and bred in Scotland, Peter Hill is currently a research associate
(a polite euphemism for unemployed hanger-on) at the Department
of Sociology, University of Oxford having failed to find a
proper job at the end of his British Academy Postdoctoral
Fellowship. The publications of which he is most proud are
The Japanese Mafia: Yakuza, Law and the State (Oxford
University Press: 2003) and a chapter on the Kamikaze in Making
Sense of Suicide Missions (ed. Gambetta, Oxford University
In total he has spent roughly 5 or 6 years in Japan mostly
in Iwate and Tokyo. He has degrees from the universities of
Leeds (Economics and Industrial Relations: 1988) and Stirling
(Japanese: 1996), graduated from the JLI programme at Sophia
and has a PhD in Japanese Studies from Stirling. His Japanese
February 28, 2005
ask this question because every answer is different: what
brought you to study Japan?
Can I start by thanking you for inviting me to be interviewed.
Given the eminence of your other interviewees, I feel honoured
degree was in Economics and Industrial Relations at Leeds
University. I had chosen both subject and university pretty
much at random but fortunately Leeds had a truly excellent
Karate club. At this stage of my life Karate was my main interest
in life and, when I graduated, all I really wanted to do was
go to Japan to train at the JKA Honbu dojo and acquire great
wisdom and superhuman powers of destruction. At that stage,
the martial arts were the only aspect of Japan that grabbed
me and I spoke no Japanese when I arrived other than mispronounced
karate terms. After nine months in Tokyo (and the JKA Honbu),
a chance acquaintance introduced me to his father’s friend
who taught Karate in a small fishing port in Iwate-ken. I
went up to meet him, we got drunk, broke some wooden boards
together and he invited me to stay. I was there for two years.
I returned to the UK and worked for two years as a school
teacher. Although, in retrospect, I think this is something
that I did do well, at the back of my mind I was plagued by
the idea that if I was ever to be better than mediocre at
anything in my life, being good at Japanese was my best shot.
I enrolled at Stirling University for a degree in Japanese
thinking that a few years would sort out the problem. Twelve
years on and I am still butchering the devil’s tongue.
What gets your vote for best and worst book on Japan?
I once reviewed a book about Japanese prisons by an American
penologist who didn’t seem to know much about Japan; he had
been taken round by interpreters/minders from the Ministry
of Justice, shown what they wanted him to see and given a
bunch of statistics. He had apparently swallowed this package
whole and the result was purely descriptive, uncritical and
dull. As a general rule I don’t persevere with books I don’t
like so it is perhaps unfair to single this particular book
out for abuse, but it is typical of a style of book I dislike.
I also have problems with essentialised treatments of Japan
or those which employ black-box cultural explanations of social
I think there are now a lot of very good books out there about
Japan. I recently finished Theodore Bester’s Tsukuji:
The Fish Market and the Center of the World (University
of California Press: 2004) which I thought was a splendid piece
of research. Closer to my own field, David Johnson’s The
Japanese Way of Justice: Prosecuting Crime in Japan (Oxford
University Press: 2001), is an excellent book.
What are you reading right now? In general, what do
you like to read?
I suppose one reason I have ended up as an unemployed academic
is that I am a pathological book junkie. I have to severely
ration my fiction intake otherwise I would never get any sleep.
Living in a town with such fantastic libraries and bookshops
is very dangerous.
I have just started Bjorn Lomborg’s Global Crises, Global
Solutions which is the report of the Copenhagen Consensus.
I think this is a really interesting attempt to prioritize
remedial action in the face of the many big problems facing
the world. I think they have been slightly disingenuous in
the way they have framed their treatment of global warming
(in their defense, perhaps this is a problem which defies
conventional economic analysis) but the book is a refreshingly
hard-nosed approach to tackling global misery. More strength
to their arm.
I am a big fan of popular science (Matt Ridley, Steve Jones,
Jared Diamond and Geoffrey Millar come to mind as particular
favourites). During my second degree, I was a part-time paratrooper
with the territorial army and I still furtively read military
non-fiction in an attempt to relive my brief and inglorious
Can you tell us a little more about your current projects?
What are you working on now? What future projects interest
I had planned to leave the academic business and to go back
to Japan and research a novel drawing on my two main research
interests, the yakuza and the special attack corps (kamikaze).
