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Organized crime syndicates are not fading away, they’re just becoming obsolete.

Lawyer Hideaki Kubori and journalist Atsushi Mizoguchi, the country’s leading expert on the powerful Yamaguchi-gumi gang, held a news conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo on Oct. 20.

While the recent breakup of the Yamaguchi-gumi led discussions, Kubori and Mizoguchi provided a succinct outline of the yakuza syndicates’ decline.

“At first, they were parasites swarming to collect money whenever there was a bankruptcy. They were especially active before the ’80s,” said Kubori, who has 45 years’ experience in dealing with yakuza-related issues.

Kubori noted the syndicates’ ties to gangsters known collectively as sōkaiya (specialized racketeers that extort money from companies by threatening to publicly humiliate management boards at annual shareholders meetings).

In 1982, Kubori said, the government enacted legislation that banned payoffs to sōkaiya. In 1992, the country’s first anti-organized crime laws were enacted but had little effect. In 1997, however, the Tokyo Prosecutor’s Office arrested executives of a major securities firms for paying off gangsters and their associates, a move that Kubori said made large corporations sit up and take notice.

Beginning in 2009, the police began to crack down on the gangs, and prefectural bodies began drafting anti-organized crime ordinances. By Oct. 1, 2011, such legislation had been enacted by local governments nationwide, making it illegal to work with gang syndicates.

Ultimately, Kubota said, the consequences were devastating for organized crime syndicates. Any time someone takes out a loan, rents an apartment or even opens a bank account, applicants must acknowledge they do not have any ties to organized crime. If subsequent ties are identified, the police can — and often do — arrest applicants on suspicion of fraud. Life as a gangster in Japan has become something of an inconvenience.

Mizoguchi noted that organized crime syndicates no longer engage in gang wars because, legally speaking, the leaders of the gang are held liable for any damages incurred. What’s more, syndicates are failing to recruit the country’s youth.

“Youngsters aren’t joining yakuza syndicates,” Mizoguchi said. “They’d rather remain outside the gangs in a gray zone where they can put profit first. I can’t see this new generation of criminals getting involved in a gang war, and they certainly wouldn’t want to use firearms. At the worst, they might use a metal bat or beer bottle to bash their opponents into submission.”

Both Kubori and Mizoguchi agreed that local authorities now need to target organized crime leaders for tax evasion. For example, police in Fukuoka arrested Satoru Nomura, head of the Kudo-kai, on June 16 on suspicion of not paying income tax on his earnings. “The (Yamaguchi-gumi) split will ultimately weaken the power of organized crime syndicates,” Kubori said. “As the country’s economy expanded so did the yakuza. Now, however, the domestic economic situation has changed.”

Gangsters themselves aren’t seeing many advantages to working in a syndicate. “We can’t even wear our badges in public,” a low-ranking member in the Inagawa-kai, the third largest crime syndicate, told me earlier this year.

“We can’t show people business cards with the organization’s logo on it. It’s like paying for a McDonald’s franchise without being able to use the golden arches — what’s the point? The brand no longer encourages people to pay up or earns respect. It’s a liability, not an asset.”

A number of former gangsters agree. “Organized crime syndicates used to be thought of as a necessary evil,” Satoru Takegaki, a former Yamaguchi-gumi leader, told me in September. “Now they’re just evil. They are no longer even necessary.”

Takegaki now runs Gojin-kai, a nonprofit organization that specializes in rehabilitating former gangsters.

He said anti-gang legislation had made life for many low-level yakuza members economically unfeasible. Many are quitting but have few alternative opportunities, Takegaki said. Many of them are poorly educated and lack discipline.

Takegaki helps many find work in the salvaging industry, dismantling obsolete electrical equipment. Still, he said, the country’s lawmakers need to provide better assistance to former gangsters who end up on welfare.

“Dismantling a refrigerator is easy once you know how to do it but you have to careful, as dangerous materials are often involved,” he said. “The government is dismantling organized crime syndicates with no plan on what to do with the mess that is left behind. That can’t be good.”

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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