The government and law enforcement authorities appear to be fighting an uphill battle to prevent gangsters and other “antisocial” groups from cashing in on disposing of huge amounts of debris generated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, which played havoc with large areas along the Pacific coast of northeastern Japan.

These groups, including not only Japan’s indigenous organized crime syndicates known as “yakuza” but a mafia based in China, are seeking to win a chunk of more than ¥15 trillion estimated to be poured into reconstruction of the areas.

On May 5, in the midst of an annual holiday season in Japan, an officer of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department, on his visit to Minami-Soma City in Fukushima Prefecture, which was hard hit by the calamities, was flabbergasted to find a Chinese man known as a leading figure in the “China mafia.”

This man (who will be referred to as “Mr. X” in this article) is a naturalized citizen of Japan, and is engaged in the business of treating industrial waste in both Japan and China. He was giving gyoza dumplings to evacuees in shelters in an apparent bid to impress the local people with his benevolence.

But his ulterior motive is to win a contract for collecting and disposing of mountains of debris that local authorities are finding difficult to handle. Making matters worse for local residents, some of the debris near the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power station are contaminated with radioactive substances and therefore cannot be moved to other prefectures.

Indeed, on April 17, the municipal government of Koriyama City, Fukushima, removed contaminated surface soil from the grounds of a public school but was prevented from dumping the radioactive soil at a disposal site by local residents.

According to the Tokyo police officer, Mr. X recently visited the mayor of Minami-Soma with a DPJ Diet member apparently in a bid to win business contracts. The mayor is said to have been unaware of Mr. X’s background. The same police officer says Mr. X has sites in inland China where he can dump waste. This means that should he be awarded a contract, debris, including materials contaminated with radioactive substances would be shipped to China.

The China mafia is not the only group seeking to win a deal in the debris disposal projects. On April 21, a member of the yakuza group Kodo-kai was found to be distributing cash to earthquake victims in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, and the police believe this was part of an attempt to get a contract for debris disposal. Kodo-kai is the largest group under the umbrella of Yamaguchi-gumi, which is the largest of Japan’s “Big Three” organized crime syndicates.

The other two Big Three members — Sumiyoshi-kai and Inagawa-gumi — are also stepping up their activities in the disaster region, which gives rise to the difficult question of how the three groups would split the pie in the event they win contracts, according to a newspaper reporter well versed in their actions.

Another category of “antisocial” groups is groups of people known as sokai-ya, which are corporate blackmailers unique to Japan. They extort money by threatening to publicly humiliate or embarrass companies and their executives at annual meetings of stockholders (kabunushi sokai).

One such group is said to have dispatched more than 30 workers to the stricken nuclear power station in Fukushima to work on disposal of contaminated debris. Each worker carries a Geiger counter to measure and records the levels of radiation. The group’s aim, of course, is to threaten Tokyo Electric Power Co., the operator of the nuclear station, and win compensatory money by proving that these workers have were over-exposed to radiation.

The government and the police have already launched steps to counter these antisocial forces, but their task is not easy to say the least. In late March, the National Police Agency instructed the police departments in the earthquake-hit prefectures to take measures to prevent yakuza and other antisocial groups from taking part in reconstruction projects.

On May 8, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku said in an NHK-TV program that disposal of debris, which he noted was primarily the task of the municipalities, would not work unless the central government takes direct control.

But even these steps taken by the government and the police might not prove sufficient because the sheer size of the debris and the work required could enable the yakuza to edge their way in.

One case to illustrate this point is found in a construction company in Iwate Prefecture, which was on the verge of bankruptcy prior to the March 11 disasters due to insufficient work. Although the company is now getting more work than it can possibly handle, it knows that the boom is temporary, and that, therefore, it is refraining from hiring more workers. Other construction companies are in a similar position, and, as a result, each has more work than they can handle.

In this kind of situation, the national and municipal governments cannot devote much time to carefully choosing contractors to undertake debris disposal.

The police authorities are also facing difficulties in clamping down on the yakuza groups because many of them take the form of normal business entities engaged in legitimate enterprises.

The National Police Agency is said to have distributed to prefectural police departments a list of antisocial individuals but it is not clear if the police department can fully make use of the lists in their efforts to exclude gangsters from contracts.

It appears to be an uphill battle to prevent yakuza and other crime syndicates from benefiting from the multitrillion yen reconstruction-related projects.

This is an abridged translation from the June issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japan’s political, social and economic scenes.

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