Japan Yakuza

Top members of the Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan's largest Yakuza organization pictured in 1988. Pic: AP.

With the silliness of April Fool’s Day so recently pervading news feeds across the globe, you would be forgiven for rolling your eyes at this story: members of Japan’s infamous yakuza crime syndicate have launched a website urging people to say ‘no’ to drugs.

The awkwardly-titled “Banish Drugs and Purify the Nation League” website was set up by the Kobe-based Yamaguchi-gumi – Japan’s largest organized crime group, with an estimated 27,000 members.

Browse the clunky, Netscape-era website and you’ll find photos from a Halloween party; galleries of the group’s good deeds, such as the clean-up work members did following the 2011 tsunami and the 1995 Kobe earthquake; and a shaky YouTube video of members making their New Year pilgrimage to a shrine. According to a translation by Channel News Asia, the video soundtrack is a traditional folk-style song with lyrics extolling the virtues of the “Ninkyo” spirit – a masculine idol of sorts who fights injustice and helps the weak.

'Supreme Godfather' of the Yamaguchi-gumi, Shinobu Tsukasa, offers flowers to a victim of the 1995 Kobe earthquake. Pic. Yamaguchi-gumi.

If it looks like a yakuza recruitment drive, that could be exactly what it is – and this is not beginning of the Yamaguchi-gumi’s media expansion. In July last year the gang revived its official newspaper – complete with a poetry page, senior gangsters’ fishing diaries and a message from the kumicho (‘Supreme Godfather’), Shinobu Tsukasa.

According to the site, the Yamaguchi-gumi’s third kumicho, Kazuo Taoka, “held the strong belief that narcotic drugs should be eliminated from society.”

In a piece published on VICE yesterday, yakuza expert Jake Adelstein said the group believes drugs harm people, and addicts are usually dismissed. While the Japanese mafia have turned a healthy profit selling narcotics in the past, dealing drugs is considered an activity lacking in “initiative and intelligence,” unworthy of the ninkyo dantai, or ‘chivalrous organizations,’ as the yakuza call themselves.

Like the Chinese Triads or the Italian Mafia, profiteering by yakuza affiliates ranges from prostitution to extortion and white-collar crime, yet unlike those two, the yakuza are not illegal. Police tolerate the 21 organized crime syndicates, who operate like legitimate businesses with their own corporate logo, office, and even business cards. But sporadic crackdowns, aided by recent sanctions from the US Treasury Department, are gaining momentum, and recruitment is faltering. Police last month estimated yakuza membership has fallen below 60,000 members for the first time.

Adelstein, whose book ‘Tokyo Vice’ that details his life covering the yakuza is being made into a film starring Daniel Radcliffe, told AFP the site was an attempt to whitewash an unsavoury truth.

“The yakuza motto is ‘help the weak and fight the strong.’ In practice, it’s usually the reverse,” he said.