News & opinion on Greater China and the even Greater Beyond: by Biff Cappuccino.

Monday, April 25, 2005

More notes on: Yakuza: Japan's Criminal Underworld by David Kaplan (2003)

This month I'm crash-coursing aspects of Japanese culture. We've all heard about the yakuza, sometimes called yakuzaks. While spending a couple of months in Japan a decade ago or so with an ex Japanese girlfriend, one day we were in a run-of-the-mill shopping plaza and I saw a middle-aged dude in a Hawaiian shirt and a perm. I lifted my arm and pointed to him and asked my girlfriend as he was a yakuza. At that point I'd been rubber-necking for one like an ethnologist whose grant money is about to run out. It had been a month at that point, and yakaza on the street were as rare as stuffed Ainu in the local natural history museum. My ex slammed my arm down and more or less heatedly said the following: “Never, never ever do that again! If you point at him and he curses you, you must apologize. If he slaps you across the face, you must apologize. If he beats you to a pulp, you must apologize. If he shoots you, you must apologize. No one will help you. The police will pretend they saw nothing. You're on your own. No protection.”

Later on, in the southern part of Honshu in the middle of nowheresville, I saw a couple of tanned pale-faces, Israelis, walking down the street. I said hi and asked them what was up. The one who spoke better English and who didn’t have a scowl said they were tramping around Japan, taking in the sights, and paying for their expenses by selling novelties on the street. Having heard the Jewish Mafia regulated foreigners busking and selling junk on the street, I asked about the yakuza. He said that whenever he came into a new town, he and his friend would slap their widgets down on a prospective busy sidewalk. Within 15 minutes, a black sedan would show up and they would be ordered to get in. They would be whisked off to make an appearance before the local chieftain who would ask what the hell they were doing. They would show them their card of introduction from an even bigger chief in Tokyo and then be issued with a pass good for one or two days relief after which they were to get the hell out of town.

Here in Taiwan, the mafia seems to have gone mostly legit. They've moved into for-profit business. And the sort of Japanese-style political assassination or business vendetta is rare; and in Taipei it seems to be nonexistent. A friend who’s an ADD bar fly and party animal spent three years in his southern one horse town before discovering that most of his pals were gangsters. So, quite a different beast down here.

From page 148: aside from a handful of reports on the yakuza, for years Western accounts about crime in Japan has been generally awash with praise for the police. Such points are usually made for good reason. The Japanese police in general do have a high standard of discipline, and violent crime is far lower than in the United States. A country with half the population of the US, Japan had only 1, 282 murders in 1997. (There were 769 that year in New York City alone, and 15,289 in the United States - a 31 year low.) According to official statistics, Americans are 22 times more likely to be raped, and five times more likely to be victimized by property crime. Perhaps most striking of all is the fact that from 1948 to 1973, official crime totals in Japan followed a downward curve. In other words, during a period of unprecedented economic and urban growth, while crime rates in America shot upward, those in Japan actually went down.

From the same page however: Other apparent victims of police misconduct are Japan's numerous immigrant workers; Japanese cops are by now notorious for ignoring the plight of foreign hostesses and prostitutes, and for their often brutal treatment of illegal aliens.

I have to wonder if these two events are not related. After all, Japan xenophobia has kept out immigrants and the argument has been made by such writers as Peter Brimelow, author of Alien Nation, that immigration is the leading cause of a chronic underclass of unemployed which turns to crime. Not that immigrants constitute the bulk of the criminals, but that their existence produces a situation whereby an echelon of the indigenous population has chronic trouble finding work. This because they have to compete with emigrants who are often hardier, smarter, and willing to work for less.

Same page: At regular intervals, for example, police have staged massive crackdowns on the yakuza, hauling in some 30,000 to 50,000 gangsters and associates each year. (Sounds just like Taiwan) but while they make for impressive reading, the rates are mostly a form of harassment and, in particular, of publicity... anthropologist Walter aims... wrote that "these raids assume an almost ritual air because most of the gangsters are released in a few days through lack of evidence of criminal acts or because their offenses were minor." Ames further pointed out that the gangs usually receive warning before the huge raids, and that well before the authorities arrive on the scene, virtually all contraband is concealed and the highest bosses have gone into hiding. The raids end with a uniquely Japanese twist: so the police can save face, the gangsters generally leave behind a few guns for the officers to confiscate. In one publicized case in 1995, three police went so far as to buy local yakuza several guns which they could then confiscate. Again, sounds much like Taiwan.

In keeping with the unusual openness of the gangs, there is a great deal of personal rapport between the yakuza and the police; local cops know local gangsters by name, and there's an easy familiarity between them. Such amicable relationships help form the bridge to police corruption. Department precinct captains, for example, traditionally collect cash gifts from local merchants, much as retiring bureaucrats and company officials do with their own contacts. (Ditto)

Police, though, are drawn to the yakuza for reasons other than bribery. Most Japanese lawmen are quite sympathetic to the highly conservative views held by the yakuza.... Like their criminal counterparts, many police have only high school educations and come largely from families of modest means. Also, more than a few Japanese cops admire and identify with the gangs professed ideals of giri and ninjo, and similarly fashion themselves as a kind of latter-day samurai. These traditional values are expressed in a genre of moving ballads that frequently have yakuza or oyabun-kobun themes, and are quite popular among the police.

The authors quote a policeman who confides: "Not all yakuza are bad... I have friends who are yakuza - poor yakuza - and they are honorable, chivalrous people. They show the true spirit of the Japanese people."

Page 150: for their part, the gangs traditionally have respected the police and understand their duty to enforce the law. After a gangland murder, for example, the guilty yakuza would turn himself into the nearest police station and make a full confession. The deed having been done, he is fully prepared to suffer the consequences. As syndicate boss Kakuji Inagawa commented when asked about his gang's relationship with the police, "We believe in the Japanese police. If they say that the Inagawa is bad, then it is so. I don't want to say this, but they are very capable lot. It is their duty to watch me. I respect them. Please convey my best regards to them." (Quite unlike Taiwan…haha…)

On the other hand, the Taiwanese mafia like their Japanese compatriots share, with the local police and some of the military regulars, a confidence and boldness typically lacking in the rest of the population. In these two countries of peaceable namby-pambies, when someone grabs you firmly and looks you in the eye without hostility, just because they want your attention, you (or at least I) tend to be positively impressed. At home, it would probably be a pushful crank. Here it's that rarest of things: personality.

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