Japan’s yakuza organized crime groups, having operated openly in their home country for more than a century, are facing tougher treatment by an overseas foe: US President Barack Obama’s administration.
The largest of Japan’s yakuza organizations, the Yamaguchi-gumi, and two of its leaders will have their US assets frozen and transactions barred under sanctions announced yesterday by the Treasury Department.
The group earns “billions of US dollars” a year from crimes in Japan and abroad, including drug and human trafficking, prostitution, money laundering and fraud, the department said in a statement.
The US move represents “a slap in the face of the Japanese government” for failing to rein in organized crime, said Jake Adelstein, a Tokyo-based writer who covers the yakuza.
“The US government feels that the Japanese government is very tolerant toward organized crime,” Adelstein said today by telephone. It is telling Japanese authorities, “Start doing something about your problem,” he said.
The Yamaguchi-gumi’s leaders targeted by the sanctions are its “godfather,” Kenichi Shinoda, 70, and his deputy Kiyoshi Takayama, 64, the Treasury Department said in the statement. The US also imposed sanctions against seven “key members and associates” of a syndicate called the Brothers’ Circle, based in Central Asia, Russia and the Middle East.
They are the first targets under an executive order issued by Obama last year “to target transnational criminal organizations and isolate them from the global financial system,” US Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen said in the statement.
US Treasury Department spokesman John Sullivan said Japan is making efforts to fight criminal organizations.
“Undersecretary Cohen noted that we are coordinating with the Japanese government when it comes to combating transnational criminal groups, and recognized the significant steps that the Japanese have taken, especially recently, to target the Yakuza,” Sullivan said in an e-mail.
A man who answered a phone call on Friday to the Yamaguchi-gumi’s headquarters in the western city of Kobe hung up when asked to make a spokesperson available.
“The Japanese government has been watching the situation closely with interest and has been exchanging information with the US,” Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said on Friday. “We should promote stronger measures against organized crime gangs.”
The Yamaguchi-gumi, which operates out of a two-building complex in a residential neighborhood, was estimated to represent 44 percent of Japan’s yakuza with 34,900 members as of December 2010, according to the National Police Agency.
The group has “significant” overseas assets, Adelstein said. In 2005, US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement seized almost US$600,000 from accounts belonging to Susumu Kajiyama, a yakuza member who was sentenced in Japan for loan-sharking. In 2003, Swiss authorities said they seized 61 million Swiss francs (US$68 million) from accounts in Kajiyama’s name.
“While this is more of a sting than a blow, it certainly won’t make them happy,” Adelstein said of the US action.
Shinoda was released in April from a Japanese prison, where he had served a six-year term related to firearms possession, according to the National Police Agency.
Shinoda and Takayama are “the top two representatives of the Yamaguchi-gumi,” Adelstein said. “Everyone knows who they are.”
The yakuza have been a force in Japanese society since at least the pre-1868 Edo period. While the group is linked to criminal activities including gambling and prostitution, yakuza also have been hailed for community service. In 1995, its members aided earthquake-hit neighborhoods of Kobe.
Japanese police are “doubling” efforts to crack down on the yakuza, the National Police Agency said in its 2010 White Paper, published last July. In 2010, 68 top members of the Yamaguchi-gumi and its affiliates, including Takayama, were arrested, compared with 23 arrests a year earlier.
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