From Outlaw Status to the Legal Profession

The Hard Path of Walking Away: Ex-Yakuza in the Legal Profession

People Society Work

The Japanese state exams to be licensed as a lawyer or judicial scrivener are famously tough, with just a few percent of test-takers passing each year. Part two of a talk with a pair of former gangsters who moved beyond their shadowed past to work in the field of law.

Morohashi Yoshitomo

Born in 1976 in Fukushima Prefecture. A former honors student, he spent two years trying before passing the exam to enter Seikei University, only to drop out and join an organized crime group. In 2005, he was forcibly hospitalized for stimulant addiction; he was later arrested for a drugs violation, receiving a suspended sentence and being expelled from his gang. Around that same time, he began studying for various professional qualifications, and after passing the real estate broker and judicial scrivener exams, he passed the bar in 2013. He is the author of a book about his life, Motoyakuza bengōshi (The Ex-Yakuza Lawyer).

Kōmura Ryūichi

Born in 1972 in Okayama Prefecture. After dropping out of high school and founding a staffing company, at 21 entered the service of Takegaki Satoru, then head of the Yamaguchi-gumi gang’s Giryūkai group. He founded a right-wing group in 2003. In 2005, he left the yakuza when the Giryūkai dissolved. At 38, he was arrested for hindering a police officer in the execution of his duties and began studying for exams during his three-year prison sentence. In 2018, after passing the exams for real-estate broker and administrative scrivener, he passed the judicial scrivener exam. Author of Motoyakuza, shihōshoshi e no michi (Former Gangster on the Road to Judicial Scrivener).

(Continued from “Back Into the Light: Lawyer Morohashi Yoshitomo and Judicial Scrivener Kōmura Ryūichi Discuss their Yakuza Pasts.”)

Memorizing Laws in Solitary Confinement

INTERVIEWER  You’ve both talked about your pasts as yakuza members. Could you discuss what inspired you to start your certification studies?

MOROHASHI YOSHITOMO  I was expelled from my gang in 2005 for getting addicted to methamphetamines. I was put into a mental institution, and then arrested. While I was in jail waiting for trial, my mother gave me the lawyer Ōhira Mitsuyo’s book Dakara, anata mo ikinuite [trans. by John Brennan as So Can You]. Ōhira was once a yakuza boss’s wife and then went on to pass the bar. I realized I wanted to be like her. I started out studying to get a registered real estate broker certification. My real goal, though, was the much more difficult bar exam, so I put all my strength into studying.

KŌMURA RYŪICHI  I got into trouble with a police officer at a neighborhood bar when I was thirty-eight, and was thrown into prison in Hiroshima for hindering a police officer in the execution of his duties. I had always thought forty would be my big turning point, but nothing I’d done in life had come to anything, so I decided to rethink things a little early. When I thought about things I could do in prison, all I came up with was studying. At first, I set my sights on the bar exam, too. But having a prison sentence was a disqualifying condition, so I couldn’t be a lawyer. I changed my goal to becoming a judicial scrivener.

Morohashi, at left, and Kōmura. (© Ikazaki Shinobu)
Morohashi, at left, and Kōmura. (© Ikazaki Shinobu)

INTERVIEWER  You couldn’t study in your packed jail cell, so you intentionally resisted a guard to get put into solitary confinement. And there, you used rice to stick self-made memos under the window, where the guards couldn’t see them, and used them to memorize laws. That’s incredible persistence.

KŌMURA  I didn’t have any other option. There was nothing else I could have done while I was in prison, and I would have just been wasting time.

MOROHASHI  I think Kōmura working with that long term strategy really is amazing. Most yakuza are taught not to use that kind of cost-benefit thinking.

KŌMURA  I was thinking about costs and benefits all the time. I guess I always liked the law. In my twenties I did studied how to send content-certified mail, and made foreclosure filings and such all on my own. When I went to prison, I brought books of statutes and the Act on Penal Detention Facilities and the Treatment of Inmates and Detainees with me.

Pride Against the Odds

INTERVIEWER  It took you eight years to pass, Kōmura, and seven for you, Morohashi. I understand there was a lot of opposition from those around you. Did you ever feel like giving up?

KŌMURA  Well, I had a lot of groundless confidence. I’d only graduated from junior high school, but plenty of people who got great grades in high school or university don’t naturally go on to start studying law. I figured, though, if it was something someone else could do, it was something I could do.

