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Investigation of the Prewar Yakuza

Yuko Fujino
Assistant Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Recently, there are visible signs of gathering speed to eliminate crime syndicates from society. This is particularly notable in the world of sumo and entertainment. However, the question of why crime syndicates have existed in society is scarcely asked. When the historical development of Yakuza is traced to prewar Japanese society, we can see a figure extremely different from the feeling of the Yakuza as Antisocial crime syndicates.

Prewar Yakuza were actually remarkably public and co-opted. In the social phases, they controlled underclass works including civil and cargo works or box offices, namely, entertainment, sumo, and the like, and they played vital roles in people's lives. There was also a period when they were integrated into political systems as extra-governmental organizations of political parties.

I will now outline the role of prewar Yakuza, focusing attention especially on the aspects of the underclass work and party politics.

Rooted in underclass work

As labor contractors, prewar Yakuza fulfilled their roles of supply and control of work forces for industries such as public works, cargo handling, and coal mining, where a lot of blue-collar workers were required (Hiroaki Iwai, Structure of the Pathological Gangs [Byouri Syuudan No Kouzo] and Manabu Miyazaki, Yakuza and Japan [Yakuza To Nihon]).

In the public works industry, for example, contractors controlled workers and made them sleep crowded together on the floor in rooms called Dokatabeya (Hard Hat Room). In each room, workers formed ties, with bosses and their subordinates, and conducted fraternal sake cup rituals as in the gambling world, and in this respect, they were organized up to a point. The contractor, namely the boss, contracted out or sub-subcontracted out order received for construction to their subordinate rooms, depending on the size of the order and supplied the required labor force.

Through this subcontract, or sub-subcontract system, the end laborers were significantly exploited through the middlemen, through methods such as deducting room and board charges from daily wages and the like. While, to maintain this room system, it was vital to ensure the minimal livelihood of the laborers, moreover, muscular strength and virtue (the spirit of Robin Hood) were required to controlquick-tempered workers with bad behavior.

The reason why the violence was included in the civil works industry might have to do with the frequent bid-rigging. Because of the radical rise and fall of the industry, violence occurred frequently in times of competing bids. Thus, contractors called bid-digging advocates come along.

One of them, Tokusaburo Kawai, not only mediated bid-digging disputes, but he also enforced sanctions on contractors who broke bid-digging agreements, and it was said that he had a certain type of police authority and controlled the construction industry in the Taisho Period (History of Japanese Civil Work Industry [Nihon Doboku Kensetsugyou Shi]). Although contractors did not always have a good feeling toward him, Kawai was the key person when disputes occurred over bid-digging activities, and he exerted good mediation ability.

Incidentally, from the 1920s onward, Kawai established a film distributing company and a film studio, thus he advanced into the entertainment industry (Keiichiro Honjou, Shadowy B Movies-On the Progression of Daito Film [Maboroshino Bkyu Daito Eiga Ga Iku]).

In the development of parliamentary politics

In this way, the bosses of underclass work were brilliant with mobilization, mediation and violence. In due course, these capacities were added with political impact in the Taisho Period when party politics evolved, hence the bosses and political parties were rapidly getting closer (Eiko Siniawer, Ruffians, Yakuza, and Nationalists).

One of the aspects was the formation of political groups such as Taisyo Sekishin Dan, Dainippon Kokusui Kai, Yamato Minrou Kai, etc., comprising civil works contractors and gamblers under the umbrella of political parties. The former two groups, subject to the Seiyukai, conducted policing activities in which political parties can't directly engage, such as preventing the popular suffrage campaign, which became active in the period of the Hara Cabinet, or violently stepping into labor disputes. The aforementioned Kawai assisted in the set up period of the Dainippon Kokusui Kai as the key person (after this, he resigned the group and newly set up Yamato Minrou Kai, a non-Seiyukai group).

