On the night of Jan. 26, 1985, four hit men from the Ichiwa-kai crime syndicate drove up to an apartment complex in Suita, Osaka Prefecture.

Their target was a man known as Kunihiko Konishi, but who was in fact Masahisa Takenaka, don of Yamaguchi-gumi, the nation’s largest underworld syndicate.

Takenaka, accompanied by two bodyguards, soon arrived to visit his mistress, who lived in an apartment rented under the name of Konishi. Shots rang out, killing Takenaka and his henchmen.

A war between the two gangs erupted that would leave 20 dead and Yamaguchi-gumi without a leader until Yoshinori Watanabe became the syndicate’s fifth don in 1989.

In the aftermath of the killings, local media pursued many questions. But who the real Konishi was, and why the don of Japan’s largest criminal gang had been using his name to disguise his movements, were not among those publicly addressed. The answer touched on one of the most taboo subjects in Japan, the connections between organized crime, local government and the “burakumin” (hamlet people), descendants of the feudal-era outcast class.

On May 8, Osaka police arrested the real Konishi, who turned out to be a top leader of both Asuka-kai, an Osaka-based social welfare foundation, and the head of the Asuka branch of the Buraku Liberation League’s Osaka chapter.

He was charged with embezzling nearly 10 million yen from Asuka-kai, which, until April, had been entrusted by the city to manage a parking lot near Shin-Osaka Station.

The arrest was the beginning of a scandal whose ramifications are still being felt.

It has come to light that Konishi has led a double life over the past three decades.

Publicly, he was a crusader for the burakumin community, brokering contracts with the city of Osaka that provided his fellow burakumin with jobs and social welfare benefits.

Although the class system was annulled over a century ago, burakumin descendants still face discrimination.

Privately, Konishi was deeply connected to the underworld. In the 1970s, he led Kaneda-gumi, a Yamaguchi-gumi affiliate.

Though he is believed to have quit the mob sometime in the late 1970s, Konishi maintained close relations with top Yamaguchi-gumi figures, including don Takenaka.

Just what Osaka politicians and bureaucrats knew about Konishi’s mob connections, and when they knew it, remains uncertain.

On May 11, Osaka Mayor Junichi Seki told a news conference he had only met Konishi once and didn’t know he was connected to the mob. But on May 31, the mayor was asked by Japanese Communist Party assembly member Koichi Watashi when he first learned Konishi was connected to organized crime. Seki said that in September 1997 he learned about shots fired at the Asuka-kai office and realized that the head of Asuka-kai was Konishi.

The shots came one month after the assassination of the Yamaguchi-gumi’s No. 2 leader in Kobe, a hit that police believe Konishi had some involvement with.

On June 19, Konishi was served another arrest warrant and charged with arranging for a Yamaguchi-gumi leader to receive a medical certificate through the Asuka Human Rights Center, which is linked to Asuka-kai.

For its part, the Osaka chapter of the Buraku Liberation League has expressed sorrow and anger over Konishi but says his alleged crimes were the result of activities he undertook as an individual, not with the consent of the league. That, say critics of the league, is unlikely.

“Konishi is just the tip of the iceberg. Many gangsters have been involved, directly or indirectly, with the Buraku Liberation League for decades,” said Toshihito Shimoda, a JCP municipal assembly member and a fierce critic of the city’s burakumin policy.

In their book “Dowa Kenri no Shinso” (“The Truth about the Rights of Burakumin”), published in 2003, freelance journalists Atsushi Terazono and Yoshinari Ichinomiya allege that more than a dozen members of Yamaguchi-gumi are league members.

The Osaka chapter of the Buraku Liberation League declined to respond to written and verbal questions from The Japan Times about allegations that other league members have underworld ties.

But on June 10, the league announced it was formally kicking Konishi out and conducting an internal investigation.

“With the expulsion of Kunihiko Konishi, we make clear our position. Since Konishi’s arrest, we have accepted the truth of the matter, as made clear by the police investigations. We apologize to all burakumin, all league members and all of those working on behalf of the burakumin,” the league said in a statement.

Konishi’s arrest has forced Osaka officials to rethink the city’s burakumin policy.

In June, an independent panel was set up to look into not only how the city deals with the Buraku Liberation League but also with other outside groups. A final report is expected later this month.

The Konishi-related scandals have led to greater public debate in Osaka about whether burakumin discrimination even exists. The city and the Buraku Liberation League say it does, necessitating continued education and financial assistance to the burakumin communities.

The United Nations agrees. Earlier this year, Doudou Diene, the U.N. special envoy on racism and discrimination, released a report on Japan citing discrimination against burakumin. Diene visited Japan last year and again in May at the invitation of the league and its allies.

But others, including some within the burakumin community, say the question that needs to be asked is not whether discrimination exists but whether it remains a major social problem.

“Compared with the situation in 1969, when a national law to help the burakumin was enacted, discrimination against the burakumin has all but disappeared,” said Kazuaki Kanzawa of the Tokyo-based National Confederation of Human Rights Movements in the Community, which claims nearly 80,000 members in 33 prefectures and traditionally has kept close ties with the JCP.

Kanzawa says that’s why the 1969 law was terminated in 2002, and that’s why his group, which once dealt exclusively with burakumin-related issues, has expanded to include people with Hansen’s disease, the physically disabled, and ethnic minorities, including Okinawans and Ainu.

“The burakumin problem is neither racial nor ethnic. It’s one of historical prejudice against ordinary Japanese whose ancestors worked in professions considered unclean. By maintaining there is still a huge ethnic discrimination problem, the league can continue to justify its existence,” Kanzawa said.

Among those most shocked and angered by the arrest of Konishi and the revelations of his mob connections are members of the Buraku Liberation League who work on human rights issues related not only to the burakumin but also other minority groups.

“Many of us have long been pushing to expel members who, like Konishi, are connected to the yakuza. We worry Konishi’s arrest will worsen the human rights situation for not just the burakumin but also taint the human rights work the league has done for resident foreigners, Okinawans and the Ainu,” said a member of the Osaka chapter who did not want to be named.

Even the league’s critics admit it has done a lot of good in the past. However, they hope the incident will lead to greater public scrutiny of the burakumin issue.

“With Konishi’s arrest, the taboo against asking questions about the real situation of the burakumin, and whether the league is still needed, may finally be starting to crack,” said the JCP’s Shimoda.

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