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Yakuza (stewardmag.com)
235 points by danso on Sept 3, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 72 comments

One of main sources of income they had was debt collection. They would actually go and buy entire loan databases and pay off the money people owed. Of course, after that happened, those debts were just transferred over to the yakuza. ... Here too there was unspoken pressure.

Yeah, when I called the police regarding the two gentlemen who had just spray painted "Pay us our money or die" on my neighbor's house, as far as I know no words were actually exchanged between the two gentlemen and the 60 year old woman who was best known in the neighborhood for feeding stray cats.

Every criminal society has a rich culture with fascinating history. The ones we don't grow up with sometimes even sound romantic. They're thugs, pimps, and murderers. Don't ever forget that.

I live and work in Japan and apparently every large company has a full time employee dedicated to dealing with the local yakuza to pay for the protection money - so that the rest of the business is not exposed to it in an obvious manner.

The yakuza also acts as a form of local police. They know their quarters well and when there non-yakuza crime going on they try to suppress it as well. That's also the reason why Japan is a relatively safe place. As for yakuza-related murders, it does happen of course, but it's usually between gangs (or sometimes between political powers and gangs). There was a famous case a few years ago where a yakuza murdered an official (mayor or something) and that was on the news.

By the way, the news media never call the Yakuza "Yakuza", they call them 暴力団 (literally "violent organizations") but everyone understands what it means. There has been some recent efforts by the police to try to suppress the power of yakuza across Japan with more severe laws and prosecutions. This being said, Yakuza gangs are officially declared in Japan and registered with the authorities. They are NOT acting underground, as in they have an official status and membership registration. The Yakuza were the first organization to open street markets right after the war to sell what everyone was missing - they have powerful networks and relationships across the political and economic spectrum.

I have heard many times that for someone to become a prime Minister in Japan, they have to get Yakuza support. This is probably true (for economic reasons as well as network influence).

> The ones we don't grow up with sometimes even sound romantic. They're thugs, pimps, and murderers. Don't ever forget that.

I found this out the hard way. If you ever find yourself in a bar in Japan, accosted by a nice Japanese man who's in any way vague about his job description, make your excuses and leave. It's not an adventure, and it's most definitely not OK "because you're in Japan".

Also, pay your rent on time.


From what I understand the sort of organization we're discussing here uses google alerts to keep an eye on any online mentions. As someone who would like to move back to Japan some day and who has a very joined-up web presence, that will be all for now.


Yeah, that is true. And it is really, really weird because it is so out of character for Japan to have those criminal gangs.

Japan is so orderly, so safe. It just makes no sense.

The funny thing is the gangs are somewhat orderly. They used to have offices. You know, like if the Gambinos had a building in NYC with "The Gambino Group" on a big sign out in front. Members wore lapel pins with their gang's symbol and sported those wild tattoos, so there was never any doubt who was Yakuza and who wasn't.

The cops don't care if the Yakuza kill each other as long as it isn't in a big splashy, public way. A guy could have two holes in the back of his head and as soon as they see tattoos they'll rule it suicide. The newspapers do the same thing. Jake Adelstein said he was going to write up a murder and his boss told him "Nobody cares when a gangster gets killed. Don't bother." The Yakuza are "outlaws" in the original sense of the English word - they break the law and also they're not under the protection of the law.

They mostly made their money running pachinko parlors, brothels, extortion, and selling drugs. But are lines they Yakuza can't cross, like killing a member of the general public or a white foreigner. If they do that bosses go to jail, offices are shut down, soap palaces are raided. If you got caught killing another Yakuza the penalty used to be two or three years in jail. If you killed a member of the general public you got the death penalty.

Things are changing. They don't do the huge parades when someone important gets out of jail any more, the younger guys don't get tattoos or wear lapel pins, and many of the offices and pachinko parlors have been shut down. Murdering another Yakuza carries stiffer penalties (when the cops bother). You can't go to a public bath if you have tattoos any more. They're being driven underground. Personally, I think that will make them more like organized crime in other countries - more violent and more willing to involve normal people.

If you're interested in the subject Tokyo Vice by Jake Adelstein is a good read. So is Yakuza Moon: Memoirs of a Gangster's Daughter by Shoko Tendo.

