Japanese Gangs Vie for Power Amid Pandemic
23 Apr 2020

By Alessia Cerantola, OCCRP, 22 April 2020

OCCRP — Japan’s government has been criticized for its slow and inadequate response to the outbreak of the coronavirus. Japanese organized crime, meanwhile, has moved to take advantage of the crisis.

The pandemic has become a new battlefield for the country’s criminal gangs, with older “yakuza” groups trying to restore their reputations through public works while newer gangs vie for profits from selling medical supplies.

The yakuza, which means “good for nothing” in Japanese, have reportedly been handing out free supplies to desperate shoppers and even offered to clean up a quarantined cruise liner in a bid to curry favor.

“In this way [the] yakuza, who have been perceived negatively in recent years, hoped to become more socially accepted,” said Garyo Okita, a journalist and expert on the yakuza.

Newer organized crime groups, known as “hangure,” have also been trying to capitalize on the crisis by selling medical supplies.

But while the pandemic has offered new opportunities, it may also prove to be bad for the gangs’ traditional businesses. Japan’s measures may have disrupted the gangs’ lucrative drug trade and forced the sex industry to close up shop.

Japan was initially criticized for only bringing in “toothless” measures to combat the pandemic. On April 16, however, the government declared a nationwide state of emergency in an attempt to stop the coronavirus from spreading and straining the country’s health care system.

The yakuza’s leadership — many of whom, like the Italian mafia bosses, are senior citizens and particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus — have canceled meetings and have resorted to online messaging services to conduct business.

“When a national crisis occurs, gangsters want to help the country,” Yakuza expert and author Tomohiko Suzuki told OCCRP.

“The fact that [the] yakuza, which is called an anti-social force, stands up every time a major disaster strikes Japan and quickly sends relief supplies all over the country must be an inconvenient fact for the police and general media.”

The Corona Hustle

In late February, one yakuza group reportedly offered to help disinfect the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which had been impounded in Yokohama after several passengers tested positive for COVID-19.

After its 600 passengers were finally allowed to disembark, the gang offered to send members to clean the Diamond Princess as it waited in the port, according to News Post Seven. High-ranking members reportedly said “humans like us should do the dirty job.”

The government disagreed, however, and refused the yakuza’s offer.

In Japanese society, ”dirty” jobs such as butchery or undertaking are traditionally done by an outcast group called the “burakumin.” While not all yakuza members come from this group, they have made up a significant proportion of the gangs since they first emerged and still reportedly make up more than half of their members today.

When face masks, tissues, and toilet paper started disappearing from shelves in Japanese supermarkets in February, some yakuza groups also stepped in and distributed masks for free to pharmacies and kindergartens.

Okita, who has written several books on the Yamaguchi-Gumi, Japan’s biggest yakuza group, said the gangs want to get the public back on their side after a government crackdown turned opinion against them.

“When the outbreak occurred in Japan, they already had their routes and their networks in place for getting masks, toilet paper, and tissues to offer to people in trouble for free,” he told OCCRP. “When you do deeds like these, you expect gratitude in exchange.”

This isn’t the first time the yakuza have sought to turn a crisis into a publicity stunt.

The boss of Japan’s second-largest yakuza gang, the Sumiyoshi-kai, was arrested in 2012 for illegally sending workers to clean up the Fukushima nuclear plant after a huge tsunami sent it into meltdown.

“If we didn’t do it, who would?” a mid-level yakuza boss told The Atlantic. “When everyone else was running away as Fukushima melted down, our people stayed to avert disaster. We’re not the bad guys.”

But the coronavirus pandemic has also exposed the yakuza’s weaknesses.

One gang from the Kanto region reportedly tried to collect 30,000 masks to send to China after the coronavirus first broke out in Wuhan in December. Their plan failed, however, as they did not have the right international connections to smuggle the masks to the then-epicenter of the outbreak.

One former gangster, who now manages a beauty salon for its Chinese owner, told Suzuki the yakuza mafia’s influence has faded.

“The yakuza’s name is almost not used abroad, even if it intimidates the Japanese in the Japanese community,” the ex-gangster said. “People with language skills are no longer attracted to old-fashioned organizations like organized crime groups.”

An executive from Macau who used Chinese tourists to buy up masks in Japan told Suzuki that yakuza “talk a big game, but they have no guts.”

Read more at OCCRP

Photo (cropped and edited): Luca Florio [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Flickr

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