomizu-dera and, of course, the local yakuza headquarters.  It wasn’t as though the building was some sort of secret.  The place looked like a car dealership with a legion of black Mercedes, Lexus and Hummers.  The autos were guarded by a legion of tough guys in shiny black suits with pomaded hair and sunglasses.  They stood like statues with their hands neatly folded in front of them.

“How about I just take a picture of the building?” I persisted.

“No!” my tour guide panicked.

Hmm—my reputation must have preceded me to Japan.  My tour guide wasn’t taking any chances.

“Do they really think no one knows who they are?  It’s not as if they’re keeping a low profile,” I remarked.

But then, being a secret society isn’t what the yakuza are about.  In fact, they’re one hell of a large syndicate.  According to my guide, there are close to 100,000 active members divided into 2,500 families.  Oh yes, and lots of businesses are run by the yakuza.  There are over 800 yakuza front companies just in Tokyo.  These include investment and auditing firms and pastry shops.

“Some of their members are graduates from the University of Tokyo and University of Kyoto and are doctors and lawyers.  Many can speak three or four languages.  They’re very good with business,” my guide said with a touch of pride.

Not only are they heavily involved in pornography, sports, illegal gambling, nightclubs, loan sharking, smuggling, money laundering, narcotics, entertainment, tourist scams, gunning running, construction, slavery and prostitution rings but have close ties to the Japanese real estate market and banking.  Talk about your savvy businessmen.

But best of all is their association with the corporate world.

“Mitsui and Mitsubishi Corporation have good relations with them and the yakuza help to run the stock exchange.  They are shareholders and control a lot of businesses that way,” my guide explained.

Uh huh.  In reality, the yakuza deal in a form of extortion known as sokaiya.  It’s a protection racket.  And let’s not forget about blackmail.  The yakuza will dig up embarrassing information on a company and its leaders, be it tax evasion, unsafe factory conditions or secret mistresses.  The company then pays to keep the scandal from being made public.  It’s common enough that payoffs are included as part of their annual corporate budget.

It seems the underworld syndicate not only plays an important role in business; the group is also officially registered with the police.  My guide confided that members speeding by in their luxury vehicles are never stopped by the police and given a ticket.  Who wants to deal with an angry guy covered in tattoos that many times has a digit of his little finger missing?

Oh, didn’t I mention that?  Members, who fail to properly carry out their duty or embarrass their compatriots, make amends by cutting off a knuckle of their finger.  The severed portion is then offered to their boss as an apology.  Make too many mistakes and you’re going to find yourself having a hard time holding a pen.

Wait a minute!  How does all this relate to the butterfly trade, anyway?

Kojima learned the fine art of smuggling in his younger days by doing some odd jobs for the yakuza.  Hey, it certainly helped to pay the rent.

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