It's not out of character at all. Yakuza is an ancient tradition going back centuries. Remember that Japan has only been the democratic, peaceful society we know since WWII. They have a civilization that is very, very old and customs that go back very far. Their governmental forms have changed over the many years, but at heart they've always maintained their core of being Japanese. They may be a democracy in 50 years, or an empire in 200, but they will always be Japanese.

The Yakuza have a special place in Japanese society. While they certainly can be classified as a criminal element, they are not wonton criminals. In times of crisis, they do help where they can. When I was in Tokyo a few years back, I always felt safe anywhere I went, even when visiting some shady areas of the city. I would never want to get on their bad side, but I never felt threatened by them.

You felt safe anywhere in Japan most likely because you are of no value to them. I lived for 6 months in a burakumin area in Kyoto, and I never felt threatened either, but that would change quickly if I had any business in Japan (e.g. a bar, club, etc...). Many foreigners like to live in those areas because they are much cheaper and not always badly located in the cities (e.g. Namba/Sakuragawa in Osaka, which is right in the center of the city). As soon as you are a potential source of money, things change. There are many stories of foreigner having to pay a 'protection tax'.

Yakuza are actually likely more powerful than e.g. mafia in the US, both in numbers and activity. The links with politician are also very strong. The grand-father of the former prime minister J. Koizumi was most likely a yakuza, and the LDP (party who maintained power over Japan most of post WWII) was founded with yakuza money.

Someone else cited tokyo-vice, this interview by his writer is interesting and sheds some lights on the evolution of yakuza: http://boingboing.net/2010/03/18/jake-adelstein-expla.html

Seems like organized crime in Japan is like their inner fascists or inner authoritarianism leeching out from their facade of democracy, especially if you need Yakuza support in order to win the presidency.

It's almost as though those millions of Japanese people aren't a clone robot army.

This was the most fascinating bit of the interview for me:

> I was extremely nervous. Since they are gangsters, I thought I should be very careful, in case I shot something I wasn’t supposed to see. But this actually upset the gang. They saw my nervousness as disrespectful. I remember one time early on this guy pulled me aside and said, “You are here to take pictures. Act like a professional.” It turned out they respected me if I was really aggressive about getting a certain shot. To not take photos was a sign of weakness.

The much-less-scary situations that I've photographed...police scenes, county fairs, fashion shows, sports game...it is almost always the case that acting like you're supposed to be there will work out in your advantage. The amount of outright aggressiveness is up to the individual photographer, but I imagine that this is why photogs are among the most aggressive in an average newsroom.

The same principle probably applies to every kind of business and human social scenario.

Just to nitpick, the bit at the end about tattoos contains a lot of BS. You can't burn them off with hot coals (unless you want to take your skin with it via 3rd degree burns), and it takes more than 100 hours to get a body suit. Just sayin. Sounds like the guy was fed a line of BS and bought it. Go with Jake Adelstein's writings on the matter as he lays it out pretty bare.

Yakuza kill people on a regular basis. Like most well organized criminal organizations they avoid injuring "civilians" only because of the attention it would draw to them.

This past weekend a man was beaten to death in one of the larger clubs in the foreign nightclub area. 10 guys walked into a bar with baseball bats, two minutes later they get into a van and drive away. They will never be caught. http://japandailypress.com/man-beaten-to-death-in-roppongi-c...

To understand how brazen this attack was, its the equivalent to walking into McDonalds in the middle of Times Square with baseball bats and mask and beating someone to death. There are police all over this area. The nearest police station is a 3 minute walk from where this happened.

Here is more on this story:

"According to the Japanese media and other sources, a group of ten men wearing ski-masks burst into the Roppongi Club Flower today at approximately 3:40 am and assaulted four men and women sitting together in the VIP room, clubbing one to death and injuring the others. The men used a backdoor entrance which led directly to the VIP room." http://www.japansubculture.com/10-men-beat-one-guy-to-death-...

