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Criminalizing Yakuza Membership: A Comparative Study of the Anti-Boryokudan Law

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Washington University Global Studies Law Review


Originating in Japan and operating across the globe, the Yakuza are regarded as some of the most sophisticated and wealthiest criminal organizations. Yakuza gangs operate a wide variety of illegal revenue-generating activities ranging from securities fraud to traditional extortion of civilians. These hierarchical criminal organizations are classified under Japanese Law as boryokudan (violence groups). As of 2010, the National Police Agency identified 22 boryokudan groups operating in Japan.

In July 2011, the United States Department of State included the Yakuza on a list of four transnational criminal organizations that “facilitate and aggravate violent civil conflicts.” Pursuant to this order, in 2012, the Treasury Department froze the U.S. assets of two members of the largest Yakuza syndicate, the Yamaguchi-gumi. Despite these foreign designations, Japanese law does not criminalize active Yakuza membership. While a direct prohibition on Yakuza membership would appear to be the most efficient method of eliminating the Yakuza, the Japanese legislature, the Diet, has refrained from enacting such legislation. The Diet has instead opted for piecemeal legislation aimed at impeding Yakuza revenue-raising activities, increasing liability for criminal acts by Yakuza members, and empowering local citizens who choose to challenge Yakuza groups. Eighteen years after the Japanese legislature enacted its first regulations aimed at curbing Yakuza activities, the National Police Agency proudly proclaimed in 2010 that Yakuza membership nationwide had dropped back to 1992-levels.

Part II of this Note will describe Yakuza’s role in Japan. Part III will examine the Anti-Boryokudan law, its revisions, and implementation against the Yakuza. Part III will also describe the Yakuza’s reactions and adaptations to the law.

Part IV will take a comparative look at the laws criminalizing organized crime membership in the United States and Italy. This examination includes an analysis of the relevant laws’ language, legislative history, and evolution following implementation.

This Note will conclude with the following observations: The Anti-Boryokudan Law’s primary effect has been to organize public opinion against the Yakuza. However, the legislation relies too heavily on individuals and communities to shoulder the burden in the battle against the Yakuza. Until legislation is enacted that provides prosecutors with the tools necessary to attach criminal liability to Yakuza membership, the Yakuza will remain an influential presence in Japanese society.