Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Law and Outlaws at War in Japan ; A City's Move to Root out Organized Crime Ignites Virulent Gangland Attacks

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Law and Outlaws at War in Japan ; A City's Move to Root out Organized Crime Ignites Virulent Gangland Attacks

Article excerpt

The authorities in an industrial region have taken on Japan's notorious crime syndicates, and the gangsters have hit back with violence and threats.

Two years ago, the authorities in this gritty rust belt region declared war on the yakuza, Japan's entrenched organized crime syndicates. And that is exactly what they got.

Since this city and other local governments strengthened regulations to confront the yakuza here -- making it a criminal offense for companies and individuals to do business with them -- there has been a death threat against Kitakyushu's mayor and his family, hand grenades tossed at the homes of corporate executives and a construction company chairman gunned down in front of his wife.

The police say these attacks, and many other lesser threats and intimidation tactics, are the doing of the Kudokai, a gang with more than 650 members that they call one of the most dangerous of the yakuza. The attacks have prompted the National Police Agency to propose giving law enforcement more powers to search and arrest gang members.

The yakuza remain a remarkably visible -- and durable -- presence in Japan, as they have been for centuries. But law enforcement officials say the violence in Kitakyushu may prove to be a turning point, by shocking a public that has become increasingly fed up.

Any romantic aura that may have enveloped the gangsters in the past is falling away, the authorities say. They say that the Japanese increasingly see the yakuza simply as mobsters, much like their counterparts in other countries, who make money from drugs, gambling and extortion, particularly from their favorite target, Japan's bloated construction industry.

"People are now seeing the reality that the yakuza are not chivalrous, but just an antisocial force," said Kitakyushu's mayor, Kenji Kitahashi, who said he was not intimidated by the death threat. He said the violence had turned many residents against the yakuza for hurting this former steel-making city's efforts to lure new investment and jobs.

Since the early 1990s, Japan has tried four times to rein in the yakuza and has failed to make more than a dent in their numbers, now about 80,000 -- compared with estimates of 5,000 members of the American mafia at its height in the early 1960s. Like many Japanese gangs, the Kudokai maintains its own public headquarters, the Kudokai Hall, a four-story fortress-like white building surrounded by tall walls, barbed wire and security cameras that sits in the center of Kitakyushu, a city of one million residents.

Until recently, the gangs were a quietly accepted fact of life. The yakuza were tolerated because they helped Japan keep its streets safe by imposing the same rigid rules and hierarchy on the criminal world that are seen in the rest of Japanese society. But as Japan has developed into a modern, middle-class nation, it has also refashioned itself into a society that relies on courts and laws to keep order, not medieval outlaws. The growing intolerance of the underworld has been evident in recent scandals in which a top television comedian and the national sport of sumo were forced to cut ties with gangsters.

Still, many acknowledge, it has proved tough to cut ties completely.

"Society has used the yakuza for so long that it is hard to just get rid of them," said Chikashi Nakamura, 75, head of a Kitakyushu residents' association that has campaigned to drive out the Kudokai.

Lawyers and anti-mob activists say that the nation still remains reluctant to take the final step of outlawing the gangs outright, a step many have called for. There are fears that a ban could lead to what many call a mafia-ization of the gangs, driving them underground and removing their last restraints on violence against regular civilians.

"It has taken 30 years to get this far, and Japan still hesitates to crush these violent groups once and for all," said Naoyuki Fukasawa, a lawyer who specializes in defending citizens against organized crime. …

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