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Contractors in Japan begin to shovel aside yakuza groups

Tokyo Sky Tree at nearly 500 meters
Tokyo Sky Tree at nearly 500 meters

TOKYO (TR) – News organizations have consistently celebrated the steady rise of the Tokyo Sky Tree in Tokyo’s Sumida Ward. Yet the most interesting aspect to the project, set to reach a height of 634 meters, might be taking place at ground level.

At the base of the steel structure, a signboard, complete with a stick-figure campaign character raising its fists in anger, announces that yakuza criminal gangs are prohibited from participating in the project, which is scheduled to be completed in 2012.

In November, 2008, members of construction companies formed a committee designed to exclude gangster groups. A similar arrangement was conceived for the new incarnation of the Kabuki-za theater in Ginza, Chuo Ward, whose historic building closed this year.

“We have formed alliances with construction companies that are designed to shut off yakuza involvement in these projects,” says Hiroichi Katayama, superintendent of the Organized Crime Elimination division within the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department.

Like organized crime in other countries, yakuza gangs have traditionally been tightly intertwined with Japan’s construction corporations, but the industry might now be seeing criminal organizations as something other than a necessary evil.

“In the past, gangster groups would use these kinds of projects as an opportunity to raise funds through land deals,” explains Katayama, referring to the Tokyo Sky Tree and Kabuki-za sites.

The superintendent is describing jiage, the practice of forcibly removing tenants from existing structures so the site can be cleared and the land sold for development. Other means of gangster involvement include the settlement of land disputes and the recruitment of labor.

“Construction companies require labor forces,” says Minoru Yokoyama, professor of law at Kokugakuin University and a vice chair for next year’s International Society of Criminology conference in Kobe. “Subcontractors on projects will often broker deals with mediators, which will be gangster groups.”

Yet the industry, wracked by a declining domestic market over the past two decades, may have had enough of dealing with so-called ninkyo dantai, or chivalrous organizations, as yakuza gangs anointed themselves around the end of World War II.

“From an economic point of view, the costs are more,” says Yokoyama. “Then, the money obtained by yakuza gangs from these projects is funneled through underground networks and winds up being used to purchase things like drugs, which are then sold for a profit.”

Yokoyama adds that the government has been aware of recent complaints by citizens regarding such gangster activities and increasingly carrying out policies to thwart their activities.

In 2008, Yokohama-based real estate company Suruga Corporation utilized a front company of the Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s largest gang, to — in true jiage fashion — evict occupants of a building in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward purchased three years before. Members of the front company were taken into custody. That same year, a 47-year-old upper-level boss of Japan’s second largest gang, the Sumiyoshi-kai, was arrested for attempting to extort cash from the seven-company joint venture that completed construction of the Gran Tokyo North Tower at Tokyo Station in 2007. The contractors for the tower had formed a similar alliance to that now ongoing with the Tokyo Sky Tree and Kabuki-za projects.

Anti-gangster signboard on Tokyo Sky Tree construction site
Anti-gangster signboard on Tokyo Sky Tree construction site

This year the resistance has been met with conflict. In April, three shots were fired into the house of the parents of an employee at energy contractor Saibu Gas in Fukuoka City. Soon after, five more rounds were fired at the entrance of a firm affiliated with the contractor. It was widely reported that the firm had not succumbed to payment demands from the Kyushu-based Kudo-kai syndicate regarding the construction of a liquefied natural gas platform in Kitakyushu.

In a bold move, a non-payment regulation was enacted in April in Fukuoka Prefecture, the first of its kind in Japan. Citizens and companies, according to the legislation, are now held liable for contributions made to gangster activities. Penalties include a fine of up to 500,000 yen or one year in jail.

The National Police Agency has indicated that cutting off funds to gangs is the best way to eliminate their influence. The Agency has said that it would like other municipalities to institute similar measures.

The elimination of such groups from construction jobs, however, will be challenging given the long legacy. Gangster ties with construction are widely considered to date back to the third generation boss of the Yamaguchi-gumi, which boasts an estimated membership of 40,000. Appointed in 1946, Kazuo Taoka began to control construction and dockside labor in the gang’s base of Kobe and initiated expansion nationwide as Japan rebuilt itself following the devastation of World War II.

“Right now gangster activities are stable,” says Yokoyama. “They maintain their traditional ways. It will be very difficult to eradicate all activities immediately. It takes time.”

Note: This article originally appeared in the September 26 issue of The Japan Times.