National / Media | DARK SIDE OF THE RISING SUN

It's illegal to pay gangs ... but that's not the point

by Jake Adelstein

Contributing Writer

A set of revised organized crime ordinances went into effect on Oct. 1 in Roppongi, Kabukicho, Shibuya and 26 other designated special districts in Tokyo.

Under the law, any individual or group in these districts who pays protection money to anti-social forces — crime syndicates, among others — faces up to a year in jail and/or a fine of ¥50,000. It’s now officially a crime to pay off crime syndicates and police are promising that punishment will be swift.

“The primary objective of the new rules isn’t to punish people who give money to the yakuza, it’s to make it easier for merchants to refuse to make those payments,” a detective who has dealt with organized crime for 20 years told me on condition of anonymity. “They now have a very good excuse.”

Any business that pays money to a gang syndicate after Oct. 1 can voluntarily disclose that information to the police. In such cases, the above penalties could be drastically reduced. What’s more, the Metropolitan Police Department says it will protect any business that cuts its ties with the mob.

Protection money — called “bodyguard money,” “hospitality fees” and other such euphemisms in the underworld — has long been a stable source of income for gangs.

Satoru Takegaki, a former Yamaguchi-gumi boss who now lives in Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture, says a reward used to be given for paying local gangsters.

“In the old days, if you had trouble at your club or bar with an unruly customer, the police wouldn’t come — we would,” Takegaki recalls. “We were like a low-rent security firm. We would lavishly wine and dine at the businesses under our protection. This was also good for their business. However, that was decades ago. There is no longer any need for a business to be paying off crime syndicates.”

Takegaki now runs a nonprofit organization that helps former gangsters rejoin society. He also helped create a set of anti-organized crime ordinances for his hometown.

The former organized crime ordinances required the police to take three steps before any punishment could be meted out for paying off gangs. The parties involved were given a warning, then their names were released alongside a cease-and-desist order and finally they faced punishment on the third strike. As a result, many businesses ostensibly cut ties with the mob and no case has been filed in which both sides were criminally penalized.

However, some businesses continue to pay off gangs out of fear or habit, which has led to the revised ordinances.

In 2017, the Metropolitan Police Department’s fourth Investigative Division arrested several gang members operating in Ginza on charges of extortion. During the trial, a number of club owners took the stand and said that they had voluntarily paid the money, could have refused if they didn’t want to make the payment and were generally happy with the services they received.

According to the Sankei Shimbun, extortion requires a “victim” to pay out of fear and, since those conditions weren’t present, the Tokyo Lower Court found the gangsters innocent on charges of extortion in August 2018.

And while some shop owners may still want to pay now that the revised ordinances take effect, many more are happy to now have an excuse not to do so.

“I welcome the new rules,” a bar owner near Shinjuku’s West Exit told me on condition of anonymity over fears of his personal safety. “It’s an extra ¥40,000 a month I don’t have to pay for protection and our profit margins are small to begin with. I don’t want to quarrel with the gangs but I also don’t want to pay ¥50,000 or face jail. The gangs even get that and have since left me alone. I’m glad to see the law go into effect. If it works, I might even go on record when I speak to reporters someday.”

Similar revised laws have gone into effect in Kyoto and Aichi prefectures, contributing to a decrease in gang membership and their income.

But Noboru Hirosue, an expert on criminal sociology and organized crime, offers a few sobering final thoughts.

“The ordinances will drive many smaller gangs, who rely on protection money, out of business,” Hirosue says. “Gang members may leave the syndicate but it takes five years before their names are removed from police records, making it almost impossible for them to rehabilitate and rejoin society. As a result, many become simple street criminals, engaging in such acts as robbery, theft and other violations that gangs traditionally forbid. This isn’t good. If the government is going to put these guys out of business, it needs to think about how to make sure former gang members can earn a living as honest citizens.”

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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