BBC: David Bowie’s love affair with Japanese style

A man walks past a 3D wall portrait of British musician David Bowie, created by Australian street artist James Cochran, also known as Jimmy C, in Brixton, South London, on 19 June 2013. The artwork is based on the iconic cover for Bowies 1973 album, Aladdin Sane.
The iconic Ziggy Stardust look has been immortalized in a piece of street art in Brixton

BBC:

David Bowie, who died this week, was a well-known Japanophile, adopting many elements of Japanese culture into his stage performances.

He was someone who knew how to express himself both with music and with fashion,” Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto told the BBC.

Someone like that may not be so rare these days, but he was one of the pioneers to do both.

Make-up artist Pierre La Roche prepares English singer David Bowie for a performance as Aladdin Sane, 1973. Bowie is wearing a costume by Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto.Yamamoto designed for Bowie through both his Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane eras

Mr Yamamoto, the creative force behind some of Bowie’s most iconic stage outfits, first got to know Bowie in the 1970s, when the singer was often visiting Japan, and trying to break into the US market.

I don’t know why he was so attracted to things Japanese, but perhaps it wasn’t so much Japan or Japanese-ness itself. He knew when he looked good in something.

“When you wear something and you look really good… you feel confident and good about yourself. I think my designs and costumes had that effect on him.”

Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto waves to the audience after his fashion event 'super energy !!' in Tokyo on June 12, 2015.
Kansai Yamamoto said his relationship with Bowie “went beyond nationalities, beyond gender”

Helene Thian, a fashion historian and lifelong fan who has written extensively about Bowie, agreed. She said Bowie had often been noted as having had “this beautiful androgynous face and body, which suited Kansai Yamamoto’s unisex style”.

‘Shapeshifting’ androgyny

Bowie’s Japanese style had already been developing through his interest in Japanese theatre.

In the mid-1960s, he studied dance with Lindsay Kemp, a British performance and mime artist who was heavily influenced by the traditional kabuki style, with its exaggerated gestures, elaborate costumes, striking make-up, and “onnagata” actors – men playing female roles.

Lindsay Kemp performs in 1974
Lindsay Kemp, performing here in 1974, had been influenced by the intensely stylized productions of Japanese traditional theatre
20th October 1981: Ennosuke Ichikawa, Japan's most distinguished exponent of the three hundred year old art form, Kabuki. Ichikawa prepares his costume and make up before leading a prestigious cast at Sadler's Wells.The dramatic makeup used by kabuki became part of the Ziggy Stardust look

Bowie was a natural “shapeshifter“, says Ms Thian, and his training with Kemp and onnagata style helped him as he explored ideas of masculinity, exoticism and alienation.

He even learned from famed onnagata Tamasaburo Bando how to apply traditional kabuki make-up – its bold highlighted features on a white background are evident in the lightning bolt across the Ziggy face.

It wasn’t trying to be literal interpretation” of onnagata, said Ms Thian, “but rather inspired by its gender-bending androgyny. That’s what makes it so powerful, it’s more evocative.”

‘Quick change’ master

Mr Yamamoto said he wasn’t sure why he and Bowie had such an affinity, but that “something resonated between us, something that went beyond nationalities, beyond gender“.

Through his style and performances, he said, Bowie “broke one sexual taboo after another“.

What he did in terms of bridging the male-female gap continues to this day,” he said, including in the increasing acceptance of gay relationships in Japan.

Among his most famous outfits for Bowie was Space Samurai, a black, red and blue outfit adapting the hakama, a type of loose trousers which samurais wore and which are still worn by martial arts practitioners.

This picture taken on February 27, 2015 shows a costume created by Japanese fashion designer Kansai Yamamoto and used by David Bowie, during a press preview of an exhibition dedicated to the British singer at the Philarmonie in ParisYamamoto’s outlandish costumes became a central element of Bowie performances
An outfit worn by musician David Bowie is displayed at the 'David Bowie is' exhibition at the Victoria and Albert (V&A) museum in central London on 30 March 2013
The dramatic cape could be whipped away on stage mid-performance

He also sometimes wore a kimono-inspired cape with traditional Japanese characters on it which spell out his name phonetically, but also translate to “fiery vomiting and venting in a menacing manner“.

Ms Thian says Bowie was also “absolutely the first” Western artist to employ the hayagawari – literally “quick change” – technique from kabuki, says Ms Thian, with unseen stagehands ripping off the dramatic cape on stage to reveal another outfit.