However, last October I fell in love and, as long as the woman
I love loves Oxford, here we stay. I am consequently hanging
around Oxford without gainful employment, trying to finish
off some academic projects and wondering whether I can still
afford to write the novel.
The purpose of my post-doc fellowship was to look at the relationship
between yakuza groups and non-Japanese criminal groups in
Kabuki-cho. I had a fantastic time doing fieldwork in Tokyo
over the course of 2003 and was incredibly lucky with the
contacts I made. However, due to a combination of impossibly
ambitious aspirations, a lack of concrete deadlines, and the
wonderful distractions Oxford has to offer, writing it up
has been less successful.
I am also currently helping organize a graduate workshop on
Economics and Organised Crime for the European Science Days
at Steyr in Austria. We have persuaded some very good people
indeed to join the faculty so it should turn out to be a very
worthwhile project (intellectually if not financially).
What books needs to be written on Japan? Will you
be writing it?
If I was to stay in the business, I would like to write (or
at least edit) a book covering crime, deviance, criminal justice
and social control in Japan. Japan is changing in all sort
of ways and it would be a fascinating exercise to look at
these changes through a criminological prism. Towards the
end of my fieldwork in Kabuki-cho, it struck me that it would
be a great site for a full-on ethnography; it is filled with
all sorts of interesting characters. Of course, it is a pretty
small place and many of the habitués would prefer not
to have their profiles raised but I think it could be done.
Whether or not my fiancée would be happy for me to
spend my nocturnal quality-time hanging out with the denizens
of Kabuki-cho is another question altogether.
study the Japanese Mafia/Yakuza?
There are all sorts of intellectual justifications for studying
marginalized and deviant groups. The truth is I fell into
this by accident; my karate sensei’s cousin was a famous gang
boss in the north of Japan and I met him several times and
it seemed like an interesting thing to write about for my
sotsuron at Sophia. The sotsuron grew into my undergraduate
dissertation at Stirling which, in turn, led to the PhD.
Tell us a little about the Yakuza: what are the essential
facts we should know?
I suspect that readers of Japan Review will know the basics
so I will confine my answer to one observation concerning
temporary trends amongst the yakuza, namely their self-presentation.
Not all yakuza currently drive Mercedes-Benz, have tattoos
or amputated fingers and hardly any of them have punch-permed
hair (so 1980s). This is not to say that they have all merged
with the general population. Ultimately these people only
have any relevance if they can present a credible threat of
violence. One way of visibly maintaining that threat is by
at least some gang members displaying reliable signifiers
of thuggery. Fashions change: the message remains the same.
Having said that, groups operating in legitimate markets however,
also require people who adopt a lower profile. One Yamaguchi-gumi
interviewee told me that his sub-group tries hard to look
like ordinary businessmen.
Tell us a little about your book, The Japanese
The book was based on my PhD thesis which was an investigation
into the effects of the 1992 boryokudan (yakuza)
countermeasures law (botaiho for short) on the yakuza. Of
course, the extraneous noise generated by the bursting of
the bubble and consequent economic slump made it impossible
to precisely identify what impact legal changes have had.
The book examines how the yakuza have changed over recent
decades taking into account both legal and economic changes.
Given the paucity of recent academic writing in English on
this subject, I think that my book does make a contribution
but I am all too aware of its deficiencies and there is certainly
scope for more research in this area. In particular, I think
that I was not particularly successful in integrating the
theoretical and empirical sections of my book. I was aware
of this at the time but my editors were keen to publish and
I wanted to move on to new projects. In the light of my more
recent fieldwork in Kabuki-cho, I feel that I could now more
powerfully argue the case that the core competence of yakuza
is the provision of private protection.
Perhaps I should add as a caveat that there is less racy ethnographic
detail in the book than some might like; when I was doing
my research, I was quite self-conscious about being identified
as a yakuza-groupie rather than a serious academic so I tried
to present my work in a fairly dry way. I am slightly more
relaxed about what I do now and am currently working on a
micro-ethnography of one aspect of my more recent fieldwork.
How does one go about systematically researching the
Yakuza? How did you develop contacts? How do you separate
fact from fiction? It seems that it would be difficult for
a foreigner to “blend in” the background and simply observe
Yakuza. How did you go about doing your field work? What was
particularly challenging? Any one particularly memorable?
