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Friday, June 25, 2010

Cleaning Up the Oil Mess: Where Are the Yakuza When You Need Them?

Oil keeps spilling, and so does the bad news. This week we learned that thick oily sludge has washed ashore on Pensacola Beach, on Florida's Emerald Coast. That would make Florida the fourth state to be hit. Crude has already been reported along barrier islands in Alabama and Mississippi, and it has impacted some 125 miles of Louisiana coastline.

Near Fort Pickens, a tourist carried an oil-covered dolphin to shore, and several bystanders, including some children, rushed to save the poor animal. It was crying as they used their hands to scrape the oil off its body and out of its eyes. These efforts were in vain, however. The creature died while on its way to Gulf World Marine Park, a rescue facility in Panama City.

The dolphin was crying, I am now crying — and soon Florida Gov. Charlie Crist will be crying as he can't get the help he needs for the clean-up.

And so I find myself fantasizing about what it would be like to recruit a few Japanese gangsters, or yakuza, to get the clean-up under way in the Gulf States, for these four reasons:

1) They can cut through red tape. 
Just over two months into this oil spill crisis, clean-up efforts have been thwarted by the lack of a clear command structure. No one seems to know who is in charge: BP, the Coast Guard? As Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has repeatedly attested, there is a labyrinth of agencies involved in the decisionmaking. For instance, he stood by helplessly as barges for vacuuming up oil sat idle for days, awaiting Coast Guard approval.

I've seen this movie before: when the Great Hanshin Earthquake struck Kobe — the worst quake to hit Japan since the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. I remember being appalled that official support was inconsistent and chaotic for several days. I also remember being impressed when the yakuza stepped up to the plate, providing on-the-scene assistance to earthquake victims long before the national government resolved to act. Japan expert Glen Fukushima offers this analysis:
Kobe was lucky that, in the absence of prompt and effective response by Japanese governmental authorities, non-governmental organizations such as the infamous yakuza — relying on their nationwide network and clear lines of authority — were able to transport relief supplies (water, food, toiletries, diapers, etc.) to the Kobe area and distribute them to local residents with considerable aplomb and efficiency.
2) They have networks that can be mobilized quickly.
Alabama Gov. Bob Riley ran into trouble when he asked the Coast Guard to find ocean boom tall enough to handle strong waves and protect his shoreline. The Coast Guard went all the way to Bahrain to find it — but then moved it to Louisiana.

As Fukushima mentions, for the Kobe recovery, the yakuza quickly mobilized their network across Japan to get supplies to Kobe. (If need be yakuza can also reach across borders — a key advantage of being a transnational criminal organization, though I'm not advocating that aspect of their services...)

3) They understand the need to empower people who are on the scene.
David Brooks has written eloquently of how the United States has vested too much authority for handling the Gulf crisis in national officials who are smart but too distant. "We should be leaving more power with local officials, who may not be as expert, but who have the advantage of being there on the ground," he asserts.

In the immediate aftermath of the Kobe earthquake, the Yamaguchi-gumi, the Kobe-based yakuza clan, took charge. They were handing out 8,000 meals a day — including  bread, powdered milk, mineral water and fresh eggs — from a parking lot next to their headquarters. The group also used motor scooters, boats and even a helicopter to move food and other precious goods into and around the city, as roadways had become dangerously clogged due to quake damage. (The authorities, meanwhile, made little use of the boats, despite Kobe being a port city.)

4) They stand up for the little guy.
We all know by now that the Minerals Management Service had a cozy relationship with Big Oil. So how does that help people like fisherman Hong Le in their hour of need? Le came to the U.S. from Vietnam, rebuilt his home and business after Hurricane Katrina wiped him out, and is now facing bankruptcy again. (He was working as a welder on commercial fishing boats. "No fishing, no welding," he told an AP reporter.) Like others in this situation, Le has received $5,000 from BP, but that money didn't last long.

