Monday, September 17, 2012

Yakuza Membership Revisited

I had the occasion to revisit the issue of yakuza membership, this time actually work-related.* Specifically, I looked at the massive membership drop-off in 2011, when the lights went out in the entertainment districts in TEPCO territory. Here’s what I found, lightly edited for public consumption.

* Here’s the post from several years back, for those of you who are new to this blog.

Yakuza membership is at a 20-year low. This has been true for both 2011 and pre-Fukushima 2010. Actually, the number of yakuza members (including associate members; hereinafter the same) has been falling since the last, modest, peak in 2004. 2011 was unusual, though, for a 8,300 year-on-year drop. For comparison, the largest y-o-y drop during 2004-2010 was 1,700, in 2010. In fact, you have to go all the back to 1993 and 1994 for anything comparable, when the yakuza industry lost 10,600 members in two years.

This is probably not a coincidence. The yakuza are not a bunch of brigands and highwaymen who thrive on lawlessness. As an integral if illegitimate element of the Japanese economy, they share the hopes and fears of more lawful businesses. In down times, they lay off employees and turn to cheaper irregular workers, a much easier task for them because their employees do not enjoy the protection of labor unions and more generally labor law. But what accounts for the massive drop-off in 2011?

I am not a yakuza expert, but I can make a couple of educated guesses. First, the lights dimmed everywhere in TEPCO territory, which in a typical year consumes about 1/3 of Japanese electricity, dealing a massive blow to the entertainment industry (restaurants, bars, night clubs, strip clubs, massage parlors, porn shops, brothels, gambling establishments…), a blow compounded by the general sense of self-restraint among the general populace. This must have resulted in a significant drop-off in yakuza revenue, much of which is directly and indirectly (protection money, etc.) derived from these personal services. This should have led many yakuza members to leave this relatively low-paying business and incented the yakuza organizations to avoid making up for these and natural attrition losses. Second, and here I am being more speculative, demand for cleanup and reconstruction labor must have attracted many low-ranking yakuza members. The yakuza profession pays relatively poorly—leaders of smaller groups have been caught for ordinary petty crimes, including shoplifting household goods, to make ends meet—so I’m sure that the 1000-plus yen/hour wages must have been a godsend, particularly for the irregular employees/associate members. The catch here is that the national and local governments explicitly exclude yakuza and their members from public works. Members would have to renounce their affiliations—believe me, the local police know who they are and have records—to be eligible. The drop-off for associate members was double that for full members, which is particularly notable because associate membership had been stable or rising throughout most of the last two decades while overall membership declined. Note also that associate membership is much easier to give up.

The yakuza numbers are a reminder that the yakuza are an integral part of the Japanese economy and are affected by the its overall performance as well as factors that have differentiated effects on sectors and individual businesses, and that their behavior should be understood accordingly.

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