David Bowie performs his final concert in 1973 as Ziggy Stardust at the Hammersmith Odeon, London. The concert later became known as the Retirement Gig
The kimono robe also influenced some of his fashion, such as this Ziggy outfit which is a shortened version with a classic Japanese print on it
A costume designed by Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto for David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust character is display at the Victoria and Albert museums' new major exhibition, 'British Design 1948-2012: Innovation In The Modern Age' on 28 March 2012 in London, England.
The elaborate clash of prints on this knitted bodysuit can also be seen as a reference to yakuza (organized crime syndicates) tattoo patterns, Helene Thian has written

‘A very beautiful man’

It wasn’t just his appearance – references to Japan are scattered through Bowie’s music – his 1977 album Heroes even features the track Moss Garden on which he plays a Japanese koto, a kind of zither.

These days, an artist in Bowie’s position might be accused of cultural appropriation – stealing another culture for his own purposes – but Ms Thian says it was never seen that way in Japan.

David Bowie performing in his 'Angel of Death' costume at a live recording for a Midnight Special TV show made at The Marquee Club in London to a specially invited audience of Bowie fanclub members in 1973
Bowie often wore androgynous or women’s clothing in his Ziggy Stardust phase

Bowie was born to be the ultimate diplomat and artiste,” she says.

He took his creativity and fused it with his impulses to meld East and West and come up with a healing of the world in this post-war period.

This was “a homage to Japanese culture and the Japanese loved it“, she said, as Bowie challenged the tendency of Western fashion at the time to lump all Asian styles together as “Orientalism“.

‘Eternal hero’

Indeed, Japan embraced Bowie back, and he remains an icon there, with his glam rock style influencing generations of bands and musicians.

Photo of Hotei Tomayasu playing with David Bowie onstage at the Nippon Budokan in Tokyo in 1996
Hotei shared with the BBC this photo of them playing onstage together at Bowie’s 1996 Tokyo gig

Renowned rock guitarist Hotei Tomayasu, best known outside Japan for composing the theme for Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films, told the BBC: “[Bowie] is the one who truly changed my life. My eternal hero and inspiration.

Bowie is also known in Japan for his role as Maj Jack Celliers in the 1983 iconic film Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, directed by the renowned Nagisa Oshima.

The film, set during World War Two in a Japanese camp for prisoners, pits Bowie’s character and another soldier against two Japanese officers, one of whom is played by the famous musician Ryuichi Sakamoto.

Tweet by Miu Sakamoto recalling her meeting with Bowie when she was a little girl, 11 January 2015

On Twitter, Sakamoto’s ex-wife Akiko Yano recalled how Bowie carried their young daughter – Miu – on his shoulders when the family visited the Roppongi neighborhood in Tokyo with Bowie in the 1980s.

Miu Sakamoto tweeted this picture of herself as a little girl shaking hands with the singer, saying she vaguely recalled meeting “a very beautiful man“.

(He is) no more. A world in which David is not living still feels totally unreal.

Highsnobsiety: A Beginner’s Guide to the Yakuza

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Highsnobsiety.com (by Mark Edwards):

Japan is widely-acknowledged to be one of the world’s safest countries. In the Economist’s ‘Safe Cities Index 2015’, two Japanese cities are ranked in the top three, with Tokyo topping the list, and Osaka coming in third place. So, with this in mind, it’s strange to think that Japan is also home to one of the world’s largest and most notorious organized criminal networks – the yakuza.

This iconic underworld of criminals has been made famous in films like Fireworks, Youth of the Beast and Battles Without Honor and Humility, depicting the yakuza as an intimidating bunch famed for their violent behavior. But beyond the simplistic “suits and shades” stereotype of the Japanese mobster, the inner workings of the yakuza are secretive, complex, and as steeped in traditional Japanese values as any other part of the country’s culture.

If you’ve always longed to understand the a little more about the cryptic and labyrinthine honor codes or delicate power balances that underpin this infamous crime syndicate, here’s your chance…

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ORIGINS
The word ‘yakuza’ has its roots in a Japanese card game: a blackjack variant called oicho-kabu. In the game, a three-card-hand’s value is determined by adding each card together, and then using the smaller number from the resulting two-digit figure to indicate a score. For example, when added together, a hand of 8+9+3 = 20. The smaller number in 20 is 0, which means it scores no points. In fact, this is the game’s worst possible hand.

