Thursday, July 29, 2010

What can the Yakuza explain anyway?

Having read and enjoyed Jacob Adelstein's Tokyo Vice, it was with considerable interest that I read his article "The Last Yakuza" in the World Policy Journal (h/t to Corey Wallace).

Like Wallace, I have no particular expertise with which to assess the role played by the Yakuza in Japanese society. But also like him, I am skeptical about what political outcomes we can actually attribute to organized crime.

In brief, Adelstein argues that after decades of deep ties to the LDP — which organizations didn't have deep ties to the LDP when it was Japan's hegemonic ruling party? — leading Yakuza organizations have shifted their allegiances to the DPJ as it took control of the upper house in 2007 and then the lower house and with it the cabinet in 2009.

The main consequence of this shift, Adelstein suggests, is that the Hatoyama cabinet included Kamei Shizuka, head of the People's New Party, who is known to have links to organized crime. Without questioning those links, I think there is a far simpler explanation for Kamei's presence in the Hatoyama government, an explanation that does not require any reference to the Yakuza. Wanting to streamline decision making in the new coalition government, the DPJ included both Kamei and his SDPJ counterpart Fukushima Mizuho in the cabinet and created a special cabinet committee to coordinate policy among the ruling parties. Kamei, I think, was there so as to concentrate coalition negotiations within the government. The ease with which Kan Naoto cut Kamei loose once he challenged the new prime minister suggests that repaying the Yakuza was low on the DPJ's list of priorities when it came to Kamei.

But this case raises the larger question asked in the title of this post: what does the Yakuza explain anyway? What political outcome over the past half-century or so of Japanese politics is different because of the influence of the Yakuza in Japanese politics?

The most obvious answer is that the pervasive influence of the Yakuza explains the impunity with which gangsters have been able to act since the end of the war (which makes the 1992 anti-organized crime law mentioned by Adelstein a puzzle worth explaining).

But what about bigger questions? The durability of LDP rule? The rise and fall of prime ministers? Foreign policy and relations with the U.S.? What is different because of the Yakuza's power? What can the Yakuza explain that other theories cannot? I suspect not much. It's possible that gangsters may have influenced the outcome of LDP leadership elections during the former ruling party's heyday, given the shady pasts of some leading LDP politicians and the wholly opaque manner in which the LDP selected its leaders for much of its history. If it were possible to identify prime ministers who came to power only because of Yakuza support, it would perhaps be possible to identify indirect consequences of Yakuza influence, but as Adelstein's own career shows, becoming a Yakuza expert requires time, energy, and no small risk to one's person — all for exploring what may be nothing more than an auxiliary explanation.

That's not to say that the Yakuza are of no interest to political scientists who study Japan. One question worth addressing is why the Yakuza are so pervasive in the first place, at which point attention naturally turns to Italy, that other Axis power occupied by and then allied with the United States (which failed to purge and in fact developed links with far-right elements) and governed by a hegemonic conservative party for the duration of the cold war. Additionally, it may be fruitful to study the Yakuza in comparison with other interest groups that had long supported the LDP only to watch their fortunes wane during the lost decade(s). After all, Yakuza groups are interest groups, of a sort: interested in the regulation of organized crime. Like other interest groups, they had to adjust their political strategies in response to uncertain political and economic environments.

As such, while the Yakuza are an unlikely explanation for major political outcomes in Japan, they are a part of the landscape and observers should be cognizant of their role. For that we are lucky that Adelstein is working so hard to expose the inner workings of Japanese organized crime.

14 comments:

Toranosuke V said...

Now that you've said it, it seems fairly obvious, where it really didn't before. What influence, really, did the yakuza have in the major events and decisions of Japanese postwar politics?

Certainly, they never came up in my Japanese Modernity course at SOAS as we discussed the rise and fall of prime ministers and administrations - what made the administrations of Hara Kei or Tanaka Kakuei (I'm just pulling names off the top of my head) what they were? A variety of factors were cited by my professor, none of which were yakuza influence.

If you turn up any more on how influential or non-influential organized crime actually was in setting policy or choosing heads of state or the like, I'd be most curious to read about it.

Toranosuke V said...

I had always taken it for granted that organized crime had a huge influence on politics in Japan, but now that you say it, it seems so obvious that we really must call into question exactly what major historical policy decisions or election outcomes can actually be attributed to their influence.

I'll admit, my knowledge of postwar political history is extremely weak, but I am fairly certain that as my professor in Japanese Modernity ran through the political developments of the postwar period, the policies and accomplishments of the administrations of Tanaka Kakuei, Takeshita Noboru, Koizumi Jun'ichirô, Ikeda Hayato and the like, yakuza influence was not prominent at all in his descriptions of the key factors which contributed to the outcomes that occurred historically.

If you uncover anything more about how influential, or non-influential, the yakuza were in guiding the course of postwar Japanese politics, it could be quite interesting to read.

Kensei said...

I've been reading Adelstein's stuff with great interest lately. My primary question is why hasn't the Japanese government enacted laws that enable the police to actually do something about the Yakuza? Tobias, you've spent time in the Diet, any insights?

