During World War II, gangster-owned construction firms under government contract built and repaired airfields, dug tunnels, and constructed subterranean factories, earning a nice profit while kicking back a healthy percentage to their contractors. As the strain of a losing war intensified, gangsters helped run the POW camps and supervised imported Korean slave labor in domestic coal mines. The Tokyo Assembly even allowed tekiya [peddler, racketeer] bosses to take over as municipal tax agents, granting them legal authority to control pricing and distribution as well as the power to punish disobedience. The Metropolitan Police Board, getting into the spirit of the times, forced all stall keepers to join a tradesmen’s union that was run by the mob.
At war’s end, millions of demobilized soldiers, war widows, and other displaced persons began to make their way back into the cities and, as virtually all moral and government restraints subsequently collapsed, the mob strengthened its grip on the municipal economy. Open-air markets sprang into operation at every commuter line train station almost before the arriving Americans had a chance to unpack their duffel bags. The largest were at the major hubs on the Yamate Line that circled the city—Ueno, Tokyo, Shimbashi, Shibuya and Shinjuku. Within weeks, there would be an astonishing 45,000 stalls in the city, many of them under the control of the leathery-faced Ozu-gumi boss Kinosuke Ozu, and they provided jobs for half a million people.
The outdoor black markets were, incidentally, Japan’s first experiment in democracy. Japanese society had for hundreds of years been divided into castes, socially and legally. The nobility and landed aristocracy were at the top; below them, the samurai warriors, farmers, townsmen, and eta (outcasts), in descending order. Status was rigidly fixed and every Japanese knew his proper rank and position in the community at large.
Centuries of feudal serfdom and national isolation under the Tokugawa Shogunate were followed by the domineering rule of military, bureaucratic, and financial cliques, starting in 1868 with the Meiji Revolution, which restored the emperor to the throne. In all, it had served to create a highly restrictive society where the arrogance of superiors was as ingrained as their subordinates’ fawning obeisance.
In the Ozu and other markets, however, social rank no longer mattered. No questions were asked of applicants about their status, family origin, educational background, or nationality. Everyone was welcome, from high-ranking military officers to lowly privates, landed nobles to tenant farmers, college professors to unemployed gamblers. They all started out equally, spreading a mat on the street or setting up shop on top of a box to sell their goods. They all wore the same ragged clothes, lived in similar jury-rigged barracks of corrugated tin, and bathed out of the same oil drums. As journalist Kenji Ino later wrote, “For a feudal country like Japan which had a long history of class and ethnic discrimination, this was indeed an unprecedented event.”