Doctor stitches respectability onto Japanese thugs

September 21, 1992|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau

FUKUI, Japan -- This town of weaving mills and prefect bureaucrats has become a busy stop on an above-ground railroad that leads hoodlums up from Japan's underworld of swaggering, tattooed yakuza gangsters.

The man to see is Dr. Mitsuo Yoshimura.

Gangsters know him as the surgeon who cuts off toes and attaches them to the stubs of pinkie fingers lopped off years ago as atonement for offenses against their gangland bosses.

Dr. Yoshimura charges $3,500 a pinkie. It's a bargain, for every Japanese knows a missing pinkie means yakuza. So does a florid, full-body tattoo, but that can be covered with a shirt.

"I have 32 patients booked right now for that one operation," Dr. Yoshimura said. "About 100 more are waiting for examinations. My schedule is so crowded with yakuza that other patients are getting cranky about how long it takes to book their surgery."

In Tokyo, senior officials of Japan's National Police Agency say that Dr. Yoshimura's scheduling problem means they are making headway by using a new anti-gang law in a 6-month-old drive against organized crime.

Spokesmen say the new law has enabled them, for the first time, to organize social pressure and help communities fight back against yakuza incursions. Under the law, police have designated all the biggest yakuza gangs as organized crime units and have had them and 42,600 of the country's estimated 63,800 yakuza gangsters banned from normal business activities.

But not every expert agrees that the law is hitting the yakuza where they now live.

In fact, some say, yakuza kingpins, whose gangs once had a tolerated if unwelcome role at the margins of Japanese life, have gone straight to the society's power centers in the past few years.

They now have allies who help them borrow hundreds of millions of dollars from banks and brokerage houses. They run scores of lucrative resort hotels and golf courses, go into joint ventures with unsuspecting or terrorized businessmen and take over medium-size companies in order to loot them and their pension funds. Their influence has reached all the way to the Liberal Democratic Party kingmaker who put Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa into office last fall.

One yakuza-connected project in the United States even had the help of President Bush's brother. Prescott Bush was to get $1 million in commissions for helping to close a $5 million deal, but it went sour and dissolved into lawsuits and bankruptcy proceedings. Prescott Bush says he didn't know the deal had a gangland connection.

"Since 1985 . . . the yakuza have gone completely out of control," said Seiji Iishiba, a former police gang-squad officer who is now the country's best-known anti-yakuza lawyer. "The position has been totally reversed. They used to have to buy help from the Liberal Democratic Party. Now the LDP goes to them to beg for money and favors."

"The new law aims at traditional activities like prostitution and drug-running that the yakuza always used to depend on," Mr. Iishiba said. "But those little guys who are getting out, that's because the kingpins do so much better in the new activities, and they don't want so many people around anymore."

There have been changes. For decades, yakuza were so brazen that they printed business cards and stationery with their gang names and phone numbers and emblazoned their office doors with the unit's name and symbol. Now, the police say, they have begun to hide behind the names of other organizations.

Yakuza wives have charged their husbands in court with wife-beating for the first time. Neighborhood associations have won court orders banning yakuza activities in kingpins' houses. Hoods have called up to tell police they have given up their guns, leaving them in train station lockers. A telephone hot line has received thousands of calls from men who say they are hoods who want out. It is that hot line that refers yakuza callers to Dr. Yoshimura.

The Yamaguchi-gumi, the country's biggest yakuza gang, even went to court to challenge the new law as a violation of hoodlums' human rights. But Mr. Iishiba says that pressuring a few thousand hoods out of the gangs only helps the overlords to streamline their rapidly modernizing operations.

"They've gone way beyond what you see in 'Mimbo no Onna,' " he said. "Mimbo no Onna" is a new movie -- "Gang-fighting Woman" -- directed by Juzo Itami, the hottest independent filmmaker in Japan.

Based on a book by Mr. Iishiba, the movie ridicules the yakuza and gives detailed lessons in defending against its traditional bullying and extortion.

Mr. Itami, the movie's director, is recuperating from an attack last month in which three thugs jumped him outside his home and ripped open his face with knives. The attack has made him a national hero, at least for the moment.

But the yakuza, which control many movie houses, have severely restricted showings of "Mimbo no Onna," and therefore Mr. Itami's profits from it. Many Japanese studios are gang-related and never sup

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