Former Japanese beauty queen takes on yakuza
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Ikumi Yoshimatsu, former winner of the Miss International contest, has suffered pressure and harassment at the hands of Japan’s yakuza. FRANCE 24 takes a look at her story, and a shifting tide that finds Japanese mafia facing greater scrutiny.
Last year’s Miss International beauty contest winner, Ikumi Yoshimatsu, says she has endured more than a year of pressure from people with ties to the Japanese mafia.
Her story has transformed her into an icon of resistance against Japan’s yakuza (members of the country’s organised crime groups), who have infiltrated Japanese society to what many say is an alarming degree. Since going public with her experiences, Yoshimatsu’s blog has drawn more than a million visitors.
According to the 26-year-old Yoshimatsu, trouble started last spring, even before she won. She was working as an actress and model, and the most powerful Japanese talent agency, Burning Productions, expressed an interest in having one of their associates represent her. Yoshimatsu says she refused the offer, because of the alleged ties the agency has with the powerful Yamaguchi-gumi crime group.
“Morally and ethically, I cannot work with such people or their associates, nor do I want to,” Yoshimatsu said at a press conference in Tokyo on December 16.
Yakuza are known to have a strong influence over the Japanese entertainment industry, with high-level gang members wielding unofficial control of several top talent agencies.
Yoshimatsu says that Genichi Taniguchi, the agent that Burning Productions wanted to represent her, began harassing her by making threatening phone calls to her family, appearing unannounced at her photo shoots and having her trailed by private detectives.
Yoshimatsu has filed criminal charges and a restraining order against Taniguchi. Taniguchi has denied the allegations, claiming that he was simply trying to track down the actress’s American manager, Matt Taylor, because Taylor owed him money.
Goldman Sachs with guns
Though the former beauty queen’s act of resistance is an isolated one, her refusal to follow the mafia’s lead points to an evolution in Japanese society. Until recently, the influence of the yakuza went largely unquestioned in many professional sectors in Japan.
“[The yakuza is] actually a semilegal entity with offices, business cards and fan magazines,” wrote Japan-based investigative journalist Jake Adelstein in Foreign Policy magazine in December 2012.
An estimated 60,000 yakuza are divided into 22 gangs throughout the country. Though they initially specialised in illegal activities like racketeering, prostitution, influence peddling and murder, a 2011 crackdown caused them to get more involved in industries like finance and entertainment. Still, the yakuza’s brutal methods remain unchanged.
The diversification of yakuza activities allowed the 40,000-member Yamaguchi-gumi gang to become even more influential, boosted by an image that is, according to Adelstein, more “Goldman Sachs with guns” than anything like the muscular brutes brought to the big screen in Japanese gangster films by Takeshi Kitano.
But if Yoshimatsu felt comfortable enough to speak out against them, the likelihood is that Tokyo has decided to get tougher with the yakuza. Her press conference indeed comes just as Japan’s authorities are opening investigations into links between several big Japanese banks and prominent mafia figures.
Japan’s decision to tighten their surveillance of yakuza activity comes after US President Barack Obama’s 2011 executive order calling for the seizure of any assets belonging to the Japanese crime groups, as well as his decision, one year later, to put the Yamaguchi-gumi on a blacklist of international crime organisations.
Such moves seem to have convinced Tokyo that the yakuza can no longer be tolerated, even if they are central to Japan’s economy. The new stance is well-timed, given that Tokyo has been chosen to host the 2020 Olympic games.
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