by Robert Moorehead
Sebastien Stein’s film, Twilight of the Yakuza, explores the decline of Japan’s organized crime syndicates. Stein says the yakuza are a dying breed. Their members are aging and the government of Japan has launched a large-scale crackdown on them to eradicate them once and for all. But who are the yakuza? A threat to public safety or a necessary evil?
(For a detailed review of Stein’s film, check out foreignpolicyblogs.com, and for a great read on the yakuza post-March 11, check out Jake Adelstein’s article on japansubculture.com. The rest of this post borrows heavily from Stein’s description of his film.)
The film follows three members of the yakuza: Yoichi Nakamura, the “Tiger of Ginza” who was recently excommunicated from the Sumiyoshi-kai; Toyohiko Tanaka, head of the Matsuba-kai; and Daikaku Chōdōin, a yakuza consultant. Nakamura’s story is the most compelling, as he struggles at age 60 to leave his yakuza past behind him and succeed as a “legitimate” businessman.
Tanaka laments the low standards and lack of honor of young yakuza. As Jake Adelstein has described them, “the yakuza are Goldman Sachs with guns —increasingly white collar criminals who follow no code and who serve no function in society.” Deeply rooted in Japanese society, the yakuza are seen as a necessary evil and ‘problem solvers.’ They have been around since the 1700s and were said to protect the weak from the strong, following a rigorous code of honor. Several clans even contributed aid for the victims of the recent earthquake and tsunami. As Adelstein notes:
in the midst of the dark days that followed the great earthquake, there was a time when the yakuza lived up to their claims to be humanitarian groups, and it was oddly inspiring. For a brief time, the yakuza, the people and the police all had a common enemy: natural disaster. And as the saying goes, ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ and for that short time — it seemed like we were all friends.
Unlike the mafia, the yakuza is a legal, public group making them relatively easy to check on. You can find their offices by looking on the National Police Agency website, and you can read all about them in their many fanzines. I’ve even sat near them at Japanese pro baseball games in Nagoya, while they tried to explain the sport to the Filipino women sitting with them. Strict government crackdowns have moved many yakuza underground. As the police concentrate their resources on the yakuza, many criminals simply don’t register with clans anymore and start operating underground, evading the grasp of police. A clear trend is emerging towards a new structure of organized crime in Japan, resulting in a steep decrease in the numbers of the traditional yakuza while the underground is soaring – including foreign Russian and Chinese mafias.
This documentary deals with the struggle of the yakuza for its survival and the restructuring of the organized crime scene in Japan. Furthermore, unprecedented access to the secret world of the yakuza gives you an insight on who the yakuza are: criminals, outcasts, but also family men and a part of Japanese society.