Hartford Courant

When crime pays no more

As their ranks dwindle amid a societal shift, Japan’s ‘yakuza’ now fight to fit in

- By Ben Dooley and Hisako Ueno

TOKYO — On paper, the Ryuyukai were the most fearsome team in Japanese softball. A sort of mutual aid society for retired gangsters, the club had racked up nearly a century of hard time. The manager had been a top mob consiglier­e; the relief pitcher, who took the field in hot pink shoes, had once been sent to kill him.

But on a cloudless day in March 2022, these hardened ex-cons met their match: the Parent Teacher Associatio­n of Nakanodai Elementary School. The PTA showed no mercy, hitting pitch after pitch out of the scruffy park in suburban Tokyo. Midway through the game, the scorekeepe­r stopped counting.

Losing is nothing new for Japan’s iconic gangsters, the “yakuza.” For more than a decade, they have been suffering one defeat after another.

As late as the 1990s, yakuza numbered around 100,000. Their businesses — scams, gambling and prostituti­on rackets — were illegal, but the groups themselves were not. Fan magazines chronicled their exploits, sandwichin­g interviews with top bosses between organizati­onal charts and brothel reviews. The groups had business cards and listed addresses. They gave Halloween candy to children and distribute­d relief supplies after disasters.

But today’s yakuza are a shell of what they once were. The same demographi­c forces wearing down other Japanese industries have also hit organized crime. An aging population has made it hard to find young recruits — more Japanese gangsters are in their 70s than in their 20s — and has diminished the once-thriving demand for the yakuza’s services.

Society, too, has become less tolerant of them. The authoritie­s have carried out a relentless legal assault on the criminal underworld. Crime is both less profitable and riskier. In 2021, a court sentenced the head of the most violent syndicate to death, a first that sent shock waves through the mob’s executive class.

All of that has made crime a less attractive career option. Over the last decade, the yakuza’s rolls have plummeted by nearly two-thirds, to 24,000.

Many have struggled to reintegrat­e. Tattoos, missing fingers and long criminal records limit job opportunit­ies and make it difficult to fit in. Japanese laws discouragi­ng business with the yakuza effectivel­y stop them from taking care of necessitie­s like opening a bank account, getting a phone plan or renting an apartment until they can prove they’ve been out of the yakuza for five years.

Yuji Ryuzaki, the softball team’s manager, establishe­d the Ryuyukai in 2012 to help his former colleagues build a new life.

Ryuzaki had quit the yakuza in the early 2000s. During his 72 years, he has been a member of a nationally ranked high school baseball team, a Buddhist priest, a model and an actor. He had sold jewels, imported luxury goods from Hong Kong and worked as a beautician. And he had — of course — been a top executive in a Tokyo affiliate of the Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s largest mob organizati­on.

The Yamaguchi-gumi is based in Ryuzaki’s hometown, Kobe, a port city in western Japan, where his father ran a temple. He’d known gangsters as long as he could remember. He’d seen yakuza tattoos on his friends’ parents and on people in local bathhouses.

In college, a low-ranking tough had beaten up one of Ryuzaki’s friends. In retaliatio­n, Ryuzaki kidnapped the man and buried him up to his neck in dirt. Ryuzaki got a beating in return, he said, but the gangsters were impressed by his mettle and signed him up.

Over the decades, he largely stayed behind the scenes. He didn’t look like a stereotypi­cal yakuza. He was afraid of needles, so he had never been tattooed. He had managed to keep all of his fingers. His first conviction was for getting mixed up in an argument at Tokyo Disneyland, he said. Not very yakuza.

The idea for the softball team sprang from a chance encounter with Katsuei Hirasawa, a member of Parliament from a working-class Tokyo neighborho­od where yakuza were once a part of the social fabric. Hirasawa had long known Ryuzaki by reputation, he said during a recent interview, adding that the ex-yakuza had “contribute­d to a lot of social causes” locally.

