TOKYO — Japan has had gangster crime since the 18th Century, but a recent flurry of violent crimes committed by people not apparently linked to the mobs has prompted fears that a tight social fabric is loosening.
It also has raised doubts that police can cope with it.
A spate of cases in September--highlighted by the sensational kidnap-murder of a small boy and by two hostage cases in two days--has left commentators, newspapers and many Japanese full of questions.
"While feeling deep anger . . . there is also a need to worry about the structure of contemporary society that breeds such crimes," said the mass-circulation Mainichi Daily News in an editorial on the kidnaping for ransom of 5-year-old Yoshiaki Ogiwara.
"As expensive foreign automobiles are seen on the streets and high-priced products on the shelves of stores, the delusion arises among some people that, they, too, are entitled to possess these extravagant things," the newspaper added.
While police maintained that two kidnapings and two hostage cases in a row were chance occurrences, the Daily Yomiuri newspaper suggested that police handling of the cases needed improvement.
Said social commentator Akira Hoshino: "These are not drastic changes, but people feel gradually the ties of society are being loosened. I'm afraid Tokyo will become like other big cities in a few years."
Japan's crime rate, however, remains far below other major countries, including the United States.
The recent crimes began Sept. 14 with the two kidnapings--only the 154th and 155th in Japan since 1945--but the fifth and sixth this year.
In Kumamoto prefecture in the south, the 21-year-old son of a wealthy executive and his girlfriend were kidnaped by four men who demanded a 50 million yen ($350,000) ransom. The abductors, who were captured after releasing Noriaki Ueda's girlfriend, confessed to killing Ueda, police said.
Ueda's case received attention, but the case of 5-year-old Yoshiaki Ogiwara, kidnaped as he played near his home in Takasaki, 60 miles northwest of Tokyo, inspired a frenzied outcry.
The boy's naked body was found in a river two days after 20 million yen ($140,000) was demanded from his father, a firefighter. The boy was the 27th kidnap victim murdered since 1945, police said.
Neither case had mob links, so far as police have been able to determine.
In an editorial called "A Child's Stolen Life," the English-language Japan Times called the murder "despicable."
"It is tempting to see changing social values here, fed by the lust for ransom," the Times said.
Also in September, the maid of a real estate tycoon became the first person to die in a hostage incident since 1985. A day later a man who held two people hostage for three hours before surrendering peacefully said he thought his runaway wife would return if his crime attracted attention.
The same day, the Justice Ministry released an annual "White Paper on Crime," which for the most part underscored the safety of Japan compared to other societies.
Japan's ratio of crime per 100,000 population was 1,328 cases in 1985, compared to 5,207 in the United States and 6,909 in West Germany, the paper said. The police, who enjoy a high level of respect in Japan, made arrests in 64.2% of Japanese criminal cases in 1985, compared to 20.9% in U.S. cases and 47.2% in West Germany, the paper added.
Gangsters, called "Yakuza," still make occasional headlines for their crimes, chiefly mob wars. The Yakuza have their roots in 18th Century gambling gangs. They now number about 100,000 and operate gambling, prostitution, pornography and extortion rackets.