Japan’s largest organized crime group, the Yamaguchi-gumi, recently launched its own website. But if you're hoping to see guys with crazy tattoos, dramatic gun battles, bloody sword fights, and fingers being chopped off — and who isn't? — it may disappoint.
For starters, the site looks like it was created in the late 1990s. Still, the criminal syndicate is hoping it'll serve as a recruitment tool as the membership of yakuza organizations shrink and public support for them falls. And the branding reflects this; the site at first appears to be for an organization known as the Banish Drugs and Purify The Nation League — or Drug Expulsion of Land Purification Alliance, as Google translates it. The "purify the nation" thing is potentially unsettling, but it still doesn't sound like a criminal organization.
But it was founded by one. The then-leader of the Yamaguchi-gumi founded it in 1963 as a group “dedicated to the eradication of amphetamine abuse.” Sources familiar with the syndicate told VICE News that the site was launched under the Banish Drugs… monicker to, one, remind Yamaguchi-gumi members to behave themselves, and two, to convince people that the Yamaguchi-gumi is not “an anti-social force,” as they're called by police, and are instead a “humanitarian organization.”
However, veteran police detective told us that they suspect the site may be a signal that the Yamaguchi-gumi plans to expand their operations. Japan has 21 designated organized crime-groups — the yakuza — each with their own corporate logo, office, and business cards. The groups are patriarchal pseudo-family organizations structured like a pyramid, with the top boss known as the oyabun ["father figure"] and those under him known as kobun ["children"]. They each control different regions of the country.
The yakuza retains a significant foothold in Japanese popular culture, with two monthly fanzines and several weekly magazines that glorify their exploits. According to the National Police Agency, from 1992 to 2010, the number of yakuza members and associates remained steady at roughly 80,000. But extensive crackdowns by police and the tightening of laws have resulted in a major decline in numbers since then; this year, the yakuza reached a record low of about 60,000 members. The Yamaguchi-gumi, based in the western city of Kobe, is by far the largest syndicate with about 25,600 members. As recently as 2008, however, it boasted more than 40,000.
A Yamaguchi-gumi video, complete with theme song
Whatever the true purpose of the site, the Yamaguchi-gumi isn't screwing around with its anti-drug message. When amphetamine-based stimulants came onto the Japanese market in 1931, they were used for everything from fighting low blood pressure to motivating kamikaze pilots. At the end of WWII, huge military stocks were dumped onto the civilian market, making it popular to combat fatigue and hunger, leading to an explosion of consumption between 1945 and 1955. Meth addicts predictably committed a number of horrendous crimes, and the public demanded government control.
Kazuo Taoka, the Yamaguchi-gumi oyabun who founded Banish Drugs and Purify the Nation, had great disdain for drug use. And the current oyabun, Tsukasa Shinobu, shares those views. Drug addicts among the Japanese mafia are generally dismissed, and drug dealing is perceived as a more harmful crime than prostitution, gambling, blackmailing, or racketeering. The yakuza believe that drugs harm people, drug addicts are prone to violent actions, and drug use creates a weak country. Dealing drugs is also considered to be an activity that lacks initiative and intelligence and is unworthy of the “noble yakuza.”
At the top of the homepage is a video of the Yamaguchi-gumi upper echelon making their first 2014 visit to the local shrine, and playing in the background is the group's newly released theme song, Ninkyo Hitosuji [“Devoted To Chivalry"]. The first refrain goes something like:
“With nothing but my courage / and this body / I’ll trust myself to the life of a yakuza / and follow this path I’ve decided on / in Nagoya / The Yamaguchi-gumi emblem is our life / dedicated to chivalry / that’s the spirit of a man”
A moving message — but maybe not a tune that'll appeal to Millennials.
The various sections of the web site offer glimpses into the gang’s daily life and efforts to get along with the community. There are videos of Yamaguchi-gumi members pounding rice cakes at the end of the year, showing that they're good neighbors. There are also photos of the emergency relief provided by the syndicate after the Kobe earthquake in 1993 and after the Tohoku Earthquake in 2011.
The true purpose of the site is probably known only to the upper echelon of the syndicate — and, judging by the way the site looks, they may also have been the ones who built it. That said, we strongly suggest that you do not make any disparaging comments on the site. Trolling the yakuza is not a good idea.
Follow Jake Adelstein on Twiiter: @jakeadelstein