Yamaguchi-gumi hopes website boosts image

by Kyoko Hasegawa

AFP-JIJI

Japan’s top underworld syndicate has launched its own website, complete with corporate song and a strong anti-drugs message, as the yakuza looks to turn around its outdated image and falling membership.

The clunky-sounding “Banish Drugs and Purify the Nation League” website is an offering from the Yamaguchi-gumi, the largest yakuza group.

It includes shakily shot footage of members making their New Year’s pilgrimage to a shrine. The soundtrack to this is a traditional folk-style song with lyrics extolling the virtues of the “ninkyo” spirit — an ideal of masculinity that battles injustice and helps the weak.

“Nothing but ninkyo, that is the man’s way of life,” the lyrics read. “The way of duty and compassion, bearing the ordeal for our dream.”

Another video shows men with crew cuts pounding sticky rice for a New Year’s festival, and there are galleries of pictures showcasing the cleanup work members did in the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami and the 1995 Kobe earthquake.

Like the Italian mob or Chinese triads, yakuza syndicates are involved in activities ranging from prostitution to extortion and white-collar crime.

But unlike their underworld counterparts elsewhere, the yakuza are not illegal and each of the designated groups, like the Yamaguchi-gumi, have their own headquarters, with senior members dishing out business cards.

They have historically been tolerated by the authorities, sometimes with corrupt police overlooking their violence, and are routinely glamorized in fanzines and manga.

But periodic crackdowns have gained momentum and there is evidence the mob’s appeal is waning.

The number of people belonging to yakuza groups fell to an all-time low in 2013, slipping below the 60,000-member mark for the first time on record, police said last month.

An increasingly poor public image and Japan’s flaccid economy have made the lives of the gangsters difficult.

The website, which looks outdated, is an attempt to counter the yakuza’s image as “anti-social forces” — the police euphemism for them — by showing how neighborly its members are, experts say.

One page shows men collecting litter along the Toga River near the Yamaguchi-gumi’s headquarters in Kobe, with a nearby sign reading: “Purge yakuza.”

Jake Adelstein, a journalist and author who has written extensively on organized crime in Japan, said the Yamaguchi-gumi’s online offering was an effort to prove its credentials as a humanitarian organization.

“By presenting an anti-drugs theme, it shows concern for social welfare, it shows pictures of the group doing emergency relief after the (2011) and Kobe earthquakes,” he said.

He said it was true that the yakuza made use of their “ties to the trucking industry and their abundance of cash, lack of red tape and institutional memory” to provide help after the disasters.

But, he added, “there was a certain amount of self-interest involved — getting in with the locals helps them get a share of the reconstruction money.”

Adelstein, whose account of his life working the crime beat for the Yomiuri Shimbun is being made into a film, said the site was an attempt to whitewash an unsavory truth.

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

The site, with a “contact us” button, can be found at: zenkokumayakubokumetsudoumei.com/index.html.