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Gangsters in Japan aren’t quite as intimidating as they used to be

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The National Police Agency announced last month that the number of crime syndicate members fell below 20,000 in 2016.

The figure dropped by about 2,000 from a year earlier to 18,100, the lowest since comparable data became available in 1958, the National Police Agency said. The number of associate members declined as well.

Reports in the media say gangs are struggling to secure financing amid police crackdowns and a growing civil movement to eliminate them, but I’m not convinced that’s the only reason.

Retired police officers and gangsters say that people these days simply don’t fear gangsters the way they used to.

It wasn’t so long ago when police would hesitate to interfere in the activities of criminal organizations — and for good reason.

In 1992, Juzo Itami released a film titled “The Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion,” portraying gangsters as greedy, violent and deceptive parasites on society. The film’s underlying message was gangsters shouldn’t be feared and that they can be defeated if confronted.

Six days after the release of the film, five members of the Goto-gumi attacked Itami at his home, slashing his face.

“Naturally I didn’t order the attack but I was pleased my men did it,” wrote Goto-gumi chief Tadamasa Goto in his autobiography, “While Hesitating” (“Habakarinagara”). “(Itami) made fun of us. It was unpleasant.”

For decades, crime syndicates would use this type of intimidation to get what they wanted. Things have certainly changed in recent times.

According to a survey published by the National Police Agency in December 2016, 89 companies said that a crime syndicate had attempted to extort money from them between July 2011 and July last year.

The crime syndicates made vague threats in about 50 percent of the cases, but also threatened to interfere with business operations or harm employees and/or relatives of the company’s owners. Seventy-two of the companies surveyed said they refused to pay the syndicates.

In 41 out of 72 cases, the syndicates did absolutely nothing. In 24 cases, they became more aggressive in delivering their verbal threats. In 13 cases, gangsters showed up at the company’s office or made prank calls. In four cases, the syndicates tried to blackmail companies by exposing trade secrets to the media. In three cases, sound trucks were sent to raise a ruckus in front of a company’s building. Actual damages were inflicted in just one case.

A detective in Saitama who was previously assigned to an organized crime division says gang bosses fear civil lawsuits being filed as a consequence of their underlings’ actions.

“Gangsters are getting older and the guys at the top don’t want to go to jail,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “They’ve already been there and done that. Although a boss may avoid criminal charges (owing to a lack of evidence), they could still be liable as an employer in a civil suit. The last thing the boss of a crime syndicate wants is for his thugs to do something that won’t earn him anything but will put him at risk of losing money. So they do nothing. And when people realize that crime syndicates are nothing but hot air, they stop being afraid.”

A retired crime boss agreed.

“We used to strike fear in people,” he said, also speaking on condition of anonymity. “In recent years, however, we aren’t even allowed to carry business cards or wear yakuza badges anymore. Whispering our organization’s name isn’t scary, it’s silly and so we simply leave. The badges are now being sold online — they’re collector’s items, video game props. People should fear crime syndicates but I fear that our time is up.”

As the National Police Agency noted in its report in March, crime syndicates are moving away from traditional extortion to such activities as fraud.

Let’s hope this trend continues and gangsters don’t demonstrate an eagerness to return to their historically violent roots. Crime syndicates have never been above making a judicious example of anyone who opposes them and it’s threats such as this that still keeps them in business.

Dark Side of the Rising Sun is a monthly column that takes a behind-the-scenes look at news in Japan.