Japanese crime families operate throughout much of the island nation. But some mobsters have transplanted to Latin American nations like Argentina, where they continue to carry out the criminal activities that made them notorious in Japan.
It’s midday in Tokyo. Hirasawa looks fresh faced. The sweat on his brow during this hot summer day can’t impede his smile. It’s been so long time since he’s bathed in the traditional Japanese manner. He has just left the sento, an ancestral bathhouse where one sits on a small bench while alternating between extremely hot and cold water.
His bathrobe is opened at the chest, exposing a large tattoo of a lantern. This bathhouse, in the heart of the Sumida district, is one the few places that accepts people like Hirasawa.
This is the custom in Japan. Many authorities and businesses have been denying access to men with tattoos for decades now.
Hirasawa’s extensive body tattoos
Hirasawa carries a brown folder, an envelope full of cash and a passport, which he used upon his recent landing. His smile is wrinkled by a lack of teeth, making him appear to be at least 70 years old, instead of his actual age of 58. Nevertheless, he is happy. On this morning in August Hirasawa has returned home, after a long time abroad. He has been deported from Argentina after serving two years in prison for cocaine trafficking.
The Yakuza in Japan
From 1603 to 1867, the term ya-ku-za meant a “useless person.” The term’s literal translation is “8-9-3,” a losing hand in the Japanese card game Oicho-Kabu.
When Japan became a centralized capitalist nation during the Meiji restoration period in 1868, the nation’s warrior caste, the samurai, were obligated to give up their swords and become businessmen. Those unable to make the transition migrated to the country’s interior to become involved in illicit activities like gambling, prostitution and alcohol sales, while using other ex-samurai to protect these interests. And so the former feudal warriors became criminals and defiantly adopted the term yakuza.
Various yakuza clans developed over the years, including the Yamaguchi-gumi in 1915, the Inagawa-kai in 1949 and the Sumisyoshi-yai in 1958, which used irezumi, or colorful tattoos to identified each criminal family.
In the 1930s and 1940s the Japanese government employed these clans to attack foreign invaders during World War II, while other yakuza joined the army. At the end of the war yakuza clans began trafficking drugs and weapons, growing rapidly and building offices throughout Japan.
During this expansion some yakuza clans extended their reach to Latin America, where they recruited women for prostitution in Japan. According to the Organization of American States (OAS), Brazil and Colombia are the countries most affected by this trade.
To give an idea as to the scope of these criminal families, in 2012 Japan’s National Police Agency said 63,200 members from different yakuza groups were present in 45 of Japan’s 47 provinces. And Hirasawa was one of them.
Hirasawa dedicated 30 years of his life to crime, most of that time with Japan’s largest criminal organization the Yamaguchi-gumi. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the clan has spread as far as the United States and Australia. As part of the group, Hirasawa witnessed firsthand human trafficking in Nigeria, the Chinese triads’ growing amphetamine trade to Japan, and even saw how Russians smuggled weapons into the country by hiding them inside the bellies of fish.
During this life of crime Hirasawa spent 15 years behind bars on charges of drug and weapon possession. Prior to his last incarceration, he was vehemently sought after by Japanese officials, the same authorities which have significantly reduced the yakuza’s impact on the island. “Japan has calmed down,” Hirasawa says in halting Spanish. For years, Japan’s tranquility had been wearing on him. He wanted risk and adrenaline and decided to broaden his horizons. Hirasawa thought it would be easy.
In 2010 he traveled to South America for the first time to stock up on drugs. Based on his experience trafficking amphetamine around Japan, Hirasaw thought he would be able to cross the ocean loaded down with cocaine. He was wrong.
On Saturday, March 27 of that year at Buenos Aires’ Ezeiza Ministro Pistarini International Airport, Hirasawa tried to carry three kilos of cocaine in his suitcase to Japan. The plan began well. Hirasawa’s partner, Shinobu Kodama, was also carrying three kilos of cocaine in his suitcase and had already passed through the security gates to board an Air Europa plane to Madrid.
