National / Media | DARK SIDE OF THE RISING SUN

Japan's gangs find themselves in a losing battle to mark territory

by Jake Adelstein

Contributing writer

Domestic organized crime syndicates operate on the basis of intimidation.

Occasionally this will be delivered in the form of a direct physical threat, but more often than not it comes from the inclusion of a group’s crest (daimon) on business cards as well everyday items such as fans, handkerchiefs, towels, ashtrays, teacups, neckties and even calendars.

Hirofumi Kobayashi, a former member of the Yamaguchi-gumi crime syndicate, says the power of handing over a business card bearing a distinctive gang crest can’t be understated.

“Carrying a business card bearing a gang crest is enough to collect protection money and open numerous doors,” Kobayashi says. “It’s effectively a license to collect cash. Without the crest, it’s just a sheet of paper.”

Naturally, the various crime syndicates scattered across the country don’t produce goods bearing their crests and rely on other businesses to do this for them.

However, a recent case highlights the danger of private companies making products for gangs that feature their crests.

In February, the parent company of well-known sweets maker Akafuku revealed that it had sold custom-made bottles of shōchū (distilled liquor) to the Yamaguchi-gumi crime syndicate for several years.

The porcelain bottles all featured an engraving of the distinctive diamond-shaped crest of the Yamaguchi-gumi and the Mie-based company admitted it had sold the syndicate 8,180 bottles worth ¥15 million between 2000 and 2012.

In Mie Prefecture, however, it has been illegal to undertake any business transactions with designated crime groups since April 2011, meaning the parent company of Akafuku had presumably been operating illegally during the latter part of its working relationship with the gang.

But why make this announcement now, eight years or so after the company had stopped working with the syndicate? It appears the company had been carrying out an exercise in damage control.

According to reports that have been published in the Ise Shimbun, the company had been fending off an extortion attempt from a 68-year-old antiques dealer from the city of Ise who had tried to blackmail the company after finding an empty bottle of shōchū that featured the crest of the Yamaguchi-gumi in December.

The antiques dealer also had photographs of an executive of the company socializing with gang members.

In consultation with the police, the company agreed to pay the antiques dealer ¥50,000 but detectives arrested the man on the spot for attempted extortion when he turned up to collect the cash.

The company then announced the results of an internal investigation a day before the trial of the antiques dealer was scheduled to begin, with Masutane Hamada resigning as chairman and the company’s image taking a massive hit as a consequence.

On March 9, the antiques dealer was sentenced to one year in prison.

In the end, Akafuku’s parent company found out the hard way why it’s better to avoid working with gangs, even if it’s seemingly something as innocent as producing a bottle of alcohol that bears a syndicate’s crest.

Not only could you face criminal prosecution, you could find yourself the target of extortion. Whichever way you look at it, the outcome isn’t going to end on a positive note.

Coming across any item that features a gang crest these days is a pretty clear warning sign to walk away. It’s almost certainly no longer simply a statement of status.

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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