People around me were unsupportive, saying things like, “It’s too difficult, you should quit.” But inside, I’m sure they were saying “What’s this idiot even talking about?” But then, if I’d actually given up, they’d have said “See, I told you so.” I didn’t want that to happen, so I made sure to tell them all I was studying. Like, “What’s so hard? Quit trying to get in my way.” In the end, it was all about my pride.

MOROHASHI  I felt the same way. I kept myself going by imagining the faces of those who would celebrate my failure. That didn’t have anything to do with my being a yakuza, it was just my competitive nature.

INTERVIEWER  Did life change for you when you got your certification?

KŌMURA  It’s great being able to do things in the open that I used to do under the table, like litigating financial institutions for the return of overpayments. Anyway, since I chose this as my life’s work, I can go all in at it, without getting sidetracked. And there is no retirement age or anything, so it’s all just a matter of stamina from here on out.

MOROHASHI  Looking around, even after quitting the yakuza or giving up a delinquent life, it’s hard to cut all ties. It’s hard to get a good-paying job because of your past, so people often hang around in gray areas, at the border between legal and illegal. In that sense, having a certification is a powerful weapon. In my case, having so many people help me in getting registered as a lawyer is a big motivation. The knowledge that I can’t betray them holds me back, and I’ll never return to meth and lose my license.

(© Ikazaki Shinobu)
(© Ikazaki Shinobu)

Movie Yakuza Versus the Aging Reality

INTERVIEWER  You said that history could be a hindrance, but has your own yakuza past stood in the way?

KŌMURA  Not very much, but last year I tried to buy a car at an import dealer in Tokyo. We made it through the estimate process, but when I went to the shop for a final check on the car, they told me “We’re sorry, but we can’t sell to you.” It seems they had looked up my past on the internet. Even though I quit the yakuza over fifteen years ago, I still have these problems.

The yakuza exclusion ordinances set by local governments and such have a “five-year antisocial force” rule, which restricts people who were gang members for five years after they quit. But even after five years pass, people often can’t open bank accounts or buy cars.

MOROHASHI  When these exclusion ordinances started passing twenty or so years ago, it accelerated moves to remove yakuza from society. The earlier law against organized crime cracked down on the organizations themselves, but the exclusion ordinances crack down on people who deal with members. That’s too strong.

KŌMURA  In one case, a bank froze a company’s account because the CEO had dinner with a yakuza, which it called “close association.” The company went under, and dozens of people and their families were left in the cold.

MOROHASHI  I think in the future, more and more families are going to face discrimination because parents are yakuza members. Stuff like, “You can’t marry your partner because their parents are yakuza.” And even the children of people who quit the yakuza will be labeled as the kid of an ex-mobster.

KŌMURA  Overdoing this yakuza exclusion won’t make anyone happy. Everyone is so intent on keeping them out of society, but no one’s thinking about what comes next. It’s getting harder to stay a yakuza, and more will quit, but after they do, they won’t have any place to go or call home. Being unable to open an account five or even ten years later, they won’t have any means of making a living. Then, if they want to eat, the only choice is returning to the bad path.

The result is hangure “semigray” pseudo-organized crime groups that are even worse than the yakuza. Guys like that don’t have any organization rules or aesthetics. They meet online and whoever shows up at a job goes out robbing, even murdering. Amateurs grouping up like that is the scariest.

MOROHASHI  The yakuza might be crooked, but they’re out in the open, with offices and signs. These semigray groups are underground criminal teams, like the foreign mafia.

But still, I support yakuza withdrawal work, and when people ask me which is better, the yakuza or the semigrays, I tell them just to get out of the yakuza even if they join a semi-gray team. For society, being in the yakuza is a worse position than being semigray, and the demerit to being part of the yakuza is just too great when it comes to that person’s living.

I think the goal of excluding organized crime groups has already succeeded. The yakuza today are seeing fewer young people join—particularly in the cities—and most members are over fifty. They’re going to keep getting older, and more and more are going to fall into poverty. The stylish yakuza you’ve seen in the movies are already a fantasy.

Now we have to take the next step and create places for those who quit, and their families. To offer some relief. Neither government nor media pay any attention to the rights of such minorities. I think the judiciary has a big role to play in that.

(© Ikazaki Shinobu)
(© Ikazaki Shinobu)

(© Ikazaki Shinobu)
(© Ikazaki Shinobu)

(Originally published in Japanese. Interview and text by Mori Kazuo, Koizumi Kōhei, and Power News. Banner photo © Ikazaki Shinobu.)

crime law yakuza