As a young man, Nan Wang had some anger issues.
Bullied at school for his Chinese origins, Nan Wang became a leader of the Chinese Dragons street gang in Tokyo and an enforcer for the yakuza, Japan’s infamous mafia. One day another crook, a wannabe gangster who drifted between several crime families, stole his wallet. But later, he took him out to dinner to apologise. As the organization didn’t brook internal conflict, Nan Wang accepted.
But trouble revved up again when the man tried to put the bill on the yakuza’s tab.
“I got mad at him, but if I punched him in the face others would notice. So I started punching him where they couldn’t see,” Nan Wang recollected, sitting in a dimly-lit bar in eastern Tokyo. “Then he began making fun of me, saying I was only a wannabe bōsōzoku [biker] and that angered me even more.”
Nan Wang used a bokutō (wooden sword) to break the man’s arm, then instructed a younger associate to bring a real sword, a katana, and chopped the man’s arm off.
“Blood was gushing out. I realised this guy’s not gonna make it, so I tried to finish him off,” Nan Wang continued. “I tried to cut his head off from the back. But the sword was already broken, so the blade just bounced off his neck.”
Meanwhile, a younger gang member got onto the phone to their boss.
“Nan Wang’s really pissed and he’s not gonna stop,” he stuttered, “please come.”
The senior mobster, an ex-kickboxing champion, arrived, kicked Nan Wang out of the way, and had the victim driven to hospital. The man lived, and Nan Wang eventually spent thirteen years in prison. He now runs Honnikaeru , an initiative providing books for prisoners.
Out with the yakuza, in with the hangure
The recent arrest of a group of Japanese men allegedly operating a burglary ring from their jail cells in the Philippines  has shined a light on organized crime in Japan. Although none of the suspects were formally yakuza, one of the ringleaders may have had ties  to Japan’s largest crime syndicate, the Yamaguchi-gumi.
Traditionally, formality is everything in the Japanese underworld. But that’s something a new generation of gangsters, the so-called “hangure”, are casting aside.
“All yakuza groups have an office,” Prison Taro, an ex-Yamaguchi-gumi turned YouTuber , told Unseen Japan. “If someone from organization A gets into a fight with someone from organization B, organization A will contact B’s office to verify whether that person is an official member. If they are, this means war!”
Unlike Italy’s Camorra or Mexican narco cartels, the yakuza are semi-legit organizations deeply rooted in Japanese traditions. They’re a common sight at springtime festivals, showing off their full-body tattoos. For decades, authorities tolerated them as a way of keeping unruly street crime in check. They enjoyed a cozy relationship with police and politicians.
And for their part, the yakuza do sometimes seem to have a sense of civic responsibility. For example, after a particularly nasty turf war in the south of Japan involving hand grenades (“pineapples” in yakuza slang) which claimed 14 lives, both factions held a press conference  at a local police station where they apologised for all the trouble they had caused. During the COVID pandemic , gang members helped distribute groceries to desperate shoppers.
Why the yakuza are dying
But being out in the open makes them easier to control. As a result, the number of officially registered mafiosi has been falling rapidly to a record low of 24,100  in 2021, down from over 70,000  a decade before.
This is due, in part, to strict laws that make it tricky for mobsters to rent apartments, open bank accounts, and even use cellphones. Instead, the ranks of the hangure – unaffiliated gangsters flying under the radar of the police and racketeering laws – are growing.
“It used to be that hangure worked with yakuza families. But as time progressed they realised it’s more beneficial for them not to work with the families and do crime on their own rather than having a family involved,” explained Nan Wang. “But what they call ‘hangure’ now is something the police and media made up, and not a new type of [organized crime] group.”
“It’s a catch-all term for journalists to talk about people who are not yakuza but are still involved in the criminal underworld,” added Martina Baradel, a University of Oxford scholar researching the yakuza.
The new power structures
These non-yakuza include Nan Wang’s old crew, the Chinese Dragons. Its membership draws on youth of Chinese  origin, including many children of Japanese left behind in China after WWII. Since the 1980s, foreign drug crews  including Nigerians and Iranians have also found a foothold in Tokyo’s rackets.
“Nowadays, there are lots of groups in the underworld that are not officially part of the yakuza,” said Prison Taro. “The strongest is the Chinese Dragons. But Nan Wang can tell you more about that!”
Another hangure gang is the Kantō Rengō . Formerly an alliance of biker gangs, IT professionals would hire them as bodyguards in the 2000s, giving them an in to the corporate world. They gained notoriety in 2012 after beating a man to death in a Roppongi nightclub, in Tokyo’s affluent entertainment district. After that, the original core of the group dissolved.
Unlike the yakuza, who were long thought to follow a code of honour (whether or not this was truly the case), the hangure and especially the foreign mobsters are seen as more chaotic and violent.
“The yakuza has a strong connection with a lot of traditional values, and a lot of far-right values as well,” said Baradel. “Now, it’s a little bit controversial to say it on TV, but many people think the yakuza are this necessary evil. And of course, xenophobic attitudes in Japan. With the yakuza getting weaker and weaker, some fear the underworld will grow out of control and messier.”
Traditional gangsters: Down but not out
But Japan’s traditional mob are still players in the world of crime.
In April last year, yakuza boss Takeshi Ebisawa  was arrested at Morton’s Steakhouse in Manhattan, after years of meetings with undercover DEA agents and informers. Allegedly, he was brokering a deal for weapons (including anti-tank and surface-to-air missiles) in exchange for heroin and meth from Burmese rebels. Meanwhile, remaining members of Kantō Rengō have drifted closer to the yakuza and are now affiliated with the Sumiyoshi-kai crime family.
“My impression is that the yakuza is still directly or indirectly controlling most of these rackets,” Baradel opined.
“Of course there are some places where, for example, there is a power vacuum or Chinese gangs are stronger than the local yakuza. But in general, I think this idea that there are other groups taking over is a bit exaggerated. Many hangure are ex-yakuza and probably still have relationships with their groups. It’s just that many of them have chosen to [formally] quit [their organization] because prison sentences are longer if you’re affiliated to a yakuza group.”
In other words, the Japanese mafia is still very much alive. It’s just shapeshifting from quasi-corporations with their own offices to something more underground, akin to organized crime in other countries.
Prison Taro stood up to show an app on his phone listing each yakuza family and their official members.
“But there are also the hidden members, and it’s they who actually run the business and supply the money under the table,” he explained. “The cops can’t trace them yet. The police try to maintain order, and the yakuza always try to cheat it.”
Additional reporting by Haruki Onazaki.