National | Regional Voices: Kyushu

Guardian Angels Japan finding less to do in Kitakyushu, one-time city of yakuza 'endless conflict'

Nishinippon Shimbun

Up until five years ago, the city of Kitakyushu had for decades grappled with so many shootings and violent attacks by organized crime groups that it was known as a city of shura (never-ending conflict).

But as Japan intensified its crackdown on organized crime, the number of crimes filed by police declined to 6,504 in 2018, the lowest in the postwar era and an 84 percent decline from 2002, when it saw a record high.

Has the city become safe and secure? In March, a Nishinippon Shimbun reporter joined a neighborhood watch in Kitakyushu to see what was happening on the streets at night.

On a weekday at 11 p.m., a downtown area near Kokura Station packed with bars and restaurants was full of drunks and foreign tourists with suitcases.

“Nowadays, we only try to break up fights by drunks once in a while,” said Naoya Ikeda, 42, director of the Kitakyushu branch of the nonprofit Guardian Angels Japan, which has been patrolling the area since 2006.

Like all Guardian Angels members, a group operating at home and abroad, Ikeda was wearing a red beret and a jacket of matching color. Numbering about 10 members, they take turns patrolling in teams of two or three people from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m.

Ikeda recalled the times when Kitakyushu business owners who refused to cater to yakuza would often have their restaurants and bars smashed up in revenge.

“Yakuza members used to be roaming through the streets,” Ikeda said, adding that such owners would call him, as organized crime members were also keeping a close eye on the city.

Unlike police, Ikeda and other Guardian Angels members have no legal authority to take action against crimes that occur. They simply intervene in drunken brawls or talk to suspicious individuals to prevent crimes from happening.

“How’s it going?” Ikeda said to a bar owner.

“We’ve known most people here for a long time,” Ikeda said.

Right after midnight, the patrollers stopped to check on two young teenage girls sitting on a bench near Kokura Station. Asked what they were doing outside in the cold, the girls said that they were waiting for a friend.

“It would be safer if you waited at a convenience store or some other place where there is more light,” one of the patrollers said.

They are especially on the lookout for teenage girls who hook up with men they meet on social media. There have been cases where such girls fall victim to sex crimes.

In the past, the patrollers intervened when they saw a man talking to a woman they did not know. But now, such situations have become more difficult to spot because arrangements are made via social media.

“Fewer men pick up girls on the streets now, so it’s getting harder to detect,” one patroller explained.

Ikeda explained how to spot people who might become victims of sexual crimes — it is necessary to differentiate between those who are headed somewhere and those who are loitering. On that night, some people were walking alone, some with an acquaintance, while some were rushing down the streets and some were walking along looking at their smartphones — with one woman looking around and at her smartphone, it was unclear if she might be waiting for a man she met on social media.

The night’s patrol ended without any trouble, and Kitakyushu probably owes people like Ikeda who patrol through the streets for improved safety and security.

This section features topics and issues from the Kyushu region covered by the Nishinippon Shimbun, the largest newspaper in Kyushu. The original article was published on June 12.

GET THE BEST OF THE JAPAN TIMES
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5