By Jake Adelstein
TOKYO: The Japanese mafia, better known as the yakuza, has been the subject of fan magazines for decades. These magazines serve as de-facto trade periodicals for a world of vicious, autocratic thugs, men who are handy with swords and guns, sport full-body tattoos, deal in illegal contraband and laundered money, and rip off the general public; all the while funneling money and power to their families and kigyoshatei (corporate blood brothers). What may be even more surprising is how easy the yakuza fan magazines are to find: they are readily available at newsstands, convenience stores, bookstores, public libraries and even some government offices.
It isn’t a shock that this happens in Japan, where yakuza are viewed as legal entities, and they operate under the cover of being fraternal organizations “dedicated to the preservation of traditional values,” much like the Rotary Club or the Boy Scouts are in the United States. According to the National Police Agency, there are 22 such recognized yakuza groups, claiming a total of 86,000 members. They have their own office buildings or, in the case of the Yamaguchi-gumi, which has emerged as the largest yakuza group in the country and claims 50,000 members and affiliates, a compound/headquarters in Kobe that takes up almost an entire city block.
Many Japanese people, including some police officers, have great awe and admiration for these tattooed gangsters. They are seen by some as lovable outlaws, a necessary evil (必要悪) keeping the streets safe from “evil foreign criminals.” And in the eyes of the middle-aged salaryman, the yakuza are real men living the ideal life, one filled with an excess of money, booze, excitement, and beautiful women (as well as retirement packages that are better than those of Japan’s leading automakers). It is little wonder, then, that the beaten down office worker turns to the yakuza fan magazines as a way to escape and fantasize about a better, more glamorous life.
The most prominent yakuza fan magazines are Jitsuwa Jidai, Jitsuwa Jiho, Jitsuwa Document, and Asahi Geino. Other magazines, like Knuckles, are not strictly speaking yakuza fan magazines, but often feature interviews with gangsters and articles about them. Each magazine is usually aligned closely with one specific organized crime group. Bosses from the Sumiyoshikai (12,000 members), the Inagawakai (10,000 members), as well as other groups, frequently give lengthy interviews to the reporters from the fan mags. The interviews rarely touch on any kind of criminal activity, but refer to past glories, gang wars, and discussions of traditional Japanese values. However, there are occasional references to the group’s current illegal activities, which explains why the magazines are equally as popular with police officers as they are with salarymen.
The one group that does not fully cooperate with the magazines is the dominant Yamaguchi-gumi, which has taken a no interview policy with the press since the ascension of a new boss, Tsukasa Shinobu, in the summer of 2005. The Yamaguchi-gumi have allowed the press to film the annual rice-cake pounding ceremony at the start of the New Year, but almost no Yamaguchi-gumi boss has had an on-the-record interview under his own name for close to four years.
Even so, Jitsuwa Document, still heavily favors coverage of the Yamaguchi-gumi. Take a typical edition, for example, the one from March 2006, and you’ll still find the number one and number two of the organization.
Inside, you’ll find a mix of articles, ranging from the fawning to the profane: The lead story covers the Yamaguchi-gumi alliance with the Toyko-based Kokusuikai and the Toakai (another Tokyo-based, though mostly Korean, yakuza) and their expansion into eastern Japan, while the off-lead is about the head of the Nakamura-gumi being kicked out of the organization (they had apparently fallen behind on monthly dues). A tasteful photo spread features Yamaguchi-gumi members making their first annual visit to a hatsumode, a Shinto shrine, and pounding rice cakes. “Tattoo Corner” offers pictures of tattooed men and women, submitted by readers. One story ponders whether girls with small breasts have more sensitive genitalia than girls with “cow boobs,” and the reviews section looks at the hottest sex clubs, or fuzokuten, in Japan, complete with interviews with the top sex workers discussing their best sexual tricks. (Japan has odd laws governing the sex industry, which basically allow almost everything besides “normal” intercourse. Prostitution, while illegal, carries no penalties for the customer or the prostitute, but only for the pimp or brothel owner in most cases.)
There is also, naturally, some reportage by an intrepid reporter on how he was serviced at the top new club. In another, rather dubious article, a man brags about his sexual conquests of bored housewives. And the accompanying advertising features male virility cures, pornography, sex shops, dating web-sites that are merely thinly disguised prostitution rings, tattoo parlors, magic charms, escort services, and—the medicine that cures ten thousand ills 万能薬—sake!
Naturally, the magazine includes a section on “Foreigner Crimes” with the usual editorial line that only the yakuza prevent the barbarian hordes from overrunning the empire of the rising sun, an appeal to Japanese xenophobia has been used by the yakuza for years to justify their existence. (The National Police Agency helps propagate this myth be faithfully releasing statistics every year about crimes committed by foreigners that are both misleading and sensationalized.)
Comics also feature heavily. There is a new installment of a long-running comic book series about the life and exploits of the 4th generation Yamaguchi-gumi leader, written by noted yakuza journalist Mizoguchi Atsushi, and drawn by a respected manga artist, and the strip, “Kamikaze Rengo” (The Kamikaze Federation), chronicles the life of a fictional up-and-coming yakuza soldier who has lots of rough sex with multiple partners, in great physical shape, and is constantly shooting or slicing up rival gang members in never ending gang wars.
I digress, but I have yet to see a comic series in these magazines depicting how the yakuza make their money, but there are plenty of scenes of them spending it. It’s a shame that these are usually in black and white, as I would like to see what a “champagne gold Mercedes” really looks like. (One thing has always baffled me about many yakuza groups who claim to be extreme right-wing, nationalistic, emperor worshiping defenders of traditional values; why do they buy foreign cars? Shouldn’t they be driving Subaru station wagons or something? Okay, a Nissan sports car, even. Where is their national pride?)
Surprisingly, this issue also features an interview with a Yamaguchigumi gang boss, but he remains nameless and there is no photo attached, as that would be a violation of “company” policy.
Despite the enduring popularity of the yakuza fan magazines, public sentiment has begun becoming more critical of the yakuza itself, forcing organizations such as the Yamaguchi-gumi to try and recede even further from the public eye. In response, the fan magazines have been forced to become more aggressive in their news gathering and a bit more realistic about what the yakuza actually are. Recent issues of the magazines have begun to include detailed news round-ups of actual crimes committed by yakuza members, something that naturally runs counter to the interests of the yakuza themselves.
What’s more the yakuza fan magazines have begun seeing competition from “mooks,” Manga-esque magazine books, which contain a broader mix of text and comic strips than a traditional magazine, as well as comic book novels depicting the rise and fall of famous yakuza of the past and present. There are now more than 100 different editions of such novels, comprising a genre unto itself. Yet, despite increased competition and an economy that has hit magazine advertising hard all over the world, the old guard is still standing. It will still be a long time before we see any of these magazines disappear or go so far as call for any kind of crackdown on organized crime. After all, they’d be putting themselves out of business, and in more ways than one.
Jake Adelstein is the author of Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan, published this month by Pantheon. He spent 12 years a reporter for the Yomiuri Shinbun and is an expert on Japanese organized crime, actively involved in combating human trafficking in Japan.
VISIT: Adelstein’s Web site, the Japan Subculture Research Center, for more information.
LISTEN: To an interview with Adelstein about the Yakuza and stock market manipulation from The Economist.