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Staff writer

FUKUI — For Hiroshi Matsuda, a Fukui Prefectural Police official, last month’s arrest of 65 Chinese on suspicion of illegal entry is another indication that similar cases will happen in the future.

“The number of foreigners arrested for illegal entry has skyrocketed in the last few years,” said Matsuda, deputy chief of the public safety division.

Until 1997, there were almost no cases of large-scale human smuggling reported in Hokuriku — Niigata, Toyama, Ishikawa and Fukui prefectures. But in August that year, the region began attracting illegal immigrants and became a new gateway.

Of the four prefectures, Fukui seems to be the preferred choice. Matsuda said Fukui police have arrested 131 Chinese would-be immigrants and 13 crew members from South Korean vessels in six cases since August 1997.

In the other three, 42 arrests were reported in Niigata, 13 in Toyama and 41 in Ishikawa. But arrests made earlier this month by Ishikawa police added 114 Chinese to the list, pushing the total to 155.

An unknown number have managed to get into the country, police sources said. “We suspect the Snakehead human smuggling syndicate is deeply involved in all of these cases,” Matsuda said. “But we just can’t prove it.”

The Chinese organized crime group has a worldwide network for recruiting, transporting and hiding illegal immigrants.

In most Japan-bound cases, immigrants leave China in a Chinese boat, change to a South Korean fishing boat near South Korea’s Cheju Island, and then head to Japan, Matsuda said.

South Korean crews contact Snakehead members waiting in ports across Japan via mobile phone and are told where to anchor once surveillance checks on police in the area are completed, he said.

Osaburo Taniguchi, deputy chief at the Obama Police Station in Fukui Prefecture, said that if illegal immigrants successfully enter, trucks take them to big cities such as Tokyo and Osaka where they can blend in and find work — usually blue-collar jobs that most Japanese avoid.

The whole process costs a Chinese immigrant about 2 million yen to 3 million yen, he said. The average income in China is meanwhile roughly 92,000 yen.

Matsuda said, “For years, illegal immigrants had to pay half of the money first to mediators, but now they only have to pay it if they successfully enter Japan without being arrested.” This is one of the reasons for the recent sharp rise in human smuggling, he said.

Some deportees even make a second attempt, said Taniguchi of Obama police.

Last month’s illegal entry in Oi, Fukui Prefecture, was under the Obama police jurisdiction. Some 300 local and prefectural police officers were sent to the town on the Oshima Peninsula after a local bus driver reported seeing “suspicious people.”

After three days of round-the-clock searches, police arrested 65 Chinese and three crew members of a South Korean vessel.

Osamu Kakimoto, principal of Oshima Elementary School in Oi, said teachers at the school guided students to and from school as a precaution during last month’s manhunt.

The incident prompted local worries that the small tourist town on the Sea of Japan coast is vulnerable to intruders.

Kenji Muramatsu, chief of a local volunteer vigilante group, said the 70-member-strong group is taking precautions against illegal entries, focusing on patrolling the coast.

One reason for the rise of mass human smuggling may be that Japan still has the image of being a place with a booming economy and opportunities for immigrants to lead a successful life. “When people in China see some of the illegal immigrants who have returned from Japan and purchased new homes and living rich lives, they are willing to risk it themselves,” Taniguchi said.

Matsuda echoed this view, saying Snakehead smugglers undoubtedly exaggerate about Japan’s economic conditions.

Most of the illegal entrants are from Fujian Province — a poor area.

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