Updated: Apr 10, 2020
In the previous post I talked about the organisation of the yakuza and how they are defined, but what do they actually do for a living? Money is the lifeblood of organised crime, and the yakuza make no exception. The yakuza's economic activities are known as shinogi, and are distributed across licit and illicit markets. To have and idea of the turnover of yakuza business, in 1979 the police estimated the yakuza income to be around ¥1 trillion, but according to one of the most prominent journalists working on the yakuza, Mizoguchi Atsushi, this figure is quite conservative and a more real estimates should be over ¥1.37 trillion. The yakuza profited off the economic boom of the 1980s and continued to grow, so much so that, according to Mizoguchi, their turnover in mid-1980s was over ¥7 trillion. The police have not released any official estimates for yakuza income recently, and the only available data is Fortune's estimate of Yamaguchi-gumi revenue of $6.6 billion, but the sources cannot be confirmed.
Let's move on to the various types of yakuza shinogi, which are here divided in illegal, semi-legal, and legal:
The yakuza's illegal activities are what you would imagine a criminal organisation operating in a developed economy take on: drugs, protection money (of bars, restaurants, night-clubs, kyabakura, massage parlours..) extortion, money-collection services, frauds, gambling, loan-sharking, racketeering, and so on. Since the yakuza aim to maintain a respectable reputation, they have always taken a firm stance against drugs consumption and dealing. The Yamaguchi-gumi in1963 even founded an alliance for the banishment of drugs (Mayaku Tsuihō Kokudo Kōka Dōmei), whose website can be visited here: http://mjyouka.web.fc2.com/index2.html. Nevertheless, the yakuza are highly involved in drug trafficking. The yakuza's reputation is also being corrupted by the rising poverty levels of low-ranking yakuza members, which is causing the emergence of predatory and petty crimes committed by the traditionally well-behaved (at least in front of common citizens) yakuza.
Prostitution is not legal in Japan, but- and there is a but- according to the Prostitution Prevention Law of 1956, in Japan it is illegal to have intercourse that involves vaginal penetration, meaning that other practices fall in a grey-area but are somewhat allowed. For instance, 'soaplands' are a feature of many night-time entertainment neighbourhoods: these massage parlours exploit a loophole in the legislation, by declaring that the client and the masseuse fell in love during the massage and the intercourse happening afterwards is not part of the money transaction. The yakuza are involved in the recruitments of girls, management of clubs, and collection of protection money. However, there are parts of the sex industry that are not entirely managed by the yakuza, such as street prostitution. Since recently the yakuza are subjected to more police crackdowns, companies working in this sector are organising to expel activities managed by the yakuza, in order to keep the police out of their neighbourhoods. Other semi-legal or informal activities conducted by the yakuza are semi-legal forms of gambling, waste management and stall-holding at festivals.
Yakuza-related workers are specialised in the so-called '3k' jobs: kitanai, kitsui, kiken (dirty, hard, dangerous), and for this reason the yakuza have traditionally had strong connections with the construction sector. In fact, the 2011 earthquake and tsunami offered the yakuza the irrenounceable opportunity to get involved in the reconstruction market, mainly through labour-brokering services and illegal money-lending. The yakuza have also strong ties with the financial establishment, which they skillfully infiltrated since the economic boom of the 1980s. The financial activities of the yakuza include: debt-collection, activities related to shareholder annual meetings, bankruptcy management, real-estate and rent-related problems, and dispute resolution (not all of these activities are completely legal). The yakuza are also involved in a variety of legal activities through front companies and figureheads. A yakuza researcher reported to me that two thirds of the yakuza's activities are indeed legal: even though the increasingly severe anti-yakuza regulations are aimed at excluding the yakuza's participation from licit companies, the yakuza are becoming more skillful in infiltrating the legal market.
Japan has been in a slump for almost 30 years, and the yakuza were also affected by the economic crisis. The lush life of the majority of yakuza members in the 1980s is now only a memory for most of them. This is not only caused by a diminished money stream, but also because the yakuza cannot afford to be as visible as they used to be, and an excessive amount of money spent in frivolous activities would not be seen positively by the population: since now that the yakuza's relationship with the public is not at its prime, they need to show a bit of modesty. However, depending on the group, some high-ranking yakuza are still well off: a contact confirmed that Shinobu Tsukasa, boss of the Rokudaime Yamaguchi-gumi, still celebrates his birthday in great style- even though he can't upload the party on YouTube as in the past (watch as he graciously cuts the cake with a machete: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sq3hKhW4oj4&t=65s). However, many low-ranking yakuza are becoming increasingly poor, and cannot afford to pay the rent, let alone celebrate lavish birthday parties. According to yakuza expert and journalist Suzuki Tomohiko, the kumichō of big groups such as the Yamaguchi-gumi and the Inagawa-kai may earn from several hundreds to dozens of million yen per year (mainly money collected from subordinate groups). Kumichō of smaller groups may earn from several hundreds to thousands of millions yen a year, while the yearly revenue of management-level and common yakuza spans to the salary of a blue-collar worker to a few hundred millions yen. The phenomenon of binbō (impoverished) yakuza is indeed becoming more and more prominent amongst those members who are at the bottom of the hierarchy: there have been many reports of yakuza members stealing food and supplies, or even trespassing a salmon hatchery to steal a few animals.
Also in this case, the yakuza prove to be deeply embedded in Japanese society and economy, and their situation mirrors in some way that of Japanese society and economy at large. However, in the future the yakuza will not only have to face increased law-enforcement and a stagnating economy, but also the emergence of other forms of crime. It is still to be determined if they will be manage to survive through these hard times, as they did in the past, or if they will have to leave the scene to younger criminals and more flexible organisations.