A new perspective on the Yakuza in Japan  

Martina Baradel (PhD Law 2020) has always been fascinated by Japan, completing a BA in Japanese Studies before coming to Birkbeck. It was during her summer abroad when, by chance, she was on a beach and met a group of individuals who were part of the organised crime group, the Yakuza. 

She was fascinated by the organisation, which exists in a society “often described as low-crime and law-abiding”. As she is Italian and could talk about her experiences of the Mafia, she was able to build-up a good rapport with this group of individuals. It was at this point in time she started to become fascinated with this sub-culture. She subsequently studied an MA in Japanese Studies at the University of Leeds and an MA in Criminology at the University of Manchester before coming to Birkbeck for her PhD. 

Under the supervision of Dr Sappho Xenakis from Birkbeck’s School of Law, she came to the College to write her self-funded PhD thesis on the reasons why the Yakuza have been able to exist for nearly four hundred years in Japan. What was exciting for Martina, was that ‘there was not a lot of information on the Yakuza, at least not in English, but it was a very open criminal organisation.’ For her studies, she interviewed current and past members of the Yakuza, journalists and academics.  

One of the reasons she came to Birkbeck was because of her supervisor Dr Sappho Xenakis. “Criminology is quite a male world, so it was quite nice to have the opportunity to have a female supervisor in this field.” She thinks Birkbeck is so special because it’s easy to meet people from different backgrounds and age groups. She says: “There’s a lovely community at Birkbeck, and there’s always an opportunity to meet people at events, and it’s a nice-relaxed setting.” 

Martina graduated from Birkbeck with her PhD in 2020 and has recently been awarded a 3-year postdoctoral Marie Sklodowksa-Curie Actions (MSCA) Individual Fellowship, which will start in October 2021, and will allow her to research the rapid decline of the Yakuza in situ in Japan. The organisation has seen its membership decline by over 60% in just ten years and her research will look at what happens when there is such a power vacuum in the criminal underworld, what takes its place, and how these former members face difficulties when re-integrating into civil society. 

Looking further into the future, she hopes to set up a research centre which focuses on non-Western forms of organised crime. “Criminal groups in Asia are often overlooked and I would like to work with other people in this field to examine these issues. I look forward to researching into this area in my career.”