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Cambodian customs authorities pictured with Japanese national Nonaka Shunichi and the drugs found in his luggage at Phnom Penh International Airport. Photo: Handout

Elderly drug mules: are Japan’s yakuza behind wave of arrests across Asia?

  • A growing number of hard-up older people appear to be being targeted by Japan’s criminal underworld to smuggle drugs internationally
  • Elderly passengers with drugs in their luggage were uncovered in China, Cambodia and Japan before the pandemic shut down air travel
An elderly Japanese man on Tuesday was sentenced by a court in Cambodia to 25 years in prison after being found guilty of drug smuggling charges in what is apparently the latest example of how Japan’s “yakuza” groups are targeting a growing number of hard-up older people willing to take risks for a quick pay-off.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court found 72-year old Shunichi Nonaka guilty of “trafficking, storing and smuggling” methamphetamine. He was arrested in February at the Cambodian capital’s international airport before he could board a flight bound for Japan via South Korea.

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During an X-ray inspection of his luggage, customs officials found 1.7kg of the drug wrapped in plastic in a suitcase.

Nonaka told investigators that he was given the package by a man living in Phnom Penh soon after his arrival in the city two days previously. Authorities say they believe the operation was the work of an organised smuggling ring.

A handout photo of the methamphetamine found in Nonaka’s luggage. Photo: Handout

“Japan’s underworld groups are moving into different areas to bring in income, and one of those areas is getting older people involved in smuggling,” said Nagamoto Kuroda, managing director and head of forensics and litigation consulting for FTI Consulting in Tokyo.

As well as narcotics, older people are also being convinced to smuggle gold and counterfeit pharmaceuticals because they have in the past typically attracted less attention from customs officials, Kuroda said, although authorities appear to have caught on to this tactic.

Zachary Arnold, a 68-year-old American national, was arrested at Fukuoka Airport in December carrying about 10,000 tablets of ecstasy after arriving on a flight from France that had stopped off in South Korea. The haul, weighing in at 4.7kg and with an estimated street value of 40 million yen (US$381,680), was the largest ever seized at the airport.

Arnold told authorities that he “was simply told to carry the luggage” and had “no idea of what was inside”.

This is another example of what is termed ‘hinkon biz’, or a moneymaking scheme that preys on the elderly
Jake Adelstein, crime writer
Similarly, 76-year-old former Japanese politician Takuma Sakuragi was sentenced to life in prison in China in November after being detained at Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport in Guangdong province with 3.3kg of methamphetamine in his luggage.

Jake Adelstein, a crime writer who specialises in Japan’s underworld groups, said the average age of Japan’s yakuza nowadays was about 50 “and they are not going to get their hands dirty doing this sort of thing themselves”.

“This is another example of what is termed ‘hinkon biz’, or a moneymaking scheme that preys on the elderly,” he said. “These are people who were in their 50s when the global recession struck in 2007, were laid off and were too old to get work again by the time the domestic economy had improved again.”

Elderly Japanese matching this description not only lost out on their expected future income “but they also were not able to pay into the national pension scheme, so the pensions they are getting now are often not enough to get by on,” Adelstein said.

Observers say ilder Japanese are increasingly being targeted for use as drug mules by the country’s crime gangs. Photo: AFP

The writer said it was “interesting” that Nonaka’s arrest was in Cambodia, where former yakuza kingpin Tadamasa Goto has based himself in recent years – though there is no evidence linking Goto to the case.

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Smuggling gangs “do not care” when someone is arrested as they factor in such losses to their business model, Adelstein said, adding that courts in Japan have been more lenient towards older people caught smuggling, giving many suspended sentences rather than prison terms. If they are caught in other jurisdictions, however, judges have been less understanding.

“Smuggling drugs won’t bring in billions of yen for the yakuza, but it will certainly earn them in the millions, so it’s a reliable source of revenue when many of their other ‘businesses’ – such as protection rackets and illegal gambling – are increasingly becoming the target of the police,” he said.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Japanese gangs using elderly as drug mules