One of the more cynical dictums in Japanese goes “Shōjikimono ga baka o miru” (“Honesty doesn’t pay”). In pre-modern times, neither did crime. The Osadamegaki Hyakkajo — the criminal code enforced by the Tokugawa rulers — prescribed an extensive list of severe punishments for those found guilty of fraud and trickery.

Currency counterfeiters were dispatched by haritsuke (public execution by perforation with spears). The penalty for use of fraudulent scales or measures of volume was decapitation, with the head displayed on a gibbet for three days. Forgery of an official seal on a document earned the offender confiscation of his property and banishment. Merchants caught dealing in fake goods were tattooed to mark them as criminals and banished. And habitual con men lost their heads irrespective of the amount they swindled.

These, however, were apparently not enough to discourage aspiring crooks. In the view of historian Haruo Okubo, the number of violations and punishments included in the laws, covered in the code’s Article 67, suggests that criminal fraud must have been rampant in pre-modern times.

Well, as they say in France: Plus ca change…. According to Tokyo Metropolitan Police data, the 2,089 cases of what is termed tokushu sagi (special types of fraud) reported in the first eight months of 2017 marked an increase of 961 incidents over the same period in 2016, a startling rise of 85.2 percent. These were broken down as follows: “It’s me, send money” scams (1,204 cases); demanding payment for products or services not ordered (428); fraudulent requests for guarantor funds (33); and spurious “rebates” of taxes or other outlays (424).

The scale of losses during the first eight months of this year — approximately ¥4,691,700,000 (¥4.691 billion) — was up year-on-year by 35.2 percent. This problem continues despite all sorts of proactive publicity. NHK precedes its daily evening news broadcasts with “don’t let this happen to you” stories of actual frauds. Warnings appear on bank ATM screens and on receipts issued by post offices.

The reason why types of fraud are always evolving and continue to grow, in a nutshell, can be attributed to three factors. One is the low rate of arrests and prosecutions. Chances are roughly four out of five the crooks won’t get caught. Second is that penalties for fraud are light. Considering the size of the rewards, the possibility of several years imprisonment is a calculated risk.

It should be obvious, but the single largest factor that enables these acts of larceny is that Japanese have been unable to wean themselves from dealing in cash. Moreover, the amount of uncirculated currency has actually increased in recent years due in part to the adoption of the “My Number” system that enables the tax office to monitor individual bank deposits.

Last April, Yukan Fuji cited an estimate by the research arm of the Daiichi Insurance Company to the effect that as of the end of February 2017, the total amount of such funds stashed away in people’s homes — called tansu yokin or chest-of-drawers savings — was in the neighborhood of ¥43 trillion.

Another factor has been involvement by organized crime. While it has been rare for a high-ranking syndicate member to be prosecuted, this may be changing. On Aug. 31, the Tokyo District Court ruled in favor of four women who had brought a suit against the head of the Inagawa-kai gang and three syndicate members for abetting fraud. The men were ordered to pay the plaintiffs ¥26.65 million in compensation.

According to Bengoshi.com, the technique used in the four cases involved telephone fraud in which callers posing as the women’s sons had requested funds to pay off women whom they had made pregnant.

Attorney Hiroshi Murakami, head of the plaintiffs’ legal team, told the media, “Fraud has become a source of revenues for gangs. … We’ll be pleased if this is effective in discouraging similar crimes in the future.”

The best-known of all modern-day scams was not devised by a gangster but by a loner: an ambitious crook named Kazuo Nagano, who founded a company named Toyota Shoji. It had no connection with the automaker, although Nagano and his cohorts made little effort to dissuade their victims from making such an association.

Utilizing persistent oshiuri (hard-sell) tactics to badger mostly elderly individuals into purchasing fraudulent shares in a gold ownership scheme, Nagano presided over the biggest swindling operation in history, involving 3,885 victims and ¥12.8 billion in losses.

Police were slow to take action, but the law eventually caught up with Nagano, who holed himself up in his apartment in Osaka’s Kita Ward while his lawyer tried to work a deal with the prosecutor’s office. On the afternoon of June 18, 1985, over two dozen reporters and photographers, tipped off that his arrest was imminent, camped outside Nagano’s door. They certainly got more than they bargained for. Two roughnecks strutted up, proclaiming to the reporters that they were going to “teach Nagano a lesson,” and — as the members of the Fourth Estate looked on in horror — one of the toughs smashed in the kitchen window, clambered inside and slashed Nagano to death with a military bayonet.

This writer happened to be watching the news from Osaka and witnessed a murder committed on live TV for the second time — the first being when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald dead in Dallas on Nov. 24, 1963.

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