A former gangster who left the yakuza underworld several years ago said putting his criminal past behind him and living a normal life has proven “as hard as living on a different planet.”
“Living a life as ‘katagi’ (law-abiding citizen) is very difficult,” said the man, who currently works a blue-collar job in demolition.
It has been 30 years since Japan started a sweeping clampdown on organized crime, which thinned the ranks of the yakuza across Japan and caused many gangsters just like this man to rethink their ways.
But while the country’s legal reforms have proved successful, they have offered little in the way of salvation for former gangsters, many of whom find it even harder to hold down a normal life.
This man said he grew up poor in eastern Japan and had dropped out of high school when he decided to join a gang.
“I’ll make a name for myself in ‘gokudo’ (the yakuza world),” he said he thought at the time.
So, at about the age of 18, he started hanging out at a local gang office.
But life became a lot harder for gangsters in 1992, when the Anti-Organized Crime Law was put into force.
His higher-ups were designated as part of an organized crime group under the law. Since the government had banned racketeering on the back of a gang, many members suddenly found themselves hard up for cash.
More and more of his fellow gang members were arrested over strong-arming businesses and other criminal acts.
The man himself was put behind bars many times for blackmail and other charges.
An “anti-gang” sentiment had gradually spread among the public, clipping the wings of his organization.
Hotels and golf resorts started refusing to let in gang members.
That affected the lives of his family members, he said.
He started thinking that he wanted a normal life. But it took several years for him to drop his life of crime.
He had already become a senior member in his gang by this time, and he owed many people who helped him climb the ranks.
But he was also insecure about leaving, he said.
“I was concerned whether someone like me, who has been a member of a gang for a long time, could really live in normal society,” he said.
And because of that, it took some time for him to make his life-changing decision.
But he is now keenly aware the path towards social reintegration for reformed gang members is steeper than he had first thought.
By 2011, local governments nationwide had introduced exclusionary ordinances against active gang members.
Even those who have severe ties with a criminal organization are subject to some regulations.
He said he is not able to open a bank account or sign a rental agreement or a loan contract in his own name.
He fears he may well lose his current life over some small, insignificant matter, he said.
He also said changing his learned mannerisms and habits, such as the volume of his voice, his choice of vocabulary and his gait, has been harder than trying to learn something entirely new.
He said he is at pains every day trying not to slip up by showing any of his old mannerisms.
He never speaks about his past, but there are people in his old neighborhood who know about it.
He said he worries a lot now but tells himself every day, “I’m a new person.”
The year 2022 marked the 30th anniversary of the anti-gang law. The number of gang members in Japan has been on the decline for 17 straight years.
There were more than 90,000 members before the law came into effect, but that dropped by more than 70 percent over the years.
There still were about 24,000 as of the end of 2021, though.
Some wish to cut their ties to the criminal underworld but simply cannot do so because of these high barriers.
“To be a ‘katagi’ person, you’ll need more than just to be prepared to be ‘born again,’” the man said.
Police and the National Center for Removal of Criminal Organizations have ramped up their efforts to support those who have severe ties with a gang so they can be reintegrated into society.
As of April, the center’s branches in 37 prefectures, including Tokyo, had signed a job-assistance collaboration agreement.
Since 2012, more than 5,600 people have cut ties with a gang group thanks to police support.
But another former gang member in his 60s, who used to belong to an organization based in the Kansai region, said more support is needed for those ending their life of crime.
“There are guys who will lose their jobs and homes once they quit gang life,” the man said. “In many cases, guys want to quit but it’s hard to break out.”