No Way Out: The Dilemma of Japan’s Ex-Yakuza


While law enforcement agencies congratulate themselves on the plummeting membership of Japan’s organized crime groups, sociologist Hirosue Noboru warns that current laws and attitudes are driving the ex-yakuza underground and calls on communities to create pathways to social reintegration.

Membership in Japan’s designated organized crime groups (bōryokudan) has dropped sharply. The total number of full members in all 22 designated gangs was 18,100 as of the end of 2016, according to statistics from the National Police Agency. This represents a 10% decline from the previous year and the first time since the government began keeping such statistics in 1958 that the official yakuza population has dropped below 20,000.

This steep decline began in 2010, when prefectures around Japan began enacting local “yakuza exclusions ordinances.” Those ordinances have cut off key sources of income by prohibiting ordinary citizens and companies from doing business with members of organized crime groups. Although lacking the status of national law, the local ordinances have much the same effect, being in force all over the country. Since the adoption of these statutes nationwide, it has become increasingly difficult to make a living as a member of a Japanese crime syndicate.

The big question is whether the swelling ranks of ex-yakuza are reentering mainstream society or simply being driven further underground.

Rigorous Sanctions

Beginning in 2014, I conducted a yearlong study of people who had formally renounced their membership in organized crime groups. I interviewed 11 ex-yakuza from Western Japan in settings other than prisons to learn why and how they had dropped out of the syndicate.

The impetus subjects most often mentioned were the birth of a child, the fear of prison (because it would prevent them from seeing the child), and the opportunity presented by the departure of a boss. They also noted that yakuza groups no longer enforced the traditional penalties for defection.

But the most basic explanation for the decline in yakuza numbers since the institution of the exclusion ordinances is that it has become harder to support oneself, let alone a family, as a gang member. It was the 1991 passage of the Act on Prevention of Unjust Acts by Organized Crime Group Members that laid the groundwork for this development by erecting legal barriers to alienate the yakuza from the rest of society. The exclusion ordinances strengthened these barriers at the local level, cutting off even legitimate sources of income. To be associated with a Japanese organized crime group today is to be denied one’s constitutional right to “maintain the minimum standards of wholesome and cultured living.” One can understand why having a child would induce people to defect under these circumstances. The economic sanctions imposed by current law affect not only the gangsters themselves but their families as well. It is scarcely surprising that membership in the organizations has been plummeting.

But what happens to these former yakuza? Do they turn into productive, law-abiding citizens? Unfortunately, this is rarely the case.

Rampant Discrimination

In the seven years that exclusion ordinances have been in force in all 47 prefectures, about 4,170 crime syndicate members nationwide (roughly 600 a year) have formally exited from their organizations, according to police statistics. Of these defectors, just 90, or 2%, were determined to have secured legitimate employment. One cannot but wonder what the other 98% are up to. Moreover, there is no information to indicate whether the 90 who did find jobs were able to hold onto them.

For ex-yakuza, the obstacles to social reintegration are daunting. One major impediment is Japan’s corporate culture. Of the few businesses that responded to a July 2016 questionnaire survey conducted by the City of Kitakyūshū (a mere 40% of the total surveyed), 80% indicated that they would not want to hire a former yakuza. Those ex-gangsters who do manage to secure employment are likely to find themselves ostracized and discriminated against in the workplace.

I have come across many stories of such treatment. Ex-yakuza whom I interviewed for my recent book Yakuza to kaigo—bōryokudan ridatsusha-tachi no kenkyū (Yakuza and Nursing Care: A Study of Organized Crime Defectors) had endured threats from fellow trainees during the course of training, accusations of stealing drugs from the workplace, and other insults. A December 27, 2016, story in the daily Nishinippon Shimbun detailed one ex-yakuza’s struggles to adjust to his job with an electrical contracting company, where he had managed to find work through a friend’s good offices. He, too, came under suspicion of theft and had to put up with continual verbal abuse from co-workers, who referred to him as “filth” and grumbled about working alongside a criminal. After putting up with such treatment for three years, he finally punched his supervisor and walked off the job. These are by no means isolated cases. Workplace discrimination and ostracism represent a serious obstacle to the social reintegration of former gang members.

