Gambling and the Yakuza: An Interview with Jake Adelstein

Tokyo Vice
Tokyo Vice

Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan came out this past Fall. A tale of sex, scandal, and gangsters, it was written by Jake Adelstein, a former vice reporter for the Yomiuri and the only American to have been admitted into the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department press club. If you’re interested in hearing more about the seedy side of Tokyo, I recommend picking up a copy. It’s a great read, at least as interesting as Robert Whiting’s Tokyo Underworld.

Some of you may have heard of Adelstein when his name popped up a year or so ago as the author of a Washington Post article about the yakuza (Japanese mafia). He is an interesting fellow; besides his unique former press credentials he also was instrumental in the 2006 TIP report that embarrassed Japan into adopting stricter anti-trafficking measures. Additionally, he runs the “Japan Subculture Research Center,” a blog devoted to the Japanese underground. He is currently running around the world promoting his new book. This isn’t just to generate sales. The publicity he generates keeps him alive.

You see, back in 2007, Adelstein stumbled upon an interesting story: a yakuza boss had secretly gone to UCLA to get a liver transplant. I won’t go into details, but here are a couple of articles here and here and a link to a very good piece CBS did. (Interested parties should note that this is an under-reported story that deserves more attention, especially in light of UCLA’s offensive non-apology.) Before Adelstein had a chance to write the story, he was visited by a man from a certain organization who calmly informed the reporter that if he did not erase his story, he would be erased himself. Adelstein complied, but after the story leaked out through a different channel, the yakuza placed the blame on him.

Rather than trying to hide, he reasoned that it made more sense to speak out as much as possible about what he knows. Since the yakuza is interested in keeping him silent so that he doesn’t say what he knows, he hopes that the more publicity he generates, the less incentive certain gentlemen have to silence him since he’ll have already spoken as much as he can. After getting his book out this past October, he’s gone on a whirlwind publicity tour, hitting 60 minutes and The Economist (mp3), as well asthe Daily Show (Jon Stewart’s deadpan reactions are hilarious.)

Having long had a personal and academic interested in Adelstein’s career, I contacted him offering to interview him for MFT to generate a little more publicity for his cause. He graciously agreed, on the condition we limit the content to gambling and yakuza. Those readers who are familiar with my interests will not be surprised that I had absolutely no problem with this. I’ve split the interview into two parts and will run the second one next week.

(Be warned that some of the content of the interview is a bit colorful–nothing graphic, but don’t read it if your boss is looking over your shoulder)

So, without further ado, here’s Adelstein:

Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed by MFT!

My pleasure.

The bakuto, ancestors of the yakuza, were gamblers but not much is known (in the English world) about the yakuza’s current connections to underground gambling. One well known academic claims that there are well over 1,000 illegal casinos in Tokyo alone, all with yakuza connections. Sound true to you?

I don’t know if there are over 1,000 illegal casinos–it would seem reasonable to say that there are a lot of gambling dens in Tokyo–including mah-jong parlors. The “casino” as is typically imagined is something that many Japanese people can now experience by buying a cheap ticket to Macau or somewhere else and this has limited the appeal of the underground casino parlors. In the TMPD, the 生活安全部 (seikatsu anzenbu, Community Safety Bureau) is typically the section that busts the gambling dens and casinos but they have a huge area of responsibility and in terms of man-power they can probably only afford to bust two or three casinos a year if they are going to handle anything else. Maybe five at maximum.  Of course, betting on fights, sports events, that kind of stuff–the yakuza will always have a hand running bookie operations.  I think the number is a little high if you really mean “casino” but as for little venues where illegal gambling is conducted, probably accurate.  When J-League was super-popular, the yaks took a lot of bets on soccer game outcomes. However, casinos can make a lot of money and the baccarat types are very popular. The TMPD raided a place in Kabukicho called MARKS, in May of this year, and that one illegal earned close to ten million dollars in half a year.

In the past few years, off-shore betting sites targeting Japanese have popped up. Do you suspect yakuza connections to these as well?

I would suspect as much.  Many porn producers now make uncensored versions of their DVDS to sell overseas and gambling site operators must realize that operating overseas is much safer than doing it in Japan. I can’t think of a case where off-shore betting sites run by Japanese have resulted in criminal prosecutions. Kajiyama Susumu, the so-called Emperor of Loan Sharks, from 2000 to 2003 (if my memory is correct) used to play millions of dollars in cash in a safe deposit box of a Las Vegas casino with offices in Japan and then withdraw the money in Las Vegas (in chips)–making him a whale (VIP). There certainly is evidence that the yakuza gamble overseas so setting up an operation overseas to do betting with Japanese customers is highly probable. I once entertained an offer from the Sumiyoshikai (Ed–One of the top 3 yakuza organizations) to run a Japanese porn (uncensored) network and the servers from the United States but turned it down on moral grounds. Maybe if the pay offered had been better? (LOL)

Ever heard any stories as to why the baccarat games are so popular, or the extent to which Japanese love them? When I was in Macau I saw whole casino floors devoted solely to baccarat.

I think it reminds Japanese guys of James Bond movies. It’s that simple. It’s “cool.”