This losing hand of 8-9-3 is referred to ya-ku-za (ya, or yattsu, means ‘eight’; ku means ‘nine’, and za, or san, means ‘three’). The word yakuzaliterally means ‘good for nothing’. And this explains much of Japan’s attitude to the group.

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The word yakuza links back to of the origins of the network, which can be traced back to two Japanese social classifications – gamblers and merchants. During the Edo period in the 17th century, both of these groups were regarded as the dregs of society. Merchants were known as tekiya – peddlers of stolen goods, often with shady reputations. Gamblers were called bakuto, and were known for playing illegal dice and card games.

Both bakuto and tekiya were groups of outcasts, living outside the norms of Japanese society. But this slowly changed. The merchants started to form organised groups that were formally recognized by the Edo government. The gamblers banded together in gambling houses. This eventually led to loan sharking, which required the bakuto to employ their own security personnel.

These embryonic gangs of semi-legitimate criminals and delinquents were regarded by Japanese society with a mixture of fear and contempt. Nevertheless, they attracted new members and gained new influence, and went on to form alliances throughout Japan, eventually being referred to under the collective name: yakuza. These roots can still be seen in today’s yakuza, with some ceremonies still containing elements from the criminal network’s humble trade and gambling origins.

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MEMBERSHIP AND STRUCTURE
In the 1960s, police estimates put yakuza membership at around 184,000 – an all-time high. Recent figures suggest the current total number of yakuza members is somewhat lower, at 53,500 (the smallest number on record). This shrinking but still significant yakuza population is divided into 20-or-so large conglomerate groups, which in turn contain hundreds of gangs. The largest conglomerate is the Yamaguchi-gumi family, whose membership is put at around 27,500. This makes it the single largest criminal organisation in the world.

Yakuza groups are organised using a hierarchical structure that works much like a family. Each recruit is referred to as a kobun (child), and has a father, known as oyabun. This parent-child relationship operates throughout every level of the yakuza, from top-level conglomerate bosses (known as kumicho), all the way down to new recruits.

To strengthen these familial bonds, the parent-child relationship is honored and strengthened in a ceremony known as sakazuki. The words akazuki can refer simply to ceremonial cups, but it can also describe a ritual in which loyalty and allegiance are pledged through the symbolic sharing of sake.

Typically, the “parent” will pour the “child” a modest measure of sake, followed by a larger measure for himself. The two will then sip from each other’s cups, in a highly elaborate ceremony that’s often followed by a booze-fuelled feast.

When a kobun receives sake from an oyabun, they have officially passed their initiation into their yakuza family. At this point they’re ranked in a similar way to older or younger brothers. They’re also required to cut ties to their real family and swear allegiance to their local boss.

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RITUALS
Within the strict hierarchical structure of the yakuza, there are certain rituals that are designed to ensure every member knows exactly where they stand. The most well-known of these is called yubitsume, or “finger-shortening.” This gruesome atonement ceremony is required of a yakuza member when saying “sorry” simply doesn’t cut it.

First, the wrongdoer places a piece of white cloth on a table. Then, once they have tourniqueted their little finger with a piece of string, they place their hand on the cloth. Next, taking a razor-sharp knife, they sever their little finger above the top knuckle, and wrap up the resulting piece in the white cloth like a gift. Finally, they present the gory parcel to their oyabun. At this point, when the oyabun accepts the finger, they are also deemed to have accepted the kobun’s apology.

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Yakuza members are wise to learn from their mistakes: subsequent wrongdoing means that they have to amputate the next knuckle of their little finger. And so on, and so on, as long as they are seen to be transgressing the group’s strict code of conduct. It’s not uncommon to see more mature yakuza members missing significant portions of both sets of digits.

The yubitsume ritual is said to have its origins in the time when yakuzamembers carried swords. Without the top part of the little finger, it’s much harder to grip the sword handle firmly. This meant that the member missing the finger would be increasingly dependent on their senior members for protection, drawing them closer to the gang.

Today’s yakuza members are less likely to carry swords. But considering golf is a wildly popular pastime in Japan, a missing little finger can still cause a serious disadvantage…

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TATTOOS
One of the most iconic images associated with the yakuza is their intricate, full-body tattoo designs, which are an integral part of the group’s history and culture. These designs can sometimes be seen peeking out from beneath shirt-sleeves or collars: tattoos are considered taboo in Japan, so they’re typically worn in such a way that they can be concealed.