Any good stories? Any unpleasantness?
I was woefully ill-prepared for my research but perhaps this
is always the case; it is only by actually going out and doing
it for the first time that you realize what the research process
is all about. Looking back, I shudder at the mistakes I made
during my PhD work. I made fewer with the Kabuki-cho research
but it would be a lie if I was to say that I have mastered
Although there are obvious problems with doing this sort of
work, I think that the yakuza are more accessible than comparable
groups in other OECD countries. In addition there is a mass
of literature of varying quality in Japanese. The sleazy “gokudo
journalism”, though disparaged by Japanese academics, is read
widely by both the police and the yakuza themselves and I
think it is a useful resource. The police also produce a lot
of open source data which are useful. Of course, both sources
must be treated with caution. My own feeling is that Japanese
academic work in this field tends to be overly dependent on
In terms of actually getting out and talking to yakuza, it
is essential to know people. Personal connections are everything.
I have been very lucky in this respect: my sister’s German
exchange did a home-stay in Kansai with a criminal defense
lawyer who does a lot of work for senior Yamaguchi-gumi members
and he has introduced me to various clients and colleagues;
the family of the girlfriend of an old university friend is
the close friend and protectee of a boss in central Japan;
towards the end of my PhD fieldwork, I befriended Mizoguchi
Atsushi, the foremost yakuza journalist in Japan, and he has
been enormously generous in introducing me to key gatekeepers
Obviously there is a degree of selection bias (I only spoke
to the people who agreed to speak to me) but the yakuza I
have met have generally been very good to me; for a yakuza
to get on, he needs, amongst other things, to have well-developed
social skills. They can be very entertaining hosts and it
is easy to see how researchers can “go native”. This is of
course something that one must be aware of and when doing
research you must always be careful how close you get to these
people; on several occasions I have been asked how easy it
would be for me to get hold of guns or drugs in Britain. I
have also twice been asked if I would like to join yakuza
groups, once in Tokyo and once in Kansai. Working out just
how close you want to get to these people is difficult.
Why were these people prepared to speak to me? I think that,
apart from my good introductions, I had a number of factors
working in my favour: I am not Japanese; I am an academic
rather than a journalist; during both my main periods of fieldwork
I was attached to Tokyo University’s Institute of Social Science
(Shaken). This combination made me an object of curiousity
but also lent me kudos. Reputation is absolutely crucial for
yakuza and for someone to come from the lofty academic heights
of Todai to seek the truth from them makes them important.
Another important resource for a yakuza is the extent of his
connections and I think that some of my interviewees felt
that I might be a useful addition to their list of contacts.
An example of the way in which I might be useful is the case
of my trip to Southern Japan with “Kashimoto” from Kabuki-cho.
One of Kashimoto’s protectees was having problems with his
teenage tearaway son; it was hoped that, by spending some
time with this youngster, I might be able to restore him to
the path of virtue. I very much doubt that any effect I might
have had was beneficial but it is interesting that they thought
that it potentially might be.
One of the main methodological problems with doing this sort
of research is maintaining fieldwork discipline in adverse
conditions. I did conduct some formal recorded interviews
but most of the time I would meet people in circumstances
where taking out a notebook or tape-recorder be inappropriate.
These are hedonistic people and much of the time I would meet
yakuza it would be in bars and restaurants. Staying sufficiently
sober to write coherent notes at the end of the evening whilst
not refusing their hospitality and appearing relaxed was not
easy; just as my brain was getting duller, their tongues were
getting faster, their regional accents stronger and the data
richer. More than once I woke up to find incomprehensible
scrawls in place of the razor-sharp observations I had jotted
down on the train home.
Another crucial problem is that these guys are frequently
full of crap. To an anthropologist there is no such thing
as bad data but I was after concrete answers to my research
questions. Sometimes it was obvious when they were shooting
a line and when not. Of course, there were also times when
I was interviewing the police when I felt I was getting a
partial representation of reality too so it cuts both ways.
In both cases, recently retired personnel seemed to have less
need to slant their story.
difficult, we would imagine, is collecting information on
mafia collusion with the state. Can you tell us how you conducted
field work with the Japanese police? How did you get them
to talk to you on this subject?