After the Kobe earthquake, Japanese gangsters bullied local businesses in Kobe into giving them the food free or at a discount for distribution to the homeless, many of whom were socially disadvantaged. Similar to the case of the oil spill, victims of the Kobe quake tended to be the poor, the elderly, the disabled, Koreans and other immigrants — people who had no choice but to live in hazardous areas, in buildings or near roadways that hadn't been built to a standard to withstand earthquakes of a high magnitude. They were victims not only of the earthquake but of the Japanese Ministry of Construction. It had been too busy developing cozy relationships with the building industry to exercise proper oversight.

There have been other disasters. There will be other disasters. I don't mean to discount the need for taking precautions, recruiting experts, and respecting the need for a legal framework. But in dire situations like these, it helps to be able to call on a group of nimble, public-spirited, well-connected outlaws with a strong sense of honor — the sort of people who have no qualms about slicing their fingertips off if they do something wrong — to cut through the red tape and get things started. If nothing else, their efforts would embarrass authorities at various levels into taking action.

One vital detail I've omitted in painting this chivalrous portrait: The yakuza would also demand a share in the reconstruction business, as well as a cut in the oil profits once drilling is resumed.

Question: Am I dreaming in another language, or do I have a point?


Peter said...

Very provocative. There's a famous public choice economist named Mancur Olson who once wrote a book about how governments are essentially "stationary bandits" in origin, just different in degree. This also reminds me of some recent Tom Friedman columns where he almost envies the Chinese government's authoritarian ability to take some decisions (eg green energy) without the messiness of democracy. But of course making decisions by having connections to the local boss or strong man also kills incentives to save or invest or live a normal life for the average citizen. If the yakuza are strong enough to help with an oil spill, they're strong enough to run a protection racket on everything else as well.

ML Awanohara said...

Stationery bandits? What a great expression!

And yes, according to Ian Bremmer, the Chinese model is starting to look good next to what we have.

I think I'm blocking out the bad side of the yakuza because I want to believe that in this unbearably complex society of ours, where no one knows who is in charge any more or can do checks on big business, a Robin Hood could still exist!

But you are right: Who's to say that the Yamaguchi-gumi didn't contribute to the shoddy housing construction in the Kobe area, which made things so much worse when the earthquake struck? So maybe they were acting out of guilt, as much as out of chivalry?!

HyunSook Yun said...

Yakuza today seems different from the Yakuza 15 years ago. This is from an article on Telegraph.

[Jake Adelstein, a former crime reporter and yakuza expert, said: "People think of the yakuza as wielding swords and having tattoos and missing fingers, What you should be thinking of the modern-day yakuza is Goldman Sachs with guns."
While yakuza were traditionally associated with gambling, prostitution and loan-sharking, in recent years they have increasingly moved into the more lucrative world of corporate finance.
Having switched to cybercrime, deposit fraud and money laundering, with profits invested in stocks and real estate, yakuza have become as vulnerable as legal employees as the recession sweeps the nation, according to experts.]

The Yamaguchi-gumi had a motive to help the Kobe residents in 15 years ago. Will they still have the same motive in any other occasions?

susumu said...

I am a pessimist. If you can's rely on "a group of nimble, public-spirited, well-connected" AND law-abiding citizens to come to the help, you are better off using the legitimate system that exits than resorting to the yakuza. The yakuza have their own agendas and these are inimical to civil society. The yakuza are by definition against the rule of law and we don't want their private laws, and whims, to govern our lives.

ML Awanohara said...

No, but doesn't "law-abiding" sometimes mean "bureaucratic," and who wants to rely on a group of bureaucrats in an emergency situation? You seem to forget that in Japan, yakuza have an important social function of showing up slow-moving government officials.

The day after I posted this screed, the New York Times had a front page story about Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's attack on BP and the Coast Guard. After reading it, I thought I should have been harder on state-level officials, not just federal ones.

Apparently, the Coast Guard is claiming that Jindal's antagonism could end up slowing down the response still further. And the Times reporters think there may be some truth in the Coast Guard's claims: "...a review of Louisiana's prespill preparations suggests that the state may be open to the same criticisms that Mr. Jindal has leveled at BP and the federal authorities."

So it's not just the outlaws who have pernicious agendas not to mention whims. (The accompanying photo of Jindal pretty much says all you need to know about him--what a drama king!)

Indeed, while officials at various levels bicker among themselves for their own ends, wouldn't it be nice if a group that has power and connections could step in and get things done?

The only thing is, I know the yakuza had no trouble commandeering small boats in Kobe, but how are they w/ larger vessels in deep sea waters?!

Dan said...

This reminds me of what my mother used to say about thieves in Cuba. If they got caught trying to 5 finger discount something, then there was so no doubt only 4 or fewer fingers would remain attached to their hand afterward. Sometimes, bypassing objections to "cruel and unusual punishment" gets the point across, no?

Having been raised in Florida and always aware of water-based disasters, here are my thoughts:

This is a situation that isn't fixed overnight, but everybody wants it to be. The only reasonable step to take is to stop drilling temporarily until we can make sure this doesn't happen again soon or to make better sense of what the problem was - but that solution has been assailed by anybody who seemingly has a stock in oil or its economy.

This would never happen in NY. Why? Well, can you imagine if construction on a new tower killed 11 people in one day, and spread enough debris that it harmed countless of other lives? What would be the reaction if NYC govt shrugged, and said, "Well, the jobs of construction workers and the people that were going to inhabit that building are more important that simply stopping construction for some time to look at what caused the accident anyway." People would freak.

Yet, in Louisiana, you have people like Bobby Jindal in his best George Bush 9/11 Ground Zero photo-op, saying no no no, our economy is suffering. You have judges with ties to the oil industry making decisions that reject the federal recommendation of a moratorium. In this particular case, I have very little sympathy for residents of Louisiana who are crying for help, but rejecting what some people think is in their best interest. It's like an alcoholic who knows he has a problem but doesn't care for a free offer to rehab. When you're on the street with a shopping cart asking me for money, why should I care then?

Two things should happen: One, there should be stiffer fines for this kind of stuff. It happens all over the world, but finally it arrives on our shores and we freak out. There are people with serious health problems throughout the globe because they bathe and drink water that is contaminated. Their government does nothing, the companies do nothing. Let us set the example.

The people who have lost their jobs from the Gulf industry should be getting aid. If they have no money for food, where is the Red Cross, or all the other charities that are supposed to come help during disasters?

This just seems like a mess. And I think Jindal and company are failing the people they are supposed to serve.

ML Awanohara said...

Oi, I hadn't thought of the Cuban thieves. They could probably give the yakuza a run for their money.

I wrote this post because I am worried about fisherman Hong Le and others who have lost their livelihoods due to this disaster. Like you, I look around, and I don't see any officials or BP personnel keeping an eye on this particular ball, except as a way of scoring political points. I'm also amazed that BP offered the likes of Fisherman Le a paltry $5,000. Was this intended as hush money? (Maybe they actually thought they could get away with paying so little as Le hasn't got any defenders apart from an AP reporter...)

If my experience of living in Japan during the Kobe quake is anything to go on, disaster brings out the worst in government officials and corporate leaders as their whole goal is not to be held accountable when something goes wrong. Thus their first impulse is to blame someone else--and while they are busy arguing about who should take responsibility, victims suffer.

Sometimes they even die, as happened in Japan in 1985, when Japan Airlines Flight 123 crashed and some of the passengers perished during the night awaiting rescue. Government officials rejected offers from the American forces, who had already mobilized personnel to assist with the rescue; they were too preoccupied with bickering over who should take the blame.

In the case of the Kobe earthquake, of course, the yakuza scored big in rushing to the aid of the victims. By taking action, they forced the government's hand and got them into the business of helping people--which is what they should have been doing from the get-go.

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