Features

Barabbas lives

International | Japanese crime figures are finding freedom from the past that lasts

Issue: "Tax man's terror," April 14, 2001

in Kobe, Japan-Yasuhiro Kanazawa, like tens of thousands of teenage boys in Japan, learned more in high school about crime than kanji, his Chinese-Japanese characters. Mr. Kanazawa's story of descent into the Yakuza, the name for organized crime in Japan, is typical. He joined a youth gang, graduated to the finer art of running protection rackets, and escaped heavy jail time but not all the penalties of criminal life. Japan has perhaps the largest underworld in the world, larger than Mafia syndicates in the United States. Mr. Kanazawa's release from it is something akin to the Good Friday release of Barabbas. At age 16, fellow high-school students enticed Mr. Kanazawa to sniff paint thinner, to woo girls by mounting a flashy motorcycle, and to display his macho self through fighting. He dropped out of high school and went full time with the bike gang. His first arrest, at 18, meant 30 days in juvenile detention for "dangerous group activities." In retrospect, he said, "even as I was dedicating my whole life to the Yakuza, my family continued to pray for me." (He grew up in a Christian family.) After detention, Mr. Kanazawa graduated from the gang and joined one of a number of nationwide adult crime organizations collectively known as Yakuza. "I was bored with the youth gang," he said. "If I was going to do evil, why not do it to the uttermost?" There began an 11-year plunge into the Japanese underworld. With an estimated 28,000 youth gang members in Japan, that story is likely repeating itself. The Japanese government tried to crack down on organized crime with new laws 10 years ago, but they have been wholly ineffective. When Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori was recently photographed with a prominent Yakuza crime lord, it was a sign of regained clout. Yakuza groups have even expanded beyond the usual dirty deeds-drugs and prostitution-to reach into respectable walks of life like real estate and high-tech start-ups. For Mr. Kanazawa, his own life of crime was a time he refers to as "bondage in Egypt." He is now an ordained minister, but his body still bears the marks of that bondage. His torso is completely covered with tattoos. In the mob culture, covering the body with tattoos represents the offering of one's entire life to the mob. The pinky finger on his left hand is obviously shorter than that of his right, and it lacks a nail. Self-mutilation-amputating one's own finger-is done as a "propitiatory offering" to appease a crime boss, or "godfather," he explained. Within the Yakuza, even serious offenses can be wiped away by this gruesome rite. Mr. Kanazawa chopped off and offered up his little finger tip when he failed to collect a large gambling debt owed to his boss. His earliest assignments involved operating underground casinos. He moved up into debt collection and eventually served as enforcer for protection rackets. In the years that followed, authorities arrested him repeatedly. He was once convicted and fined, but never sent to prison. At the depth of this criminal life, he watched his live-in girlfriend, Chiyoko, made a "Yakuza slave" when his clan collapsed. Both became the property of another group within the largest Japanese mob, the Yamaguchi-gumi. He witnessed a rival faction hack two friends with swords, crippling the arm of one, and slashing the back and belly of the other. He alone escaped, running full speed across a busy expressway. (Both friends miraculously survived.) That experience, however, proved fatal to his effective service for the Yakuza. For the first time he feared death. At that point, "I decided that I wanted to quit, but I hadn't reached the bottom, yet," he said. The demise of his first gang brought him a promotion, to the top class of the Yakuza. But when his clan there folded, he and Chiyoko were forced to turn their three children over to an institution. "Both of us had come to hate gang life," he said. The new clan sent him alone to the small Okinawan island of Daitoujima for "SWAT training." It turned out to be several months of life-threatening ordeals at the hands of a sadistic boss. He left the trainees tied to ropes in the surf, rained buckets of fishbait on their heads, gave beatings with a metal bat, and insisted on formal Japanese kneeling for as long as 18 hours on a rock. The boss pushed one trainee to his death off a seaside cliff. "Truly the Lord was bringing me to a low point like Israel's slavery in Egypt. I had gone to Okinawa thinking, 'I am a man.' I really wanted this training," he said. He fled Osaka and his gang and ran away to Tokyo. Going straight on his own, he found, was no easy task. A massive tattoo and a missing finger did not look good on a resumé. And jobs an ex-mobster could find did not satisfy an appetite accustomed to speed and gambling. Street preachers singing hymns at the Tokyo zoo, two near-death experiences with speed overdoses, even an image glimpsed on television of Jesus carrying a cross slowly brought Mr. Kanazawa face to face with God. Throughout his 11 years in the mob, his father and grandmother had never ceased to pray for him. Mr. Kanazawa quit drugs, got a job, and called his father to express his remorse as a son. Soon thereafter his dad fell sick and went into a coma, never to emerge. When his father's God did not restore him, Mr. Kanazawa summoned a Buddhist priest from Korea and used his father's money to seek the help of his ancestors. Friends and family continued to pray, and they eventually persuaded him to return to church. "The peace and the feeling of my childhood came back when I sang the hymns. Tears came to my eyes and I prayed, 'Here I am at church, Lord, [but] am I really saved? Please save me.'" Mr. Kanazawa remembers his excitement "that someone such as me could come to church and could have his sins forgiven by Jesus. That day I professed my faith in Jesus. I had assurance that my sins had been forgiven.... Though until that day, I had lived a life of evil, thereafter I would give my live to Christ." Both Chiyoko and a wayward sister joined him the same day in that commitment. Three days later, his father died. "It was as if he was waiting for us to come to Christ before he went to Christ." Besides attending Bible college and starting a church in Osaka, Mr. Kanazawa married Chiyoko. In 1997, with three children, a wife, and a full-time pastorate, he became a full-time student at Kobe Reformed Theological Seminary. He expects to graduate with a Master of Divinity degree this June. Since 1993, Mr. Kanazawa has been a part of an eight-man team of ex-mobsters named for the murderer who went free when Pilate sentenced Jesus to death. The Barabbas Mission began with a Campus Crusade missionary, Arthur Holland, and two ex-mobsters, Hiroyuki Suzuki and Yoshiro Takahara. The team now includes two pastors and six laymen. They focus on reaching youth gangs, the breeding grounds for mob crime. At first, the Kanazawas spent most of their time on the streets, Mr. Kanazawa said, "looking for punks." Increasingly, they are working with the parents of teenagers who have fallen into gangs. "It is certainly important to save the kid, but we seek to save the whole family," Mr. Kanazawa explained. "I have the whole family begin to attend church. When the parents truly come to believe, we can reach the son or daughter." In five years his congregation has gone from his family to 40 members. That is larger than the average church in Japan, where a typical congregation may need 10-20 years to become self-supporting. About half the members of his church are former gang members. Three were full Yakuza. As Barabbas Mission and the fame of the "tattooed pastors" grow, Mr. Kanazawa is called on again and again to show the marks of his old life and to testify to the change that has made his life new. On March 30 a full-length movie based closely on the story of Mission Barabbas previewed in Nagoya. This month it is opening in other cities and in South Korea. The film, Jesus Is My Oyabun (mob boss), is a rare nationwide display of evangelism. Only about 1 percent of Japan's 126 million people say they are Christians. Former criminals have news for the other 99.

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