What’s a Japanese mobster to do in retirement? Join a softball team

What’s a Japanese mobster to do in retirement? Join a softball team

On paper, the Ryuyukai were the most fearsome team in Japanese softball. A sort of mutual aid society for retired gangsters, the club had racked up nearly a century of hard time. The manager had been a top mob consigliere; the relief pitcher, who took the field in hot pink shoes, had once been sent to kill him.

But on a cloudless day in March 2022, these hardened ex-cons met their match: the Parent Teacher Association of Nakanodai Elementary School. The PTA showed no mercy, hitting pitch after pitch out of the scruffy park in suburban Tokyo. Midway through the game, the scorekeeper stopped counting.

Losing is nothing new for Japan’s iconic gangsters, the yakuza. For more than a decade, they have been suffering one defeat after another.

As late as the 1990s, yakuza numbered around 100,000. Their businesses – scams, gambling and prostitution rackets – were illegal, but the groups themselves were not. Fan magazines chronicled their exploits, sandwiching interviews with top bosses between organizational charts and brothel reviews. The groups had business cards and listed addresses. They gave Halloween candy to children and distributed relief supplies after disasters.

But today’s yakuza are a shell of what they once were. The same demographic forces wearing down other Japanese industries have also hit organized crime. An aging population has made it hard to find young recruits – more Japanese gangsters are in their 70s than in their 20s – and has diminished the once-thriving demand for the yakuza’s services.

Society, too, has become less tolerant of them. The authorities have carried out a relentless legal assault on the criminal underworld. Crime is both less profitable and riskier. In 2021, a court sentenced the head of the most violent syndicate to death, a first that sent shock waves through the mob’s executive class.

All of that has made crime a less attractive career option. Over the last decade, the yakuza’s rolls have plummeted by nearly two-thirds, to 24,000.

Many have struggled to reintegrate. Tattoos, missing fingers and long criminal records limit job opportunities and make it difficult to fit in. Japanese laws discouraging business with the yakuza effectively stop them from taking care of necessities like opening a bank account, getting a phone plan or renting an apartment until they can prove they’ve been out of the yakuza for five years.

Yuji Ryuzaki, the softball team’s manager, established the Ryuyukai in 2012 to help his former colleagues build a new life.

Ryuzaki had quit the yakuza in the early 2000s. During his 72 years, he has been a member of a nationally ranked high school baseball team, a Buddhist priest, a model and an actor. He had sold jewels, imported luxury goods from Hong Kong and worked as a beautician. And he had – of course – been a top executive in a Tokyo affiliate of the Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s largest mob organization.

The Yamaguchi-gumi is based in Ryuzaki’s hometown, Kobe, a port city in western Japan, where his father ran a temple. He’d known gangsters as long as he could remember. He’d seen yakuza tattoos on his friends’ parents and on people in local bathhouses.

In college, a low-ranking tough had beaten up one of Ryuzaki’s friends. In retaliation, Ryuzaki kidnapped the man and buried him up to his neck in dirt. Ryuzaki got a beating in return, he said, but the gangsters were impressed by his mettle and signed him up.

Over the decades, he largely stayed behind the scenes. He didn’t look like a stereotypical yakuza. He was afraid of needles, so he had never been tattooed. He had managed to keep all of his fingers. His first conviction was for getting mixed up in an argument at Tokyo Disneyland, he said. Not very yakuza.

The idea for the softball team sprang from a chance encounter with Katsuei Hirasawa, a member of Parliament from a working-class Tokyo neighborhood where yakuza were once a part of the social fabric. Hirasawa had long known Ryuzaki by reputation, he said during a recent interview, adding that the ex-yakuza had “contributed to a lot of social causes” locally.

The anti-yakuza laws of recent years were well intentioned but “discriminatory,” Hirasawa said, arguing that they pushed people toward recidivism. Softball could help prevent that, he said, by keeping idle hands busy while building discipline and a sense of community.

Ryuyukai membership offered more tangible benefits, too. Ryuzaki and an associate, Takeshi Takemoto, worked to put the team’s members up in housing and connect them with the kind of tough, temporary employment – construction, roadwork, sewer maintenance – that pays a living wage and doesn’t ask too many questions.

