In 2007, two years before it came to power, the DPJ received the coveted endorsement of the Yamaguchi-gumi and the Inagawa-kai. It was a relationship that worked out well, until recently. However bizarre it may sound, there's nothing particularly remarkable about an organized crime group supporting a political party in Japan. Robert Whiting's book, Tokyo Underworld, recounts how Yoshio Kodama, a yakuza associate and racketeer, was instrumental in the formation of the LDP. In 1994, LDP Transportation Minister Shizuka Kamei was able to keep his job after having admitted to receiving roughly $6 million, paid into his bank account directly from a Yamaguchi-gumi boss. He claimed he received the money on behalf of his constituents who had lost money investing with a real estate agency that turned out to be a yakuza front company. He stated that he returned the money to his constituents. Crime or not, that should be grounds for political dismissal. Not in Japan. In 2009, the DPJ coalition appointed Kamei as minister of financial services, tasked with overseeing the Securities and Exchange Surveillance Commission and ensuring that Japan's financial markets stay clean.
But times have changed. The Japanese public is no longer so tolerant of politicians or companies with yakuza ties. In a 2007 white paper on crime, Japan's National Police Agency issued a warning that "the yakuza have made such incursions into the financial markets that they threaten the very basis of the Japanese economy." In that same year, a yakuza boss assassinated Nagasaki Mayor Iccho Ito after he attempted to cut the gangs out of public works projects. Japanese voters might have looked the other way at graft or low-level corruption, but political terrorism is another story. The yakuza had become an international embarrassment, as well. In 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama recognized them as a threat to the United States, issuing an executive order that led to the U.S. Treasury Department's passing economic sanctions against the Yamaguchi-gumi and two of its leaders this year. They have simply become too big a liability and embarrassment for the world's third-largest economy to ignore.
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If you're a criminal, it always helps to have an ally in the Justice Ministry, and for some yakuza, Tanaka's appointment was seen as a match made in heaven -- especially for the head of the Inagawa-kai, Uchibori, who had been evading arrest on money-laundering charges since Aug. 22. Tanaka didn't have the power to stop the investigation of Uchibori, but his position could have enabled him to exert favorable influence. The Tokyo prosecutor's office is under the supervision of the Justice Ministry. Theoretically, Tanaka could have possibly recommended Japan's chief prosecutor to drop the Uchibori case; Uchibori was arrested on Oct. 9 but had not been formally charged for money laundering or other offenses while Tanaka was in power. Tanaka, for his part, initially claimed that he had only served as the "the matchmaker" at the wedding of an Inagawa-kai yakuza underboss and attended a yakuza party. A decade ago, that might have sufficed, but in today's political climate, he was forced to resign.
But the DPJ's problems didn't end with Tanaka. The weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun reported on Oct. 18 that Koriki Jojima, the newly appointed finance minister, was backed in his reelection bid by an Inagawa-kai front company. Jojima claims he didn't know whom he was dealing with.
According to LDP Sen. Shoji Nishida, who has written in depth about DPJ ties to organized crime, "Tanaka is the fourth DPJ cabinet member to have been shown to have yakuza ties. Japan has always had a vibrant underworld, and it's always had a normal society. The current ruling government is the underworld and overworld put together. I believe that they've been a conduit for the underworld in the political sphere. The problem has been very underreported here."
For those outside law enforcement or the mob, it's a bit surprising that the scandal is only breaking through now. The police first confirmed that the Yamaguchi-gumi and the Inagawa-kai had ordered their members to support the DPJ in the summer of 2007. According to reports in the daily newspaper Yukan Fuji, over 90 top bosses of the Yamaguchi-gumi were given orders to support the DPJ in upcoming elections. Many had been summoned to the organization's Kobe headquarters and been verbally instructed.