Impuissant Islands: Yakuza Influencing Japanese Sovereignty

Japan has a long history with organized crime, and the recent propagation of corruption has undermined Japanese state security by influencing crime and banking regulations. The Yakuza, Japan’s breed of organized crime, involve themselves in nearly all levels of the economy and society, and have been accused of playing a prominent role in hindering Japan’s economy. To be categorized as a transnational organized crime network, political theorist Phil Williams postulatesthat a group must have a formal structure, regular illegal activities, and strategies. The Yakuza have bribed and corrupted some politicians into becoming their puppets in order to advance their own illicit political and economic interests. Williams demonstrates the problems that can come from the prevalence of organized crime actions such as those by the Yakuza and the power they command, positing that “[t]ransnational organized crime activities […] fundamentally challenge sovereignty of states.” The Yakuza utilize bribery to create venal politicians, weakening the nation’s law to serve their corrupt interests. That, compounded with operating on such a large and unchecked scale, demonstrates that the activities of the Yakuza in Japan undermine the state’s power by showing it incapable of regulating actions in and across its borders. Thus, Japanese Yakuza fundamentally challenge the sovereignty of the state government in Japan through the use of corruption, manipulating domestic criminal and banking policy, and serving as a surrogate government in some cases.

Corruption demands that members of state government perceive that they can benefit from illegally accepting bribes and shares of the Yakuza’s profits, and such is the case within Japan. Underhanded politicians know that if they create policies favorable to the Yakuza, then the criminals will be more successful and be able to continue to bribe them. The corruption is so ingrained in Japanese political culture that the head of one Yakuza gang had all charges against him droppedwhen a case was brought against him, and the mayor of Nagasaki was assassinated in 2007 when he attempted to cut ties with the Yakuza. The impact of corruption is not a matter of how prevalent it is, but how effective it is when it occurs; in Japan, as critic Stephanie Nakajima puts forth, “… it is the fact that criminal elements and corruption have infiltrated the very structure of Japanese governance that makes it so dangerous.” Although we typically examine cases of particularly effective transnational criminal organizations in states with weak governments, they can also be effective within states with strong governance. Within Japan, the Yakuza have infiltrated society by procuring significant funds. In order to achieve this affluence, the Yakuza have utilized corruption strategies to bribe politicians into rigging the system in their favor. Thus, if leaders are motivated by personal gain, they will be more susceptible to corruption, allowing for Yakuza in Japan to challenge the sovereignty of the state by buying out politicians, such as in 2007, when the Transportation Minister in Japan admitted to receiving $6,000,000 from a Yakuza organization. This corruption could be motivated by the fact that by cooperating, politicians and Yakuza can mutually achieve greater benefit from their activities, for the Yakuza can operate unhindered and the official can profit more from larger bribes resulting from the policies which allow for criminals’ increased returns. The gaps in government control within Japan allow the Yakuza to influence policy to their advantage and reflect long-term failures within the government. The Yakuza have crossed a line from exerting what corruption researcher Eric Messersmith calls “primary corruption” to “secondary corruption,” in which the perpetrators do not fear prosecution and their activities hinder legitimate economic development.

The Yakuza’s political corruption is on such a widespread scale that it challenges Japanese sovereignty.

The Yakuza operate relatively unhampered by government regulation, further challenging state sovereignty by operating in direct opposition of the law, and aided by politicians supposed to be fighting against them. The aforementioned governmental corruption has been utilized by the Yakuza to allow them to create conditions conducive to their illicit activities. In short, the Yakuza are perverting Japan’s government for their own profit. Systemic corruption within Japan has created what Williams would call a “political-criminal nexus.” The Transportation Minister who accepted millions from a Yakuza organization was allowed to retain his position, and even more worryingly, in 2012, the prime minister of Japan sparked outcry when he appointed a heavily Yakuza-affiliated Justice Minister. The Yakuza have achieved what Williams calls a “functional hole” through their use of corruption—directly challenging state authority by rigging the rules in their favor. One lawyer went as far as to say that “[t]here is an institutionalized culture of illicit money-making in the NPA [the Japanese police], and since it has gone on for so long it is now very deep-rooted.” Indeed, the corruption is so endemic that bribery takes place casually and publicly, and politicians are reticent to confront Yakuza because of their reliance on them for campaign funding. The Yakuza have created an environment which allows them to operate outside of the state, which poses a threat to the state’s authority.

One major way in which the Yakuza challenge Japanese sovereignty is by corrupting the police force to allow their actions to take place freely. Sovereignty is composed of having supreme power or authority, and by freely violating laws and changing laws to allow for illicit actions, the Yakuza are putting that authority in question. One police officer came forward as a whistleblower in 2009, explicating how the police even operated outside of the state themselves—this illegal behavior is the result of a corruption-culture exacerbated by Yakuza activities. The Yakuza have even been able to influence criminal policy in their favor, breeding further police corruption, as the newest anti-Yakuza laws are incredibly vague, which allows for the police to interpret the laws as they please. The Yakuza are so free from the jurisdiction of the state that the police will often just entirely overlook their transgressions. By controlling the body which is supposed to control them, the Yakuza operate as an extra-state entity, thereby challenging governmental organs’ autonomy over segments of their population and territory—two of the basic requirements for sovereignty.

