Directed by Ron Fricke.
A criminal organization’s activities vary depending on where they are in the world but all such groups use bribery, violence and fear to achieve their goals. The growing threat of gangs in Asia is partly due to their booming economies that attract criminals with the prospects of taking a cut of the wealth. Globalization is further helping these gangs to spread their activities, making it easier to smuggle everything from weapons and drugs to people and exotic animals across borders. Money laundering, counterfeiting and document forgery are even easier when a group has a presence in multiple countries. Sound like Armageddon? Read on.
In this article, we look at mob activity in Japan, China and Indonesia and the threats they pose to the public as well as to tourists. We also delve into what experts think the future holds for transnational gang activity. Just a warning: things ain’t lookin’ pretty.
Likelihood of encountering them as a tourist: Low
According to Forbes magazine, Yamaguchi-gumi has the highest revenue of any gang in the world at US$80 billion. The Yamaguchi-gumi is also the largest of all the yakuza syndicates in Japan. But overall gang membership is decreasing throughout Japan and as of 2013 less than 60,000 people claimed to belong to such groups, a record low. Tokyo Reporter estimates the membership in Yamaguchi-gumi is around 11,600. A weak Japanese economy hasn’t helped the organization, who participates in construction contracts, gambling, and extortion (among other things), and who is known for interrupting company stock-holder meetings. The tight-knit Japanese mafia is often described as “highly organized and hierarchical.”
Like other organized crime groups, the yakuza spend some time trying to present a good image and curry local favor by donating to charitable causes or helping with disaster relief activities. Such activities also help gangs keep their status as community organizations or whatever legal entity they might be registered as. This on-paper legitimacy allows them a front from which to operate more easily. The yakuza helped people after WWII by providing much needed goods via the black market, and they’ve stepped in to provide emergency relief for victims of the Kobe Earthquake (1995) and cleaning-ups after the Tohoku Disaster (2011).
More recently, the Yamaguchi-gumi put up a website, purporting to support the banishment of illegal drugs, an attempt to improve their image.
If you start a business in Japan, you’re very
likely to come into contact with them
If you don’t take part in drugs or prostitution, and you’re just schlepping your way around Japan on the tourist beat riding the bullet train, you’re very unlikely to see them. The first encounter most Westerners have with yakuza is when they move here and spot the nearly naked, tattooed men taking part in the town’s local annual festival, which often involves bare-chested men in traditional fundoshi loin cloths. If you start a business in Japan, you’re very likely to come into contact with them, even if it’s just as customers in your establishment. Their presence is a part of everyday life in Japan.
2. China’s triads
Likelihood of encountering them as a tourist: Low
Chinese gangs, known as triads, are best known for arms and drug smuggling, counterfeiting, credit card fraud, loansharking, cyber crime, software piracy and smuggling people, animals and plants. As famous as China is for cybercrime, however, none of the groups compare to Japan’s Yamaguchi-gumi when it comes to sheer revenue. China’s triads tend to consist of smaller groups working independently. With well over 1.5 million people estimated to be involved in organized crime in China, the largest triad, Sun Yee On, reportedly has a membership of 55 to 60,000 members.
Overseas triads … sometimes threaten
territories of domestic criminal groups
Triads, whose leaders are called “dragon heads,” are heading more and more towards transnational organized crime, where their contacts abroad allow them to more easily smuggle people and drugs across borders. Overseas triads can be found in Japan, Russia, and the U.S. where they sometimes threaten territories of domestic criminal groups. Sun Yee On is the largest triad, operating in China and Hong Kong, with their presence also reported to be in the U.K., U.S., France, Belgium and the Netherlands.
Recently, authorities in China are cracking down on the triads, forcing them to go further underground with their activities. They’ve also scattered their forces as a result, operating in less organizational, more independent-minded splinter groups. Many are moving abroad to tie up with organized crime syndicates in other countries.
3. Laskar Bali
▼The emblem for Laskar Bali uses a Hindu religious symbol.
