By Alessia Cerantola for OCCRP
Japan’s government has been criticized for its slow and inadequate response to the outbreak of the coronavirus. Japanese organized crime, meanwhile, has moved to take advantage of the crisis.
The pandemic has become a new battlefield for the country’s criminal gangs, with older “yakuza” groups trying to restore their reputations through public works while newer gangs vie for profits from selling medical supplies.
The yakuza, which means “good for nothing” in Japanese, have reportedly been handing out free supplies to desperate shoppers and even offered to clean up a quarantined cruise liner in a bid to curry favor.
“In this way [the] yakuza, who have been perceived negatively in recent years, hoped to become more socially accepted,” said Garyo Okita, a journalist and expert on the yakuza.
Newer organized crime groups, known as “hangure,” have also been trying to capitalize on the crisis by selling medical supplies.
But while the pandemic has offered new opportunities, it may also prove to be bad for the gangs’ traditional businesses. Japan’s measures may have disrupted the gangs’ lucrative drug trade and forced the sex industry to close up shop.
Japan was initially criticized for only bringing in “toothless” measures to combat the pandemic. On April 16, however, the government declared a nationwide state of emergency in an attempt to stop the coronavirus from spreading and straining the country’s health care system.
The yakuza’s leadership — many of whom, like the Italian mafia bosses, are senior citizens and particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus — have canceled meetings and have resorted to online messaging services to conduct business.
“When a national crisis occurs, gangsters want to help the country,” Yakuza expert and author Tomohiko Suzuki told OCCRP.
“The fact that [the] yakuza, which is called an anti-social force, stands up every time a major disaster strikes Japan and quickly sends relief supplies all over the country must be an inconvenient fact for the police and general media.”