Is the Hoanka the same division in charge of busting the other types of fuuzoku (Adult Entertainment Establishments)? Any interesting stories with sei (sex) fuuzoku busts?

The Hoanka does fuzoku busts. Well, I heard that when the wrestler and porn star, Chocolate Ball Mukai, was arrested for doing a live sex demonstration (public indecency) at a “happening” bar that he panicked and literally got stuck inside the girl he was having sex with–supposedly this also happens with dogs, and it took a few minutes for him to dislodge. I made it to the tail end of the raid (no pun intended) so I did not get to see Chocolate Ball in action or in a “fucklock” so I can’t tell you if it’s true or not. One of the cops on the raid says that they had to douse him with cold water to get him off the girl but I think he was pulling my leg.  I could never tell with that guy when he was kidding and when he wasn’t.  By the way, I don’t know why he was called Chocolate Ball Mukai. A Happening Bar is often a swingers club but definitions of what one is tend to very.

I’d love to hear that story about the Nanako-kai running a gambling outfit in Roppongi!

In the fall of 2002, if my memory serves me correctly, the Nakano-kai (now disbanded) was running a gambling casino in Roppongi–in Sumiyoshikai turf. The Sumiyoshikai enforcers busted into the casino and a fight ensued. The Nakanokai guys ran out into the street and one of them was cut down with a sword near the bar Propaganda. It was an immense amount of blood and when the guy got sliced–it looked kind of like an invisible hand had folded a walking paper doll. I could hear yelling and I always imagined I heard a “swoosh” but probably that’s exactly that imagination.  It was a huge bloody mess. It never made the papers. I was out the night drinking with drug cops and went to Azabu PD who filled me in on the details but didn’t announce the incident.  The Nakanokai guy lived apparently, so maybe he just go sliced up pretty bad. I think the police didn’t announce it because they didn’t want a gang war breaking out. My boss at the time was not interested in the story either.  The police do this now and then. For instance, the shooting in Yokohama yesterday—the shooter was identified as an Inagawa-kai member but the victims were not identified as Yamaguchi-gumi members. Associates might be a better word. Hayashi-san, the shooter, was defending his turf from a sneaky invasion by the Yamaguchi-gumi. Pardon me for digressing here but i wanted to illustrate my point.

Was there any mention of any civilians/katagi being hurt in this fight? Being customers of the casino, there would have been a lot of them, right?

Nope the fight took place on the streets outside the bar.

Casino legalization in Japan seems to be moving forward and its possible that a law will be passed in the next couple of years. What do the yakuza, who currently have a de facto monopoly on casinos, think of this? For that matter, what does the NPA?

Oh, I’m sure the yakuza aren’t that concerned not the smart ones. They have a much better casino to profit off of: The Japanese stock market. Koizumi’s relaxation of the financial laws made it very easy for them to set up front companies, venture capital outfits, anonymous investor unions, securities companies and even auditing firms. They are still in a wonderful position to game the market.  The yakuza know that if you want to win gambling–you have to be the house and they have been very effective in doing it.  There’s a hell of a lot more money to be made on moving stock and high finance crimes than there is skimming profits from a casino.  There have been some amazing cases in the last few years. Close to 100 million dollars vanishing in the Goodwill buyout of Crystal.  Then there was Lehman Brother Japan losing 350 million dollars in a deal involving people with yakuza ties.  That’s a lot of money.  More than any illegal casino could ever touch.

As for the legalization of casinos,  I’m sure the NPA is excited about having a new means of making sure that they all retire to cushy white collar jobs.  Probably someone is already planning to set up the casino equivalent of the Traffic Safety Association.  I’m sure Ishihara is plotting to set up a casino in Tokyo and he has sent city staff overseas on fact-finding missions about gambling to Las Vegas and other places.

That’s all for now. Check out Part 2 next Monday at 9am JST!

16 thoughts on “Gambling and the Yakuza: An Interview with Jake Adelstein”

  1. Great to see MFT interviewing Adelstein. Looking forward to part 2. I have just finished ‘Tokyo Vice’ myself and will blog my review soon.

    For future interviews, if there’s an opportunity to solicit questions from MFT readers in advance, that might be a nice way to further engage the MFT readership with interviewees. Not a criticism of what is already an interesting interview, just food for thought for future interviews.

  2. Great interview. I’ve read a ton of generic Jake Adelstein interviews lately, but the guy really knows his underground stuff!

  3. Thanks for doing this! This interview is pretty amazing. I saw homey on the daily show and was amazed at how nervous he was: if a guy who famously faced down a yakuza boss is that scared of john stewart, what does he know about stewart that we don’t? Looking forward to part 2!

  4. Great interview. How was it conducted, by internet chat or telephone or in person? I’m wondering how the parenthese were said, if they were “said.”

  5. @Gen: Thanks! I told him to check out the comments thread, so if you have any questions why not ask them here?

    @ schultzz: Maybe he’s afraid Jon Stewart will cause a hurricane to hit his house. Oh wait, he’s Jewish too so I guess that doesn’t work. Seriously, it just looks like he’s not used to fame. I don’t think he was all that well known before he decided self-promotion was his best survival strategy.

