Notes From the Underworld: Black Hat Newsletters and the Japanese Mafia — Part 1

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As fond of them as I may be, newsletters probably aren’t widely considered the most mysterious, exotic, secretive, dangerous, glamorous, or romantic affair. It’s an understandable sentiment, they’re pretty straightforward. But while the newsletter familiar to the average Westerner is no doubt deemed a harmless (though financially effective) creature, there are places where their character is far less simple and forthright. There are places where the innocent newsletter has a dark side. And it’s this dark side that’s historically been of interest to the Japanese Mafia, or “Yakuza.”

The Yakuza

The yakuza has around 103,000 active members worldwide; that’s something like…1000 times the size of the American-Italian Mafia. There are 70,000 or more yakuza in Japan alone and they’re worth billions, wielding enormous social, economic, and political clout.

In this era of globalization, however, the American “great recession” was felt all over the globe, and it seems that the crime syndicates were not immune. Of those syndicates, the Yamaguchi-Gumi is Japan’s largest, with 36,000-plus members – nearly half of all yakuzas are Yamaguchi.

The Yamaguchi-Gumi Gazette

Even their size, however, didn’t impart immunity to financial trouble, and between 2012-2013, the Yamaguchi-Gumi lost 3300 soldiers. Additionally, they’d just come away from a brutal seven year gang war on the island of Kyushu in which “civilians” had been killed – a PR disaster and yakuza no-no. The war, a resulting Japanese law enforcement crackdown, and even a threat from President Barack Obama to freeze all Yamaguchi assets in the U.S. had both membership and profits suffering. So, to bolster waning morale, Yamaguchi godfather Kenichi Shinoda masterminded, published, and subsequently shipped an inspirational newsletter to 23,000 of his faithful.

This newsletter was accurately if not creatively titled Yamaguchi-Gumi Shinpo, or “Yamaguchi-Gumi Newsletter.” It was a slick, professional production, eight pages long, and featuring the gang’s symbol on the front cover. And for a gang communique, the subject matter was hardly one-note.

That thematic variety included a message from Shinoda himself to the troops, a recognition that the recent anti-gang measures had made earning more difficult, but urging them to keep their chins up anyway. He encouraged members of the organization to perform good works and stay true to the traditional yakuza virtues of loyalty, discipline, restraint, and pride. In these leaner times, Shinoda further affirmed, yakuzas could no longer count on the Yamaguchi-Gumi “brand” to do the heavy lifting.

The Shinpo featured light fare too; one page was dedicated to poetry, including a number of satirical haikus; there hints and tips on the board games Go and Shogi; and even travelogue-style fishing “diaries” from some of the senior chieftains. So it was pretty much like any other organization’s newsletter… except produced by and for one of the world’s largest, wealthiest, most powerful, and most dangerous transnational criminal organizations.

(to be continued)

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