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The Dark Side of Japan

Article by Mary-Lea Cox

Perhaps the Japanese are typically thought of as honest and law abiding, but Japan, like everywhere else, has its share of sinister elements, according to journalist David Kaplan. Japan is home to a formidable group of gangsters (known as yakuza) and to a group of ultranationalists, and the gas attack on Tokyo's crowded subway trains two years ago made it clear that Japan had spawned the world's first terrorist version of a new-age religious cult: Aum Shinrikyo.

In 1986, Kaplan published Yakuza, a comprehensive history of the Japanese Mafia. Distinguished by their severed fingers (for acts of betrayal) and neck-to-calf tatoos, yakuza are largely tolerated by the police (so long as they do not harm ordinary citizens) and renowned for their enviable ability to bypass Japan's notoriously complex bureaucracy. By the time he had published his book, Kaplan said, he had begun to see signs of a new breed of yakuza emerging that was increasingly sophisticated and international.

During Japan's booming economy in the latter half of the 1980s, the yakuza's businesses and investments were extremely profitable, and they were able to borrow substantial sums to finance real estate and high-finance deals. According to Kaplan, the Japanese economy ceded to the underworld the equivalent of the gross national product of Singapore, the Philippines, or Malaysia. With the exception of the Russian Mafia's looting of the former Soviet republics, it was "the largest transfer of wealth to an underworld in modern history."

Today Japanese gangsters have a hand in the stock market, real estate, and national politics, and their structure resembles that of a multinational corporation. According to Kaplan, gone are the days when yakuza confined their activities to gambling dens, construction sites, and local neighborhoods, and when they adhered to a rigid feudal code and structure.

With the collapse of the real estate market in Japan in the early 1990s, Japanese banks and other lending institutions now find themselves in the ironic position of having to collect from the yakuza whose traditional gangster function was to collect on bad debts.

Although ultranationalists in Japan are often compared to America's right-wing militia groups, right-wingers in Japan are closely connected with gangsters and are often used as front organizations for the gangs' illegal activities. While U.S. officials call for the eradication of the underworld, Japan's goal is simply to contain it, Kaplan said, noting that the country's antiquated law enforcement system is inadequate to curb organized crime.

In March 1995, the Tokyo subway was systematically attacked with sarin, a deadly nerve gas invented by the Nazis, by the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo ("Supreme Truth"), a new religion led by the charismatic Shoko Asahara and counting amongst its members promising young scientists and engineers. Twelve people were killed and more than five thousand were injured in the attacks, according to newspaper reports.

The cult, which is now unofficially disbanded, was responsible for six years of widespread crime, and by the time the police raided the group's headquarters in 1995, Aum had already developed a vast and intricate chemical weapons system.

Kaplan said the media, particularly outside Japan, tended to dismiss the cult as a uniquely Japanese phenomenon Japanese youth seeking direction in the face of the materialistic excesses of the so-called bubble economy but, while Aum obviously drew on elements of Japanese culture, its appeal was much broader. In addition to tenets of Tibetan Buddhism and Hinduism, Aum featured the Judeo-Christian vision of Armageddon. Doomsday was a big selling point for the cult, Kaplan said, as was high-tech magic: by joining Aum, one could receive not only enlightenment but also supernatural powers. A crucial, often-missed fact about Aum is that its membership extended beyond Japan. In Russia, membership reached thirty thousand.

Still, Aum could have been yet another obscure religious cult had Asahara not been economically savvy, according to Kaplan. Religious tax breaks, volunteer donations, and huge membership fees gave the cult considerable wealth. And, similar to the yakuza, Aum benefited from the rising value of the yen, using profits to purchase high-tech weapons from other countries. By the time Asahara was taken into custody in May 1995, the Japanese government had begun to seize Aum assets worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Proceeds from the sale of the assets will be used to compensate victims and their families.

"Cults, Gangsters and Ultranationalists: The Dark Side of Japan," sponsored by the Asia Program, was presented at the Center on December 13, 1996, by David Kaplan, investigative journalist and author of Yakuza and The Cult at the End of the World. Mary-Lea Cox is program associate, Asia Program.

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