The anti-yakuza laws of recent years were well-intentione­d but “discrimina­tory,” Hirasawa said, arguing that they pushed people toward recidivism. Softball could help prevent that, he said, by keeping idle hands busy while building discipline and a sense of community.

Ryuyukai membership offered more tangible benefits, too. Ryuzaki and an associate, Takeshi Takemoto, worked to put the team’s members up in housing and connect them with the kind of tough, temporary employment — constructi­on, roadwork, sewer maintenanc­e — that pays a living wage and doesn’t ask too many questions.

‘Pulled back in’

The season got off to a slow start. One team was a no-show. Another delivered a clobbering that rivaled the PTA’S. The Ryuyukai didn’t seem to mind. They showed up early each time to practice their fielding and smoke.

While some teams played with nearly military precision, the Ryuyukai were clearly there to have fun. When a player fumbled an easy ground ball or stopped running halfway to second base, Ryuzaki jokingly cursed him out in a salty

yakuza patois.

In the club’s early days, some teams were intimidate­d by the former gangsters, Ryuzaki said. Umpires hesitated to call strikes and outs against them.

They worked on blending in. Ryuzaki traded the club’s black uniforms for gray and electric pink, hoping to project a friendlier image. The league’s director praised the team for helping to clean up the field after games. One year, they even won a league championsh­ip, cementing their position as part of the scene.

“In sports, there are rules,” the captain of another team said after a close loss. “As long as everyone follows them, it’s not a problem.”

Not every player on the Ryuyukai was a yakuza. There were a few broad-shouldered ringers in their 20s; a college friend of one of Ryuzaki’s employees, who cowered when he made an error; and a group of older men who owed unspecifie­d “favors” to Ryuzaki and Takemoto.

For those who had been gangsters, though, the team’s rules were clear: New members must prove they have quit the yakuza.

The process of leaving can be difficult; traditiona­lly, it cost a finger joint. Nowadays, members can buy their freedom or sometimes just request early retirement for something as prosaic as a bad back. The announceme­nt is faxed to gang offices around the country. Some of the Ryuyukai’s members carry a photo of the document on their phones as proof of their excommunic­ation.

But over the course of the season, it became clear that the team’s story — and the line between in and out of the mob — was not so straightfo­rward.

Joining the yakuza wasn’t like getting a normal job, Takemoto said after one game. He himself had studied to be a schoolteac­her and been a car salesperso­n before he started dealing drugs for a gang in the northern city of Sapporo in his 30s. His ex-wife had even worked for the police.

“Being a salesman was tough,” he said. Being a yakuza, on the other hand, was electrifyi­ng: “No one is apathetic about joining.”

Takemoto loved the lifestyle. Money. Danger. Fast cars. It was hard to leave that behind. For him, quitting took more than two decades

in prison and a prosecutor’s warning that he was about to spend the rest of his life there.

Masahiko Tsugane, who heads reintegrat­ion efforts at the Tokyo branch of the National Center for Removal of Criminal Organizati­ons, noted the increasing­ly blurred boundaries between yakuza and civilians as gangs work around the new laws.

He’s skeptical of mutual aid efforts by former gangsters. People who really want out need to make a clean break, he said; “otherwise, they’ll just get pulled back in.”

The center has a program to help ex-yakuza find work. In Tokyo last year, no one applied.

“I’ve only got eight fingers. Who’s going to hire me?” Takemoto said during an interview in his spacious walk-up apartment, which is owned by his girlfriend. Ex-colleagues in dark glasses and black suits glowered from a photo in a Disney frame.

Ryuzaki believes it’s unrealisti­c to expect people to completely sever ties to their old lives. Socially, it would be difficult to turn down an invitation to a wedding or a funeral, he said.

He has kept one foot firmly in gangland. Yakuza bosses call him frequently, asking for advice or help smoothing over a conflict. The police, too, have sought him out for updates on gang activity.

Ryuzaki didn’t see a problem with his mob contacts. Or with the yakuza at all.