But suddenly, airport police were in Hirasawa’s face, and he nervously bowed. They shouted at him to open his suitcase immediately. Stunned, he tried to avoid showing them his carry-on luggage. But someone had betrayed Hirasawa and told the police what he was carrying. They immediately found the drugs he was smuggling. They also seized the 200 US dollars, 30 Euros, and 1,052 Argentine pesos Hirasawa had. He and Shinobu were both arrested for “aggravated smuggling.” Hirasawa didn’t know the language or the Argentine justice system.
While in preventative detention and during his entire trial, Hirasawa was never provided an interpreter to translate the charges he was facing. Despite also speaking a bit of English, Hirasawa benefited from this deficiency in the Argentine judicial system, by never having to plead or give his full name.
Dressed in a grey tie, Hirasawa speaks broken Argentine Spanish, which he learned in order to survive while incarcerated. It’s peppered with curses like “motherfucker,” which he uses when referring to one police officer. Frustrated with not being able to get Hirasawa to speak, the officer punched him in the mouth, knocking out his front teeth.
Despite the beatings, Hirasawa never talked. He never gave Argentine authorities the name of family members to contact or wrote any letters informing someone of his captivity. He was faithful to bushidõ, or “the warrior’s path,” a code inherited from the samurais to accept death before dishonor.
Through Hirasawa’s silence and ingenuity, as well as the judicial system’s inability to find an interpreter, authorities were never able to discover Hirasawa’s family name. Because of this, when officials consulted with Interpol and the Tokyo Tribunal, they never discovered his criminal record, which was mostly related to similar drug crimes, Hirasawa says between toothless smiles.
Without any information on his other crimes, Hirasawa was sentenced to four years and nine months in prison. He began serving his sentence on July 8, 2011 in the Ezeiza I Federal Penitentiary Complex, a maximum security facility where he was housed with other foreigners.
In this prison, Hirasawa’s silent demeanor, vibrant tattoos and status as the only Japanese person there made him famous among the foreign inmates.
“They thought I was a ninja,” he recalls in a hoarse voice. They didn’t know the tattoo in the middle of his back was just the name of a friend who had been killed in the streets of Japan. The rest of the impressively colorful tattoos related to Hirasawa’s criminal clan.
His discretion won him the respect of the other prisoners. In the federal complex, which the government claims is a model prison, powerful inmates enjoy private cells, and are even able to smuggle in food and prostitutes. In Hirasawa’s section, prisoners from Colombia, Holland, Brazil and other countries communicated with gestures and broken English while sharing joints of marijuana, he said.
The former yakuza still vividly remembers a drug dispute in his cell which ended with one prisoner’s agonizing death. While one attacker suffocated the victim with a pillow, others held his limbs so he couldn’t escape. Hirasawa never said a word, but this hellish prison was eating at him. Hirasawa could hold everything in only for so long. He was a bomb waiting to explode.
Unexpectedly, a ruling was passed in Hirasawa’s favor. His previous sentence was ruled unconstitutional. Despite capturing Hirasawa with cocaine, the courts never provided the accused with legal defense. So after one year and five months in prison, Argentine authorities put Hirasawa on a commercial flight back to Japan. They couldn’t justify his incarceration because they’d never provided Hirasawa with an interpreter and he had never been able to argue on his behalf. The authorities also never discovered for whom he was trafficking cocaine.
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Just a few minutes after getting off the plane, Hirasawa sits on the steps of a sento. Tired of the criminal life, Hirasawa feels revitalized to be back in his country. In his folder he carries legal paperwork, which he plans to throw away shortly. The envelope is stuffed with Argentine pesos, which he considers useless and offers as a gift. In his passport in red capital letters is a stamp barring his return to Argentina: “PROHIBITED.”
Hirasawa feels refreshed. He knows he won’t return to the Yamaguchi-gumi or perform yubitsume, the ritual amputation of the little finger as a form of apology for leaving the clan. A more pressing priority is reconstructing his teeth.
He doesn’t know what he’ll do after this conversation. He doesn’t know if he’ll seek out his family after being away for more than a year, or if he’ll remain in hiding. He’s not clear if he’ll return to his old neighborhood or if he’ll become a laborer. Hirasawa feels alone.
With only one set of clothes and a pack of cigarettes, toothless Hirasawa says goodbye. He confidently walks away, and he gradually becomes swallowed up by the streets of the world’s densest city. On the horizon, he resembles a repentant yakuza melting into the midday heat of Tokyo.