By Justin McCurry in Tokyo
From the guardian.co.uk
Tuesday August 26 2008
Residents of a city in western Japan this week became the first to turn to the courts for help in ridding their neighbourhood of organised crime, amid fears that they will become the next victims of a violent power struggle.
Around 600 residents of Kurume, in Fukuoka prefecture, have asked a local court to order members of the Dojinkai yakuza gang to vacate an office building in the middle of a busy shopping district.
According to Japanese newspaper reports, the eviction attempt is the first by ordinary residents against an officially recognised crime syndicate.
In their petition, the residents said the gang’s activities and the ever-present threat of violence infringed on their constitutional right to live in peace.
Their target is the head office of the Dojinkai, whose 1,000 members have controlled parts of south-west Japan since the late 1960s.
The gang occupies three buildings near Kurume’s main railway station, using one as its headquarters and letting the other two to affiliates.
The residents say they risk becoming the innocent victims of an escalating conflict between the gang and the Kyushu-Seidokai, a splinter group formed after a bitter power struggle inside the Dojinkai in 2006.
Since the start of the conflict, half a dozen mobsters, including the leaders of both gangs, and a bystander, have been shot dead, the Asahi Shimbun daily said. Several dozen bullets have been fired at the Dojinkai’s headquarters. Though police were stationed outside the building to deter further attacks, the residents say they have been living in fear since the patrols ended in June this year.
Faced with the threat of violent retribution, few Japanese who live among gangsters in cities around the country have the stomach to take legal action against their unsavoury neighbours.
In Kurume, however, 1,500 people living near the Dojinkai building, supported by a 380-strong team of lawyers, have signed a petition calling for the gang to be turfed out.
But experts said their campaign stood little chance of success. “Japanese law as it stands is on the side of the tenants [in this case, the Dojinkai],” Jake Adelstein, a former police reporter for the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper and an authority on the yakuza, told the Guardian. “Once someone moves into a building, it’s very difficult to get them out.”
Typically, gangs move into premises they know are about to be auctioned off and then demand money from the new owners in return for agreeing to move out. Many simply end up staying.
“There’s nothing illegal about simply being yakuza,” Adelstein said. “The court will be sympathetic, but as far as the law is concerned the yakuza are citizens with the same rights as other tenants.
“The Dojinkai are a particularly vicious group, certainly not as polished as others that prefer to stay out of the limelight. They may decide to move out to avoid any more bad publicity, but where would they go then?”
The move comes as the yakuza are expanding their sphere of influence to include real estate, the stock market and other legitimate businesses, in addition to traditional money-earners such as prostitution, drugs, extortion and gambling.
And faced with dwindling financial spoils and police crackdowns on their traditional activities, powerful crime syndicates are engaged in a renewed struggle for money and influence.
Last year saw a slew of shootings involving members of the Yamaguchi-gumi – Japan’s biggest underworld organisation – and a rival gang as they battled for control of lucrative districts in Tokyo.
The island of Kyushu, where the Dojinkai has its headquarters, is no stranger to yakuza violence. Last April a gangster fatally shot Iccho Ito, the mayor of Nagasaki in the island’s northwest. The killer, Tetsuya Shiroo, described by police as a senior member of the Yamaguchi-gumi, was sentenced to death in May.
The National Police Agency puts the number of full-time yakuza members at just over 40,000. If unregistered members and hangers-on are included, however, the number rises to over 80,000, about half of whom belong to the Yamaguchi-gumi.
“When you look at the numbers it’s easy to see how influential they are,” Adelstein said. “The authorities here are tolerant of the yakuza – more than you would like them to be.”