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Financially Troubled Japanese Yakuza Reduced To Stealing Watermelons

Financially Troubled Japanese Yakuza Reduced To Stealing Watermelons

Due to ever-tougher enforcement of laws and ordinances aimed at members of designated criminal syndicates, Japan’s yakuza have fallen upon hard times. How hard? For the first time since statistics began being kept (June 26), the total number of gang members in the country dropped below the 20,000 figure.

On May 28, quasi-official broadcaster NHK went so far as to air an installment of its “Close-up Gendai Plus” evening news program titled “Impoverished Gangs.”

“Yakuza who have been hurting financially have been tying up with han-gure (members of non-designated crime groups, such as hot-rod gangs),” a retired gang leader from the Tokai region commented after seeing the NHK program. “But arrangements like those are only found in the big cities like Tokyo and Osaka. The yakuza in rural areas don’t have other groups to fall back on for income. Of course, there are groups that manage to do all right by shamelessly going to extremes without any qualms at all.”

“Still, I was surprised when a fellow gang member told me he’s been pilfering from farms,” he related.

In this particular instance, the 37-year-old gangster, named Uemura (a pseudonym), began stealing agricultural produce from about three years ago. As his colleague tells it, “Up to then he had been overseeing operations of food carts at local shrine festivals or involved in various construction work. But the authorities began putting pressure on the shrines and construction companies shun any ties with yakuza.

“Anyway he got into stealing watermelons. During the daytime, he would send out younger gang members to case out promising patches, and then they’d return at night to see what sort of security, if any, was in place. Then they’d hit the ones that didn’t have tight security.

“But even if they stole 100 melons, the most they could get for them was only about 300,000 yen. The damn things were heavy, and the ones that got damaged were unsellable. On top of that, while in the fields they’d get stung unmercifully by swarms of mosquitos. My former mate later told me, ‘Okay, next time we’ll be targeting melons and tomatoes.'”

Last summer, however, an incident occurred. As the gangster’s colleague related, “The farmers formed a roving neighborhood watch group that made the rounds at night. Some houses found ways to block off cars to keep them from driving away. The other guys I work with took off, but they grabbed me and five of them really clobbered me. Then when they saw I was tattooed they said, ‘What? You’re a yakuza?’ I refused to tell them my name or gang affiliation, because having that come out would create even more trouble. The posse members weren’t looking for trouble either, so they made me promise I would never do it again, and then sent me on my way with two watermelons.”

With revenues from their traditional shinogi (ways of generating income) on the decline,  yakuza have taken to other types of activities, not necessarily involving breaking the law.

Fanatic hobbyists fascinated by yakuza, for example, can now bid on authentic “yakuza merchandise” — items bearing a gang’s crest such as ashtrays are being offered via online auction services. After all, some of the big gangs have warehouses full of the stuff. Bidding on a wall calendar is said to start from 3,000 yen; and according to a reporter for a tabloid magazine covering gang activities, the going rate for a business card bearing the name of a gang’s godfather might sell for as much as 30,000 yen, and an album full of old gang-related photographs 100,000 yen.

“I know of some hoods in Osaka who will arrange to sell stuff out of a shuttered store on a shopping street, which they can rent for practically nothing,” the aforementioned reporter notes. “They will stock it with stolen cosmetics and other merchandise and peddle it to foreign tourists at bargain prices.”

Other jobs undertaken to make up for financial shortfalls include fortune telling, fake “artists” who claim to be selling their own works and employment as security guards.

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