POLICE in Japan came out in force on Sunday, the first day of a new law designed to put underworld gangsters back where they belong: underground.
More than 2,500 officers conducted raids in Japan, with the focus on the offices of Japan's largest crime syndicate, the Yamaguchi-gumi in Osaka, to gather evidence to enforce the new mob law. Police say they arrested 65 people and collected 1,740 pieces of evidence in what may be the first of many strikes on Japan's notorious and thriving gangs.
The yakuza, or Japanese mafia, have become so public, both in Japan and abroad, taking on a folk-hero image among many Japanese, that the government decided to drive them out of "civil" society with a new legal crackdown.
Japan's 3,300 gangs, with about 88,000 members and supporters, have thrived over the past decade on the nation's economic boom, allowing them to expand their activities from gambling, prostitution, and drugs, into the stock market and real estate, including overseas investments.
They also became more open, violent, clever, and enmeshed in legal Japanese business. The yakuza "have become an export industry for Japan, just like Sony and Honda," says Takaji Kunimatsu, head of the National Police Agency's Criminal Investigation Division. "They've become visible to everyone."
The basic approach of Anti-Organized Crime Law is simple: The names of known crime syndicates will be officially listed and anyone who cites one of the names in raising money or making a request can be arrested.
Until now, mere mention of a well-known gang, often by flashing a name-card, has been threatening enough to convince many Japanese to go along with even the most subtle extortion. Violence is readily inferred by victims, turning coercion into an easy business for yakuza.
The gangs carry a mystique of awe and fear in Japan, reinforced by movies and books, with members known for such behavior as tattooing their bodies, cutting off the tips of little fingers, or wearing short, curly permed hair.
THE far reach of the yakuza was revealed last year when Japan's two largest securities houses, Nomura and Nikko, were discovered to have loaned $280 million to one gang boss for investment in a railway and retail company.
"The law creates a social stigma against [yakuza]," says Yutaka Takehana, chief of the organized crime control office of the National Police Agency. By just making them more conspicuous, he adds, "half of the law will be achieved and the Japanese people will be happy."
On Wednesday, police were ordered to conduct door-to-door calls to uncover victims of yakuza intimidation.
The yakuza are not so happy about the law, which was passed last spring. Some have openly protested against it, while others are trying to avoid being listed by setting up legal fronts, such as business, religious, or political organizations. The Yamaguchi-gumi syndicate has published a manual for gang members with tips on how to evade the new law.
The government is offering assistance to gang members who come clean and want a new start. One measure of the law's effectiveness - even before it takes effect - is a decline in reported "confrontations" between yakuza and common people in 1991, after rising for more than a decade, Mr. Takehana says.
Those gang members caught violating the law can face up to a year in jail or or a $8,000 fine. In addition, any individual or company which hires a designated gang can get a one-year jail sentence or a $4,000 fine. The law has been criticized for not going far enough. Four years ago, the police agency estimated yakuza wealth at more than $10 billion.
Police officials admit that the law fails to attack one of the yakuza's more notorious activities: the import of foreign prostitutes and foreign workers. Such foreigners suffer inhuman treatment and terrible violence, Mr. Kunimatsu says.
The law, which aims to dry up the flow of petty-cash extortion to the gangs, may have the effect of driving them into bigger money-schemes, such as hard drugs, the police also admit.