Times are tough for Japan’s poor yakuza. They’re stealing melons

Gangs have traditionally made their money from extortion rackets, illegal gambling, the sex trade and drugs

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 July, 2018, 2:36pm
UPDATED : Monday, 02 July, 2018, 10:13pm

Japan’s feared “yakuza” underworld groups are experiencing such dire economic straits that some gang members have been reduced to poaching sea cucumbers and plundering farms of fruit to sell to shops or market traders that do not ask too many questions.

More renowned for their tattoos and a willingness to do battle with their rivals for a lucrative urban turf, yakuza have traditionally made their money from extortion rackets, illegal gambling, the sex trade and drugs, although legislation introduced over the last decade has forced some gangsters to go straight and dissuaded others from joining up.

Things have been tougher for those with limited workplace skills and a police record, which is perhaps why they have taken to pilfering, poaching or shoplifting – crimes that would have been unthinkable to a proud yakuza not long ago.

Membership of Japan’s various underworld groups declined to a record low of 34,500 in 2017, according to the National Police Agency, the 13th consecutive year that numbers have fallen and the lowest total since statistics were first compiled in 1958.

Across Japan, membership was down by around 4,600 from the previous year, with those identified as “core members” of yakuza groups standing at 16,800.

The figure for core members fell below 20,000 for the first time in 2016, the police said.

In April last year, the head of a gang affiliated with the notorious Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi was arrested for attempting to shoplift 64 items from a supermarket in Nagoya.

Masato Gunji and two underlings were arrested after filling baskets with goods from the shelves and simply leaving without paying.

Japan gives yakuza criminal gangs the finger

In May, a retired gang leader from central Japan caused a stir when he was interviewed for a documentary by national broadcaster NHK in which he stated that gangs that operate in rural regions of the country are particularly struggling as young people move to the cities and local economies dwindle.

The solution has been to identify farms soon before their crops are ready to be harvested and, under the cover of night, plunder the fields.

Melons are favourite targets, although the returns are not huge and the work difficult and tiring, the former gangster admitted.

In other parts of the country, farmers have begun to get wise to the gangsters’ antics and have teamed up to operate roving patrols to protect crops of melons, grapes, mangoes and other fruit and vegetables that might catch the eye of a yakuza scout.

“There is a big gap between the high-ranking gangsters in the cities and the low-level, street yakuza who by all accounts are now scrabbling to make ends meet and make loyalty payments up the food chain,” said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at the Tokyo campus of Temple University.

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“I guess it’s a sign of the times and the underworld is feeling the same pinches as Japan’s legitimate businesses have been feeling as a result of the ‘lost decade’ for the economy,” he said.

The latest unexpected target of the yakuza gangs would appear to be sea cucumbers in the Sea of Japan (East Sea), with coastguard patrols increasingly reporting coming across suspicious vessels that appear to be fishing, but that take off at high speed when approached.

The penalty for poaching sea cucumbers is a maximum of six months in prison and a fine of Y10,000 (US$90) – hardly a figure to put off a yakuza – and the government is considering increasing the fines after a number of cases came to light.

A senior member of the Yamaguchi-gumi was fined Y100 million after being found in possession of 60 tonnes of sea cucumber, while earlier this year five members of the same gang were caught with 450kg of sea cucumber.

It is believed that the delicacy is smuggled abroad to China, where prices have soared due to falling domestic catches.