Philip Patrick Philip Patrick

Why are the yakuza stealing Pokemon cards?

(Photo: Getty)

A high-ranking member of the yakuza (Japanese mafia) has been arrested in Tokyo for selling stolen Pokemon cards. Keita Saito was taken into custody in April after the theft of goods worth 1,600 dollars, which included a stack of the popular ‘Pocket Monster’ trading cards. What a comedown for the once fearsome lords of the underworld whose domains included extortion, prostitution, loan sharking, and illegal gambling. It’s as if Don Corleone had been reduced to running the shell game (‘watch the ball, which cup is it under?’) on some New York back street. 

The low-rent nature of the crime is indicative of how desperate the Japanese yakuza now appear to be

The most significant part of the story perhaps is that Saito is a leader of his crime syndicate, the Takinogawa gang, a faction of Japan’s second-largest syndicate the Sumiyoshi-kai, and not just a young thug new to the business and trying to make his monthly quota any way he can. The low-rent nature of the crime – Pokemon cards have retained their value and are light and difficult to trace but hardly a big-league commodity – is indicative of how desperate the Japanese yakuza now appear to be, amid plummeting membership and a greatly reduced demand for their ‘services’.

The yakuza’s desperation is largely down to legislation brought in by the Japanese government in 2010. At that time the yakuza were past their peak (there were estimated to be 180,000 members in the early 60s) but still a conspicuous presence and a significant problem. They were a visible, if only occasional, presence in the scuzzier quarters of town, not hard to spot with their gaudy clothes, fake tans, full body tattoos, and all-weather sunglasses.

Fortunately, they weren’t all that difficult to avoid either. They made little effort to disguise their activities, their headquarters were clearly signposted and members were registered with police and often carried business cards. They kept to their core busnesses and as long as you didn’t use drugs, prostitutes, attempt to open a bar in Kabukicho, or on any account borrow money from them, they would probably leave you alone.

Nonetheless, their brazenness was an embarrassment. The idea that such anti-social throwbacks to the bad old days were tolerated could not be squared with the image of modern forward thinking Japan. And they would occasionally make headlines for serious, violent crime that made the headlines outside of Japan.

So they had to go. But the yakuza were so embedded in Japanese society and the top bosses so well connected that eradicating them entirely seemed impossible. This was especially the case as they had a small measure of public sympathy due to their depiction in gangster films and occasional acts of good citizenship (they took part in the relief effort for the Tohoku earthquake in 2011).

Yet, they were, if not eradicated, then seriously depleted, and almost at a stroke. The Japanese government analysed the problem and came up with an intelligent and imaginative solution (when did that last happen in the UK?). Rather than tackling the gangs head-on,  the ‘yakuza exclusion ordinances’ were introduced. These didn’t outlaw the criminal gangs but made it illegal for anyone else to do business with them. This meant that a yakuza member would be unable to open a bank account, get a mortgage, contribute towards a pension, or even take out a mobile phone contract as all would involve criminal liability on the part of a bank or telecommunications company (who are too big to intimidate).

This made a career as a yakuza member, always a bit of a niche profession appealing to a minority, even less attractive. It was simply no longer worth the sacrifice and recruitment dropped off sharply. Now, according to some reports, the average age of a yakuza member is over 50 and many are in their 70s.  Some groups such as the Anegasaki-kai, whose membership dropped to fewer than a hundred, have voluntarily disbanded. Overall membership is now estimated at around just 25,000.

Their problems have been compounded by dwindling demand. The Covid period hit the entertainment sector hard and purveyors of prostitutes, drugs, and gambling were no exception. People have simply stopped going out and indulging their vices as much as they once did. The sector, legal and illegal, is a long way from recovering.

However, as with most things in Japan, the image presented in the West lags about ten to 20 years behind the reality. There are still plenty willing to trade on the myth of the yakuza as tough, ruthless but to some extent chivalrous outlaws. Witness the depictions of the yakuza in BBC’s Giri/Haji or Jake Adelstein’s Tokyo Vice, or the Hollywood film Fast and Furious Tokyo Drift.

Such glamorous big and small screen depictions have helped to maintain the public’s fascination with the yakuza and their reputation for power and influence and centrality to Japanese life.

But how long will that last when the reality dawns that the modern day gangsters have been reduced to trading in children’s collectibles?

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