PaxAmericana said...

Perhaps the yakuza can explain various scam-friendly policies over the decades. The bubble years were full of real estate fraud, as well as stock scams. The sometimes insanely wasteful construction spending seemed to be related to the yakuza complex.

One could also question the article in that the yakuza might be on both sides of an issue. One can imagine that privatization of government assets would be an example. Some might be profiting by the current cozy system, while some might see opportunities in working with the IMF or Wall Street types, or at least the ones who are ethically challenged.

Fat Tony said...

"My primary question is why hasn't the Japanese government enacted laws that enable the police to actually do something about the Yakuza?"

Didn't Katzenstein cover that? It's been so long since I read his CNANS, but from what I remember he said that as long as the Yakuza weren't posing a threat to stability, the govt and police weren't really interested in causing the ruckus that would be needed to take them down. Anyway, it fits in with his view that "security" in Japan is regarded in terms of preventing disturbances rather than preempting them.

Janne Morén said...

"...which makes the 1992 anti-organized crime law mentioned by Adelstein a puzzle worth explaining..."

I very vaguely remember that the crackdown originated in a police killing by a yakuza group; they'd basically crossed a line and destroyed an implicit accommodation, where a certain amount of crime had been tolerated in exchange for a limit on behavior.

But yes, I doubt they've had much direct influence on large-scale politics. They may for instance have been involved in some of the jucier illegal scandals of the postwar era (like the Boeing bribery case) but if so only as go-betweens, money-launderers and so on, not as principal players.

For the same reason I would question how much actual political influence the mafia has had in Italian politics; I suspect less than many people would think. Selling services for political players (whether smuggling, money-laundering or killing) may well pay handsomely, whereas actually playing in politics itself does not pay as well.

Anonymous said...

The Koumintou case is the most famous example of the Yakuza being involved in Japanese politics, it involved Takeshita and Kanemaru going through the president of Tokyo Sagawa, and asking the head of the Inagawa-kai to stop the Kouminto from campaigning against Takeshita to become PM. This lead to Takeshita's mysterious trip to Tanaka's house in Mejiro to ask for forgiveness, right before he became PM. It all came out in the early 90's, and was a huge scandal then, although it isn't a case of the yakuza deciding who became PM.
http://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E7%9A%87%E6%B0%91%E5%85%9A%E4%BA%8B%E4%BB%B6

The other major example would be Yoshio Kodama's influence in both the underworld and the birth of the LDP, although that's going back a bit too much.

Anonymous said...

The Koumintou case is the most famous example of the Yakuza being involved in Japanese politics, it involved Takeshita and Kanemaru going through the president of Tokyo Sagawa, and asking the head of the Inagawa-kai to stop the Kouminto from campaigning against Takeshita to become PM. This lead to Takeshita's mysterious trip to Tanaka's house in Mejiro to ask for forgiveness, right before he became PM. It all came out in the early 90's, and was a huge scandal then, although it isn't a case of the yakuza deciding who became PM.
http://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E7%9A%87%E6%B0%91%E5%85%9A%E4%BA%8B%E4%BB%B6

The other major example would be Yoshio Kodama's influence in both the underworld and the birth of the LDP, although that's going back a bit too much.

Noah said...

What about yakuza support and protection of uyoku groups? If it is yakuza power that allows uyoku to intimidate and attack liberal Japanese politicians, that would seem to be a big effect on the country's politics. Is that the case?

Anonymous said...

You make an important point that yakuza may not be setting policy nor the primary narrative principle behind years of political development in Japan, but from a normative perspective, there is something clearly less than ideal about a political system so frequently and automatically calling upon organized crime as part of their normal operations. And as part of that, they are not passing laws that would give law enforcement the upper hand in actually stamping out organized crime — even though the police now request those powers. Yakuza also seem to be far and beyond the normal interest group in that they perform services for the people in power – strike-breaking, protest-breaking, money laundering, money funneling, political intimidation through the uyoku.

There is a somewhat taboo topic about whether the yakuza operates as a welfare system for the ethnic and outcaste underclass. The government gives the yakuza industries to run that they ultimately think are important to society (gambling, prostitution, amphetamines — the latter two were legal pre-war) but for political reasons both domestic and international, need to be technically illegal. The yakuza get to run these without fear of police crackdown, and government gets to claim that they are against them. Everyone wins.

But the bottom line is that a political power is fundamentally scorching its own legitimacy if it protects and employs groups that openly flaunt the laws created by that political power. The yakuza's presence may be relatively minor but they don't really vouch for Japan being a serious liberal democracy.

Marxy

Anonymous said...

Janne "For the same reason I would question how much actual political influence the mafia has had in Italian politics; I suspect less than many people would think."
I like optimists. Alas, the truth is the opposite.
As it has been documented, crime gangs in Italy control politics at the highest levels and effectively govern the country in many regions in the south of the country.
While one gets the impression that in Japan crime associations are not as intrusive, culture-ingrained secrecy may lead to underestimate the real power of the yaks.

jake.adelstein said...

