TOKYO — Japan's leaders are going on trial this month -- in the court of public opinion, though some of them may be concerned about facing the more traditional kind.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), who has been in power for a bit over a year, dissolved Japan's parliament, the Diet on Nov. 16 after a series of scandals drove his poll numbers to an all-time low. The final straw was his appointment of mob-linked Justice Minister Keishu Tanaka, who resigned on Oct. 23 -- ostensibly for health reasons. A weekly magazine had reported on Oct. 11 that Tanaka had strong ties to the yakuza, Japan's organized crime groups -- which presumably isn't great for one's health.
The irony of the man in charge of the country's criminal justice system being friendly with organized crime was not lost on the Japanese public, especially at a time when there is a movement to crack down even harder on the yakuza. It was also an embarrassment to a political coalition that came to power in 2009 promising that it would bring "clean government." The rival Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which had ruled Japan nearly uninterrupted for decades, had long been tied to Japan's underworld and ridden by scandals.
Since the DPJ came to power, organized crime ties have embarrassed several members of the party, including Tanaka. So how did the supposedly squeaky-clean reformers wind up in bed with Japan's answer to the Mafia? To understand this, it helps to look at the unique role the yakuza plays in Japanese politics.
The yakuza has its origins in federations of gamblers and street merchants of the Edo period (from the 17th to the 19th centuries), which evolved over time into the sprawling crime syndicates they are today. Currently, the yakuza comprises roughly 79,000 people, divided among 22 groups. Although referred to by authorities as "anti-social forces," it's actually a semilegal entity with offices, business cards, and fan magazines. The yakuza groups make their money through a combination of legal businesses -- like dispatching day laborers -- and illegal activities such as extortion, racketeering, and financial fraud. The largest yakuza group, the Kobe-based Yamaguchi-gumi, has 39,000 members. The Inagawa-kai, the group most closely tied to former Justice Minister Tanaka, has 10,000 members and is based in Tokyo. Its offices are across from the Ritz-Carlton.
The Inagawa-kai was established in 1948. The organization's de facto leader, Kazuo Uchibori, was arrested on charges of money laundering in October but was released without being charged. Uchibori is a blood brother to a powerful leader in the Yamaguchi-gumi, Teruaki Takeuchi, essentially putting the Inagawa-kai under the Yamaguchi-gumi umbrella. The yakuza world is constructed like a virtual family, in which ties of brotherhood, often solidified in sake-drinking rituals, are the grounds for allegiances within yakuza groups and sometimes with rival groups as well.