TOKYO (AFP) — They made their money with sex, drugs and gambling but then invested much of it in high finance. Now Japan's yakuza have their back to the wall as the economic crisis takes aim.
Just like the legitimate businesses they have muscled into, Japan's mafia are being squeezed by the steepest economic downturn in decades, and as profits have plunged, management has been thinning out the ranks.
One of the victims of the downturn is Taro Hiramatsu, a heavily tattooed retired gangster in his 50s who said he never felt all that comfortable with the underworld's new high-flying ways to begin with.
"The yakuza have been hit by the financial crisis because they?ve invested in the stock market among other things," said Hiramatsu, the number two of his crime gang until he was unceremoniously kicked out last year.
"For yakuza today, money buys everything, including senior positions," Hiramatsu -- not his real name -- told AFP in a recent interview, his intricately inked arms crossed defiantly over a potbelly.
"In the past, your rank was decided on courage and the sacrifices you made to the group, including being ready to give up your life," he said.
His own career as a gangster hit the skids, he said, when the cash dried up and he could no longer pay his 30,000-dollar monthly dues to the syndicate.
About one third of mid-level chiefs in his crime group, he said, have lost their jobs over the past year, many fleeced of their possessions with only their group insignia tattooed indelibly on their chests.
"Organizations are taking this economic downturn as an opportunity to sort of prune the ranks for the first time in years," said Jake Adelstein, a former Yomiuri Shimbun daily crime reporter and yakuza expert.
"It?s unheard of, the sort of numbers of yakuza who are being laid off."
Hiramatsu now works as a truck driver and, in his spare time, is learning to use computers and play the guitar -- despite a missing pinky he chopped off years ago with a kitchen knife to atone for a sin he prefers not to discuss.
Hiramatsu is proudly old-school. His broad tatooed back features a samurai warrior clasping a knife between his teeth beneath a rippling black cod. His arms are laced with sakura cherry flowers, an ancient symbol of Japan.
Sitting cross-legged in a Tokyo house, he says he doesn't have much time for the new generation of mobsters who have traded the mean streets for the corporate boardrooms, and their nine-milimetre automatics for the Nikkei-225.
In a year when exports and share prices have halved in the world's second-biggest economy and corporate giants have plunged into the red, he reckons it may be time for gangsters to dust off their ancient code of ethics.
"I think that a majority of yakuza are reflecting on whether throwing away traditional for capitalist-style values was the best thing to do," said Hiramatsu, musing on the modern ways of his centuries-old brotherhood.
"Bushido, the yakuza's samurai spirit, is disappearing. The disappearance of those values is not only bad for yakuza but for Japan as a whole."
The yakuza, who trace their roots to samurai gone astray during the 17th-century Edo period, traditionally relied on gambling, prostitution, loan-sharking and protection rackets as their bread and butter.
They have operated relatively openly, entertaining close ties with politicians and lobby groups, while police have tolerated their existence as long as they have stayed on their turf and kept down street crime.
Although police will at times go after their members, Yakuza groups themselves are not illegal. They openly operate from large headquarters, and their exploits draw large followings in manga cartoons and fanzines.
Today Japanese organised crime counts about 82,600 members, according to the National Police Agency -- nearly half of them with the huge Kobe-based Yamaguchi-gumi, sometimes dubbed the "Wal-Mart of crime syndicates".
Thing started to change in 1992 as Japan enforced new laws cracking down on their fiefdoms, crucially holding the black-suited crime bosses liable for offences committed by their foot soldiers.
The yakuza turned to white-collar crime such as money laundering, deposit fraud, cybercrime and extorting huge sums from blue-chip companies by threatening to show up at their shareholder meetings.
Profits were reinvested in stocks, construction and real estate, but also new sectors like entertainment and media, or squirreled away in offshore accounts, say experts who have studied Japanese organised crime.
As Japan relaxed financial regulations after the asset price bubble burst in the early 1990s, plunging the country into recession, the yakuza set up a host of front companies.
Adelstein said some gangs now resemble legitimate corporate giants.
"People think of the yakuza as wielding swords and having tattoos and missing fingers," he said. "What you should be thinking of the modern-day yakuza is Goldman Sachs with guns."
The yakuza collectively became Japan's largest private equity investors, with a cashflow that allows them to "do whatever they want," said Adelstein, who estimates their income at tens of billions of dollars.
"They are very good at gambling, and the Japanese stock market especially is like a huge casino," he said.
"They have their own securities and auditing firms, their own money to come in and invest. And they're going to win every time."
Tomohiko Suzuki, an author and a former reporter for a yakuza magazine, said around 50 front companies of various crime syndicates are listed on the Japanese stock market and the New York-based Nasdaq.
About 1,000 unlisted front companies have also been identified by police in Tokyo alone as the yakuza have moved into everything from funeral and marriage services to talent agencies, according to Suzuki.
Even management books have been written for the yakuza, including one by the former head of the Yamaguchi-gumi, who is now in jail.
"It?s a lot like any management book you would read by the head of General Motors, except he makes some interesting observations," said Adelstein. "Like, 'the reason we are the most powerful crime organization is, we are the most violent'."
For his part, ex-mobster Hiramatsu doesn't entirely regret closing the door on his past.
"I am nostalgic for the old days," he said, "but I also have a distaste for it. I don?t think I?m suited for the new type of yakuza anyway."
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