For years, their efforts drew little notice. Then, photos of the team showed up in a couple of weekly tabloids. Journalists started getting in touch. There was even talk of turning their story into a movie.

Ryuzaki was clearly enjoying the spotlight. He wanted to show the world that gangsters were people, too, he said. And he didn’t hate the free publicity.

“We’re not hurting anyone, so why not?”

‘Pulled Back In’

The season got off to a slow start. One team was a no-show. Another delivered a clobbering that rivaled the PTA’s. The Ryuyukai didn’t seem to mind. They showed up early each time to practice their fielding and smoke.

While some teams played with nearly military precision, the Ryuyukai were clearly there to have fun. When a player fumbled an easy ground ball or stopped running halfway to second base, Ryuzaki jokingly cursed him out in a salty yakuza patois.

In the club’s early days, some teams were intimidated by the former gangsters, Ryuzaki said. Umpires hesitated to call strikes and outs against them.

They worked on blending in. Ryuzaki traded the club’s black uniforms for gray and electric pink, hoping to project a friendlier image. The league’s director praised the team for helping to clean up the field after games. One year, they even won a league championship, cementing their position as part of the scene.

“In sports, there are rules,” the captain of another team said after a close loss. “As long as everyone follows them, it’s not a problem.”

Not every player on the Ryuyukai was a yakuza. There were a few broad-shouldered ringers in their 20s; a college friend of one of Ryuzaki’s employees, who cowered when he made an error; and a group of older men who owed unspecified “favors” to Ryuzaki and Takemoto.

For those who had been gangsters, though, the team’s rules were clear: New members must prove they have quit the yakuza.

The process of leaving can be difficult; traditionally, it cost a finger joint. Nowadays, members can buy their freedom or sometimes just request early retirement for something as prosaic as a bad back. The announcement is faxed to gang offices around the country. Some of the Ryuyukai’s members carry a photo of the document on their phones as proof of their excommunication.

But over the course of the season, it became clear that the team’s story – and the line between in and out of the mob – was not so straightforward.

Joining the yakuza wasn’t like getting a normal job, Takemoto said after one game. He himself had studied to be a schoolteacher and been a car salesperson before he started dealing drugs for a gang in the northern city of Sapporo in his 30s. His ex-wife had even worked for the police.

“Being a salesman was tough,” he said. Being a yakuza, on the other hand, was electrifying: “No one is apathetic about joining.”

Takemoto loved the lifestyle. Money. Danger. Fast cars. It was hard to leave that behind. For him, quitting took more than two decades in prison and a prosecutor’s warning that he was about to spend the rest of his life there.

Masahiko Tsugane, who heads reintegration efforts at the Tokyo branch of the National Center for Removal of Criminal Organizations, noted the increasingly blurred boundaries between yakuza and civilians as gangs work around the new laws.

He’s skeptical of mutual aid efforts by former gangsters. People who really want out need to make a clean break, he said; “otherwise, they’ll just get pulled back in.”

The center has a program to help ex-yakuza find work. In Tokyo last year, no one applied.

“I’ve only got eight fingers. Who’s going to hire me?” Takemoto said during an interview in his spacious walk-up apartment, which is owned by his girlfriend. Ex-colleagues in dark glasses and black suits glowered from a photo in a Disney frame.

Ryuzaki believes it’s unrealistic to expect people to completely sever ties to their old lives. Socially, it would be difficult to turn down an invitation to a wedding or a funeral, he said.

He himself has kept one foot firmly in gangland. Yakuza bosses call him frequently, asking for advice or for help smoothing over a conflict. The police, too, sought him out for updates on gang activity.

Ryuzaki didn’t see a problem with his mob contacts. Or with the yakuza at all.

Like most of his colleagues, he saw the yakuza – and himself – as chivalrous, modern-day Robin Hoods, outsiders looking out for the little guy and dispensing justice when the authorities can’t or won’t.

“I never did anything that bad,” he said during an interview in his apartment on the top floor of an old high-rise. One wall was covered with luxury handbags he rents out to women who work in hostess clubs, and a sign in the bathroom instructed visitors to relieve themselves “prison style.”

As he spoke, two older men in tracksuits and chains busied themselves ironing his shirts and straightening up.