Likelihood of encountering them as a tourist: High
Wherever there is money, gangs will thrive and Indonesia’s island paradise of Bali is rife with prospects. With a constant influx of tourists livin’ it up on their holidays and a healthy population of expatriates who choose to live the high life year-round, the island is a natural draw for drugs, prostitution and other illicit activity. In Bali, foreigners constantly make the headlines for being on death row for drug smuggling and with so much money involved, you can guarantee that the local mob is getting their cut.
Newspapers refer to the groups as
There are at least five major gangs in Bali, who often refer to themselves as keluarga besar (big families). But the largest is Laskar Bali. Newspapers refer to the groups as “community organizations” because technically, that’s what they’re registered as and thus can qualify as legal entities.
Most tourists who do encounter them will not be aware of who these guys are. Laskar Bali has most of the security contracts for restaurants, bars and nightclubs in Bali’s touristy areas. Door men, bouncers and security guards in Kuta, Legian and Seminyak, for example are almost all Laskar members. You may even see them out and about wearing t-shirts with the gang’s name and motif on them.
One of the other major organizations, Baladika, with a membership of around 25,000, was awarded the high-security contracts for the 25th APEC Conference and Miss World Contest that took place in Bali in 2013, where the group worked alongside army and police.
But everyone knows who these organizations are. “I don’t like them,” says Ketut, a 34-year-old who owns a printing shop. “It shows the close ties with the new governor and gives him power.”
▼A sign along the road in Bali, featuring Laskar Bali big-wigs, wishes travelers a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.
But not all people believe these neighborhood gangs are bad. Wayan, who works at a restaurant in Sanur, a tourist area not dominated by Laskar, but one called Sanur Bersatu, says “They help protect the neighborhood. If someone bad come to our restaurant and cause problem, we just call them up and they come immediately. The police no good, not come. But the group send someone immediately.”
In her book Snowing in Bali, Kathryn Bonella, who spent years interviewing drug lords and traffickers in the local Bali prison, says there is no mistake about these organizations being criminal. “Laskar Bali is the holiday island’s most notorious and violent gang,” she writes. They deal in drugs, weapons, prostitution, payoffs and revenge killings. They’ll kill for hire–just a couple thousand dollars. When gangsters do get in trouble for using weapons or for drug trafficking, the group claims no responsibility, saying they should not be blamed for the actions of just a few members. Furthermore, they insist that the group does not approve of such behavior. Yet most people (including the police), are so afraid of possible retribution that even the newspapers will not print the gang’s name.
The future of Asian gangs
Where is all this headed? I asked Robert Whiting, author of Tokyo Underworld. what he thinks about the future of Asia’s organized crime. While the overall declining membership of Japan’s yakuza is perhaps a result of the government’s recent anti-gang rules cracking down on boryokudan, or “violent groups,” Whiting tells us why this isn’t necessarily reason for optimism.
“To circumvent the new law, gangs use individuals outside their organizations, so-called han-gure or quasi yakuza, young toughs who don’t belong to organized crime groups.” Since much gang activity has gone underground, Whiting says, “It’s more difficult to pin crimes on yakuza because they are using these irregular forces, like the han-gure, or in many [instances] foreigners (Koreans, Chinese, Cambodians, etc.) who are not full or associate members of the gang.” He concludes saying, “Yakuza activity and arrests may be down on paper but crime is about the same, or actually increasing.”
China’s triads are already moving abroad and succeeding. The internet revolution has brought more opportunities for hacking and general cyber crime. And in Bali, with an economy in overdrive, organized crime is growing right along with it. Laskar Bali was started in 2002 after the first Bali bombings by an violent Islamic group that killed 202 people, mainly tourists. Laskar Bali was formed to help protect the island. With a corrupt Indonesian police force prone to accepting bribes (used to supplement the police officers’ salary of about US$220 per month), citizens are forced to depend on vigilante-type groups to protect their businesses, land and growing wealth.
“Crime will always be with us,” Whiting reminds us. “I certainly don’t see it declining….They [yakuza] provide services that many, many people want, illegal though those services may be. There will always be a demand for them.”