According to the source material, this attack was not believed to be from an established Yakuza gang, but from a gang that has filled the void of gang violence, apparently:

The Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department Investigation Division One 警視庁捜査一課 (Homicide and Violent Crimes) is investigating the case as a homicide. On December 14th, 2011, a group of twenty men burst into a Roppongi Cabaret club and assaulted four members affiliated with the Yamaguchi-gumi Kokusui-kai (山口組国粋会), with beer bottles and blunt weapons, injuring one of them severely. The police suspect there may be a possible link to the two cases. The assault in December was believed to have been carried out by members of the Kanto Rengo (関東連合) a loosely networked gang different from the traditional yakuza, and not a designated organized crime group. Kanto Rengo is known for extremely violent assaults and because they are not a designated organized crime group, they are subject to less restrictions than the Yamaguchi-gumi and other crime groups. http://www.japansubculture.com/10-men-beat-one-guy-to-death-...

In Japan Yakuza members must register with the police, and the Yakuza families are treated like corporations. Kanto Rengo has more than 3,000 members and operates in alliances with traditional Yakuza.

I guess it depends on the definition of Yakuza, if you mean the officially registered organizations with registered members then no they aren't. But if you mean a large criminal organization of Japanese people, I think its safe to say they are.

Its also not uncommon for Yakuza groups like Yamaguchi-gumi to "acquire" a "gang" like Kanto Rengo and turn them into their regional office.

Yakuza or the traditional organized crime groups may not be hackers but they know how to hire them and they are very much interested in "information technology." In 2007, a Yamaguchi-gumi Kodo-kai boss took over Japan's equivalent of classmates.com called Yubitoma in a leveraged buy-out. It had 3.5 million user at the time. This year it was reported that a yakuza connected private detective agency had been buying phone records from SOFTBANK a huge telecommunications provider for millions of dollars. The debtor database has been utilized in large operations like the Goryokai loan sharking empire. Social gaming sites have also allegedly been bankrolled by the yaks for years. They are Japan's largest private equity. If extortion and blackmail are your bread and butter, it pays to have information.

The pictures are nice, however I could take or leave the op-ed here. It doesn't contain anything particularly novel, and ranges from glossed over to downright naive ("hot coal tattoo removal").

Having lived in Japan for a number of years, I can attest to the fact that the remarkably low incident of street crime is often attributed to the Yakuza presence. It's a notion the gangs themselves actively promote and does contribute to the public's continued tolerance of their presence.

> Most modern portrayals of organized crime have presented mobsters as a group of horribly dressed sociopaths, and rightfully so. I’ve never expected those concerned with the moral life to make a career of creatively goring people with ice picks.

Actually, people whose job involves violence and killing often take great pains to portray themselves with moral systems also called "codes of honor." (The actual morality of their activities is another question entirely.) Many crime organizations descend from feudal systems of government. The Yakuza and the Sicilian mob are prime examples of this.

> ...Shoichiro, the street boss, told me “We can get the most money out of the economy.”

One of main sources of income they had was debt collection. They would actually go and buy entire loan databases and pay off the money people owed. Of course, after that happened, those debts were just transferred over to the yakuza.

There was a highly successful US company in the 90's that bought lots of debt from delinquent debtors for pennies on the dollar and made a huge profit getting people to pay. (But they did this by being nice and winning the debtors over, not through threats.)

I suspect that much of organized crime in the US has evolved in a similar fashion to Japanese organized crime. I also suspect that the resulting corruption is a major component of our current political and fiscal woes.

> The gang made its recruits attend week-long orientations at a fishing village. I went along for one of these. There was bodyguard training, how to defend from a knife attack, stuff like that. But these recruits also rose at four in the morning to meditate. They helped local fisherman with their haul, cooked together at the end of the day. They learned how to handle samurai swords. There was something very ceremonial about it. It was strange, having these helpful and violent things happening side by side that illustrated how yakuza saw themselves…bad people doing good things.

The Yakuza are the last remnants of the old Bushido order. Bushido, for all of its aesthetics and philosophical value, has no place in modern life where competition between nations is economic and where the democratized tools of killing make violence the last resort of the marginal. Swords are no longer the tools of state. The scope of violence has shrunk to criminal life.

If you want to learn more about the yakuza, I recommend "Tokyo Vice" by Jake Adelstein.