The traditional yakuza “body suit” often has an unmarked strip that runs up the centre of the stomach and chest – this means a traditional open kimono can be worn without openly displaying a tattooed torso. It also gives the body a place to sweat – which is important in preventing liver failure.

This culture of body art is more than just decorative: thanks to Japan’s traditional tattooing technique, irezumi, it’s a very clear way for members to demonstrate their ability to withstand excruciating pain for long periods. Irezumi tattoos are hand-poked – which means that ink is jabbed by hand into the skin using needle-tipped wooden tools. This process is time-consuming, uses toxic ink and is extremely painful – 80% of those aiming for the full “body suit” are unable to stick out the whole process. The technique may be excruciating, but it yields incredible results. The colours are vivid, and it’s possible to achieve subtle gradations in tone that are impossible with an electric tattoo gun.

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Those who do go the distance find that creating the full body suit is a lifetime journey, and one that requires them to form an intimate bond with their tattoo artist. These master artisans will often spend time getting to know their client before deciding on a theme for the tattoo design. Popular subject material includes koi carp, which symbolize courage and power, and cherry blossoms, which symbolize the fleeting nature of life (in other words, the yakuza way of saying, “life fast, die young”).

Yakuza members often meet in onsen (Japanese bath houses). These places are highly traditional, and require visitors to be naked – which means they cannot carry concealed weapons. While everyone is unclothed, unarmed, and equally vulnerable, tattoos serve as an effective way of intimidating other yakuza. A full body suit is a very clear demonstration of extreme physical toughness. For non-yakuza visitors to the bath house, the arrival of a bunch of tattooed heavies generally serves as a clear announcement that it’s time to hit the road.

YAKUZA ACTIVITIES
Different yakuza groups involve themselves in different forms of business, to varying levels of moral questionability. Not all of them are entirely unscrupulous: for instance, Japan’s largest yakuza syndicate, the Yamaguchi-gumi, forbids its members to engage in drug trafficking (yet this doesn’t stop them from earning an estimated $6bn a year!).

In general, however, the yakuza are known for engaging in fairly shady activities. These can range from the sex-trade industry, gun smuggling, illegal gambling, blackmail, extortion, protection racketeering and even politics. The yakuza even has an interesting way of playing the stock market – gangs will buy stocks in businesses, and then send members to board meetings. Once there, they use personal information to intimidate other board members, who are pressured to make payoffs in order to save their reputations.

Where blackmail or extortion are concerned, yakuza techniques are carefully crafted to uphold the Japanese values of politeness and honour. Instead of simply demanding cash, yakuza members will ask corporate leaders to give to fake charities, or attend fake benefits or golf tournaments, all requiring donations at ludicrously inflated prices.

It’s easy to imagine the criminal underworld as a place continually fraught with paranoia at its discovery by the police. But, in Japan, the mafia hides in plain sight – often with its own offices, business cards and corporate websites. It’s not illegal to belong to a yakuza gang. In fact, senior members even register themselves with the police, and some have their own pensions!

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These semi-legitimate organisations even take part in activities that are actively beneficial to the community. After the 1995 Kobe earthquake, the Yamaguchi-gumi syndicate provided disaster relief to the stricken communities — including a helicopter that they just happened to have lying around! — and the group was praised for responding much faster than the Japanese government. After the Tohoku earthquake in 2011, the same group opened their offices to refugees, and sent trucks to affected areas to deliver tons of food, blankets and supplies.

Although they are widely hated by the Japanese public, yakuza gangs are a surprisingly effective method of keeping troublemakers off the streets. Their hierarchical structure requires potentially out-of-control youngsters to adhere to a strict code of behavioural conduct (or risk losing their fingers), which is a counter-intuitive but efficient way of insulating the Japanese public against random acts of violence.

In fact, it could be said that without the ‘balancing’ force of the yakuza, Japan would be a much more dangerous place. And this leads to the rather bizarre conclusion that the country is, in fact, not a safe place in spite of the yakuza, but rather, in some part at least, because of it.

Japan’s biggest Yakuza organization, the Yamaguchi-clan, cancels Halloween

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The Daily Beast (by Jake Adelstein): 

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It’s been over a month since Japan’s largest organized crime group, the Yamaguchi-gumi, split into two rival factions, and, ever since, people here have been waiting for something to go bump (or be bumped off) in the night.

But it appears the first victim in the looming gang war is nothing more or less than the gang’s annual Halloween festivities, which had become a yearly event at the Yamaguchi-gumi headquarters in Kobe.

