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Are crime syndicates in Japan sitting on a gold mine?

by Jake Adelstein

The Japanese underworld loves gold — it has been the analog bitcoin of crime syndicates in recent years. The origins of gold are difficult to trace, and the material is easy to convert into cash and store. Crime syndicates are increasingly smuggling it, stealing it or robbing it from other smugglers who don’t have ties to gangs.

A gold smuggler isn’t likely to report any theft to the authorities and therefore makes the perfect victim.

Over the past three years, thieves have conducted a “Reservoir Dogs”-style gold heist dressed as police officers hijacked a Mercedes believed to have been loaded with gold and robbed gold dealers in broad daylight.

According to the Finance Ministry, customs reported 294 cases of gold smuggling between July 2015 and June 2016.

And yet crime syndicates have been interested in gold for some time. In December 2014, a member of the Yamaguchi-gumi and an associate were arrested at Fukuoka International Airport after disembarking from a flight from Hong Kong.

Hiroaki Ishimaru, 45, and Yuichi Nagano, a 30-year-old member of the Fukuhaku-kai, were subsequently charged with attempting to smuggle four blocks of gold weighing 1 kilogram each into Japan.

The gold was estimated to be worth ¥18 million and the pair later told investigators they had been trying to avoid paying tax. This appears to be a common practice in crime syndicates.

Customs officials say crime syndicates have been known to purchase gold in places such as Macau or Hong Kong, where the precious metal faces very little tax.

The gold is then typically smuggled into the country by plane, often through Fukuoka, which has many international flights. By not declaring the gold to customs officials, the smugglers avoid paying the consumption tax rate of 8 percent.

After the gold has been smuggled into Japan, it is sold for cash at stores trading in the precious metal, which are often similar to pawnshops.

Smugglers are typically paid the consumption tax on top of the value of the metal, which they simply pocket as profit.

When crime syndicates aren’t smuggling the gold themselves, they’re targeting the people who are smuggling it or anyone who deals in it.

In July 2016, men disguised as police officers robbed a vendor of gold bars worth ¥750 million ($6.7 million) in Fukuoka. In May, police arrested 10 men suspected of being involved in the crime, with many believed to have ties to organized crime.

Police in Aichi Prefecture are currently investigating whether an officer leaked information to the suspects, a suspicion that, if proven true, would be incredibly embarrassing. In 2013, a chief inspector from the prefecture was suspected of having leaked details of an investigation to none other than the Yamaguchi-gumi.

Profit aside, there’s actually another significant reason that crime syndicates have been attempting to get their hands on a large amount of gold.

“Since the organized crime ordinances introduced nationwide in October 2011, banks have used contract law to shut down all bank accounts run by crime syndicates. A gang member can’t open a bank account without committing fraud and being arrested,” an organized crime detective in Tokyo told me on condition of anonymity. “So what do you do when you have money but no place to save it? You buy gold.

“People don’t see gold in the same way as something like drugs,” he adds.

“There is less resistance to smuggling it and so crime syndicates have little trouble recruiting ordinary people to do it,” he says. “However, the payoff isn’t worth it. Think of any gang member involved as being like the title character in ‘Goldfinger.'”

I’m sure you all remember the 1964 smash hit that was composed by John Barry and performed by Shirley Bassey for the opening and closing title sequences of that film but, in case you don’t, here’s a quick reminder:

“Goldfinger/ He’s the man, the man with the Midas touch/ A spider’s touch/ Such a cold finger/ Beckons you to enter his web of sin/ But don’t go in.”

And that’s the lesson, folks: Just don’t go in.

Dark Side of the Rising Sun is a monthly column that takes a behind-the-scenes look at news in Japan.

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