The definition of a crime is a critical part of law enforcement. After all, what constitutes a crime such as theft is fundamental to working out whether or not someone is ultimately guilty of committing the offense.

With this in mind, the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe caused a stir in December when it released a document stating that there was no unified definition of what constituted “anti-social forces,” contradicting guidelines that were put out during the premier’s first administration in 2007 to protect companies from gangs.

These guidelines define anti-social forces, or hanshakai seiryoku, as “groups or individuals that pursue economic profits through the use of violence, threats and fraud.”

The guidelines specifically single out crime syndicates, companies affiliated with such organizations, corporate racketeers, groups specializing in intellectual crimes and right-wing extortionists, among others.

A few weeks earlier, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga came under scrutiny after several weekly magazines reported that an individual linked to an “anti-social organization” was present at a cherry blossom viewing party that was hosted by Abe in spring.

Suga was grilled on the subject but avoided answering specific questions. In the Diet, opposition lawmakers asked whether the individual was a member of an anti-social organization but were told that the National Police Agency did not have a copy of the guest list.

The presence of an individual linked to organized crime at the cherry blossom viewing party is problematic for the government because it’s illegal to fraternize or share revenue with members of anti-social forces.

In many parts of Tokyo, anyone suspected of paying any money to such groups faces being handed a fine or serving time in prison.

It took some time for the police to get such powers. Crime syndicates sought to sidestep police attention in the years following the enactment of the 1992 anti-organized crime law, raising money under the guise of legitimate business or working ostensibly as nonprofit groups and political organizations.

The government then added anti-social forces to the legislation, which included a wide range of criminal groups and individuals involved in illegal activity. As a result, many companies now include clauses in their contracts that prohibit any relationship with anti-social organizations.

This, however, raises a conundrum. Japan has never outright banned the yakuza per se but does regulate syndicates.

The National Police Agency has a national database of suspected members of anti-social forces it has compiled through informants and surveillance.

However, the database isn’t made public because that would violate gang members’ human rights.

This leaves honest businesses at risk of unsuspectingly working with individuals linked to an anti-social organization because there’s no way of checking their history.

And, even if they could, the government now seems unwilling to define exactly what an anti-social organization is.

When pressed about the issue, Suga tried to argue that it would be more difficult to crack down on organized crime if a stricter definition was adopted.

However, leaving the definition vague also allows crime syndicates plenty of wiggle room.

In an editorial titled “Japan government failing the public by not defining ‘anti-social forces,'” the Mainichi Shimbun called the move “unacceptable,” arguing that it will only lead to more problems down the road.

It’s a position I’m sure many officers in police departments nationwide who have been tasked with fighting organized crime would support.

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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