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By David Amoruso

The Yakuza is not doing so great. According to Japan’s National Police Agency, the total membership in Yakuza organized crime groups dropped below 60,000 for the first time since police started keeping records. Last year, all the Yakuza groups combined had 58,600 members, down from about 63,200 in 2012.

Membership has been going down for decades, but things are getting grim for the Yakuza as it seems that Japanese society as a whole is fed up with the gangs. Add to that the global economic crisis and tougher anti-Yakuza laws and becoming a gangster isn’t as attractive as it once was.

In 1991, Japan’s police created the Law Concerning Prevention of Unjust Acts by Boryokudan Members, also known as the Organized Crime Countermeasures Act. With this law, authorities banned eleven types of criminal activities such as extortionate acts, protection rackets, and loansharking.

In their book Yakuza: Japan’s Criminal Underworld, authors David E. Kaplan and Alec Dubro write that this law caused a big drop in Yakuza membership. “Police trumpeted reports of thousands of yakuza members retiring and scores of gangs disbanding. Newspapers ran stories about doctors removing tattoos and transplanting little toes to replace severed pinkies.”

But they are quick to point out that despite this drop in numbers, things weren’t that simple. “The new law did succeed in driving tens of thousands of mobsters out of their gang headquarters and off official gang rolls. But most did not leave the underworld; they merely shifted into harder-to-track associate and freelance roles. The law did help pare down overall numbers of yakuza by some 10,000, according to police statistics. By 1994, however, gang membership had stabilized at 80,000; nearly half were now designated ‘associates’.”

Yakuza gangs are known to be very visible and easy to find. They are quite unique in that way compared to other crime groups who operate in the shadows. But when under attack they will behave like any other criminal brotherhood and hide beneath the surface. So whether they really lost thousands of members or whether these just went underground has yet to be determined.

Still, though ‘official’ membership has dwindled, don’t be fooled. Yakuza gangs continue to hold enormous power. The Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan's biggest crime group, had 25,700 members in 2013. Despite losing 2,000 gangsters, that number makes the entire Italian American Mafia look like a small gathering of Fantasy Football enthusiasts. Even Yamaguchi-gumi rival, the Sumiyoshi-kai, had 9,500 members. Down 1,100 from a year before.

With that many men willing to commit violence and crimes on its behalf, the Yakuza has by no means lost its bite.

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