Because it was a bit too close to home, I did not make use
of my yakuza-related contacts in Iwate-ken. However, my karate
sensei did introduce me to his old class-mate, who was at
the time head of the police academy in Iwate where I consequently
spent two fascinating weeks doing fieldwork. Because he had
formerly been head of the local riot squad, this man had ex-kidotai
kobun in all of the various police departments (except for
the security police—which is a closed world), so everywhere
I went, they bent over backwards to be nice to me. When I
went through official channels to the police, the answers
tended to be very one pattern and confined to the sort of
stuff I could have got out of the Police White Papers anyway.
In Iwate, the senior people I talked to conceded that “to
a certain extent” the authorities had made use of the yakuza.
At a lower level, the veteran cops from the anti-boryokudan
room talked wistfully of the days when they would pop into
local gang offices to sit down and chat with the yakuza over
a cup of coffee and a cigarette. They told me that this was
now a thing of the past. Two of my yakuza contacts (both Yamguchi-gumi,
one in Tokyo one in Osaka) offered to introduce me to their
friends in the police. In both cases I was unable either to
take up this offer or subtly probe further as to the exact
nature of this friendship.
talk about police-yakuza relations, I think it is a mistake
to treat either group as a monolithic entity: yakuza (at both
individual and gang levels) do not all adopt an equally co-operative
attitude towards the police; at the same time there is the
horizontal cleavage within the police separating the administrative
elite from the rank and file; there are also the vertical
departmental cleavages—the security bureau, with their
historical concerns with the threat of left-wing subversion
have had a different relationship with yakuza groups than
the anti-boryokudan sections or the neighborhood omawari-san;
finally, the overall trend in relations between these two
groups has not remained constant over time. The oft-expounded
view that the yakuza-police relationship is systemically symbiotic
is an oversimplification of a much more complex and dynamic
set of relationships.
With respect to
politician-yakuza relations, these are now less openly flaunted
than in the past and it is only with big scandals such as
Sagawa Kyubin (and the revelation of Kanemaru’s links to the
Inagawa-kai boss Ishii Susumu) that things are laid bare.
I would like to think that things are getting better but it
is hard not to be cynical. One of my informants is the book-keeper
for a “business-brother” of a very senior Inagawa-kai executive.
This person tells me that both the business brother and his
yakuza protector regularly attend fund-raising events hosted
by an LDP faction leader. I sought confirmation of this with
my friend Mizoguchi who said “Isn’t he [the politician] Yamaguchi-gumi?”
At a slightly lower level, I was interviewing a middle-ranking
Yamaguchi-gumi boss in his gang office when the secretary
of a local politician came in to discuss a land deal. When
he left, the boss told me that he had been friendly with the
politician for years but he no longer felt able to give as
much money at fund raising parties because it might cause
embarrassment; he now gives tens of thousands rather than
hundreds of thousands.
of the problems with studying underground economic activity
is the lack of data—how did you get around that? Underground
economies have incentives to minimize their numbers, and just
as equally, compilers of police data have political incentives
to mask the data.
This is of course
a massive problem and I hope I have not given the impression
that anyone knows the true extent of the yakuza economy. One
police researcher told me he was continually pestered by foreign
journalists asking for some magic number they can put in their
headlines: he has little more idea than they do. An individual
boss might know what his own personal revenue stream looks
like but that will be as good as it gets. Once we get beyond
that we are in the realm of heroic assumptions and estimations
scribbled on the back of a cigarette packet.
of your conclusions in your book is that the Yakuza are not
that different from other mafia in its relationship to the
state (Italian, Chinese, Russian)—could you elaborate on that?
One of the things
I wanted to do with my work was to look at the supposedly
symbiotic relationship enjoyed by the yakuza and state. As
I have said above, things are slightly more complicated. However,
to the extent that this has been the case, this is by no means
unique to the yakuza. Obviously different jurisdictions differ
in their legal regimes, efficiency of governance mechanisms,
levels of economic development and so forth, but if we examine
the historical evidence, we can see patterns of mutually beneficial
elite-mafia co-operation in Sicily, pre-revolutionary China,
post-Soviet Eastern Europe and South America as well as Japan.
