The yakuza and coronavirus

As coronavirus spreads globally and affects the economy worldwide, the yakuza are estimating damages and planning countermeasures to minimise losses- in terms of money as well as membership. The Japanese government refused to adopt measures against the spread of Covid-19 until 7 April, when Japan declared a state of emergency in seven areas (Tokyo, Kanagawa, Saitama, Chiba, Osaka, Hyogo, and Fukuoka) amid a sharp rise in coronavirus cases in the country. Although there are no restrictions on travel, residents are requested to avoid nonessential trips within and outside the designated areas, and some activities may be asked to close down. To mitigate the negative effects of the coronavirus measures, the government announced an unprecedented stimulus package of 108 trillion yen. Alongside the legal economy, illegal and semi-legal markets will also suffer the effects of Covid-19, and the yakuza are at risk of being particularly hit by the crisis.

The yakuza have been paying attention to the spreading of the new virus in China since the beginning of the 2020. In late March a rumour that a member of a Tokyo-based yakuza group had been infected began to circulate, and on 27 March it was confirmed that three members of a group under the Inagawa-kai umbrella had tested positive. One of them presented serious symptoms and had to be hospitalised. A honbuchō (office head) was amongst the infected, and since he had been in close contact with other members working in the office, it was feared that a higher number of members had been exposed to the virus. Two more yakuza members, belonging to a Kantō-based group, also presented symptoms suggestive of Covid-19, but later tested negative. Since coronavirus seems to be particularly threatening for the elderly, it would endanger many yakuza members: many members, and in particular the higher ranks, are in their 60s or 70s, and therefore very vulnerable. A further issue lies in the fact that many members already suffer from poor health, presenting liver conditions as well as chronic diseases such as diabetes. Moreover, the increasing impoverishment of the yakuza, and the limitations recently imposed by severe anti-yakuza regulations, put members particularly at risk if infected. A considerable number of yakuza members do not hold the insurance required for hospital visits and hospitalizations. Although bigger groups would provide monetary assistance, smaller groups would not be able to cover health-related expenses and would also suffer from the reduced manpower, an issue particularly pressing given that the yakuza membership hit a record low in 2019.

Since the news of the outbreak of the coronavirus in China, many thought that the yakuza would capitalise on the spreading of the disease, for instance by bulk-buying and reselling in China masks and other medical supplies. However, the lack of international connections and lines of direct communication with neighbouring countries hindered this business opportunity from the onset. Despite the attempts of shifting towards international business, the yakuza remains an insular organisation lacking structural alliances with organised crime abroad, and the few connections work on a personal basis. There are some exceptions facilitated by geographical factors: for instance, Okinawa-based yakuza syndicates have ties with criminal groups in Hong Kong and Macao, also based on personal relationships. There have been some examples of the yakuza engaging in ventures abroad, but the nature of their business activities is discontinued and unstructured: internet gambling, luxury items, guide shops, one-hit ventures that do not last for long. Recently, to overcome the lack of pipelines into China, the yakuza tried to make use of Chinese tourists by making them buy masks in Japan to resell them in their home country, but due to the shortage of masks also in Japan, the plan fell through. Journalist Suzuki Tomohiko reported the words of a boss of a Macao group, who noticed how the Chinese mafia would have jumped at the opportunity and made money out of this need for masks, while the yakuza, although they strike poses and brag about their reputation, were not able to exploit the opportunity. A former gangster who now runs a beauty shop abroad also confirmed that the name of the yakuza is almost irrelevant abroad: aside from intimidating members of the Japanese community, old-school organisations like the yakuza have little relevance. Few members are proficient in foreign languages and specialised in sophisticated activities, therefore their activities remain limited and are marginal.

Whenever there is a disaster, the yakuza is amongst the first to intervene, as proved in all recent earthquakes (for instance, the 1995 Kobe earthquake, the tragic Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of 2011, the 2016 Kumamoto earthquakes). The yakuza are quick to organise aid reliefs and volunteers, and on many occasions proved more efficient than the government. The yakuza offer their help also abroad: last month, the Inagawa-kai collected more than 30,000 masks and other necessary goods nationwide and sent them to charities in China. But the actions of the yakuza continue even after the initial stages of relief, as they make use of their expertise in the so-called 3k jobs (kitanai, kiken, kitsui: dirty, dangerous, hard) such as waste collection, construction, and industrial cleaning. In the case of Fukushima, the yakuza sent many men to help with the clean up. A boss of Yokohama volunteered his men to clean the Diamond Princess, but the government, afraid to become the laughingstock of the global community, refused. Of course, the yakuza is not a humanitarian organisation and all these activities have a return, in terms of publicity as well as monetary. At the same time, low-ranking yakuza are trying to exploit the crisis as well: there have been many reports of yakuza members trying new frauds, selling testing kits and airplane tickets and demanding payment in advance. Frauds are becoming a common activity of low-skilled yakuza members, who are the most hit by the crisis that has invested the yakuza in the past 15 years.

Within the groups that compose the yakuza, the activities of tekiya, stallholders selling food and drinks at festivals and events, have been particularly jeopardised. The disruption caused by Covid-19 during the cherry blossom season has already caused substantial losses, but the limitations imposed on mobility and gatherings will most likely affect also the Golden Week season at the end of the month, inflicting further damages. If the disruption continues, summer festivals may also be affected, and tekiya will lose more income, and might recur to alternative forms of (illegal) business to make up the losses.

Most of the yakuza groups have also deep connections with the night-time entertainment. Since the limitations imposed on movement are thought to cause a decline in this sector, the government has set up a subsidy program for business activities, but at first, certain members of the food and beverage industry, such as karaoke, hostess clubs, and cabaret clubs, were excluded from the subsidies. A rising protest induced the government to change dispositions and provide support to this sector, but neighbourhood famous for the nightlife, such as the Golden gai in Tokyo and Nakasu in Fukuoka, have already been deeply affected by the limited mobility and many shops will likely be unable to recover. The collapse of the night-time economy in big centres like Tokyo, Osaka, and Fukuoka (cities in which limitations were introduced) would be a serious damage for the yakuza and all the people involved in the sector, with the risk of increased criminality.

While the yakuza is struggling to meet their monetary goals, they have to pay special attention to their membership, which hit an all-time low. At the moment, daily operations of yakuza offices are disrupted, as the majority of yakuza groups stopped their activities and meetings in accordance with the indications of the government. Normally there are many occasions in which the yakuza gather, such as meetings and sakazuki-goto (affiliation ceremonies), but as social distancing is becoming the new normal in most of the countries affected by the pandemic, the yakuza are doing their part by avoiding to work in their offices and by cancelling all meetings and celebrations planned for the next few weeks. Even the conflict within the Yamaguchi-gumi, which has been escalating since last year, has been suspended. Most of their offices had been closed since January because of the limitations that come into action when there is a gang conflict, but the spreading of the disease in Japan is putting a further break to the scrawls between the Roku-daime Yamaguchi-gumi and the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi.

Coronavirus is giving the yakuza a hard time, and exposing the major vulnerabilities of the organisation. First of all, the difficulties in adapting to new markets, in expanding abroad, and in using new skills to do so. Secondly, the fragile position of low-ranking members, many of whom are living in poverty and for whom the yakuza cannot provide a safety net. Thirdly, the ageing membership and the lack of new recruits. The yakuza are still eager to show their chivalrous nature, and, given the many shortcomings that the Japanese government has shown in the management of this emergency, they still have the opportunity to do so. But this crisis is also bringing to light the fact that, despite the normative approach to the issue of the yakuza in the past few years and the dropping membership, the syndicates are still connected to legal markets and the civil society.

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