Photo/Illutration The Asahi Shimbun

A former yakuza member who retired in his 70s and was formerly in charge of a gang office saw that the younger generation increasingly did not want to live a life of crime. 

Affiliated gangs would bring young members to reside at the office for about a year, but the man said that out of 10 such members, six left before the year was up.

“For my generation, we dreamed about becoming high-ranking gang members who were popular with women, had money and rode in a fancy car,” the man said. “But the times have changed. To begin with, young people today dislike being tied down to a gang.”

The graying of the Japanese population is striking all sectors of society, and even organized crime isn't immune. 

As of the end of 2019, 51.2 percent of the nation's 14,400 or so yakuza members were 50 or older. That is the first time a majority of gang members were over 50 since such records were first kept in 2006.

The percentage of gang members 70 or older has also noticeably increased.

At the end of 2006, most gang members, 30.6 percent, were in their 30s, according to the National Police Agency.

Fast forward to the end of 2019 and that percentage had shrunk to 14 percent.

Similarly, while 12.6 percent of gang members in 2006 were in their 20s, the figure at the end of last year was 4.3 percent.

As the number of younger gang members decreases, there has been an increase in all age groups 40 and older.

While only 2.3 percent of gang members in 2006 were 70 or older, the figure last year was 10.7 percent.

Hyogo Prefecture is home to two major organized gangs, the Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s largest crime syndicate, and the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi, which split from the Yamaguchi-gumi in August 2015.

A high-ranking officer of the Hyogo prefectural police explained that gangs have become a less popular workplace for younger men because all prefectural governments had passed ordinances by 2011 to eliminate such gangs from their jurisdictions.

“Gang members cannot open bank accounts, sign contracts for mobile phones and credit cards or take out insurance policies,” the police official said. “And if they are not registered as a gang member, the gang boss will not be held responsible should the member be arrested. Bosses are no longer pressuring younger people to become gang members.”

The overall number of registered gang members has also plummeted. There were about 41,500 or so in 2006 and with more young people not joining, the aging of gangs has progressed because older members are less likely to be able to find a job after quitting a gang.

The graying of gangs has led one boss in the Yamaguchi-gumi to remain in the job at age 83, while a boss at the rival Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi is 79.

And gang warfare has often led to the arrests of members well past 60.

When two members affiliated with the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi were gunned down in the streets of Kobe in October 2019, the individual arrested at the scene was a 68-year-old member of a gang affiliated with the Yamaguchi-gumi.


The former gang member who left the life in his 70s described what it was like for yakuza in their twilight years.

“While I do feel as though I have managed to somehow survive until now, I would not join a gang if I was born again,” the ex-yakuza said. “I went to prison three times. Now, I have no family, no savings and no job.”

He lives by himself in an Osaka apartment with a monthly rent of about 30,000 yen ($284).

Having joined a gang as a teenager, the man spent more than 50 years as a yakuza. He has changed gangs a number of times and was once even a gang boss.

He tried to apply for welfare assistance last year but was twice rejected because of his yakuza background.

When a member leaves a gang, it normally releases a document that shows the individual has been removed as a member. Once that document is taken to a local police station, the police will usually remove that individual from its register of gang members.

Yet, in many instances individuals are still treated as a gang member for a five-year period after leaving. That means they cannot open a bank account during that period.

But the ex-yakuza had no document showing he left a gang because the gang itself had disbanded. The man wrote a document for police saying he wanted to wash his hands of a life of crime now that the gang no longer existed and pledged to become a law-abiding member of society.

In late 2019, the man applied for welfare assistance but was rejected. A second application submitted after the man felt the police had acknowledged he had left the gang met the same fate.

It was only on his third application that he was finally considered no longer a gang member.

“While that may have been payback for half a century as a yakuza, I had no idea how to go on living since I could not even pay my rent,” he said.

In the past, the man worked as a bodyguard of sorts at construction sites so other gangs did not interfere and to allow companies with links to gangs to work as subcontractors.

Until the anti-organized crime law was enacted in 1992, the man said it was common to receive 500,000 yen or 1 million yen in cash at construction sites.