The Yakuza further erode Japanese sovereignty by corrupting the banking sector. The lack of an enforced regulatory framework designating who can receive bank loans can not only result in commercial benefits for the criminals, but it can also detract from the economic abilities of the government. In 1991 one Tokyo bankextended a loan of ¥30 billion ($222.2 million) to a well-known Yakuza organization, money that could have been used to develop legitimate businesses which in turn can actually be taxed by the government, unlike the Yakuza. For Japan to reassert its authority, some critics argue that it should extract “the yakuza [sic] from the policy-making areas of the Japanese banking system.” Currently, some of the biggest operations the Yakuza have undertaken involve economic and commercial crimes such as embezzlement and money laundering, due to increased governmental pressures that push them into a more covert role. Yet, these new operations have proven largely ineffective. The Yakuza are able to take out loans from a corrupt banking system with no expectation of ever repaying them, and then invest those sums in their racketeering operations. This has plunged the Japanese banking industry into trouble, negatively impacted the Japanese national economy, and left the government struggling to compete with the Yakuza as a result.

Beyond acting for their own commercial benefit, the Yakuza in Japan have also gone as far to act as a surrogate government when the legitimate one has been unable to do so, further illustrating a breakdown in state authority. When the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami decimated the islands and compromised the Fukushima nuclear power plant, the Yakuza were the among the first to react, providing food and preventing looting, as well as supplying many of the “Fukushima Fifty” who sacrificed their safety to stay behind and work to stabilize the critical plant. This comes after the Yakuza had already previously intervened on behalf of the people in the same way after the 1995 Hanshin earthquake that devastated Kobe, Japan, where the Yakuza provided aid and relief before the government could even respond. Both of these instances are indicative of the fact that the Japanese government is failing in one of its sovereign obligations: to provide for the welfare of its people. Despite the Yakuza helping the legitimate government take care of its people, the fact that it is the gangsters and not the government doing it erodes the power of the government in the eyes of its people. As Williams forwards, when a government cannot do its job and a crime syndicate steps in and does it in its place, it can only benefit the organization and reflect badly on the government in question.

By utilizing bribery and policy influencing strategies, the Japanese Yakuza have been able to create a functional hole in which they are unhampered by police and economic regulation, and can serve in the government’s place. Their actions demonstrate how the balance of power is shifting away from the state in Japan, allowing for transnational criminal organizations like the Yakuza to play a larger role in Japanese state-making.

As it has been demonstrated, the Yakuza are ingrained deep into the core of Japanese society, yet the nuanced nature of the relationship between the pseudo-benevolent gangsters and the Japanese people they supposedly serve is difficult for someone with a Western perspective to fully understand. They see themselves as the gentlemen protectors of the people, the new-world Robin Hoods looking out for the general welfare of the underrepresented populace. They have formal offices, business cards, and even fan magazines. Especially in rural areas, further removed from direct government contact, the Yakuza command great sway because of the special relationship they have with the Japanese populace. On New Year’s every year the Yakuza would give children cash-stuffed o-toshi-dama envelopes, and at Halloween they would play along and let children rob and extort them before the government banned public Yakuza operations in 2011. It is because of this unique relationship between the criminals and the common people of Japan that the Yakuza’s influence cannot be fought in the traditional ways.

I postulate that if Japan’s government wants to reclaim the power that the Yakuza have eroded away from it, it must do three things: disentangle the government, provide better for its people, and increase transparency. The government has been complacent in combating if not entirely complicit in allowing the Yakuza to be involved in both Japanese society and governance. There exists a culture of corruption that has led politicians to see the Yakuza as an almost necessary part of the lawmaking process. In rural parts of the country the Yakuza act as almost a second municipal government. There are some observers who posit that the new efforts by the government to disinvolve with the Yakuza could turn them violent and end up making Japan less peaceful, such is the extent of the entanglement. Full scale rejection of the corruption-ridden culture is Japan’s only path to success. Secondly, the government needs to take a more active role in providing for its people in disaster relief and work to ensure that they have effective local governments. In a democracy, the power of a government comes from its ability to supply services to its constituents. Only when Japan fails its people do they turn to the Yakuza. Lastly, the next step to move forward after repairing all the damage already done is to increase government and campaign finance transparency so that one as ridden with corruption will never develop again. Japan is being impacted by the illegal activities of the Yakuza almost implicitly intertwined with their politics, and must work even more aggressively than it already is to combat them.

Andrew Fallone is a student in the School of International Service and College of Arts & Sciences class of 2019. He can be contacted

All views expressed are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the World Mind or of Clocks and Clouds.

Andrew Fallone

About Andrew Fallone

Andrew is the Marketing Director for the World Mind, as well as a contributing editor, and a staff writer for the Asia column. Originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, he is in D.C. pursuing degrees in International Relations and German. He is currently interning with the Embassy of the Principality of Liechtenstein.