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Angry mobster looms large over politicians

by Jake Adelstein

In Japan these days, the political world seems to be mirroring “Beat” Takeshi Kitano’s latest yakuza film, “Outrage Beyond,” which depicts Japan’s ruling party as being well and truly in bed with the mob.

If you’ve been paying attention to the news lately, that will sound familiar. Truth may be stranger than fiction, but sometimes fiction tells the truth first.

Certainly this second film in the “Outrage” series, which seems loosely based on the rise and fall of the Inagawa-kai, Japan’s third-largest crime group, may be a little too close for comfort for the ruling Democratic Party of Japan. In the first 10 minutes of the film, an underling of the Chief Cabinet Secretary makes a covert visit to the No. 2 in the Sanno-kai crime group, and timidly voices his boss’ desire to cut ties to the mob.

The yakuza boss turns the tables and threatens that, if provoked, the Sanno-kai will cut ties with the minister and expose their cozy relationship. He wins the argument.

The film illustrates a classic mistake in dealing with Japan’s mafia: You may start out using them, but eventually they’ll use you up, blackmail you or throw you away. It’s always a losing deal.

Kitano, the grizzled veteran actor who also directs “Outrage Beyond,” knows a lot more about the yakuza, especially the Inagawa-kai, than most people. Some years ago, he interviewed the grand chairman of the Inagawa-kai, Seijo Inagawa, for a magazine. And in his 2010 book “Kitano Par Kitano,” he writes: “Japan has two governments — a functioning group of political factions that make up the public government. The other is a hidden government that gives directives to public institutions. That hidden government is mostly made up of the yakuza.”

But the yakuza aren’t exactly hidden in Japan. The organized crime groups still have office buildings, business cards, fan magazines — and political influence.

Last month, the weekly magazine Shukan Shincho exposed close ties newly appointed Justice Minister Keishu Tanaka had to the Inagawa-kai, including serving as a matchmaker at an underboss’ wedding. Tanaka admitted some of the allegations, but brushed them off as ancient history.

However, Shincho’s follow-up then alleged he had also worked with the Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s largest yakuza group, on a real-estate deal circa 2000. Tanaka hasn’t responded to that claim. He skipped committee meetings, and checked himself into a hospital. Then on Oct. 23 he resigned, citing “health reasons.”

It turns out that having ties to the Japanese mob can be quite unhealthy.

The next Cabinet minister who may find he’s not feeling very well is Finance Minister Koriki Jojima. That’s because, in mid-October, the weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun wrote that his re-election campaign was aided by an Inagawa-kai front company. Jojima has denied any connection and has threatened to sue the publisher. Bunshun is planning a follow-up. Jojima might be getting a check-up soon — or a clean bill of health.

Tanaka is actually the second DPJ minister to resign after yakuza ties were exposed. Before Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara resigned in March 2011 over a political donation he had accepted from a foreign resident of Japan, he also acknowledged he had received donations from the chairman of Media 21, a Yamaguchi-gumi front company — even though at that time it wasn’t a crime to take donations from a yakuza member. That gaping legal loophole was, however, plugged on Oct. 1, 2011, when new organized crime exclusionary ordinances came into effect.

The DPJ and its coalition partners have an odd relationship with the mob. In the summer of 2007, I’ve been told, both the Yamaguchi-gumi and the Inagawa-kai gave directives to their top bosses to support the DPJ. In other words, the nation’s current government was endorsed by more than half the underworld. To be fair, the DPJ has never publicly endorsed an organized crime group in return.

National Police Agency sources have said in confidential conversations with this writer that the DPJ’s fairly consistent opposition to the enactment of a criminal conspiracy law made them a natural choice for the yakuza.

One Yamaguchi-gumi boss agrees: “Such a law would put us out of business. It would allow the police to arrest the bosses for the crimes of the lowest members — our offices and our property could be seized, our phones tapped, our assets frozen. Of course we’re going to support any political group opposed to putting such a law on the books.”

In general, the DPJ coalition doesn’t seem to mind its Cabinet ministers’ past yakuza connections. In 2009, Shizuka Kamei was appointed as Minister of Financial Services by the DPJ coalition. He admitted to having ¥500 million paid into his bank account from a Yamaguchi-gumi boss, “on behalf of my constituents.” (Oct. 12, 1994; Mainichi Shimbun). However, he has always denied allegations of him having a friendly relationship with Heo Young Joong, an infamous Yamaguchi-gumi consigliore.

Though Kamei has never been definitively linked to the Inagawa-kai, recently it and the Yamaguchi-gumi, which used to be rivals, have become hard to tell apart. That is since 2006 at least, when the chairman of the board of the Inagawa-kai, ex-banker Kazuo Uchibori, became blood brothers with Teruaki Takeuchi, a senior member of the Yamaguchi-gumi ruling faction. Since then, the Inagawa-kai has been under the Yamaguchi-gumi umbrella.

Times have been tough for the Inagawa-kai of late. The days when they were the most powerful yakuza faction in Tokyo seem to be passing. Uchibori was arrested by the Metropolitan Police Department last month on charges of money laundering. He was not very happy about it. Indeed, he wasn’t expecting to be arrested at all.

Even then, he expected to be released immediately. And he might have been if Tanaka, in his role as Justice Minister, had just asked the Chief Prosecutor to drop the charges. And that would be fair, of course, in the mind of the yakuza. If the Inagawa-kai had indeed given Tanaka a helping hand in the past, they’d expect to have the favor returned.

One police source explained it clearly: “The Inagawa-kai outed Tanaka on Uchibori’s orders. Tanaka failed to do his job. Publicly disgracing him sends a clear message to every other politician in the Inagawa-kai’s pocket: ‘If I go down, you go down with me.’ “

It all makes sense if you understand the yakuza mind. Normally the Inagawa-kai doesn’t speak to the likes of Shukan Shincho or Shukan Bunshun openly about their political benefactors. But to one big boss, the shoddy performance of one Cabinet minister — well, that was beyond outrage.

If only Tanaka had seen “Outrage Beyond” before becoming the Justice Minister, he might have been able to keep his job. Sometimes, movies have important lessons to teach us, if we’re willing to learn.

Jake Adelstein is a Japan-based investigative journalist, and author of the best-seller “Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan” (2009). This is the first appearance of a new regular column that will run in Timeout on the first Sunday of each month.