    @ Curzon: It was mainly conducted over the internet.

  6. Maybe Ben could follow up the interview with his own review of the book for us? I think it’s pretty obvious that of everyone here he’s the most qualified to handle anything on this topic.

  7. Cool interview!

    Chocoball Mukai got his moniker from his porn days because of the likeness of his nads to チョコボール candy. This was revealed in Karl Taro Greenfeld’s book, Speed Tribes (which has also been discussed on this blog in the past, if I remember correctly), where he was known as “Choco Bon Bon.”

    In Kansai, a happening bar is like a カップル喫茶 except they let “wolves” (single men) in – for a hefty price. Single, attractive women can get in for free, and couples pay to get in, but not nearly as much as wolves.

  8. Justin,
    Thanks for enlightening me on Chocoball Mukai. I’m a little bit wiser–and for the Kansai definition of a happening bar.
    Did I appear nervous on the Daily Show? I didn’t feel that nervous.
    The yakuza make me as nervous as hell. I’m hardly the man of steel.
    The most heroic thing I did this week was throw myself at a chinpira who attacked a friend and plunge through a glass door–in my dreams. I woke up after slamming myself into the wall in my sleep. Sleep walking at its worst. I felt incredibly stupid for doing it as well.
    It’s kind of interesting in pain that you imagine in a dream feels so real when you wake up.

    While I’m trying to drift off to sleep here’s my anecdote for the day. A low-level yak complained to me that the police are really cracking down these days and I asked him for an example. To which he replied, “In the old days, when you had a score to settle or needed to make a point–you’d say to your enemy, 命だけ勘弁してやるよ and then shoot him in the legs. That was usually just assault, if you got caught–but these days–just pointing a gun at a guy and firing in his general direction gets you charged with attempted murder. That’s a big difference.”

  9. Jake – book looks great. I’ll definitely be buying a copy.

    “That was usually just assault, if you got caught”

    Am I the only one remembering the “world series of dice” sketch on Chappell’s Show with Charlie Murphy shooting the guy in the leg because it is just an assault charge?

    Also, I just have to ask – why “Japan Subculture Research Center”? When I heard it first, I was expecting maid cafes and vinyl jacket scans.

  10. > just pointing a gun at a guy and firing in his general direction
    LOL! Maybe this is a more serious situation because it puts other people at risk.

    > why “Japan Subculture Research Center”?
    I thought it was a tribute to “Japan Culture Lab” from that classic “A Japanese Tradition: Sushi” clip.


    One of the coolest phrases I ever heard was from a guy who cut off a black Cima with “smoked” windows near Yao Airport. When they stopped at a signal, a big, ugly guy with scars on his face got out, walked up to this guy’s car, reached in through the open window and grabbed this guy’s nose firmly between his knuckles. The yak pulled this guy partway out the window by his nose and growled, “堅気は堅気らしく運転せぇ。”

    At serious drinking sessions, we used variations of that phrase (by replacing the verb) for YEARS.

  11. 堅気は堅気らしく本を書けえ。Justin, I loved that story. Why Japan Subculture Research Center? Mmm….I wanted freedom to write about more than organized crime and I thought Subculture was a good catch-all phrase.

  12. Tokyo Vice is a great title but JSRC puts you in some strange company. I Googled the name and got an article called “Snowball construction by a feral troop of Japanese macaques ( Macaca fuscata ) living under seminatural conditions” on page 5 along with a bunch of stuff about lolicom manga.

  13. Great interview. Glad I happened upon it, especially after seeing 60 Minutes’ piece on Jake’s big story a few weeks back. Especially interesting here were the bits about the North Korean business owners being put under threat and the unreported yakuza violence. It really is incredible to think that an incident involving a man being sliced with a sword out in the open in Japan got hushed up like that. What I’m wondering – and maybe you can help me out on this, Jake – is how you can have cases like this while, at the same time, the police are supposedly lowering their tolerance for violence (as said by the low-level yak you refer to). OK, so they’re trying to keep the yakuza relatively calm and prevent gang wars and whatnot, but where do they draw the line? Is it only when non-yakuza are victimized that the police step in?

  14. The sword attack in Roppongi was a few years back so its not indicative of the current situation but generally the cops really clamp down on yakuza when civilians are injured. Yakuza on yakuza crimes get serious treatment from the police but not the media furor. And a yakuza on yakuza won’t even get half of the manpower devoted to cases where yakuza hurt civilians. There are an increasingly number of vocal yakuza victims or widows of the victims that are creating a definite negative public image of the yaks but movements to get rid of them on the citizen level are still weak. In many cases, the police are suggesting to the local populace they should bond together to keep out the yakuza long before the locals decide to do it themselves.

  15. Thanks for the clarification, Jake. It sounds like real progress has been made in turning around the “see no evil” approach the police seemingly used to take when it comes to yakuza violence. I’ll definitely give your book a look.

  16. Yakuza, it appears as though the Gentleman fron the great white north
    will have the incense from my helmet, or nothing at all.

    Perhaps you should remove my body.

    matsu tu nomo

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