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New generation of quasi-gangsters fly under police radar

by Mark Schreiber

Contributing Writer

Mainstream media last month broke a long-standing silence they’ve had concerning the activities of Japan’s organized crime groups, which are referred to in official circles as “boryokudan” (violent groups) or, colloquially, as “yakuza.”

The Mainichi Shimbun (Sept. 15) reported that Kobe’s Municipal Board of Education had issued a warning to discourage local children from trick-or-treating at a Halloween event organized annually since 2013 by the Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s largest organized criminal syndicate.

The board of education’s latest move would appear to put the brakes on yet another, er, hallowed gang tradition.

The Mainichi quoted a school board official as saying, “We’re telling children not to … take part in the event because it’s in a dangerous place.”

In a much-publicized schism that began in 2015 — coincidentally, the centennial year of its founding — the Yamaguchi-gumi fragmented into rival groups. Conflict has since intensified, leading to shootouts between members of the main gang and two splinter groups named the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi and Ninkyo Yamaguchi-gumi, respectively.

While the Yamaguchi-gumi tries to work around its organizational difficulties, media outlets’ attention has gradually shifted to new groups of hoods — known as hangure shūdan — who have been giving the police a few headaches.

The term “hangure” is made up of “han,” or half, and “gure,” which is short for “gureru,” a slang word meaning misfit. The term is credited to Atsushi Mizoguchi, an investigative journalist specializing in coverage of organized crime.

In a nutshell, hangure — who have been referred to in the English-language media variously as “former members of hot-rod gangs” or “non-designated crime groups” — are loosely organized groups of quasi-gangsters.

For a long time, such groups flew below the police radar and it’s hard to say precisely when they became a serious threat. Shukan Taishu (Sept. 23-30) identified several major incidents involving hangure, including clashes with two celebrities in 2010.

On Jan. 16 of that year, a drunken brawl broke out between Mongolian-born sumo grand champion Asashoryu and a person who was never identified by police. As punishment, the heads of the Japan Sumo Association put pressure on Asashoryu to retire at the peak of his career.

Then on Nov. 25, 2010, Ichikawa Ebizo, the enfant terrible of traditional kabuki theater, received a beating in a Nishi-Azabu club that fractured his cheekbone and forced him off the stage while he recuperated from reconstructive surgery.

The website of attorney Tsutomu Nakamura, proprietor of Chiyoda Ward-based Nakamura International Criminal Defense LPC, outlines the differences between yakuza and hangure groups.

According to Nakamura, the Anti-Organized Crime Law passed in 1991 included specific definitions for gangsters, recognizing such attributes as absolute obedience demanded of oyabun-kobun (top and subordinate) relationships and a pyramidal organizational structure.

Hangure, on the other hand, form groups based on personal connections. While yakuza members have been aging, resulting in declining membership, the numbers of hangure, who are mostly in their 20s, 30s and 40s, have been increasing.

With the police crackdown on yakuza, Nakamura says, the hangure’s ability to reach into ordinary society is a valuable asset, and all the more reason for those groups to maintain some distance from the yakuza.

From the above, then, it’s evident the hangure can be described as the shapeshifters of the criminal underworld. And as they tend to be loosely organized, police networks are hard-pressed to keep track of their activities.

Another major difference from the yakuza is that hangure do not have close ties to their local communities, which gives them considerable mobility. The evening tabloid Nikkan Gendai (Sept. 11) reported that three hangure from Kansai age 20 through 24 had been recently re-arrested on suspicion of attempted fraud.

Allegedly posing as an attorney, one had telephoned a Saitama man in his 70s earlier this year and demanded ¥7.5 million as a “settlement” in order to drop a civil lawsuit. They were also charged with impersonating a police officer in order to defraud a Saitama woman in her 60s, claiming a virus originating from her mobile phone had damaged another person’s computer. The cost for dropping the charge: ¥10 million.

Two of the three were former members of the “Avis Group,” which had specialized in fleecing customers at dodgy establishments in Osaka’s Minami district. In 2017 and 2018, as many as 50 hangure toughs are believed to have intimidated 264 victims, raking in a total of ¥21.9 million.

Seeking greener pastures in Tokyo, the two Osaka roughnecks tied up with a third member from Tokushima Prefecture and, posing as yakuza, resumed their nefarious activities in Akasaka and Roppongi. In January, they reportedly entered a bar in Roppongi, spitting in the manager’s face and forcing the employees and hostesses to pose for photos, threatening them by saying, “We know your names and faces now.” A month later, they attacked restaurant workers in Akasaka.

A police source in Tokyo told the tabloid, “From the start of this year, we have been getting a stream of reports that a hangure group speaking a Kansai dialect was putting the squeeze on businesses for protection payments.”

Meanwhile, Shukan Jitsuwa (Oct. 3) reported that another group of hangure has made inroads in the southern islands of Okinawa and Ishigaki, where they have clashed with locals.

The group’s operations on Okinawa’s main island are said to include drinking establishments, tourist-related businesses and construction companies. On the island of Ishigaki, they run drinking establishments in the Misaki-cho bar district, where they overcharge visiting tourists.

Since the Okinawa Prefectural Police restructured its organized crime division in April 2018, it has reportedly identified three groups of hangure consisting of 80 members. Not surprisingly, police are struggling to get a handle on the slippery hoods, whose illegal activities, the cops admit, have proved “difficult to pin down.”

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations.