Antony Cundy
Apr 9, 2014

Can PR spin help yakuza group shed unsavoury image?

TOKYO – Visible branding efforts by underworld syndicates are few and far between. But the Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s largest Yakuza group, is aiming to position itself as a quasi-humanitarian organisation with a new website. Antony Cundy (pictured), executive business and strategy director at Beacon Leo Burnett, shares his views on an improbable approach.

The Yamaguchi-gumi's new website positions it as striving for a drug-free, 'pure' nation
The Yamaguchi-gumi's new website positions it as striving for a drug-free, 'pure' nation

Imagine facing a serious CSR issue. Your membership numbers are dwindling as your activities become less and less appealing to that ever-important youth market. You have been accused of not sharing information and being behind the times in how you promote yourself. Some people have even gone so far as to say your activities are ‘anti social’ and unsavoury. So, what are you going to do?

Japan’s largest Yakuza organisation, the Yamaguchi-gumi, is facing just such a situation. It has decided, as many other organisations have, to invest in digital to try and turn around its admittedly complicated public image.

That the Yamaguchi-gumi has created a website and been allowed to run it at all is frankly not that shocking here in Japan. In recent months numerous cases of murder by online request have come to light, leading many to question the social good of the internet in general and prompting concerns over the ability of law enforcement to police it. As a matter of interest, the police have stated that they cannot ascertain whether the Yamaguchi-gumi even created the site, far less pull it down.

However, what has drawn the most interest toward the site is the call to rid Japan of illegal drugs and its focus on the ‘socially responsible’ actions of a group officially labelled ‘anti-social’.  What has driven them to such a measure is generally put down to the large drop in numbers associated with Yakuza groups. Although the Yamaguchi-gumi is purported to represent half of the total number of Yakuza in Japan, gradually increasing pressure from the police and various NPOs has given them a harder environment to work in than ever before.

Now, clearly, the Yamaguchi-gumi is not planning on heading to Cannes this year with a no-brainer Gold in digital engagement. Some Japanese news sites have even gone so far as to say it looks like something out of the ‘90s. And indeed, one poorly shot video of a New Year’s shrine expedition and some random pictures from a selective past, mostly consisting of marching practice, are not exactly going to have people queuing up to join.

However, the effort to do something is clear and I am sure that this is unlikely to be the last attempt from them and other ‘anti-social’ groups to drum up membership via online activities. With weak political leadership and a faltering economy only dismaying the young electorate (such as there is), the attraction of an organisation based on ‘traditional values’ in strictly hierarchical structures is potentially something that might connect with a young and disgruntled set.

So you never know, your next sticker on Line might be a horse’s head from Don Corleone and personally I am looking forward to reading Nucky Thompson’s twitter feed.

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