Don’t look now, but some new bad guys have come to town. Referred to as han-gure, they’ve actually been around for a while already, flying under the radar of the mainstream media.

Atsushi Mizoguchi, an investigative journalist specializing in coverage of organized crime, is credited with having coined the term han-gure shūdan in his 2011 book from Kodansha, “Yakuza Hokai” (the downfall of the yakuza) to describe these loosely organized groups. In most English reportage up to now, they’ve been referred to as “former members of hot-rod gangs” or “non-designated crime groups.”

The han in han-gure means “half”; the gure derives from gureru, a type of reverse slang with roots in the pre-modern era, created by flipping the order of syllables in the word hamaguri (clam) to gurihama. The verb gureru was then extracted, to mean when the top and bottom halves of the shells of a mollusk are not matched and therefore don’t close uniformly, i.e., a misfit.

By extension, gureru means to stray from the right path, things not turning out as hoped or failed expectations. It also spawned the somewhat archaic term gurentai (hooligan), once flaunted with the same kind of negative bravado as “yakuza,” which is derived from the numbers 8, 9 and 3, and which means a losing hand in gambling.

“They first became noticeable two or three years ago,” Mizoguchi tells Spa! (Dec. 4).

Until recently, han-gure exploits were limited mainly to subculture publications, in such genres as so-called furyō (delinquent) manga and novels, and monthly magazines like Jitsuwa Knuckles and Bubka. It was only when their activities began encroaching on swank neighborhoods in the capital that the other media began to take notice.

In January 2010, in the midst of the January Grand Sumo tournament, Mongolian grand champion Asashoryu was involved in a drunken altercation in Nishi-Azabu. Asashoryu escaped assault charges, but reportedly paid his victim a large settlement. On Feb. 4 — while at the peak of his sumo career — he ignominiously announced his retirement. Since a great effort appears to have been made to keep details from the public, people did not begin to connect the dots until November of the same year, when 32-year-old Kabuki actor Ichikawa Ebizo suffered severe facial injuries, including a cheekbone fracture, in a late-night altercation — also in Nishi-Azabu.

This time the connection with ex-biker gangs was unmistakable. Ebizo’s assailant, a former member of the Kanto Rengo bōsōzoku (hot rodder) gang, was sentenced to 16 months imprisonment for assaulting the actor.

The most shocking incident attributed to the han-gure occurred at 3:40 a.m. last Sept. 2, when approximately 10 masked individuals, armed with what appeared to be metal pipes, entered the fire exit of “Flower,” a Roppongi night spot. As dozens of witnesses looked on, they attacked Ryosuke Fujimoto, the 31-year-old operator of a barbecue restaurant in Shibuya and promptly fled in two vans waiting outside (and caught by security cameras).

Fujimoto, pronounced dead from head injuries, had no known ties to crime groups and several media reports have speculated he may have been targeted by mistake. Security cameras on the street caught the faces of several of the attackers and a vehicle license tag number, but no arrests have been made.

The han-gure are believed to number in the thousands in the greater Tokyo area alone. According to Shukan Taishu (Dec. 17), some were members of Kanto Rengo, a now-defunct hot-rodder group. Another group, written in kanji phonetically rendered as “Doragon” (dragon), is said to be composed of relatives of war-displaced Japanese orphans who returned to Japan from China.

Some han-gure, Spa! reports, are involved in operation of legitimate and semi-legitimate businesses, such as real estate brokers, construction firms, nightclubs, restaurants, massage parlors and production of adult videos. Individuals who fill the ranks of such groups include those paroled from juvenile detention facilities; university graduates who gravitate to crime; persons with experience working for a “black” enterprises, such as illegal pyramid schemes; people suffering from a physical handicap or chronic disease; the so-called “working poor”; and ex-cons after their discharge from prison.

Ironically, the han-gure’s emergence may relate to recent efforts by police to crack down on designated crime syndicates with tough new anti-gang regulations. Since the yakuza are now under much closer scrutiny by the police, it makes sense for them to farm out illegal jobs to outsiders.

On the other hand, the police crackdown on yakuza may have also created a power vacuum in which the han-gure are likely to make new inroads.

Needless to say, the present police methods and statutes aimed at the organized crime syndicates are likely to be much less effective against the han-gure, whose low profile and amorphous organizational structure makes them difficult to identify.

“Unlike boryokudan (gangsters), the han-gure can be characterized by their loose horizontal ties between members. At most they’ll tie up at one single locale,” journalist Mizoguchi told Spa! He nonetheless predicts, “Over the next decade or so, I expect the han-gure to become the key crime groups in Japan.”

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