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Gangsters Targeting Japanese Executives : Violence: Corporate world has become fearful. Three people have been slain in last 14 months.

October 03, 1994|DAVID HOLLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — A wave of violence directed at business executives here is casting a spotlight on the murky world of relationships between gangsters and big business in Japan--and stoking fear among those with gang contacts.

Just last week, shots were fired at the home of a retired insurance executive who still consults for his company, and last month a Sumitomo Bank executive was murdered, execution style.

Police have speculated that the unsolved slaying of Kazufumi Hatanaka, manager of Sumitomo Bank's branch in the city of Nagoya, may be related to the bank's aggressive efforts to collect loans made during the peak of Japan's late-1980s economic boom. It is suspected that some borrowers may be gangster-controlled firms.

Hatanaka's murder is the third killing since the spring of last year that appears to be part of what Japanese media are describing as a wave of gangland terror against corporate targets. Hatanaka, 54, was shot through the head outside the door of his 10th-floor apartment in a controlled-access condominium building.

"Judging from the method in the (Hatanaka) incident, we think it likely this was a planned attack by an organized crime group," said Takeshi Noda, head of the organized crime investigative division at the National Police Agency. "Because it was a quick hit and immediate escape, we don't have much in the way of witnesses and evidence."

Since enactment of an anti-gang law two years ago, police have moved more aggressively than ever before against Japan's yakuza , who for decades were romanticized in film and tolerated by the public. It is much easier than in the past, for example, for police to arrest yakuza on harassment charges.

Corporations that once yielded to extortion by gangs, or sometimes even sought to benefit from their activities, have also been taking steps to end such relationships.

While companies often are simple victims of protection rackets, there also are cases where firms try to make use of gangsters.

For example, sokaiya are gangs that specialize in extorting money from firms by threatening to disrupt stockholders meetings. But sokaiya also are sometimes used by management to ensure that legitimate shareholders do not challenge company policies. Real estate developers sometimes turn to yakuza for help in evicting tenants from properties targeted for redevelopment. Tenant rights are so strong in Japan it is often hard to force people out by legal means.

Recent anti-gang efforts aim to end these practices.

As pressure on gangs has built, the incidence of apparent gang violence against corporations also has escalated sharply. Since 1992, there have been 18 reported gun or knife attacks on corporate executives, according to the National Police Agency. These attacks remain unsolved. But given the low level of random street crime in Japan, at least most are presumed to have been targeted against specific victims, probably for reasons related to their work.

"Since the bursting of the (late-1980s) financial bubble, the corporate world has been under pressure to cut its ties with organized crime," said a recent editorial in the Nikkei Weekly.

"This in turn has sparked bad feelings, and police suspect gang members have been involved in some of the recent attacks against corporate officials. In fact, some observers hold that these attacks are part of an organized terror campaign against companies and society as a whole," the paper said.

"Corporations must not yield to these threats of violence. Doing so will only embolden those involved, and lead to the spread of such activities throughout society."

The single most frequent target of attacks has been Sumitomo. Firms of the Sumitomo group--which has Sumitomo Bank at its core--have been targeted in 22 incidents since early last year, according to police. These have included fire bombings of executives' homes, the firing of shots at Sumitomo properties, severed telephone lines and verbal threats.

In an incident with the marks of a ritual assassination, Fuji Photo Film Co. executive Juntaro Suzuki was killed in February on the street outside his Tokyo home by men wielding samurai swords. Suzuki's work involved coping with sokaiya .

A vice president of the small Hanwa Bank, Tomosaburo Koyama, was murdered last year in what police said was the work of an experienced hit man. Koyama was in charge of the bank's problem loans and bad debts.

More incidents that appeared to involve gang attacks on business targets came last week. In Tokyo, shots were fired at the home of Ryuhei Takashima, 75, a former chairman of Asahi Mutual Life Insurance Co. An executive director of the firm had been assaulted outside his home by a man with a knife in July.

Since summer, ultra-rightist groups--which often function like gangs or have gangland ties--have been staging a harassment campaign around Takashima's house over the firm's loan policies.

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