You’ve heard about India’s sacred cow, the Mother of Civilization, a gift from God that has become a part of Indian iconography, religion and culture. The cow protection movement began in 1882, and ended the slaughter of the animals in what was then British India. The cow is revered because it is unique in that it offers five products to humans — milk, curds, ghee butter, urine and dung — all of which are useful to everyday life in India. In addition, the beast of burden has traditionally been used to help plow the fields and pull carts for transportation. If you’re one of those people who likes to dress up your dog, or cat, or buy them their own kotatsu, then we can only imagine what you’d do for a pet cow if you had one! You’ll have no problem understanding the high regard Indians place on the gentle bovines.
Just how far will Indians go to pamper their bovine friends? Glad you asked! Our bovine journalist is about to reveal some fascinating facts about cows in India.
1. Cows can marry!
Did you ever doubt that in bovine-centric India, cows could marry? In 2011, Anusulya Vishwak and her husband in Guradia, India decided to marry off their little white cow named Sadhana, whom they had raised since she was little. The parents of the bride had no human children of their own, but Anusulya said she was merely doing for the heifer the same as she’d do for her own daughter. After finding a suitable mate, preparation for the nuptials took two months (imagine the stress–something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue!) and reportedly cost 200,000 rupees (US$3,230). Sadhana was outfitted with yellow flowers in her hair and what looked like a designer red blanket with gold trim. The black bull donned a red headdress with a multicolored blanket hanging casually over his back. They were paraded through the street in a garlanded open-air tractor-trailer with the costumed couple riding in the back, looking very smug. At the end of the ceremony, Anusulya kissed the happy little wife while the new husband looked on rather jealously. Wouldn’t you have loved to have been one of the 1,500 guests in attendance?!
More recently, in April of 2014, in Madya Pradesh, Ganga the cow (adorned in a red blanket and mala garland) and Prakash the bull (wearing an orange turban) were married on the advice of a holy man who told the villagers that this matrimony would bring good luck and save the state’s harvest from natural disasters. The ceremony was performed by a bearded, long-haired Sadhu and was attended by over 5,000 guests, many of whom had donated a portion of the 1 million rupees (US$16,000) necessary to hold the wedding. The bride and groom entrusted the entire affair to a team of 25 people who pulled it off without a hitch.
2. People can marry cows too–and sometimes they do!
2. People can marry cows too–and sometimes they do!
We’ve heard about people marrying anime characters, so what the hell, why not cows? At least when you snuggle up with them, they’ll respond by licking your face. One Indian man video-taped his wedding to a much younger, but very petite and adorable, brown cow. The marriage, which took place in November of 2013, was approved by his grandmother. The bride was not as decked out as her compatriots Sadhana or Ganga, preferring to go with a more subdued, organic look. She wore a simple flower garland and a wedding blanket made with sustainable satin draped over her back. It looked recyclable. For perhaps the biggest day in a person’s life, the bride seemed a bit, well, disinterested, and even stopped to munch some greens on the way to the venue in the middle of the forest. This is probably because she knew she was just a stand-in. According to the video, the man was prompted to tie the knot with the bovine after being unable to find a woman to marry. He was urged to seek council with a soothsayer, but the news was not so soothing: the fortune-teller told him that when he did marry, his wife would die soon after. Luckily, there was a viable solution–marry a cow! After that, the clairvoyant said, the curse would be lifted and he could look for a more appropriate wife. We can only hope the couple enjoy a few years of marital bliss until the inevitable separation. Do you think they’ll take a honeymooon?
But sometimes the curse-lifting bovine gets shafted
If you’re a bit old-fashioned and still think a couple should marry before having sexual intercourse, then you needn’t feel alone. In June of 2010, far from India but in another Hindu community, an 18-year-old Balinese male named Ngurah Alit was forced to marry a cow after the little floozy allegedly wooed him into the pasture. Alit’s admission to the one-night stand came after he was caught rolling in the hay with the tawny brown bovine. At any rate, the village held a pecaruan ceremony, necessary to cleanse the town of any curse brought on by the dirty deed, and arranged a marriage for the two. During the ceremony the poor boy apparently passed out but this only delayed the wedding slightly, and the couple were eventually united. Unfortunately, the newlyweds were denied a honeymoon as the pecaruan ceremony also dictated that the cow be drowned. The boy was also drowned, but only symbolically, by having his clothes thrown into the ocean. The poor cow obviously didn’t have a very good lawyer.