He also contributes to the JSRC[0], a blog about crime in Japan. It seems to me like this photographer had very limited exposure to the activities of the yakuza. They are most definitely violent. Adelstein's family was at risk as well because of his reporting on the yakuza, so anything about "honor" is definitely not true. People need to stop romanticizing criminals.

0: http://www.japansubculture.com/

Yes yakuza are criminals, but the article also highlights that like many subversive organizations they also provide a number of community functions typically provided by the police (e.g. the article talks about how Yakuza communities tend to have lower crime rates; safety tends to be a service provided by the police). Terrorist organizations often do the same; Hezbollah has been a huge provider of social services in Lebanon, running schools and hospitals: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hezbollah_social_services

Hernando de Soto talks about how the Shining Path provided social services to build legitimacy in his incredible book, "The Other Path: The Invisible Revolution in the Third World": http://www.amazon.com/The-Other-Path-Invisible-Revolution/dp...

Sudhir Venkatesh also talks in his book about how drug dealers in Chicago provide similar services, in order to be not be rejected by communities inside of public housing projects. http://www.amazon.com/Gang-Leader-Day-Sociologist-Streets/dp...

Yakuza - like drug dealers and terrorists - are capable of great violence, but the photographer's point was that within the yakuza community that he experienced, violence is seen as a last resort. And that community activities that provide legitimacy is an important tool as well, in order to be accepted by the local community and also as a recruitment tool. This is definitely a common theme in the literature and my personal experience as well.

I heard once from someone whose parents lived through the Third Reich that for those years, you never had to lock your door or chain your bike. One presumes this only applied if you had the correct allegiance.

I've read Gang Leader for a Day as well, and while gangbangers might have some redeemable qualities, that doesn't make what they do any less despicable.

I think you're right that this guy was being shielded from the violence but I don't understand your objection to the Yakuza being referred to as honorable. Is it not possible to be both violent AND honorable? No one is suggesting that they are nice people, just that there seems to be an agreed upon ethos to which (it seems) everyone adheres.

That agreed upon ethos usually says when your family is targeted for your actions, those targeting them are not honourable.

They are violent and target innocents, the Yakuza should never be mistaken for honourable.

You are right of course, thinking this through - it is obvious that if innocents are targeted there is little honour in all of this.

Honour means different things to different people. It's cultural, contextual, and even individual.

Most criminal gangs are honorable, by their own standards. Many of them work like this - if you break the rules, you die. So obviously, they have a big incentive to follow the rules.

The impression I got from that book was Adelstein was exaggerating the personal stuff to add a little drama. He may have been threatened, but nothing happened.

If you tried to write the same book about MS-13 you'd be dead before you got to the second page.

There are several books about the MS-13. Here is one of them:


There's a difference between writing a book about a gang and actually talking to them. Adelstein went and interviewed Yakuza members about their business, talked to sex workers, and talked to cops who explained how things work.

The parent didn't say a book he said the same book.

I thought this was going to be about a javascript library.

The part about peoples debt being transferred to the Yakuza was terrifying though. There's a movie plot in there somewhere.

I thought this was going to be about a javascript library.

Probably because, yet again, a moderator saw fit to change the helpful descriptive title the original poster used to the single word that it is now. Sigh.

You could threaten to transfer the debt to the Yakuza if you don't pay, as a way of coercion.

The contrast from a Yakuza to the day to day reality of the mexican cartels is astounding.

If I remember correctly there is a very strict weapons control in Japan, has this guided the development of the Yakuza?

It's like a difference between a rapist and a murderer. I'm sure you can argue either side but I'd rather have them both locked up.

Per the article, it's more like the difference between a violent criminal and a white collar criminal.

They extort via threat of violence, and they do follow-up if they're not paid.

I'm sure they're just stealing company stationery.

The articles doesn't actually mention any examples of this purported white collar crime, unless you count extortion as such.

The Yakuza are less violent because they are tolerated to a certain extent. They have an incentive not to anger the public because it means the cops will have to do something. It's bad for business and anyway who wants to go to jail?

The Mexican cartels aren't tolerated at all, in the US or in Mexico. When they get caught sentences are pretty much already maxed out, so they have nothing to lose by being as brutal as possible.

