OSAKA — In the back streets beside Osaka’s Kyobashi Station, pachinko parlors, massage parlors, or “soap lands” (brothels), restaurants and karaoke rooms are packed together in an area not more than two square blocks.

The area is especially convenient because of four train lines that pass through it and has always been popular with those in a hurry, anxious to enjoy themselves but wanting to get in and out quickly.

Recently, though, some locals have reported a different kind of customer: foreigners who appear for a brief spell and then disappear.

“I’ve seen groups of Chinese, maybe four or five men at a time, who just loiter outside the station. They’re obviously not tourists. You see them for a couple of days in a row, and can hear them speaking Chinese. Then they just disappear,” said 19-year-old Sho Maeda, a street musician who plays guitar in front of JR Kyobashi Station.

Maeda, and some other Japanese who live in the area, believe the Chinese were smuggled into Japan by Snakeheads. With its proximity to many smaller factories in the north Osaka area, as well as a growing mainstream Chinese community in the nearby Tenma area, Kyobashi appears to be an ideal gathering spot for illegal immigrants.

It’s been three years since Osaka police, in accordance with a directive by the National Police Agency, set up a task force to deal with international criminal gangs, primarily the Chinese Snakeheads. At the time, police officials insisted they had found no evidence of Snakehead leaders living in Osaka.

Since then, though, a number of arrests have taken place. One of the largest occurred late last year, when police held two Chinese for allegedly running an underground bank in violation of the Foreign Exchange and Foreign Trade Law. The bank is suspected of having illegally funneled millions of yen collected from Chinese workers to Chinese banks. Two of those arrested had been living in Joto Ward, which is adjacent to Kyobashi.

But Osaka police have also caught one of their own. Last August, the task force arrested Koichi Takahashi, a former sergeant, for helping a Chinese man, Ho Shun Chin, obtain a passport illegally.

This arrest later led to revelations that Takahashi, along with five Chinese and an Osaka real estate agent, were involved in bringing Chinese workers to Japan illegally.

Recently, though, little has been heard from the task force, and the number of arrests has declined.

In 1997, Osaka police nabbed 27 Chinese for allegedly entering Japan illegally. That number jumped to 54 in 1998 but fell to 15 last year. Police said each of those arrested paid Snakehead gangs in Fujian Province between 3 million yen and 4 million yen to obtain fake passports and other papers.

However, the decline in the number of arrests may be due less to police diligence and more to the fact that the Snakeheads may have found a Japanese partner: Nakanokai, rival to Yamaguchi-gumi and one of Japan’s 24 designated violent gangs.

“Yamaguchi-gumi has generally avoided dealing with the foreign gangs, especially the Snakeheads. But Nakanokai reportedly is trying to strengthen its contacts with the Chinese,” said a Kobe-based journalist, speaking anonymously, who has followed the yakuza for several decades. Police refused to speculate on the gang’s involvement.

Chinese who arrive in Osaka do appear to be avoiding the more traditional day-laborer hangouts. In the city’s Nishinari district, Toshiaki Fujii, a volunteer with the Kamagasaki Day Laborer’s Union, said foreigners are occasionally seen but it is difficult for them to get work because businesses have become stricter about who they hire.

“You have to have proof of residency to get a job, and the community is quite tight. Everybody knows everybody, so groups of illegal Chinese workers would not come here for risk of exposure,” Fujii said.

“Osaka is probably a way station where Chinese arrive and pass through as quickly as possible, rather than as a place to settle down and work. More likely, Osaka is where top Snakehead leaders, like the Chinese busted for running the underground bank and working with the Osaka cop, gather and pave the way for others,” Fujii said.