Foreign Policy Blogs

REVIEW: Twilight of the Yakuza

Screen shot from "Twilight of the Yakuza."

Former Sumiyoshi-kai gangster Yoichi Nakamura. Screen shot from Twilight of the Yakuza.

The idea of being a yakuza (Japanese mobster) is attractive to many men. Belonging to a secret society, making ludicrous amounts of money, having your every whim catered to, controlling others through intimidation, not worrying about diplomacy when dealing with outsiders is oddly appealing to our baser instincts. However, the reality isn’t quite so glamorous. I felt the same disappointment when I found out being an archaeologist wasn’t nearly as adventurous as Indiana Jones made it appear to be. Furthermore, with recent police crackdowns in Japan, the yakuza are finally being pushed off the streets. This is the subject of the new documentary, Twilight of the Yakuza.

I was contacted recently by the head of Sideways Film, a documentary distribution company, to view Twilight of the Yakuza. I only mention this so you won’t think I stumbled onto it while searching for Twilight. The documentary was directed by Sebastian Stein, who follows around several members of the Japanese underworld with a camera and conducting revealing interviews. Stein gives us a firsthand look at a world few foreigners ever see.

The film mainly follows three gangsters–Yoichi Nakamura, a recently excommunicated enforcer; Toyohiko Tanaka, a yakuza boss; and Daikaku Choudouin, a yakuza consultant known as “the Sensei.” Nakamura was a middling member of the Sumiyoshi-kai, Japan’s second largest gang. Known as the “Tiger of Ginza” for his fighting abilities, he was recently excommunicated after a dispute with another gangster over money. At 60, he is now struggling to succeed as a legitimate businessman under the guidance of Choudouin-sensei. The Sensei isn’t a member of a specific gang, but he advises bosses and takes in former yakuza into his own organization. He was an associate of Yasser Arafat, Osama bin Laden and Michael Jackson. The Japanese authorities consider him a terrorist. He has dozens of kids who he lets fend for themselves and apparently doesn’t care what becomes of them. Boss Tanaka is a godfather in the Matsuba-kai. He laments the low standards of young yakuza, who he considers to be little more than common criminals, and is nostalgic for the good old days when yakuza followed a code of honor.

The film does a great job depicting the unglamorous reality of being a yakuza. Membership dues are $2000 a month, yet dealing drugs, the most lucrative way to make money, is off limits. Low-ranking gangsters have to clean the boss’s house, do his laundry and (presumably) tell him a story before tucking him in at night and kissing him on the forehead. Business doesn’t always come easily. Despite his best efforts, Nakamura fails to seal a real estate deal, the boxing match he promotes doesn’t make enough money to pay the venue’s rental fee, and his attempt to sell 25-yen bottles of water for 125 yen in tsunami-affected areas falls flat. This leads to the Sensei becoming increasingly frustrated with Nakamura.

Boss Tanaka claims old school yakuza were chivalrous Robin Hood types who provided a necessary service to society. He appropriates bushido, the way of the warrior, as the yakuza code of honor. He believes the recent police crackdowns on the yakuza are the result of too many young gangsters straying from that code of honor. However, he warns breaking up gangs and forcing yakuza underground will have unintended consequences, such as scary foreigners coming to fill the void left by former yakuza (which isn’t entirely without precedent). Norio Tamura, a detective who investigates yakuza-related crimes and is a little too cozy with Tanaka, seconds the boss’s opinion.

My only criticism of the film is that the filmmakers apparently agree with Boss Tanaka. I don’t believe a past with honor-bound yakuza ever really existed, but is rather attributed to nostalgic old-timers like Tanaka. Despite Tanaka’s claims, the yakuza are not the successors of samurai. In fact, according to Mitsuhiro Suganuma, former officer in the Public Security Intelligence Agency, 60 percent of yakuza are descended from burakumin, Japan’s feudal untouchable caste. Another 30 percent of yakuza are ethnic Koreans. The remaining 10 percent are nonburakumin Japanese and Chinese. While bushido was the code of honor of samurai and, I guess, old-school yakuza, the average samurai or yakuza in reality followed bushido about as strictly as your average high school boy obeys his school’s code of conduct.

I also don’t share Tanaka’s opinion about the unintended consequences of enforcing strict laws on the yakuza, which he blames on pressure from the United States. The yakuza has long been a leech on Japanese society. Small business owners often fail because they can’t afford to pay the yakuza protection money, and the invisible tax the Japanese people pay on rigged construction contracts is what makes public works construction costs sky-high in Japan. Japanese police are right to stop tolerating organized crime because they fear unorganized crime.

Nevertheless, Twilight of the Yakuza, is a unique documentary that provides an intimate window into the real life of modern gangsters.

The documentary can be rented or purchased at http://www.sidewaysfilm.com/twilight-of-the-yakuza/.

 

Author

Dustin Dye
Dustin Dye

Dustin Dye is the author of the YAKUZA DYNASTY series, available through the Amazon Kindle.

He lived in Okayama, Japan, where he taught English at a junior high school through the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program for three years. He is a graduate from the University of Kansas, where he received a bachelor's degree in anthropology.

His interest in Japan began in elementary school after seeing Godzilla fight Ghidorah, the three-headed monster. But it wasn't until he discovered Akira Kurosawa's films through their spaghetti Western remakes that he truly became fascinated in the people and culture of Japan.

He lives in Kansas with his wife, daughter and guinea pig.

Visit him online at www.dustindye.net.
E-mail him: [email protected]

Great Decisions Discussion group