Like most of his colleagues, he saw the yakuza — and himself — as chivalrous modern-day Robin Hoods, outsiders looking out for the little guy and dispensing justice when the authoritie­s can’t or won’t.

“I never did anything that bad,” he said during an interview in his apartment on the top floor of an old high-rise. One wall was covered with luxury handbags he rents out to women who work in hostess clubs, and a sign in the bathroom instructed visitors to relieve themselves “prison style.”

As he spoke, two older men in tracksuits and chains busied themselves ironing his shirts and straighten­ing up.

Ryuzaki described himself as an “economic yakuza,” specializi­ng in real estate shakedowns. It was all in his forthcomin­g autobiogra­phy, “Necessary Evil,” he said.

Much of his current work, he admitted, existed in a gray zone. He made high-interest loans and exploited loopholes in import laws. After one softball game, he pulled three blueberry-sized precious stones out of a bag and handed them to Takemoto, who inspected them with a jeweler’s loupe. They were imported from Southeast Asia, he explained — one of their many sidelines.

Both men have been arrested several times since leaving their gangs, but nothing has stuck. Ryuzaki insisted that the police were just out to get them.

“They want to take what’s gray and claim it’s black,” he said.

‘Nothing good’

The ex-cons on the team clung to a flashy gangster image that belied their current living conditions. They wore sequined baseball hats. Loud colors. Tinted glasses. Everything branded (especially Louis Vuitton). At one game, Ryuzaki handed out pink Christian Dior face masks. No one questioned their authentici­ty.

But their former lifestyles had left behind deeper scars than the occasional stab wound. A team stalwart, Masao, dropped out of school at 16 and spent years bouncing from gang to gang.

After his third prison sentence, he had a revelation. “Going to jail after 50 is a waste,” he said. “Nothing good happens there.”

Masao, who asked that his surname be withheld, is covered in tattoos and missing a finger he cut off after leaving one of the gangs. No one asked him to, he said, but he did it anyway, hoping his old associates would let him be. The bone didn’t separate cleanly, though, and he ended up rushing to a hospital. His former bosses never got the finger; in the hubbub, it ended up in a convenienc­e store trash can.

‘Bad habits’

The Ryuyukai’s season ended on a humid October afternoon with a 15-0 loss. The opposing team’s pitcher, a rare woman in the league, fired balls over the plate with a ferocity that made the Ryuyukai’s players jump back.

One of those pitches struck Masao. He jokingly demanded a payoff. The pitcher bowed deeply and blushed.

At lunch afterward, Ryuzaki couldn’t stop coughing. He needed treatment for lung disease after years of smoking. He huffed on an inhaler and cleared his throat.

He seemed unruffled by the loss. Or a season with just two wins. COVID-19 had stopped the players from practicing. They would get their title back someday. And besides, winning wasn’t the point.

“People have to stay busy or they fall back into bad habits,” he said.

The conversati­on stopped, and everyone, as if at an invisible signal, got up to leave.

There was a chill in the air and no more softball until spring.

“Who wants to go bowling?” Ryuzaki asked.

They all jumped into their cars and drove to the lanes.

 ?? ?? For those yakuza who want to leave that life behind, the traditiona­l cost can be the loss of a finger. Takeshi Takemoto, seen this month at his home in Tokyo, shows off his hands — with each of the pinkies missing.
For those yakuza who want to leave that life behind, the traditiona­l cost can be the loss of a finger. Takeshi Takemoto, seen this month at his home in Tokyo, shows off his hands — with each of the pinkies missing.
 ?? SHIHO FUKADA/THE NEW YORK TIMES PHOTOS ?? Yuji Ryuzaki, center, with players on the Ryuyukai softball team last July. Ryuzaki started the team in 2012 to help former yakuza build new lives.
SHIHO FUKADA/THE NEW YORK TIMES PHOTOS Yuji Ryuzaki, center, with players on the Ryuyukai softball team last July. Ryuzaki started the team in 2012 to help former yakuza build new lives.

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