Each Oct. 31, the gangsters famous for their permanent costumes (tattoos, missing digits and the like) invited ordinary citizens, mostly small children in “scary” outfits, to have fun with extortion, demanding Japanese candies and snacks.

In front of the Yamaguchi-gumi headquarters—and yes, all of Japan’s designated mafia groups have well-known headquarters—a sign has been posted in Japanese noting the cancellation of the annual trick-or-treat exchanges:

Every year on October 31st, as per custom, we have held a Halloween [event], but this year, due to various circumstances, the event has been called off. We realize this is causing great regret to those parents and children who looked forward to this, but next year we absolutely will hold the event, so please look forward to it. In great haste, we humbly inform you of this.

The 6th Generation Yamaguchi-gumi headquarters.

The Sankei Shimbun was the first to report these unhappy tidings on Oct. 21, but all through Kobe, certainly, the sad news was reverberating.

It might surprise many in the West that a notorious syndicate which makes its money through blackmail, racketeering, extortion, and other crimes distributed candy to the neighborhood children each year, but the custom fits a pattern.

The Yamaguchi-gumi has been in business since 1915, when it first began as a temporary staffing agency on the docks of Kobe, a port city. The Yamaguchi-gumi has always tried to cultivate good relations with the locals, hosting an annual rice cake-making event at the start of the year in which the gang distributes food and booze to the locals.

In the past, the group even followed a New Year’s tradition of giving o-toshi-damato children who came to visit, o-toshi-dama essentially being envelopes full of cash with ornate New Year’s greetings written on them.

A little money buys a lot of good will. And after the Kobe earthquake in 1995 and the great disaster of March 2011, the earthquake and tsunami and Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdown, the Yamaguchi-gumi was quick to provide aid in the form of blankets, food, water, and shelter.

The police label such organizations boryokudan—violent groups—but the Yamaguchi-gumi still insists that it is a humanitarian organization providing discipline and homes to social outcasts, and dispensing street justice. Most of its victims and the police would disagree with that definition.

It’s not clear when the Yamaguchi-gumi began celebrating Halloween, but Kobe is an international city where, in some neighborhoods, a U.S.-like traditional Halloween has taken root. One Kobe resident in her thirties, who prefers not to be named saying anything related to the Yamaguchi-gumi, tells The Daily Beast she remembers her international school classmates paying Halloween visits to the headquarters even 20 years ago. She says that the first time her classmates went shouting “trick or treat,” the hapless yakuza who answered the doorbell was utterly befuddled. After trying to figure out what to do, he ended up giving each of the children 1000-yen bills ($10) and told them to go away.

And thus, perhaps, a tradition began.

The Yamaguchi-gumi, like any corporation that has lasted over 100 years, is certainly PR savvy. The official policy of the organization is to give no on-the-record interviews by active members. However, the organization allows yakuza fanzines to photograph events and in October of 2011, the Sankei Shimbun printed an on-the-record interview with the 6th generation leader of the group, Kenichi Shinoda aka Shinobu Tsukasa, in which he explained the rationale of the group’s existence and justified its legality.

There was no official response from the Yamaguchi-gumi on why this year’s festivities had been canceled, but a low-ranking underboss told The Daily Beast over the phone that “Trouble is brewing with the breakaway faction, the so-called ‘Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi,’ and we don’t want to take a chance that some innocent child is embroiled in violence. That would be unforgivable.”

Atsushi Mizoguchi, Japan’s foremost expert on the Yamaguchi-gumi, said that he believed the Yamaguchi-gumi split would result in all yakuza losing power and might herald the end of the yakuza themselves.

Speaking at a press conference last week, Hideaki Kubori, a lawyer specializing in dealing with yakuza related problems, said, “There was a time when the yakuza were thought to be a necessary evil. They aren’t necessary anymore.”

This may be true, but for some Kobe trick-or-treaters the group would be missed.

A veteran detective with the Hyogo Police Department, speaking privately, is skeptical of the announcement. “It’s a way for the Yamaguchi-gumi to remind people that the old guard has always been careful to get along with the local populace and that they’re not all bad.”

He added, “It’s a very cost-efficient form of PR for them. The candy is cheap and they don’t even need to spend money on costumes. Most of them have faces so scary already that they look like monsters without doing anything at all.”

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Asia’s most notorious gangs

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RocketNews 24:

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.

 

1. Japan–Yamaguchi-gumi

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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.

