The yakuza have long played a powerful, if often unseen, role in society. Romanticized in literature and film as noble outcasts replete with punch-perms, extensive tattoos and severed pinkies, the underworld is one of archaic language and secretive rituals and customs as well as extreme violence and intimidation.

The introduction of antigang laws in 1993, however, has made it tougher for the yakuza (known in legal terminology as “boryoku-dan”) to operate as openly as they once did. Nevertheless, through legitimate businesses and ever more sophisticated extortion methods, the mob continues to thrive.

Though it has now subsided, a recent war in Tokyo between the two largest crime syndicates — the Yamaguchi-gumi and Sumiyoshi-kai — has returned the yakuza to the spotlight. Following are some basic facts about these organized crime gangs:

How many yakuza are there?

The exact number of yakuza is unknown. Police estimate there are 40,000, but unofficial counts by experts tally as many as 80,000. The National Police Agency designates 21 yakuza organizations as violent gangs, but they are not the total number — merely those designated as the most dangerous.

Which are the biggest mob syndicates?

The Kobe-based Yamaguchi-gumi, with 20,000 registered members and perhaps another unofficial 20,000, is the largest and strongest syndicate.

Consisting of 99 directly affiliated gangs, the Yamaguchi-gumi has been led since August 2005 by Kenichi Shimoda, alias Shinobu Tsukasa, who also heads the Aichi Prefecture-based Kodo-kai.

In late 2005, Shimoda began serving a six-year prison term on a firearms violation, and the de facto head of the gang is now said to be Kiyoshi Takayama, Shimoda’s most trusted lieutenant and another Kodo-kai member.

In Tokyo, the 5,000-member Inagawa-kai and 6,000-member Sumiyoshi-kai are the largest gangs. Traditionally, the Yamaguchi-gumi and the two Tokyo gangs have been bitter rivals, and gang wars have left scores of mobsters and innocent bystanders dead or wounded.

What exactly do yakuza do or control?

Like the underworld elsewhere, the yakuza are deeply involved in prostitution, hostess clubs, gambling and drugs, and specifically in Japan’s case, narcotics from North Korea and China. But they also run legitimate businesses in real estate and construction, as well as pachinko parlors and talent agencies. Their presence is also strong in the pornographic film industry and borderline-legitimate “entertainment” ventures like “soapland” brothels.

The more sophisticated yakuza play the stock market or extort funds from large companies through a variety of seemingly legitimate schemes. There are also the “sokaiya” — stockholding mobsters who threaten to disrupt shareholders’ meetings by revealing company secrets. Many blue-ribbon corporations have been caught paying off sokaiya over the years.

Police have identified over a dozen routine yakuza extortion scams that they regularly warn the public about, ranging from forcing businesses to subscribe to yakuza-produced magazines, buy flowers and plants for their offices from yakuza-run firms, or purchase blocks of tickets to dubious parties or performances by mob-connected entertainers.

But this is just small-time stuff, isn’t it? Don’t yakuza have a larger and deeper influence?

From the prewar period until well into the 1990s, yakuza influence on politicians and major corporations was unquestioned. Yakuza members served as strike-breakers after the war, battling communists and unions.

They also helped organize, with government support, counterdemonstrations to protests that occurred in 1960 against the extension of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty.

Over the years, scores of top politicians and major business leaders with yakuza ties have been arrested for their dealings with the mob, and they remain influential at the local level.

Mitsuhiro Suganuma, a former Public Security Intelligence Agency official whose job was to keep track of the yakuza, told foreign journalists in Tokyo last October that Chubu International Airport near Nagoya and the Aichi Expo, both of which opened in 2005, could never have been realized without local yakuza approval and cooperation.

Aichi police and Chubu-based journalists have repeatedly said in tabloid magazine interviews that they believe one of the major reasons Kodo-kai leaders took the helm of the Yamaguchi-gumi, which has traditionally chosen its top people from the Kansai region and western Japan, was because the Kodo-kai is, thanks to the more prosperous Chubu economy, the wealthiest gang in the syndicate.

So just how much money do the yakuza control?

Based on police statistics, economist Takashi Kadokura, who has written two books analyzing Japan’s underground economy, estimates that in 2004 the yakuza’s illegal income was between 1.07 trillion yen and 1.6 trillion yen. The amount the yakuza receive through legal means is unknown.

What’s the difference between the yakuza and the rightwing?

While cynics say “not much,” there are differences. Many yakuza are Korean or Chinese residents of Japan or hail from the “buraku” communities, Japan’s traditional, but technically former, outcasts. For this reason, they deplore the xenophobic and racist attitudes of the rightwing movement.

One such reported Yamaguchi-gumi-linked mobster of Korean descent, Hiroyuki Jo, made headlines in April 1995 in a scene reminiscent of Jack Ruby in Dallas in 1963. Jo, due to his “outrage” over Aum Shinrikyo’s sarin attack on Tokyo’s subway system, fatally stabbed the cult’s science chief, Hideo Murai, in front of a swarm of reporters. Tabloids reported that Jo actually wanted to silence Murai before he could reveal how the sect had been making narcotics and guns for the mob.

Other gangsters, especially Kansai yakuza who prefer business to politics, view the rightwingers as fanatics unable to respect those whose views differ from their own — bad business partners, in other words.

Freelance journalist Manabu Miyazaki, the son of a Kyoto yakuza leader, has written that his father admired the communists for their defense of ordinary workers, if not for their views on capitalism.

The late Tokutaro Takayama, who headed the Kyoto-based Aizu Kotetsu-kai and was a Korean national by birth, once told The Japan Times that, unlike many rightwingers, yakuza understood the racial discrimination suffered by resident Koreans.

How have things changed since the antigang laws came into effect?

The two big changes are (1) the yakuza have adopted a much lower public profile; and (2) police and the yakuza do not exchange information as they once did.

Yakuza writers and apologists partly blame the rise in crimes committed by foreign gangs that have set up in Japan since the early 1990s on the lack of behind-the-scenes information exchanges between yakuza and police.

Why are yakuza still tolerated in this day and age?

There remains a widespread belief, especially among older Japanese, that despite their occasional violence, the yakuza serve two useful purposes as a “necessary evil.”

The first is to engage in businesses that cater to basic human needs in a way that respects the harmony of society far less than would otherwise be the case if the yakuza did not exist. The second reason is a belief that the yakuza provide order, discipline and self-esteem to those individuals who would cause even more trouble if they were not yakuza.

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