It appears the National Police Agency is serious about cracking down on organized crime.

The annual White Paper on Crime, published this year on July 24, created its first separate section on organized crime since 2008 — the same year law enforcement officials acknowledged that organized crime had moved so far into the financial markets “it threatened the very economic foundations of Japan.”

This year’s section is entitled “Progress and prospects for organized crime countermeasures.”

I’ve been covering the yakuza for 21 years but for those who don’t know anything about them, here’s a quick primer.

The police term for the yakuza is boryokudan, or “violent groups.” Such entities are defined in related laws as “any organization likely to facilitate its members to collectively or habitually commit illegal acts of violence.”

The yakuza were originally federations of street merchants (tekiya) or gamblers (bakuto). They claim to have a history that goes back to the Edo Era and still portray themselves as “noble outlaws” who “fight the strong and defend the weak.”

Some, like the Aizukotetsu-kai syndicate in Kyoto, actually do have roots that go back as far as the 1880s. And, at least for a time, many of the organizations instituted a minimal code of ethics that kept the members from committing theft, robbery or rape. Income is primarily generated by racketeering, extortion, insider trading, loan sharking, prostitution and gambling.

The gang structures are rigidly patriarchal. The “children” in the family vow allegiance to a father, while gang members are divided into older and younger brothers with a traditional ritual exchange of sake. Yakuza members used to prove their fidelity to the criminal lifestyle by getting tattoos, although this practice is less common these days.

Most groups have evolved into criminal enterprises over the years. The largest of them is still the Yamaguchi-gumi syndicate, which was founded in 1915 as a labor dispatch service and once controlled the docks in Kobe. These days, the syndicate is believed to own offices nationwide, investing in IT and the stock market.

The Yamaguchi-gumi syndicate is currently headed by Shinobu Tsukasa. Since completing a spell in prison a few years ago, he has forbidden members of his syndicate to use or sell drugs, and tried to enforce a basic code of ethics. For this, Tsukasa deserves some kudos — at least, as far as organized crime bosses go.

The government passed several anti-organized crime ordinances in 2011, making it a crime for anyone to do business with yakuza syndicates. The groups are still legal, but strictly regulated. Since the implementation of such legislation, yakuza membership has been in freefall.

Including associate boryokudan members, yakuza membership peaked at 184,100 in 1963, National Police Agency statistics show. Membership hovered around 80,000 between 1992 and 2010 before falling to an all-time low tally of 53,500 at the end of 2014, the statistics show.

The white paper noted a few recent changes in operations, noting that syndicates are increasingly moving into fraud and white-collar crimes. Fraud used to be grounds for instant dismissal but, these days, it represents 10 percent of the yakuza’s total income, the paper shows. Extortion, which used to be the yakuza’s bread and butter has dropped from roughly 10 percent of the yakuza’s income to just 4 percent, the paper shows. Perhaps more alarmingly of all, the paper shows yakuza syndicates are becoming increasingly involved in “It’s me” scams.

The white paper includes a few remarks from police officers who investigate organized crime. The majority believes yakuza syndicates are expanding their powers because people continue to support their activities (63 percent) and some can’t cut ties to members (26.7 percent). Such people may include education minister Hakubun Shimomura, who is believed to have ties with Yamaguchi-gumi associates.

In order to dismantle the yakuza networks entirely, the white paper calls on police to arrest the leadership, expand wire-tapping powers and even consider plea-bargaining. It also discusses the need to create a witness protection program and, for the first time, acknowledge it needs ways to reintegrate former members back into society.

Detectives on the ground, however, aren’t nearly so optimistic. They claim yakuza syndicates aren’t losing as many members as reported, they’re simply going underground and moving into organizations that appear to be tolerated by the government.

Where could the syndicates go from here? That’s the million-dollar question …

Dark Side of the Rising Sun is a monthly column that takes a behind-the-scenes look at news in Japan.

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