Moral Low Ground


Japanese Yakuza Providing Desperately Needed Disaster Relief

Organized crime groups known as yakuza have stepped up in the wake of the most catastrophic earthquake and tsunami to ever strike Japan, offering food, water and other critical relief supplies to some of the hardest-hit areas. Within hours of the quake, two of the country’s largest yakuza groups opened their offices to stranded Tokyo residents and were soon sending truckloads of food, water and blankets to stricken areas.

According to American yakuza expert Jake Adelstein, the Inagawa-kai group has been the most active in relief operations because it has strong roots in the devastated areas. The Tokyo “block” of the Inagawa-kai shipped a whopping 50 tons of relief supplies to Hitachinaka, in Ibaraki Prefecture, without telling anyone who the shipment was from. Cup noodles, bean sprouts, diapers, tea and drinking water were among the emergency supplies sent. The Kanagawa “block” of the crime group sent 70 truckloads of supplies to the Fukushima area, ignoring the high radiation levels resulting from the badly damaged nuclear reactors nearby. The men delivering the supplies don’t even have any protection from the radiation.

Japan’s largest crime group, the Yamaguchi- gumi, has also opened its offices around the country to the public and has been very quietly shipping relief supplies as well. Adelstein spoke with one Yamaguchi- gumi member who politely asked: “Please don’t say any more than we are doing our best to help. Right now, no one wants to be associated with us and we’d hate to have our donations rejected out of hand.”

A top boss in the Sumiyoshi- kai, the second-largest yakuza group in Japan, even offered refuge to foreigners, no mean feat in a highly homogeneous and notoriously xenophobic country.

This isn’t the first time the yakuza have lent a helping hand in the face of disaster. After a massive earthquake rocked Kobe in 1995, the Yamaguchi- gumi provided much-needed emergency response and relief. While the thought of the Italian or Russian mafia lending a hand after an American disaster might seem strange, in Japan there is an unwritten pact between police and yakuza that allows the crime groups– which, interestingly are not illegal but are regulated– to volunteer their services during crises as long as they don’t seek publicity for doing so.

Adelstein, who wrote the fascinating book Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan, was a crime reporter for the Yomiuri Shinbun, the largest newspaper in Japan for 12 years. He says there are 80,000 yakuza members in Japan and that they’ve always played a role in keeping the peace. The US government even used a notorious yakuza fixer to avert an electoral victory by communists and ensure more than 50 years of essentially one-party rule in Japan.

While it is true that the relief supplies provided to the people of Japan by the yakuza groups was almost certainly ill-gotten (protection rackets, financial fraud, stock manipulation, gambling, blackmail, loan sharking, prostitution, etc.), it is highly unlikely that those who’ve been helped through this calamity will feel guilty about where the aid came from. As one yakuza member told Adelstein, “There are no yakuza or ordinary citizens or foreigners in Japan right now. We are all Japanese. We all need to help each other.”



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  1. SQuincherMarch 23, 2011 at 2:42 amReply

    compared to other articles I read where the decrepit Japanese Bureaucracy is turning help away because of red tape BS (example: aid workers do not have the proper “licenses” to operate in Japan), these Gangsters with a heart of gold are going above and beyond the call of duty.

    • Brett WilkinsMarch 23, 2011 at 10:17 amReplyAuthor

      Ironic, huh, in a country with a reputation for running seamlessly, with the utmost respect for law and order.

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