Tobias-san,

Excellent posting. I would never say that the yakuza control Japanese politics but they are able to exert influence on certain politicians and thus can have major impact. "Yakuza" is probably too loosely used a word. It would be better to say: the Yamaguchi-gumi, the Inagawakai, and the Sumiyoshikai--it's these the three big groups that have been able to influence the political sphere.

Hamada Koichi, former Diet member and LDP big-shot was handpicked by the Inagawakai leaders to become their representative in government. He's admitted in interviews that he used to be a yakuza.
BTW, you really should check out ex-crime boss Goto Tadamasa's memoirs in which he names the politicians he's worked for or been involved with. That includes former diet members like Itoyama Eitaro, members of New Komeito, Ex-prime Minister Kishi, and others. He's not lying but he's not naming every political connection he had either.

Japan is all about reciprocity. If an individual in power owes an individual yakuza a favor, he'll try to repay it. You don't have to corrupt an entire party to influence its direction or government policy. You just have to corrupt the right people in that party.
Blackmail, bribery, the threat of violence--those are powerful tools and the yakuza have been very good at using those tools to get what they want.

There are strong rumors that the Kodokai is using its political connections to try and crush police investigation of the baseball gambling by sumo wrestlers, including senior members of the Japan Sumo Association. The Kodokai ran the bookie operations and Kodokai members extorted money from sumo wrestlers. It's a scandal that makes them look bad. You can see why they'd like things to chill. There are reasons why people believe those rumors.

In the midst of the current sumo scandal, while the investigation was in full sway, Senator Hiroshi Nakai (DPJ), has a secret closed door meeting with Musashigawa, the head of the Japan Sumo Association. Nakai is the head of the Public Safety Commission, which is supposed to be above the National Police Agency. Musashigawa himself is under investigation by the police for possibly participating in illegal gambling. The Yamaguchi-gumi Kodokai has been running the bookie operations for that gambling. If Bunshun (a weekly magazine) hadn't exposed the meeting, no one would know about it. http://bit.ly/bLcspa

Nakai meeting Musashigawa is highly inappropriate. It would be like the head of the Justice Department meeting with the head of Goldman Sachs after the FBI has publicly launched an investigation of them for fraud. I'm not saying that the Kodokai is manipulating Nakai behind the scenes. However, if they were, they'd be able to apply pressure to have the investigation curtailed. For the yakuza to influence politics in Japan, they just need a few politicians in the right places and a little leverage.

jake.adelstein said...

Tobias-san,

Excellent posting. I would never say that the yakuza control Japanese politics but they are able to exert influence on certain politicians and thus can have major impact. "Yakuza" is probably too loosely used a word. It would be better to say: the Yamaguchi-gumi, the Inagawakai, and the Sumiyoshikai--it's these the three big groups that have been able to influence the political sphere.

Hamada Koichi, former Diet member and LDP big-shot was handpicked by the Inagawakai leaders to become their representative in government. He's admitted in interviews that he used to be a yakuza.
BTW, you really should check out ex-crime boss Goto Tadamasa's memoirs in which he names the politicians he's worked for or been involved with. That includes former diet members like Itoyama Eitaro, members of New Komeito, Ex-prime Minister Kishi, and others. He's not lying but he's not naming every political connection he had either.

Japan is all about reciprocity. If an individual in power owes an individual yakuza a favor, he'll try to repay it. You don't have to corrupt an entire party to influence its direction or government policy. You just have to corrupt the right people in that party.
Blackmail, bribery, the threat of violence--those are powerful tools and the yakuza have been very good at using those tools to get what they want.

There are strong rumors that the Kodokai is using its political connections to try and crush police investigation of the baseball gambling by sumo wrestlers, including senior members of the Japan Sumo Association. The Kodokai ran the bookie operations and Kodokai members extorted money from sumo wrestlers. It's a scandal that makes them look bad. You can see why they'd like things to chill. There are reasons why people believe those rumors.

In the midst of the current sumo scandal, while the investigation was in full sway, Senator Hiroshi Nakai (DPJ), has a secret closed door meeting with Musashigawa, the head of the Japan Sumo Association. Nakai is the head of the Public Safety Commission, which is supposed to be above the National Police Agency. Musashigawa himself is under investigation by the police for possibly participating in illegal gambling. The Yamaguchi-gumi Kodokai has been running the bookie operations for that gambling. If Bunshun (a weekly magazine) hadn't exposed the meeting, no one would know about it. http://bit.ly/bLcspa

Nakai meeting Musashigawa is highly inappropriate. It would be like the head of the Justice Department meeting with the head of Goldman Sachs after the FBI has publicly launched an investigation of them for fraud. I'm not saying that the Kodokai is manipulating Nakai behind the scenes. However, if they were, they'd be able to apply pressure to have the investigation curtailed. For the yakuza to influence politics in Japan, they just need a few politicians in the right places and a little leverage.

George of Japan said...

Tobias-san, thank you for the reference to "Tokyo Vice". I am enjoying the hell out of reading it.

Jake-san, thank you for writing such an excellent book.