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Say goodbye to the Buddha of the yakuza

by Jake Adelstein

Takahiko Inoue, yakuza boss and Buddhist priest, died Feb. 10 at age 65. The police determined that he fell from the seventh story of the building where his office was located. When the ambulance arrived, Inoue told the crew: “I’m fine. Just take me to the hospital. I’ll walk to the car myself.” Those were his last words. There was no protracted investigation.

Those who knew him, in the underworld and in normal society, referred to Inoue as “Hotoke” or “The Buddha.” “Hotoke” is also police slang for “the dead.” One of his friends sadly joked after his death, “Well, he finally became a real Buddha, after all.”

It’s not uncommon for a disgraced yakuza boss to seek refuge by becoming a priest after banishment; but it’s usually just an exchange of Armani suits for robes and tax-exempt status. Sometimes, the robes double as a sort of bulletproof vest, because even in Japan, it’s bad PR to kill a priest. However, bosses who are practicing Buddhist priests? Rare.

Inoue was a rare breed. The yakuza, for all their talk of being humanitarian groups, are generally vile parasites on Japanese society. The modern yakuza make their money from extortion, racketeering, bid-rigging and fraud. Inoue was different; a holdover from an older generation. At the time of his death, he was the leader of a 150-man group in Shinjuku, and one of the top yakuza in the Inagawa-kai, Japan’s third-largest organized crime group.

Inoue was born in the city of Kumamoto in 1947. In his 20s, he came to Kanto, worked on the docks and eventually joined the Yokosuka Ikka, a once-powerful faction of the Inagawa-kai that was originally an independent federation of gamblers. He served for many years as the personal bodyguard of Susumu Ishii, the head of Yokusuka Ikka. Mr. Ishii eventually became the second-generation leader of the Inagawa-kai. Because of his financial savvy, he was known as the father of the economic yakuza.

Inoue was hot-tempered in his youth and went to jail for attempted extortion and other crimes. His nickname used to be “Oni no Inoue”— the Demon Inoue. During his time in prison, he became familiar with Buddhism and eventually became a Buddhist priest, yet remained a yakuza boss as well. Inoue justified his decision this way: “It’s easy to give up on the delinquents of the world, but if I give up on them who will make them better people? Who will teach them discipline?” He wrote the story of his life and what he believed in “Going To Shura: The Life and Times of a Yakuza,” published in 1996.

He reconciled the two realms as follows. Buddhism has its rules. The Inoue-gumi had its rules, taken from the Inagawa-kai Yokosuka-Ikka. Inoue worked to uphold them both. In some places, they actually overlap. The Inoue-gumi rules forbid: 1) using or selling drugs, 2) theft, 3) robbery, 4) sexual misconduct, 5) anything else that would be shameful under ninkyodo, the humanitarian way.

To become a Buddhist priest like Inoue, you have to follow 10 grave precepts. Do not: kill, steal, engage in sexual misconduct, lie, drink or cloud the mind, criticize others, praise oneself and slander others, be greedy, give way to anger or disparage the noble path.

Hotoke was not very good about avoiding alcohol, but who is in Japan? He was a gambler as well — but an honest one. When it came to running the organization, he was an absolutely strict enforcer of the prohibition on drugs. Several years ago, when he found one of his own members dealing in methamphetamines, he banished him from the organization immediately. His group gave up collecting debts and loan-sharking years ago. They stopped collecting protection money even when it was offered. One local bar owner and former patron said, “Inoue never asked for more than we gave, and he was there when we needed him. Better and cheaper than SECOM.”

A former police chief who knew Inoue personally said on background: “I can’t openly praise the yakuza, but he didn’t cause trouble; he wasn’t involved in fraud, drugs or extortion. He kept his crew in line and he helped keep the peace. He was an asset to Kabuki-cho, an area where any sort of morality is in short supply. He had standards.”

I can’t say Inoue and I were close friends. We exchanged books on Buddhism and good wine. He was a wine aficionado; he sent me imo-shochu — potato hooch — from his hometown. (It gave me the worst hangover of my life.) He was always the teacher and I was the student. I didn’t have much to teach him.

I felt I knew him before we’d even met. In the early ’90s, my mentor, Detective Chiaki Sekiguchi of the Saitama Police Department, recommended Inoue’s autobiography to me as “a good introduction to the yakuza, how they used to be, why they are tolerated, and how they will never be again.” By the time I actually met Inoue, Sekiguchi was a hotoke himself. Cancer.

Inoue was one of the first generations of yakuza to move from outlaw to law-abiding businessman. He was a smart investor, running restaurants, allegedly owning over 10 buildings, taking in legitimate revenue to keep his organization together. He followed the advice of his former boss. Mr. Ishii once told him, “Be a yakuza that pays taxes.” He paid taxes; he was generous with his wealth. He made charitable donations quietly and without great fanfare.

Inoue understood that the yakuza world was changing for the worse and that he was out of date. In his autobiography he wrote, “Yakuza unable to collect traditional revenue are turning to drugs; they’ll do anything to make money, even rob each other.” He wanted to return the yakuza world to its ideals but realized that all he could do was “make sure my group follows the rules and make them understand that we are all judged and eventually pay for what we do. The universe has its karma police.”

I wish that were true. Sometimes, it seems like the karma police are on strike in this realm.

There’s a saying in Japanese: “Jigoku ni Hotoke (To meet the Buddha in hell).” It refers to the good fortune of finding an ally in the worst of circumstances. Considering how I’ve lived my life so far, I hope it applies to the metaphysical world. I hope The Buddha comes to visit me on the other side. I’ll need some help in making my jailbreak.

  • R-Cynic

    Fascinating… a truly unique individual and.a man who understood that a person can only influence ones self, not the world. By doing that one may try to create a better world through example. Im going to read his book now, how interesting!