Social Disenfranchisement

Another major obstacle to social reintegration is the fact that provisions in local exclusion ordinances severely limit the social rights of former gang members for a substantial period of time—typically five years—after they drop out. These are the so-called five-year clauses. During that period of probation, former yakuza are treated as associates of organized crime groups and, just like active members, are barred from opening a bank account or renting property in their own name. In the short term, it may be possible to get around such constraints by falsifying the information on one’s applications. But seen in light of Japanese businesses’ employment practices, these five-year clauses represent a huge hurdle to reintegration.

In 2016, Fukuoka Prefecture spearheaded an agreement by a group of 14 regional prefectures on a package of policy measures to support the social reintegration of ex-yakuza, including the payment of subsidies to companies that hire them. These measures are a step in the right direction, but they do not go nearly far enough. They must be backed up by a sweeping campaign to change social attitudes and a reconsideration of the five-year clauses, or at least the manner in which they are applied.

A final problem is the extremely loose definition of social reintegration that currently prevails in Japan. Police and other administrative authorities seem to consider a defector successfully rehabilitated as soon as he finds legitimate employment. But the crucial question is surely whether he can stay employed. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, the National Institute of Policy Science conducted rigorous follow-up studies tracking the long-term social reintegration of ex-yakuza. A study conducted in 1974 found that one in three defectors had successfully integrated into mainstream society. But this was at a time when communities were relatively accepting. Unfortunately, no such studies have been carried out in recent years.

Who should decide whether someone has been reintegrated into society, and what criteria should they use? I for one have serious reservations about leaving that judgment to government bureaucrats. Now that public awareness of the ex-yakuza problem is on the rise, it is time for researchers, private organizations, and individual members of the community to engage in a broader and deeper discussion regarding the challenges of yakuza reintegration.

Building Pathways to Reintegration

As we have seen, national legislation and local exclusion ordinances, together with various social and cultural factors, have tightened the screws on former and current gang members alike, severely limiting their social rights and profoundly impacting their families as well.

In 2012, Diet Member Mataichi Seiji raised some important questions regarding the rights of current and former gang members in a written statement submitted to the House of Councillors during deliberations on new legislation targeting organized crime. He asked whether the legislation, when combined with the exclusion ordinances, would not “effectively exclude the syndicates and their members from every area of normal society and drive those groups and individuals into a corner, exacerbating crime as a result?” He called for the creation of “pathways enabling [ex-yakuza] to live normal lives as citizens” with the help of “carefully designed programs, including counseling and employment measures.”

Unfortunately, no such pathways to reintegration currently exist. Social acceptance is unattainable for most who renounce their membership in organized crime groups. As a result, they have no option but to resort to illegal activity to survive. I witnessed this myself during my study of ex-yakuza. Rejected by mainstream society, they support themselves through such criminal activity as drug dealing, extortion, burglary, robbery, and fraud. As Diet Member Mataichi predicted, social ostracism and exclusion are driving ex-yakuza to desperation and fueling an increase in crime.

Ex-yakuza who take to crime after being shut out from mainstream society are outlaws in the fullest sense of the word. In the past, they may have sold meth and other drugs, but at least they were bound by the internal yakuza code that prohibited their sale to minors. Now they obey neither the law nor the rules of yakuza society, and this makes them particularly dangerous.

The results of the NIPS studies conducted in the 1970s and 1980s confirm my belief that social inclusion, not exclusion, is the way to fight crime by current and former yakuza. There is no question that today’s climate favors the tough, zero-tolerance approach of the local yakuza exclusion ordinances. But we need to recognize that these hardline policies will breed a growing outlaw class unless complemented with paths to inclusion and integration in the local community.

In order to design a balanced and effective policy that incorporates both carrots and sticks, we need to pool our knowledge by sharing examples of successful social reintegration. By “we,” I mean not just government administrators but also businesses and individual members of the local community. Unless we can make a place for gang defectors and others wishing to start a new life, we will find it increasingly difficult to preserve a safe, law-abiding society.

(Originally published in Japanese on December 4, 2017. Banner photo: © yoshi/Pixta)

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