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2. China’s triads

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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.

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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
‘community organizations’

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.

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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.”

Top 20 Asian superheroines of DC Comics

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Amped Asia: 

Now you know we could not write an article about the Magnificent Asian Superheroines of Marvel without doing one about the Dynamic Asian Female Superheroes of DC. That’s not only bad form but poor nerd etiquette, and our tiger moms raised us way better than that. The Asian women of Detective Comics is a proud bunch and by no means play second fiddle to anyone, so without further adieu, here is our companion piece to help bring nerd order balance to the galaxy.

20) Traci 13 (Asian)

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Now we are not entirely sure if Traci 13 is Asian but her mother was named Meihu Lan, so just go with us here. What you need to know is that Traci 13 is of the homo magi line, or humans born with the power of sorcery, has a pet iguana named Leeroy, and the ability to cast “urban magic.” And no we don’t mean the David Blaine kind. Instead of failing at living in a water cube for a week, she can cast spells to teleport, create fire blasts, and even turn her pet iguana into a dragon. Hell if she can do that, maybe she should name the thing BRUCE Leeroy! HAHAH.. we will show ourselves out..

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19) Lady Shiva (Ambiguously Asian)

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Born in an unknown country, Lady Shiva for all intents and purposes is most likely Japanese, Manchurian, maybe Chinese, but some sort of Asian at the very least. She is the goddaughter of the martial arts expert O-Sensei, and not only became a master of the martial arts, but quite possibly the world’s deadliest assassin. As a fearsome mercenary for hire she has been equal parts enemy as well as ally to the one and only Batman.  As a member of the League of Shadows she has battled Batman to near defeat as well as trained Batman and Tim Drake in the arts of stealth. She even mothered Cassandra Cain, a former Batgirl, and even battled her own daughter to the death on more than one occasion. With a mother daughter relationship like that, it makes Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest look like Carol Fucking Brady.

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18) Judomaster (Japanese)

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Many of the entries on our DC list are not only members of such illustrious groups as the Justice League, Doom Patrol, but also DC’s elite group of super heroes that are Japanese Characters Not So Subtly Named After Japanese Things, or JCNSSNAJT for short.

Take for instance Judomaster, what possibly could the metahuman Sonia Sato’s powers be? Well like the two other Judomasters before her she has a mastery level use of the Japanese grappling art of Judo, plus the ability to create an “aversion field.” This power prevents her from any attacks directly aimed at her.  However it is not effective against random attacks, explosions, and thinly veiled stereotypes it seems.

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17) Katana (Japanese)

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Another proud member of the JCNSSNAJT, Tatsu Yamashiro became the super heroine Katana through a love triangle between herself, her husband, and her husband’s jealous Yakuza brother. Like most matters of the heart, this family quarrel ended with Tatsu’s husband being slain by her brother with a mystical katana known as the “Soultaker”, having his soul trapped in said sword, and Tatsu disarming and defeating her brother-in-law, thus obtaining the mystical sword.

After fleeing from the battle, a heartbroken Tatsu would train to be an elite samurai warrior and took on the code name Katana after the sword she wielded with her dead husbands soul.  Glad to hear these crazy kids worked it all out.

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When Chandi Gupta’s parents discovered that their daughter, later known as Maya, had elemental super powers, they did what any good parents would do: they left their daughter in the hands of a  strange and evil cult that believed she was the reincarnation of the Hindu god Shiva, and planned to sacrifice her. And you thought your parents leaving you at math camp was bad! After realizing what her parents didn’t, that the cult was bat shit crazy, Maya escaped to London. Eventually she would become a member of the Justice League Europe and used her ability to manifest a mystical bow and control water and fire to aid in the team’s many battles. One of which I am sure was convincing readers that the Justice League Europe was not as depressing as say other European incarnations of popular franchise leagues. NFL Europe anyone?

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15) Linda Park West (Korean)

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The wife of the Wally West version of the Flash, Linda Park West helps balance out the Flash. Essentially she is the Flash version of Superman and Lois Lane. Not a super hero per se, Linda Park is a plucky journalist with the smarts of a doctor. In fact she has even learned the medical knowledge of an advanced alien race when she went into exile with her husband the Flash. She once even rode a lightning bolt to return to her home world. Not to mention that as the mother of Flash’s twin babies, her most incredible super powers must be the ability to handle the sonic boom level thrusts of her husband.