Ryuzaki described himself as an “economic yakuza,” specializing in real estate shakedowns. It was all in his forthcoming autobiography, “Necessary Evil,” he said.

Much of his current work, he admitted, existed in a gray zone. He made high-interest loans and exploited loopholes in import laws. After one softball game, he pulled three blueberry-sized precious stones out of a bag and handed them to Takemoto, who inspected them with a jeweler’s loupe. They were imported from Southeast Asia, he explained – one of their many sidelines.

Both men have been arrested several times since leaving their gangs, but nothing has stuck. Ryuzaki insisted that the police were just out to get them.

“They want to take what’s gray and claim it’s black,” he said.

‘Nothing good’

In July, the Ryuyukai won their first game. Their opponents were a group of drinking buddies who called themselves “The Secret Club.” Ryuzaki was delighted by the victory but worried about his team’s next opponent: another PTA, this one widely acknowledged to be the strongest team in the league.

On the day of that game, Takemoto brought Popsicles for everyone. The PTA brought its A-game, scoring six runs in the first inning.

Afterward, Ryuzaki and Takemoto held court in their favorite postgame haunt, an old-fashioned coffee shop that served pork cutlets and spaghetti. The elderly owner wore a thin black bow tie, and the television above the counter was often tuned to the horse races, one of Japan’s few forms of legal gambling.

Despite their complaints about the anti-yakuza laws, Ryuzaki and Takemoto maintain a seemingly opulent lifestyle. Takemoto wore a jewel-encrusted watch that he said had cost nearly $30,000. Members of the softball team regularly ferried the men around in luxury sedans.

The team sorted itself into a rigid hierarchy, with the former bosses on top. At lunch, players would sometimes stand in front of Ryuzaki and bow deeply, rice bowls lifted in both hands before them as they shouted out their thanks to him for picking up the tab. On one rainy day, a man with a large black umbrella trailed Takemoto around the softball field, ensuring he stayed dry.

The ex-cons on the team clung to a flashy gangster image that belied their current living conditions. They wore sequined baseball hats. Loud colors. Tinted glasses. Everything branded (especially Louis Vuitton). At one game, Ryuzaki handed out pink Christian Dior face masks. No one questioned their authenticity.

But their former lifestyles had left behind deeper scars than the occasional stab wound. A team stalwart, Masao, dropped out of school at 16 and spent years bouncing from gang to gang.

After his third prison sentence, he had a revelation. “Going to jail after 50 is a waste,” he said. “Nothing good happens there.”

Masao, who asked that his surname be withheld, is covered in tattoos and missing a finger he cut off after leaving one of the gangs. No one asked him to, he said, but he did it anyway, hoping his old associates would let him be. The bone didn’t separate cleanly, though, and he ended up rushing to a hospital. His former bosses never got the finger; in the hubbub, it ended up in a convenience store trash can.

He had gotten hooked on meth and still had a hard time resisting its pull. But the softball team had helped him stay clean, he said, and Takemoto had found him an apartment and a job. During the season, he was helping to service a water main.

Drug addiction was a particularly pernicious problem for many of the former gang members. Not everyone escaped it. In July, one team member killed himself after struggling with withdrawal.

At his wake in August, Ryuzaki and other team members greeted a stream of men in dark suits who had come to pay their respects. Many of them, Ryuzaki said, were active yakuza.

‘Bad habits’

The Ryuyukai’s season ended on a humid October afternoon with a 15-0 loss. The opposing team’s pitcher, a rare woman in the league, fired balls over the plate with a ferocity that made the Ryuyukai’s players jump back.

One of those pitches struck Masao. He jokingly demanded a payoff. The pitcher bowed deeply and blushed.

At lunch afterward, Ryuzaki couldn’t stop coughing. He needed treatment for lung disease after years of smoking. He huffed on an inhaler and cleared his throat.

He seemed unruffled by the loss. Or a season with just two wins. COVID had stopped the players from practicing. They would get their title back someday. And besides, winning wasn’t the point.

“People have to stay busy or they fall back into bad habits,” he said, picking at a plate of stir-fried ginger pork.

The conversation stopped, and everyone, as if at an invisible signal, got up to leave.

There was a chill in the air and no more softball until spring.

“Who wants to go bowling?” Ryuzaki asked.

They all jumped in their cars and drove to the lanes.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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