How the Yakuza Make Money: Drug Smuggling and Sales

-by Tyler McPeek

This is the third installment of my blog posts about the Japanese mafia (yakuza).  For disclaimers about the sources of my knowledge being personal, rather than research-based, and information that is left out of these posts for purposes of loyalty and safety, see the introductions to the earlier posts.  These posts should be regarded as "fictional memoir."

Drug smuggling is, predictably, a major business in Japan.  Still, compared to other developed nations, drug use is not as widespread among the general public, so it would be fair to call it a sub-culture activity.  Most of the yakuza I’ve known don’t do drugs as adults, but most of them tried everything from huffing chemical vapors to whatever else they had access to in high school.  Drug dealing and use in Japan is a very serious crime with a very bad reputation.  Compared with the United States, for example, it’s regarded to be a much more taboo activity.  Also, little distinction is drawn between drugs like marijuana and heroine or experimentation and addiction.  This has resulted in a rather nasty consequence, that those who partake of illegal drugs take a kind of reasoning that if they are willing to smoke marijuana, they might as well try more serious and more addictive drugs, since they see little distinction in terms of risk and public shame.  While marijuana and hallucinogens (mostly mushrooms, but also some other LSD/ecstasy-type stuff have been legally sold in specialty shops—though they are still hard to find) have a fair popularity, a type of crystal methamphetamine called “syabu” / シャブ is probably the most popular drug in Japan.  In my estimation, the reasons for this are three: easy to smuggle with no odor and only small quantities required to get high for long periods, easier than other drugs to manufacture, and highly addictive.   The profit margin for syabu is high, and the availability to criminals looking to profit from it is also high (I will get to the reasons for this shortly).  Syabu can be smoked with a glass pipe or aluminum can or it can be injected using small, insulin needles.  It is easier to inject than heroine, because it dissolves in normal purified water easily and doesn’t require any heating, thus a thinner needle can be used, such as disposable insulin injection needles.  Smoking it is usually done by beginners or casual users.  Regular users will be more concerned with the quality (which is not as relevant for smoking) and will invariably prefer injection, as the effect is quicker, stronger, more efficient, and requires less syabu to achieve the desired effect.  While it all looks pretty much the same, quality can be tested by dropping a small crystal in a glass of water and watching the degree of violence with which the crystal swirls around in the glass.  For these varied reasons, syabu is the Japanese drug of choice for both sales and consumption.  I’ll focus on syabu in this post, though there are a lot interesting things to say about use and sales of other drugs in Japan.  Also, the sale of marijuana and hallucinogens in Japan is not as much the realm of the yakuza as syabu is, and therefore not as relevant to the current topic.

I remember a few years back the Japanese coast guard spotted a Korean fishing boat in their waters and deemed it suspicious (probably because they were already aware that the North Koreans disguise their spy boats as fishing boats when operating in the Sea of Japan).  They ordered the boat to stop, but instead the boat immediately starting fleeing back to North Korean, prompting a somewhat futile chase.  The superior Japanese coast guard ship, after firing warning shots and ordering the ship to halt repeatedly, fired on the Korean boat with large caliber deck machine guns.  The Korean boat was badly damaged and sank to the bottom of the sea with everything and everyone onboard, before it could be boarded and searched by the coast guard.  The ship was, however, eventually raised and inspected.  The ship seemed to be a normal fishing boat, except that it was loaded with electronic spy gear and the entire hull was filled with crystal-meth (syabu).  The media did not speculate much on where that ship was headed or why, though it was obvious that the drugs were intended for Japan.  I remember at the time that I knew immediately where the ship was headed, since it was probably headed for the waters off the remote area of my prefecture on the west coast of Japan.  I lived in an area that was close to North Korea and contains one of the largest Japanese air force bases, intended to protect against a North Korean attack.  American-built F15s maneuvered constantly in the skies over my house.  Another reason why the proximity to North Korea was significant is that it was a major inlet for drug smuggling. Another thing that happened that I remember is when a smuggling bail of syabu was found washed up on one of our prefecture’s northern beaches.

How the system works is that the North Korean government produces syabu in its factories (that and counterfeit currency being the government’s two primary exports and sources of income—though more recently heroine production by prison inmates for Western consumption has hit the news).  Both of these products are exported by either traditional ship and air smuggling, or in diplomatic mail pouches to their overseas embassies (contents of mail pouches marked “diplomatic” may not be inspected, as per international agreements).  Overseas diplomats support themselves through illegal activities in their host countries, as well as sending profits home in many cases.  However, while counterfeit currency is effectively transported in mail pouches, drugs are both more risky and require more bulk, so traditional ship smuggling is preferable.  The system that has been devised is quite ingenious.  The drugs are brought by North Korean spy ship or by South Korean mafia boats to the Sea of Japan, as close as possible and within pre-decided upon areas.  They are then sunk to the bottom of shallower waters with radio beacons attached.  The yakuza have the frequencies for the beacons and therefore the ability to find the sunken treasure.  Payment is delivered to the North Koreans through middlemen (sometimes Iranians and sometimes South Korean partners—as far as I know).  The drugs are brought back to shore on real Japanese fishing boats at night (when many types of fishermen operate anyway), then distributed to the sales arm from the smuggling arm of the operation.  Sales are often performed at the lower levels, in the city by small cells of Iranians (if you noticed the connection between the use of North Koreans and Iranians in this operation and wondered if it is a coincidence or not—it’s not! –if you doubt Iranian involvement, consider the fact that famous Japanese porn actress, Minako Komukai / 小向美奈子 [yes, porn actress can achieve mainstream fame in Japan, it’s not a prude place at all, she is gratuitously pictured below, by me] was just arrested from purchasing syabu from an Iranian drug ring in February of 2011–she then fled the country to the Philippines before returning to Tokyo).  The fact that the yakuza cooperate with two enemies of Japan and the USA in this enterprise for profit is one of the reasons why I would say that at the higher levels, claims by the yakuza to be modern day nationalists and keepers and protectors of the ancient bushido chivalry code of japan is largely bullshit and PR marketing for public consumption to garner support and confuse the public perception of the mafia in Japan.  Of course, they might argue, if they admitted to such activity, that they cooperate with enemies of the State and its allies to destabilize the current government, which is does not support the right-wing nationalist parties in Japan, but that also makes little sense for a number of reasons, including the fact that the yakuza does little to nothing to support those parties (such as the “uyoku” / 右翼団体, pictured left) domestically.  Still, it’s not uncommon to hear a yakuza spouting uyoku-type beliefs and ideology over mahjong or drinks, but they rarely get involved with or support those groups in any meaningful way..  I digress.