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14) Naiad (Japanese)

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Mai Mizyazaki was your run of the mill environmentalist who was murdered by the Shogun Oil Company while protesting their drilling rig off the coast of Alaska. After her murder she would be reborn as Naiad the Water Elemental of Earth, a being with the ability to control the elements of water. She along with Firestorm, Swamp Thing, and Red Tornado, is one of the Four Elementals created by Maya the Earth Mother to protect the planet and help mankind evolve. So basically she is like Gi from Captain Planet, only much darker.

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13) Grace Choi (Korea)

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Grace Choi never quite fit in. She grew up tragically as a survivor of a child prostitution ring and lived as a transient on the streets with her metahuman powers remaining dormant until puberty.  When her powers started manifesting themselves she became recruited by Batman to join the Outsiders, a group of metahumans that did not conform to the mainstream image of the super hero community. Her powers of super human strength, heightened endurance, and regenerative healing would later be further explained due to her Bana Amazonian heritage. To recap, former child prostitute with Amazonian metapowers that blossomed during puberty. And you thought your awkward teenage adolescence with terrible haircuts and stretch marks was bad.

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Of the many dark and brooding characters on our lineup, Solstice is a nice bright ray of sunshine. Her upbeat demeanor is fitting since it matches her glowing gold costume and ability to emit golden blasts of concussive light energy. With all the tales of revenge, heroes born from tragedy, etc. it’s nice to see a change from all the negativity to a hero that is not such a Debbie Downer.

Oh wait, we forgot since the New 52, Solstice has been retconned to have been abused and altered by N.O.W.H.E.R.E  and even had her body changed to resemble black smoke that emits blue light through her eyes, mouth, and skin. I guess it’s back to reading Archie Comics for us again.

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11) Tsunami (Japanese)

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Miya Shimada started her career as an enemy against the United States during World War 2 after the prejudice she felt as a Japanese American by her fellow citizens. Soon she began using her superhuman strength, ability to swim at incredibly speeds, and ability to form and control tidal waves against the United States of America and heroes such as those in the All-Star Squadron. Fortunately for us, after being disillusioned by the brutality of the Axis of Amerika and characters like Sea Wolf, a Nazi wolfman that could breath under water, she eventually joined the fight for truth, justice, and the American way. She even sold war bonds at one point at the behest of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Confused? Don’t be, it was just a different time. A simple time when Americans could leave their doors unlocked, eat some apple pie, and enjoy a comic about a Japanese super heroine who used her water powers to fight Nazi wolfmen underwater.

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10) Ghost Fox Killer (Chinese)

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A member of the Great Ten, DC’s super hero team from the People’s Republic of China, Ghost Fox Killer is in charge of killing evil men and has the power to control the ghosts of these dead men. She even has the power to cause instant death simply through her touch, a convenient power considering that the city she calls home is powered by the souls of dead men. And what with global warming and all these days, it’s good to see a super heroine on our list go green. Plus if she ever decides to give up the super hero gig, with a name like Ghost Fox Killer, I am sure the Wu Tang Clan would welcome her with open arms.

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9) Mother of Champions (Chinese)

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Another member of the Great Ten, the Mother of Champions probably has the weirdest if not grossest of super powers on this list. The heroine known as the Mother of Champions is quite literally that. You see, Wu Mei Xing was a theoretical physicist who was exposed to the “god particle” by accident while working on a particle accelerator. This exposure triggered her metagene and granted her the power of well, super fertility and fecundity. You see, although she was at first unable to bear children after being exposed to the “god particle,” later she would discover her new found ability to birth twenty five identical super soldiers every three days! These soldiers only live for about a week aging 10 years every twenty four hours. A pretty unique super power to say the least, we can’t help but feel a bit grossed out by it. The clean up alone after one of her Terracotta litters is shudder worthy. Nothing is wrong with the miracle of life, but the Mother of Champions sounds more like a cross between a pregnant hamster and a respawn unit from Starcraft. Maybe instead of Mother of Champions she should consider renaming herself to “Super Milf.”

 

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Before there was the Super Young Team, more on them later, there was Japan’s original super hero team, Big Action Science. Basically Big Science Action was Japan’s version of the Justice League except with more haikus and super kawaii heroes. Case in point Goraiko, a psionic construct projected from the mind of a young unnamed Japanese girl in a high tech sensory deprivation tank.  This construct is apparently inspired by a Totoro like doll that the girl has in her tank, and can only speak in haikus and mathematical equations. Just add in a Keroppi Mecha and she completes a Japanese hat trick.