Yakuza is steeped in myth—that they are “robin hood” figures
and that they have a code of honor, that they are guardians
of the community etc. What myths were true? What were false?
the power of myths is derived not from their objective truth,
but from whether or not we believe them. My feeling is that
for many decades, cosy “yakuza-as-Robin-Hood” myths did have
currency amongst mainstream Japanese but that they are no
longer widespread and certainly not seen as relevant to the
Many of the yakuza
I have talked to like to tell me about “protecting the weak
and crushing the strong”, their history as agents of social
control within their territory and so on. As you pointed out
in your review of my book, my thinking on the yakuza is heavily
influenced by Diego Gambetta’s analysis of the Sicilian Mafia
as a set of firms which specialize in private protection.
This is another way of saying that they exercised a guardian
role. This of course does not mean that the mafia is a “good
thing”. As Diego points out, private protection is partially
provided, at a cost and, typically, the people protected are,
in terms of net-social benefit, the wrong ones. At a more
extreme level we are presented with cases of “protection”
in which the only protection provided is from the providers
themselves (i.e. extortionate or bogus protection).
are the key changes in the Mafia economy? With the collapse
of “The Bubble” of the late 1980s, large scale Yakuza economic
activities were curtailed—with as slight recovery underway,
will the Yakuza fortunes recover, or are their glory days
I think that the
long-term future of the yakuza is bleak. The reasons for this
are more profound than medium-term economic vicissitudes.
On one hand, both the law and its enforcement are getting
progressively tougher as far as the yakuza are concerned (this
is one factor behind Watanabe’s recent decision to stand down
as head of the Yamaguchi-gumi). On the other hand Japanese
society is changing in all sorts of ways that make many of
their existing economic activities harder: transparency is
increasing; there is an increased use in alternative formal
channels of dispute resolution; society is becoming more tolerant
of alternative lifestyles and marginal groups (making both
recruitment and retention more difficult). The yakuza will
adapt to these changes (historically, they always have, and
rapidly) but the economic and social space within which they
can operate is shrinking.
do you think the shape of future organized crime will be?
Will organized crime move toward white collar crime or remain
based in local protection rackets? Does globalization matter?
Confining my answer to the yakuza, I would say that they have
long been based in what we might call white-collar protection
(for example sokaiya). For reasons outlined above, I believe
the scope for such operations is diminishing. Yakuza are of
course trying to muscle in on other scams, such as “ore ore”
fraud, but they do not necessarily have any advantage in such
businesses over ordinary criminals. The impact of globalization
is complex. We might expect that international capital markets
encourage the development of global accounting standards and
transparency and formal legal mechanisms for dispute resolution.
On the other hand, increased international labour market mobility
facilitates the entry of foreign criminals and illegal goods.
your analysis, what organized crime group is the most well
organized, well run crime syndicate today?
does crime say about society?
We could spend
a long time here talking about Durkheim and so on but with
specific reference to the yakuza, it is perhaps worth pointing
out that these groups do not exist in a vacuum. If the yakuza
were a purely predatory set of gangs who did not provide goods
and services that some members of the wider society desired,
they would not exist in their current form.
Why do you think people remain fascinated by the Yakuza?
The devil has all the best tunes, doesn`t he? Most of the
places I have lived in Tokyo are along the Chuo line so day
after day I would spend many hours jammed in with honest,
decent commuters living respectable lives. Now maybe all these
guys love their jobs and have great home lives but it didn’t
strike me as a lifestyle I would aspire to. The yakuza do
very bad things and I certainly don’t aspire to their life
either, but there is something superficially very refreshing
about people who rip up the rules and do things differently.
books (for the general reader) on the Yakuza/organized crime
do you recommend? Any novels?
In Japanese, anything
by Mizoguchi Atsushi is going to be good. I bang on about
this guy quite a lot but his work was recommended to me by
both police researchers and yakuza interviewees. He has since
become a good friend and mentor and I owe him an enormous
debt in so many ways. I also think the Takarashima Bessatsu
series is worth having a look at. They really churn them out
so it is impossible to keep up; I have a big pile of them
mocking me from my shelves. In English, Harold Stark’s 1981
PhD thesis is still well worth reading. Unfortunately it is
unpublished. Apparently Stark went into business as soon as
he graduated and has disappeared from view. I have not read
any yakuza novels though I understand that my fellow Japan
Review interviewee Peter Tasker has written a few. I am a
big fan of Takakura Ken’s films. I love that bit where he
mutters the opening lines of the Hojoki just before he goes
into battle in the English language film “The Yakuza”.