Another aspect was the birth of the boss assembly member. In 1915, Isokichi Yoshida, a boss of dock laborers at Wakamatsu, Fukuoka prefecture, backed by Kenseikai won the election of the House of Representative members, again in 1930, Asanosuke Hora, backed by the Seiyukai, also won the election. At the time when voting rights were expanding, this was proof that the human network and mediation ability of bosses of underclass work become valuable political resources for political parties. Although Kawai lost a national election, he won the Tokyo local assembly's elections in 1928 and 1932.

Rethinking modernization from the Dark Side

Thus, the bond between boss and subordinate, and the violent trend of prewar Yakuza were developed indivisibly with the development of capitalism and democracy. The Yakuza were rooted in the people's livelihood and approved by the political powers. In the postwar period, these bonds with labor and politics were denied, and the Yakuza developed into crime syndicates, namely, antisocial outlaw groups.

Traditional studies of history regard prewar Yakuza as Feudalistic and Reactionary, and its political and social roles have never been adequately revealed. The Dark side, which supported the modernization of Japan, should be placed at the front of discussion, and we should rethink the progress of the politics and society of modern Japan. This is an important agenda for the study of history. This study is to find out not only the prehistory of the crime syndicates, but to grasp the details of how our modern society-which tries to exclude the members of crime syndicates-was shaped. In that sense, this study is significant as well.

At Waseda University, a lecture meeting + symposium Japan: The Institution and Society and Culture of Cities - Reviewing through the Matatabi (stories of wandering gamblers) Movies, Yakuza, and Bad Boys will be held on November 12. Especially, in the second part of the symposium, historical researchers from Japan and the U.S. will argue from various perspectives about prewar Yakuza, Bad Boys, and Underclass Work from political, social, and cultural viewpoints. This will be the one step of the question from the Dark side about the modern era.

Lecture meeting + Symposium Japan: The Institution and Society and Culture of Cities - Reviewing through the Matatabi (stories of wandering gamblers) Movies, Yakuza, and Bad Boys -

Host: International Institute for Japanese Literature and Culture, Waseda University
Date: November 12, 2011 (Sat) from 13:30 to 17:30
Venue: 581 classroom of the 36 Building, Toyama campus, Waseda University

Part I Lecture Meeting - Approach from Literature and Film
Postwar History of Matatabi-mono - Journeying Sole Entity, or Dream Journey [Matatabi Mono no Sengosi - Idousuru Koritsusya, Mataha Yumeno Idou]
Toshio Takahashi (Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University)
Yakuza Movie and Postwar - War without a Code and the Memory of the Atomic Bomb [Yakuza Eigato Sengo - (Jinginaki Tatakai) to Genbaku no Kioku]
Jun Itsuki (Graduate College, Chikushi Jogakuen University)
Part II Symposium - Clarification based on historical science *Japanese will be used at the symposium
Bad Boys and Urban Spaces in Modern Tokyo [Huryo Syounen to Kindai Tokyo no Toshikukan]
David R. Ambaras (the University of North Carolina)
[Political Participation of Yakuza in Wartime - Reviewing Modern Era and Institution [Senkanki ni Okeru Yakuza no (Seiji Sanka) - Kindai Seido no Kensyou]
Eiko Mark Siniawer (Williams College)
Prewar Urban Underclass Work and Yakuza Culture [Senzen no Toshi Kasou Roudou to Ninkyou Bunka]
Yuko Fujino (Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University)
Discussion Modern Japanese Urban Institution and Society and Culture
David R. Ambaras + Eiko Mark Siniawer + Yuko Fujino

Aims and details of the Symposium (PDF)

Contact: International Institute for Japanese Literature and Culture, Waseda University
1-24-1 Toyama, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo
Telephone : 03-5286-3711
Email: wijlic@j-lit-cul.com

Yuko Fujino
Assistant Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Career Summary:
Prior to the current post as a Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, she attended the doctoral course at Graduate School of Letters, Arts and Society, Waseda University, assumed a position of a Research Assistant, Waseda Institute for East Asian Legal Studies and a Research Associate, the School of Culture, Media and Society, Waseda University.
Major: Modern Japanese and People's History
Lead letter: "Prewar Day Worker's Counterculture - Over the Practice of Pleasure Life" (Contained in the 737 Rekishi Hyoron)