Mitsunori Izumi, twenty-nine, sat on an imitation leather chair in the Wakao Wrecking Crew offices, sipping Bron brand cough syrup from a brown bottle and trying not to stare at the big, square Hino Truck Company clock on the wall directly opposite him. He had caught a cold five days ago when he fell asleep in the front seat of his air-conditioned Nissan Sylvia while parked outside a Shimbashi mah-jongg parlor waiting for his "kumi-cho" (gang boss) to finish gambling and drinking. When Izumi awakened at seven that morning Kumi-cho had already gone; he hadn't even bothered to wake Izumi and dismiss him.
The cold became a bad cough and he read in the papers about something going around called the Korean Flu. He bought the codeine-laced cough syrup so he wouldn't have to give up smoking for even a day. And the codeine soothed his nerves.
The seventy-eight-year-old grandmother of the proprietor of the Wakao Wrecking Crew brought in a pot of green tea and a dish of sweet bean cakes. Izumi smiled up at her, his crooked teeth showing beneath thick lips and a twice-broken nose. Over his narrow, dark eyes his black hair was cut close to his scalp. He thanked the old lady profusely and nibbled one of the bean cakes out of politeness.
Outside the offices, an '87 Honda with a bashed-in front end made a crunching sound as Wakao let it drop from the tow winch. The small parking area around the office was crowded with battered, rusting auto hulks hauled there by Wakao or one of the "tsukaiipa" (errand boys). If no one claimed the wreck for two months it would be chopped and sold for parts.
Izumi, dressed in tan golf pants, a no-name polo shirt, and imitation Gucci loafers, tookanother slug of the cough syrup, shivering slightly as the heavy, brown fluid slid down his throat. He was waiting for an errand boy to come back with a rental car. One of his girlfriends had taken his BMW, another was driving his Nissan Sylvia up to Saitama to visit her mother. He couldn't rent a car himself because he had left his licenses and credit cards--all forgeries--in the Nissan. He had an important meeting across town with his "kumi-cho "and didn't want to be late.
He capped the cough syrup bottle and dug a pack of cigarettes from his jacket pocket. He lit one with his gold Dunhill lighter and snapped it shut with a click.
Wakao entered, wearing a dirty green jumpsuit.
"Where's the punk?" Izumi asked.
Wakao shrugged and lit a cigarette. "He'll be back," he said, exhaling.
Izumi looked up at the red-and-blue Hino clock. Four-thirty.
In another two hours, maybe three, he would be back in the trenches threatening to bust heads collecting money for his "gumi"--Yakuza gang. The thought of it all--or was it the codeine in the cough syrup?--nauseated him.
Tokyo, a metropolitan area with a population of over twenty-five million, is the richest market in the world for young entrepreneurs eager to interest the public in new consumer goods and equally rich for hustlers eager to bilk the public through games of chance, drugs, or extortion. Mitsunori Izumi is a rank-and-file soldier in the sixty-member Kobayashi-kai, an organized crime "family" directly under the Tsuguta-kumi, a two-thousand-member Yakuza syndicate, one of the nine reputed to control Tokyo rackets. Izumi runs three off-track betting operations called "Nomu-kaypa" (money-drinkers). His setup islittle more than a few telephones and account books in three small Fukagawa apartments in Tokyo's old downtown. His income largely comes from his percentage of what the money-drinkers can imbibe. Izumi's three money-drinkers man the phones all day Monday through Sunday, taking bets on races at any of ten major racetracks scattered throughout Japan.
Izumi's accounts, like most Yakuza-run money-drinkers, are based on a point system. A gambler sets up an account via a face-to-face meeting with Izumi, often referred by higher-ups in the family. Izumi awards the gambler twenty points a day with which to wager. Each point has a different value, depending on the bettor. Some gamblers have *20,000 ($182) points, others *2,000 ($18) points. Only the bettor and Izumi know how much each point is worth. It's a polite way of setting limits--and of simultaneously making the bookmaking process smoother for insiders and inscrutable to authorities. Before each race, Izumi's three money-drinkers fax him lists of bettors and the points they have put down. (After faxing the bets, the money-drinkers burn the original slips. They use very delicate paper, much like toilet paper in consistency, so that it can be swallowed if the police start banging on the door.) Izumi then figures whether he can cover the bets himself or if he will need to lay some off through his "kumi-cho "at headquarters. For that service, among others, Izumi pays 20 percent of his earnings in tribute.
But money-drinkers and horse players comprise only a fraction of the Yakuza's $35 billion annual income.
The name "Yakuza "means eight-nine-three, a losing hand in an old card game. The traditional Yakuza businesses, besidesgambling, are extortion, narcotics trafficking, prostitution, and protection. (Izumi also runs drugs for the family, small amounts of "shabu"--methamphetamine--and marijuana.) One of their well-known extortion rackets is the "sokaiya"; hoods buy one share of blue-chip stock and announce their intention to attend that company's annual shareholders meeting and ask embarrassing questions or create a disturbance. This tactic deliberately plays on the Japanese distaste for confrontation. Corporate boards will buy off "sokaiya" and even pay them protection money to ward off other "sokaiya." According to a recent National Police Agency survey, nearly one-third of two thousand companies that responded admitted they still pay "sokaiya" annual amounts of up to *100 million ($910,000).
However, in recent years the Yakuza have taken their own seats on the boards of major corporations. During the time of the bubble economy, no one could resist the easy money to be made in real estate and stock market speculation and gang bosses became major shareholders in legitimate corporations. At the time of his death, Susumu Ishii, former chairman of the Inagawa-kai, one of Japan's leading crime syndicates, owned 2.9 million shares of Tokyu Corporation, 1.85 million shares of Nippon Steel, 1 million shares of Mitsui Kinzoku, and .5 million shares of Nomura Securities. Reportedly, he had his sights set on a takeover bid of the Tokyu Corporation, a major department store-railway conglomerate. The value of Ishii's shares was well into the billions of dollars.
"This is the ultimate type of intellectual violence practiced by the Yakuza," says a spokesman for the National Police Agency. "The money madeillegally through traditional methods--gambling and protection--can now be legitimized through buying shares on the stock exchange."
Despite new laws intended to curb the Yakuza by declaring their very organizations, not just their criminal activities, illegal, organized crime continues to thrive in Japan. Japanese politicians have traditionally been reluctant to crack down on the Yakuza because of the clout they wield in running labor unions and delivering votes. A seat in the lower house of Japan's Diet, the primary legislative body in Japan, can be decided by a few thousand votes. And in those districts where the Yakuza are known to have a heavy interest, large numbers of suspicious, timely absentee ballots have swayed elections. In 1986, an unusual surge in the number of absentee ballots cast in the No. 1 district of Ehime Prefecture decided the fate of that election; 23,500 absentee ballots were cast, 18,000 more than in the previous election. Absentee ballots accounted for 10 percent of the total turnout. Says a former Dietman of the 1986 ballot, "Several thousand ye
This foray into the often violent subcultures of Japan dramatically debunks the Western perception of a seemingly controlled and orderly society.
Karl Taro Greenfeld is the author of six previous books, including the acclaimed memoir Boy Alone and the novel Triburbia. His fiction has appeared in Harper's Magazine, the Paris Review, Best American Short Stories, and the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories. He has been a longtime writer for Time and Sports Illustrated, among many other publications, and his nonfiction has been collected in Best American Sports Writing, Best American Non-Required Reading, Best American Travel Writing, and Best Creative Nonfiction.