Fuji Television screened a popular TV series in 2009 called “Ninkyo Herupa” (“Yakuza Helper”) that focused on the life of a former gangster who landed a job at a nursing facility for the elderly.
Over the course of the series, he learned to follow the values that all gangsters claim to hold dear: help the weak and stand up to the powerful. It’s a nice idea, although quite obviously fiction.
The reality is naturally much more complicated, and experts say that former gangsters typically have a hard time reintegrating into society once they decide to abandon their ties to organized crime.
According to figures from the National Police Agency, around 13 percent of former gangsters are arrested on criminal charges each year, with many detained on suspicion of petty crimes such as shoplifting. It’s a little hard to celebrate any improvement in conditions when gang members are quitting their syndicates to become common criminals.
Noboru Hirosue, an expert on organized crime, has published a book titled “Yakuza and Nursing: A Study of Those Who Leave the Yakuza.”
Hirosue is not only an expert in his field, he’s also a career counselor who does what he can to help the same people he’s researching. He understands why young men join crime syndicates and why they subsequently find it hard to quit.
“I get gangsters because they’re part of life growing up in Kyushu,” Hirosue says. “I noticed at an early age that as my friends went from hanging out with gangsters to joining gangs, that we increasingly referred to them in reverent tones.
“For example, a guy called Tanaka starts hanging around the Dojin-kai offices. First we’d be saying, ‘That guy is always hanging around gangsters.’ However, once he appears to be included in the inner circle, the guy becomes ‘Tanaka-kun.’ And when he eventually joins the organization, he becomes ‘Tanaka-san.’ We looked up to gangsters back in the day.”
Hirosue’s book is divided into two sections. The first section details the story of “Koyama,” an unnamed juvenile delinquent in Kyushu who joined a violent crime syndicate in the region and worked his way up the ranks.
Koyama tells his story from a first-person perspective, offering plenty of humor and insight into how crime syndicates really make their money. What’s more, it’s all detailed in a Fukuoka dialect.
The second part of the book is more academic in nature and covers the lives of several other gangsters who have struggled to rejoin society. Hirosue put the book together this way because Koyama’s bitter experiences serves to frame what follows later, making the statistics and studies cited much more convincing. Overall, it’s an excellent read.
Koyama doesn’t suggest criminal life is glamorous in any way. It’s a constant state of meeting crazy demands, cleaning toilets, doing menial tasks and scrambling for money.
“The organization becomes your family,” Koyama says. “And you have to trust them like family. In the end, however, despite all that talk of loyalty, your fellow gangsters are more likely to betray you than anyone. And sometimes, they even outsource the betrayal. It’s kind of insulting.”
However, Koyama finds that life outside of the gang also isn’t easy. He applied for a job at a nursing facility for disabled children but was turned down.
“I respect your sincerity,” the operator of the facility told him, “but let’s say, for example, you’re working with a child who falls over and hurts themselves. There’s a strong possibility that someone could accuse you of neglect or even child abuse.”
Even after securing a job as a nurse, his tattoos led to prejudice. He encountered bullying in the workplace and while he has often felt like giving up, he has so far stuck it out.
One can’t read the book without suspecting that Koyama is still dealing with anger management issues on a regular basis.
I asked Koyama how he handled situations where a patient might become violent.
“I grow to like them after a while,” he replies. “I know that they can’t always help themselves or stay in control. So, I remember them in their better moments and then it’s OK. We need to remember the good in people and try to nourish that.”
These aren’t exactly the words you expect to hear from a former gangster but they do give me hope. Maybe one day we can see the good in all gang members and help integrate them back into society.
If you give someone a chance, they may eventually prove their worth. Naturally, society also needs to come to the party and pay a salary that’s fair but perhaps that’s an issue best left for later.
Dark Side of the Rising Sun is a monthly column that takes a behind-the-scenes look at news in Japan.