The high price of writing about the Japanese mafia

“In life, we only encounter the injustices we were meant to correct.”
-Igari Toshiro, ex-prosecutor, leading lawyer in the anti-organized crime movement in Japan (1949-2010)

Igari Toshiro was my lawyer, my mentor, and my friend. In the sixteen years I’ve been covering organized crime in Japan, I’ve never met anyone more courageous or inspiring–or anyone who looked as much like a pit-bull in human form.

Igari Toshiro's last book, Gekitotsu (Collision), was published posthumously last month.
Igari Toshiro’s last book, Gekitotsu (Collision), was published posthumously last month.

Igari-san was a legend in law enforcement circles, the author of several books on dealing with organized crime and preventing its incursion into the business world. He was rather disliked in the underworld.

The last time I spoke face-to-face with Igari was on August 8.  It was a Sunday; he had come back from Brazil and went directly from Narita Airport to his office to meet me. I asked him if he would cooperate in a documentary I am working on as consultant and a reporter for National Geographic Television on the yakuza (the Japanese mafia).

I also had a problem.

In 2008, I angered an organized crime boss named Goto Tadamasa, of the Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s largest crime group. In The Washington Post, I wrote how he had sold out his own group to the FBI, in order to get a U.S. visa so he could receive a liver transplant at UCLA. That article, along with a book I helped write for Takarajima Publishing, got him kicked out of the Yamaguchi-gumi.

Takarajima published Goto’s biography this May. It’s a great book, except for the part about me, on page 245-255. There’s a quote from Goto that translates, roughly, to “Even though I’m no longer a yakuza boss, if I met this unpleasant reporter, it would be a big deal. He’d go from being a reporter targeted for death to one that was actually dead. Haha.”

If you understood how yakuza order hits on people, you’d know that this is the equivalent of a fatwa on my life. I asked Igari to help me deal with the fall-out. He said he’d ask the publisher to retract the threatening passage. His parting words were: “It’ll be a long battle. It’ll take money and courage and you’ll have to come up with those on your own. But we’ll fight.”

On August 28, Igari’s body was found in his vacation home in Manila, wrists slashed. Time of death unknown. It’s been ruled a suicide. I believe he was killed. I will probably never be able to prove it.

Igari had been working on his final book, Gekitotsu (Collision), which was published posthumously on September 25. It’s an amazing work that pulls no punches, using the real names of the yakuza and the politicians and individuals connected to them. He wrote, “Wherever it was possible, I made it a point to use the real names here. I’m aware that poses a huge risk for myself. I took that risk because I wanted to honestly write about my battles with the injustices hidden in our society and the results of those struggles. It’s proper to write the name of those you’ve fought.”

Before leaving for Manila on vacation, he told his editor, “I’m nosing around in dangerous places. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me. Let me sign the publishing contract now.”

In September, my best source in the Yamaguchi-gumi told me point-blank: “Igari-san was murdered by the yakuza. It wasn’t Goto’s direct order. He was exposing yakuza ties to Sumo and professional baseball. It angered people. You should be careful too. The yakuza don’t warn people anymore, they just act.”

There is a little shrine for Igari in his office. I went this month to pay my respects; there was no funeral. It was otherwise pretty much as he’d left it. On his desk was an article about the Sumo Association and match-rigging, heavily annotated. His secretary told me, “Igari-san was really happy to take your case. He laughingly bragged to everyone, ‘I’m representing a reporter for National Geographic; that makes me an international lawyer!'” I could visualize him saying that, punctuated by his deep, rolling laugh.

Grief is a funny thing. Seeing his empty desk, for the first time I got a little misty-eyed. Not too much, because there were people around, you know.

You may wonder why I keep doing a job that is increasingly dangerous. I wonder myself.

I once asked Igari-san while we were drinking wine (he loved wine), “Have you ever been threatened? Do you ever fear for your life?”

He didn’t answer my question directly. Instead, he said:

“I became a prosecutor because I wanted to see justice done in this world. When I quit and became a lawyer, I didn’t go to work for the yakuza, like many ex-prosecutors do–I continued to fight them. Not all yakuza are bad guys, but 95 percent of them are leeches on society, they exploit the weak, they prey on the innocent, they cause great suffering. If you capitulate, if you run away, you’ll be chased for the rest of your life. And if you’re being chased, eventually what is chasing you will catch up. Step back and you’re dead already. You can only stand your ground and pursue.

Because that’s not only the right thing to do, that’s the only thing to do.”

And so I stay. Igari-san fought for justice and for truth. As an investigative journalist, I’ve always believed that’s what my job entails, too. Sometimes, the only way to honor the dead is to fight for what they died for. It’s the only way I know how to mourn.