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Many people assume gangs in Japan universally have ties to organized crime, but the situation on the streets is far more complicated than that.

It’s a subject that experts on organized crime such as writer Atsushi Mizoguchi have discussed at length over the years, warning that nonaffiliated gangs with no code of honor to speak of would replace crime syndicates should the latter’s influence ever wane.

These new groups are called hangure (half gray), a pun on the Japanese word “gurentai” that was once used to describe the thuggish gangs that ruled the streets in the immediate aftermath of World War II.

The choice of color also hints at the fact that these new groups exist in a gray zone between organized crime and common criminals. Many of these gangs either have ties to organized crime or include former gang members of a syndicate among their ranks.

Having said that, some gangs have no ties with organized crime whatsoever.

Such gangs are starting to make their presence felt in western Japan, with incidents of armed robbery and violent crime clearly on the rise.

According to NHK, police in Hyogo Prefecture on June 23 arrested Rei Fujimoto, 21, and three accomplices on suspicion of a pair of brazen robberies that occurred earlier this year.

On Jan. 7, a man wearing a mask entered a pawn shop near JR Motomachi station in Kobe at around 7:45 p.m.

The perpetrator sprayed an employee with a substance that’s believed to be tear gas, broke a glass display case and stole several high-end watches, including a Rolex, worth an estimated ¥6 million. The man then fled the scene in a car driven by another man, which was waiting nearby.

According to the Sankei Shimbun, the group is also believed to have carried out a robbery at another shop specializing in luxury watches on Jan. 15 using the same modus operandi.

From November of last year until February of this year, the suspects are thought to have been responsible for nearly 20 robberies in Osaka, Hyogo, Kyoto and Nara prefectures, stealing almost ¥16 million worth of merchandise. Most of the stolen goods were later sold by another accomplice at unrelated pawn shops.

According to reports from the police and domestic media, the trio belong to a gang calling itself 89.

Police initially suspected the name represented the number of members in the gang, but it later seems the name came from a girls’ bar, which is a kind of hostess club, that was run by Fujimoto in Osaka.

Since the end of 2018, police in Osaka have been cracking down on nonaffiliated gangs and have reportedly arrested more than 500 suspects on charges of robbery, theft and assault.

However, the emergence of 89 has presented police with a very different problem and one that they might be able to resolve easily.

As I’ve mentioned in several contributions over the past 12 months, crime syndicates have been losing members on an annual basis for some time.

More violent nonaffiliated gangs are seeking to exploit this vacuum for their own interests and the authorities have every right to be concerned.

However, they were able to use footage from security cameras to snuff out the threat posed by 89 fairly quickly and, with more boots on the ground these days, such nonaffiliated gangs are likely to be more of a temporary nuisance than a lasting menace to society.

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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