Some of the images can be found in http://www.antonkusters.com/category/yakuza/

And the book! I didn't even have time when reading the OP to click through to the photogs website...he sold out the first limited edition more than a year ago and seems like he has had some already well deserved success.

Spent the summer of 2002 in Japan working for the World Cup stuff aka bar tending. I lived in a pretty shotty apartment, but two buildings away down the same alley there was always crew of dudes with Mercedes Benz that all had the licenses plates: 1, 11, 111, 1111 ... etc. I would see the cars out at the bars and clubs on the weekends. There were times when I could see them opening the door to their building: All you could see was a huge fish tank. It was cool to see, must have been one of their neighborhood gathering spots.

friend of mine went on holiday to Tokyo (UK resident) a few years ago, he told me that the Yakuza seemed to have a corporate head office, a modern building with receptionists, typists etc, is this true?

The photographer has a TEDx Talk about this project: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-y4GCM60Vak

Whatever one might think of the Yakuza - this is an amazing and interesting article, that really should get you thinking - it has gotten me thinking anyways...

I am not saying you should change your mind on any subject - but the fact (no sources, only ekianjo statement and a few others I have spoken with over the years), that "The yakuza also acts as a form of local police" and better / more successful than most "authorized police" do, is a really interesting thing.

I know that it's not the smartest thing to let police, police themselves - especially when their income is through criminal actions. But maybe it would be interesting to dig out, why their ways seems to work better than many police forces. Which, by the way, also seems a corrupt at times.

A couple of things I think is interesting to think about:

What is corruption? Would if it was o.k. for a police officer to cover over his partners (minor) wrong-doings? Then it wouldn't be corruption... Family maybe?

What makes the Yakuza better at policing than police? A harder and better hierarchical structure? The concept of honor, but in a strong "family"-like context?

Is it just the plain old simple reason: people are... lets put it nicely: eager to not cross the wrong path?..

I see these organized crime groups as like a political party/faction/gov't that simply aren't in power, at least not publicly.

Arguably, the Chinese gov't can be the equivalent of Yakuza in China, except they're publicly in power.

The US gov't also does extrajudicial killings, but is probably much more democratic than the above two groups (probably because of larger public presence).

>The US gov't also does extrajudicial killings, but is probably much more democratic than the above two groups

Why would you assume that? Did you miss that Obama has assassinated US citizens?

This is so fascinating. I had to go look for the guy's book, and luckily it still seems to be in stock: http://www.antonkusters.com/the-2nd-edition-of-yakuza-i-heed...

What does this have to do with hacker culture? Another repost from reddit. Great piece though.

FWIW, I stumbled upon this link because it was in the sidebar of another story I was reading. I submtted it to r/photography but saw that someone had posted it a few days before to a smaller sub reddit...

What does it have to do with hacker culture? It's about two businesses - organized crime and documentary photography - in which successful people have similar qualities and strategies of those in hacking and in any entrepreneurial business

> in which successful people have similar qualities and strategies of those in hacking and in any entrepreneurial business

Yeah, there's a great article by 37 signals about how to break your competitors kneecaps so that they'll be crippled for the rest of their lives.

How much is the hacker ethic about disruption? In order to disrupt an industry, it is important to understand how the established entities become established. in this case, the Yakuza, manage to retain power even though they have a reputation of criminality. According to the OP, it's through a mix of well hidden criminality and the implication of criminality, among other things, but not through outright gang warfare and ninja executions, as pop culture would have you believe.

Now as a hacker/entrepreneur, you attempt to start a competitor against what seems like a backwards thinking, complacent established company. You think your product and strategy is so obviously going to win because you think you know why your established competitor succeeds, and you believe youve one-upped them.

And yet you fail. Do you sit around doubting your skill? Do you accuse the competitor of doing something outright illegal and evil? Or do you accept that there might be things under the surface that you hadn't considered (some of which may be illegal but not to the point where it would cause actual, game changing prosecution)?

To say that the abstracted takeaways from here don't apply to anything a hacker does, even a pure coder, is an extremely narrow mindset, and is probably the kind of mind that thinks Steve Woz would be a billionaire if he never met Steve Jobs (and even Woz knows that isn't the case).