3. In India, killing a cow is a crime
▼You wouldn’t dare kill me, would you?
In many Indian states, killing a cow is a crime which can land you in prison for up to five years (Do you think butchers get life in prison?). It is also illegal to export the ruminants for the purpose of slaughter. Reportedly, two million cows are smuggled across the Indian border into Bangladesh every year and approximately 1,000 cow smugglers in the past 10 years have been slain by India border security. So no matter how much you may love beef, cow cuddling is always a better option than cow smuggling!
4. Drinking cow urine is considered healthy
▼Cow urine storage pots
Cow urine is an integral part of Indian Ayurvedic medicine. Yogis in India have been drinking urine for over 3,000 years and drinking cow urine is still proscribed as a bio-enhancer to: purify the body and help control the aging process, control and destroy free radical cells, repair damaged DNA, and help fight cancer. Cow urine is also said to have antibiotic properties. So there you have it, when it comes to health, urine therapy is truly “number one.”
5. Cows are featured in many festivals, including the Cow Dung Festival
▼Decorations and milk pots used in Pongal, a four-day festival that dedicates one day, called Mattu Pongal, to the cow.
Cow dung is a natural, organic product that can be used as is, with few modifications, and you don’t even need to go buy it at the store! And there’s plenty of it too, as India has the world’s largest dairy cow population. Bovine feces, called gobar, is used as fertilizer for crops and provides energy via bio-gas for households. So naturally, there is a cow dung festival to celebrate! Indian farming is so bovine-centric that some people say India has a “gobar economy.” There’s your cow buzzword for the day!
6. Gopastami is an annual holiday for cows
▼Often shown seated, Nandi the bull serves as a vehicle for the god Shiva in the Hindu religion.
As if several festivals a year dedicated to cows isn’t enough for the cloven-hooved brethren, some Indians also celebrate Gopastami, a cow holiday. Gopastami, which has nothing to do with pastrami, is the day Lord Krishna and his elder brother became official cow herders. All cows are celebrated on this holiday, a bit of a cow appreciation day. Cows are bathed and dressed up in their most fetching attire and taken to the temple where they are given offerings in hopes that the ruminants will continue to give the gift of life. So please, remember to thank a cow at least once a year for their humanitarian services.
7. India has a Ministry For Cows
Otaram Devasi was recently appointed India’s first “Minister of Cows” in a new position designed to protect the sanctity of the cow.
▼It is unclear if the new “Minister for Cows” will still allow cows to walk all over their owners.
While India once had 100 or so indigenous cow species, the number has fallen recently to just 36. The Indian Desi cow is almost extinct. With mechanized transport, tractors for harvesting and chemical fertilizers that all preclude the use of the cow, the role of the useful bovine in daily life is in commensurate decline. As cows are no longer needed for labor, cross-breeding with Western dairy breeds such as Holsteins and Jerseys that produce more milk, is becoming common (although these breeds don’t hold up to the heat as well), leaving the hearty Indian varieties to slowly die off. Several cow sanctuaries have been set up in India to help deal with this problem. Hopefully the spiritual value of the cow will not decline as one can hardly argue against a religion that worships such a peaceful and docile animal. We wish the new Minister of Cows the best of luck preserving this beautiful animal!
8. Cows don’t need licenses to use the roads
Although cows can’t get driving licenses in India, that doesn’t stop them from being able to legally use the roads. We leave you with this video of eight minutes of cows on the roads of India! We just can’t stop watching this mesmerizing video of urban cows!
Directed by Ron Fricke. A movie with no conventional plot: merely a collection of expertly photographed scenes.