Weakening the underworld

Moves to weaken the power of the underworld have been spreading in Japanese society. More bar and restaurant owners are stopping protection payments to gangs, other firms are ending deals with gangs, and street vendors are expelling gangsters from their business.

In Hyogo Prefecture, printers’ associations have adopted a resolution against printing name and greeting cards, and member expulsion notices for gangsters, etc. The police have asked the Hyogo Association of Shinto Shrines to turn down gangs’ requests for mass worships at shrines. The headquarters of Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s largest underworld syndicate, is based in Kobe.

It is not an easy thing to fight gangs. In the first half of 2011, Fukuoka and Saga prefectures saw 12 cases in which guns, hand grenades or Molotov cocktails were fired or thrown at business buildings — compared with three cases a year before. Apparently gangs tried to dissuade some firms from severing ties with them.

At present, gangs across Japan have some 80,000 members — a decline of only about 7,000 from 2004, the peak year for gang membership in the past decade, the National Police Agency says. (They also have some 42,000 associates.) They are involved in various types of profit-making activities, such as extortion, stimulant drug deals, fraud, disposal of household and industrial waste and illegal reception of welfare and administrative benefits.

Efforts to weaken gangs were not without success. A 1982 Commercial Law revision banned firms from offering illegal profits to sokaiya (professional troublemakers at shareholders’ meetings who extort money). A 1997 revision enabled the police to arrest sokaiya if they demand illegal profits from firms. These revisions have contributed to weakening the power of sokaiya.

In early October, Tokyo and Okinawa Prefecture enforced bylaws prohibiting the offer of illegal profits to gangs. Now, all of Japan’s 47 prefectures have such bylaws in force. As NPA chief Yutaka Katagiri said, police efforts to secure the safety of citizens and firms is the key to success in weakening the influence of gangs.

More legislative steps must also be taken, such as enabling the police to contain the activities of gangs that repeatedly target firms in physical attacks and letting public entities file lawsuits to stop gangs’ use of buildings or offices.