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7) Nazo Baluda (Japanese)

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Rounding out Big Science Action is their resident dark star stealth warrior. Little is known about her, except that roughly translated her name Nazo Baluda is combination of the Japanese word enigma and reference to Dominatrix Baluda, a leather clad character from a Japanese manga. And really that is good enough for us at Amped Asia, in fact that is what we look for on our interns’ resumes. *Hint hint class of 2015*

6) Shy Crazy Lolita Canary (Japanese)

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The next two entries on our list both happen to be members of Super Young Team, a Japanese group of super heroes who are influenced by American super heroes and Japanese pop culture. If that wasn’t already apparent with member names like Sunny Sumo, Most Excellent Superbat, and Shy Crazy Lolita Canary. The latter of which sounds like some sort of screen name used by Chris Henson on an episode of To Catch A Predator. With a name like that you would expect her super power to be luring some creepy dude into her house with a couple of Subway sandwiches and horrible intentions. In actuality, she is a winged super heroine in a school girl costume who is small enough to fit in someone’s hand and possesses a sonic scream similar to Black Canary.  So a little from column A and a little from column B.

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5) Shiny Happy Aquazon (Japanese)

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If you hadn’t already figured out by her name, Shiny Happy Aquazon is also a member of the aforementioned Super Young Team. Although she sounds like the designated child swim area at your local Japanese YMCA, she in fact has the ability to create hardwater constructs, making her invaluable during the Justice League’s annual Spring Break Wet T-Shirt contests in Ft. Lauderdale.

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4) Jenny Quantum (Singaporean)

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Apparently.. she’s playing with glitter art?

Born on January 1st 2000, Jenny Quantum became the Spirit of the 21st century and has the ability to manipulate reality on a quantum level. She can do anything her imagination can come up with. Apparently her sense of fashion is extraordinarily immune to near limitless powers. Seriously all you could come up with is a Singaporean flag t-shirt, jean jacket, and slacks combo? I mean we get the flag is a nod to your hot British predecessor Jenny Sparks but come on. Anyway she can be seen currently as the leader of The Authority, a group of super heroes dedicated to getting the job done by any means necessary, except if it means in anything other than casual wear.

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3) Dr. Light (Japanese)

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The Japanese born Kimiyo Tazu Hoshi took the mantle of Dr. Light when the Monitor, the embodiment of all positive matter in the universe, chose her to defend the Earth against his nemesis Anti-Monitor, granting her the power of photonics. Now known as Dr. Light, Kimiyo Tazu Hoshi became a prominent character in the DC Universe and even member of the Justice League. But for the record, Kimiyo didn’t need some quasi god like being to grant her the title of doctor. She already was a medical doctor and scientist before her encounter with the Monitor, showing that all you need is hard work, dedication, and probably an overbearing Asian mother.

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2) Cassandra Cain/Batgirl/Black Bat (Ambiguously Asian)

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A former Batgirl now Black Bat, Cassandra Cain is the daughter of Lady Shiva and the world class assassin David Cain. Raised by her father to be the world’s greatest assassin and future bodyguard for Ra’s al Ghul, Cassandra was not taught to read or write, but only read the body language of an opponent. Although this would hinder her ability to communicate through conventional means, her intense training gave her high level cognitive abilities that let her perform extraordinary feats of physical and mental coordination.  It would seem she gets these killer moves from her mama, but more likely from her psychotic assassin father. But does it really matter? She has a literal and figurative killer body that expresses itself through extraordinary feats of multitasking; we don’t care where she gets it from as long as she gets it to us.

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This is a tricky one honestly since the daughter of Ra’s Ah Ghul has just as cryptic background as her father. We know that Ra’s Ah Ghul was born around 600 years ago somewhere in what was once considered “Arabia” near a city whose inhabitants migrated from China. Some have said he is of Arabic and Persian descent making him Asian. Also Taila Al Ghul’s mother came from Chinese and Arabic ancestry. Either way the sometimes love interest sometimes enemy of Batman still makes it on our list. She is an Olympic level athlete, holds advanced degrees in biology, engineering, and a business MBA, oh and incredibly deadly to boot. With a resume like that we she would make any Asian parent proud. But you know, they would still compare her to their friend’s kid who just got into John’s Hopkins, ON SCHOLARSHIP no doubt. NOTHING IS EVER GOOD ENOUGH IS IT MOM?!

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