Libertarian philosophy toward the sale of drugs or no, nobody can deny that syabu destroys lives beyond the risk and shame of being caught.  It causes severe physical damage to the body in a very short amount of time and decimates ones life savings in a near equal amount of time.  Injection of drugs in Japan does not per se have the same negative perception that it does in the USA.  It is not really considered to be the last refuge of a hard-core drug user, as it might be in many places.  It is simply one of several methods of ingesting drugs, along with oral ingestion and smoking, that the general public knows nothing about and views all together with equal disapproval.  So, drug users arrive at injection as a method of ingestion rather quickly after starting in many cases.  From there, it’s all downhill.  A typical user will keep needles around and use them maybe only once or twice before throwing them away.  You only need one or two doses per binge and you will be going for days on end with no sleep.  You also have no hunger for food at all, which makes it appealing to dieting women, who are blind to the other nasty side-effects to ones appearance (dark circles under the skin, damage to the skin and teeth, and an overall emaciated look that makes one look like a walking zombie (see bottom-left).  Usually, users will measure their consumption using the mg measurements on the side of the syringe, by putting the crystals in the syringe dry at first.  Then, after measuring they suck bottled water into the syringe by small increments through the needle and keep shaking it up.  When the crystals disintegrate completely upon shaking, with a minimum amount of water, the dose is ready.  Then, instead of using a string to tie the arm at the bicep, like you would see in a movie, it is enough just to squeeze ones thumb in a fist and pump the arm up and down at the elbow.  A visible vein will usually pop out in the crook of the arm at that point—try it and see.  The drug is then injected by sticking the very thin needle (almost painlessly) at an angle to enter the vein.  To test whether the entrance to the vein was successful, one pulls the plunger on the syringe outward to see if blood enters the clear liquid in the syringe.  At this point one can already “taste” the first bit of liquid on the edge of the syringe in their blood.  They then push in and pull out on the syringe a couple times, pumping the drug into the body, cycled with ones own blood.  With a final push, they get all of the drug in, then pull the needle out, quickly replacing it with a tissue to catch a drop of blood the will come from the hole and close their arm at the elbow, holding the tissue in place for a few minutes that way, until there is no chance of bleeding (only several seconds).  The user will experience several minutes of initial feelings of ecstasy, depending on their tolerance level, then a general content and good feeling for many hours after, until they will eventually want more, unless they are too exhausted, in which case they might drift out of consciousness after many hours, even days with no food and no sleep, drinking only water or tea for sustenance.  In the case of smoking, they will ingest the drug several times at intervals of only a few hours, during a given binge period, which might also last two or three days, even more in some cases.  Collapsed veins sometimes cause addicts to look for points of injection in more painful places, like the forearms or feet (where the veins are smaller, further from the skin, and harder to find), but this is not so common, because use of the drug at that frequency will probably cause the person to run out money, become very ill, or die before getting to that point.

The smuggling and sales operations described above would fall into the category of top-level yakuza activity by my estimation, based on the ratings of activity by rank of involvement that I described in my earlier posts.  These operations are very profitable and require international cooperation and money transfers available only to those with access to the top ranked bosses.  The profits generated are huge and thus also require access to the top-level money laundering and investment network of the national leadership and national offices of the organizations, in this case Yamaguchi-gumi offices in Kobe.  Also, while much of the dealing itself is done by foreigners out of cities like Nagoya (with a high foreign population and a central location for distribution), the sales arm requires access to the full resources of the lower members all the way down to the bottom.  Management of this size would only be trusted to, or effectively managed by the top people.  Likewise, I came by this information in specificity only through my relationships with regional bosses and those in yakuza upper-management positions.  While national management is not my area of expertise, in fact I am not an expert at all, I should note that while my use of terms like “upper-management” might seem strange when referring to an organized crime family, that this is not “la cosa nostra” we are talking about.  Loyalty, brotherhood, shared race, and tradition are important to the yakuza, as to the Italian-American mafia; however, the yakuza, unlike many other criminal organizations, is not in hiding and is run, in most respects, like a Fortune 500 company would be.  It’s existence is very public.  One of my friends father’s is head of a large area in southern Japan.  Though he is yakuza, he like many other upper-level yakuza was recruited out of a top Tokyo university (like Tokyo University / 東大) and is an expert in finance.  This is typical these days, that many of the top people did not rise through the ranks as killers and criminals, but rather were recruited as graduates, sometimes due to tenuous connections to the organization that makes them trustworthy and susceptible to such an offer, and were educated in management, finance, economics, or law.  This is not to say that such people are ignorant of the yakuza’s activities, just to say that the sources of the money are often irrelevant to their daily decision making, which is more like that of a fund or foundation manager than that of a crime boss.  Still, upper-management is a mix of those who manage the activities and rely on their criminal minds and experience for expertise and thus who find ways to compound, hide, and launder the organizations ample cash assets.

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