Hacking is more about literal code and computers. If HN encompasses entrepernurial strategy, then not everything about being a successful hacker can be found on github.

Organized crime is actually not very complicated or creative, which I think most good hacks are. It tends to run like this (but is obviously not limited to this line of business):

"You have a nice family/business. I'll hurt or kill them if you don't pay me money."

It's pretty easy because parents, wives, children or businesses are fairly soft targets. You can't always be looking over your shoulder.

Organized crime is less than a zero-sum game, it's a negative sum game: the more prevalent it is, the more resources it sucks out of society, and the more resources society must dedicate to defending itself from parasites.

In my mind, creative hacks are the polar opposite of that: they make something from nothing, or are a clever way to eliminate a lot of dreary work.

> Organized crime is actually not very complicated or creative

I was going to respond, "Well, neither are most established businesses" but I think you misunderstood me. The disruptors, in this case, are not the Yakuza. They are the established entities. How much actual power they have is up for debate, but not terribly important to the point. The point is that they have a seemingly rooted place in Japanese society and the question should be: How can a presumably criminal enterprise still exist in a lawful society?

The answer, according to the OP, is relatively benign; it's not "because they utilize ninja stealth and James Bond-like technology". I think if you step back from the specific context of criminality and ask the question of why any established enterprise/institution still has power/recognition, the reasons are likely to be depressingly uninteresting than intriguing or complex. Exhibit A: Most political entities and regulations.

this has 0 relation to anything here, period.

Is it interesting? Is it worth reading and sharing with other hackers? Then my understanding from reading the guidelines is that it is worth submitting. I personally found it pretty interesting.

On-Topic: Anything that good hackers would find interesting. That includes more than hacking and startups. If you had to reduce it to a sentence, the answer might be: anything that gratifies one's intellectual curiosity.

I agree it's a fascinating piece but lately HN has been a dumping ground for popular reddit posts. I see it on reddit then 15 minutes someone reposts it here.

Really? Is this what you understand from guidelines? What's your next post? "I found a very delicious and interesting recipe on web. It was delicious and I think it's worth sharing with hackers ♥." Get out of here.

Maybe the blame is this stupid, non-central ranking mechanism which makes idiots like you and OP motivated to dump such stuff here for points and down-vote any criticism that does make sense.

Such irrelevant posts are submitted to HN on a regular basis. Relatively few (glancing at the front page now, at least) ever get to the frontage or even get a single upvote. I guess your hypotthesis is that no legitimate "hacker" upvoted the OP and hey, that's a fun hypothesis to test out. The other possibility is that not everyone shares your same definition, and having to deal with those other opinions is the price you pay in participating in an online community with more than one user

From the guidelines:

> Be civil... When disagreeing, please reply to the argument instead of calling names

Wow, the article posted didn't seem totally out of place here. Your post, on the other hand, doesn't remotely belong here. Are you even an old timer on this site? You certainly don't write like one.

I run a recipe site. Maybe I can get some free traffic. lol. It's karma whoring 101. But as I said, it was a good article!

There is no significant difference between criminal gangs, governments, and corporations. Each has some legitimate aspects and some ahady ones. Governments do things like genocide and rendition, corporations do things like bribery, and criminal gangs participate in black market and gray market activity (often illegal simply because governments declare a legal monopoly, as in gambling, arms dealing, prostitution, vengeance killing, etc.)

All are institutions and create the institutional fabric of society. A society that is trending toward greater human rights will observe certain trends in all three kinds of institutions... as will one that is trending toward decreased human rights.

Why the hell was this posted on Hacker News anyway?

You. Yes. YOU. The guy who down-votes this post. You are what is wrong with HN.

I down-modded all your posts here on the yakuza story.

If you feel this much hatred about why this was posted, click the pretty X in the upper corner of the window and don't come back here.

We do not need your bile. I quite enjoyed it, and wouldn't have found it unless it was posted to HN.

You are a faggot. I hope you'll lose a finger or two to yakuza.

That was completely uncalled for, especially from someone who has shown healthy concern over signal/noise.

Oh, you're making me cry. I'm leaving HN anyway, since it's already in a downward spiral. Sayonara.

Could you be contributing to that? You do have -28 karma and have only been around for a few months.

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