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Japanese Gang Up on the Mob

Growing intolerance, a recession and an anti-gangster law have many yakuza trying to change their ways. Pinkie restorers and tattoo removers are the beneficiaries.

March 22, 1997|SONNI EFRON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — Japanese mobsters who want to go straight have found a friend in Maria Niino, queen of the plastic pinkie prosthesis. For $3,000 and up, she will craft a flawless silicone clone of a little finger for former yakuza who have sliced off theirs in an age-old gesture of loyalty.

Beset by recession, growing public intolerance and a 5-year-old anti-gangster law that is slowly putting the squeeze on Japan's traditional tough guys, more than 300 former yakuza have come to Niino to be made whole again in the eyes of Japanese society.

"They can't make a living as yakuza anymore," she said. "They can't get jobs if they don't have little fingers, so they come here."

One client's daughter couldn't find a husband until Daddy got a full set of digits. Another pinkie-less former yakuza came to Niino for a fitting following the humiliation of being denied permission to enter Guam by a sharp-eyed U.S. immigration officer.

These are hard times for the yakuza. The gangsters, like the legitimate businesses they serve and prey upon, are being forced to change their ritualistic ways to survive in a harsh economic environment.

As emboldened merchants refuse to pay protection money, and the yakuza's other traditional occupations--money-lending, collections and gambling--wither, they are turning to financial crimes.

Japan Inc. is also becoming less hospitable to another species of gangster, the sokaiya. These secretive racketeers specialize in extorting money from image-conscious Japanese companies. Sometimes they threaten to disrupt carefully scripted shareholder meetings or they impose a strong-arm order at the sessions. Sometimes they threaten to expose corporate scandals.

The business climate for the mob just got worse with the recent revelations that three of Japan's top-tier corporations--the prestigious Takashimaya department store chain, Nomura Securities and food giant Ajinomoto--have allegedly been paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to racketeers to get them to keep their shareholders quiet.

While the police are moving in on one flank, a feisty shareholder rights group is trying to muscle the mob off the corporate payroll. The group has begun filing lawsuits demanding that errant company executives empty their own pockets to reimburse shareholders for any illegal payoffs.

The shareholder lawsuit is a shocking concept that has caught on here only in the last few years, said Hiroshi Okumura, a securities expert at Chuo University.

"Nobody has ever really tried to hold management accountable for their actions before," Okumura said.

To Okumura, the real problem is the executives who are willing to pay to silence criticism, or even rude outbursts.

"If they would permit freedom of expression at shareholder meetings, the sokaiya wouldn't have an opening," he said.

The Shareholders Ombudsman group, formed last year to try to increase corporate disclosure and accountability in the wake of a giant housing loan scandal here, now has its court calendar full of organized-crime cases.

Four former Takashimaya executives pleaded guilty in November to forking over $1.3 million to a sokaiya; Takashimaya's shareholders have filed a civil lawsuit for recompense and expect a settlement shortly, said Koji Morioka, a Kansai University economics professor who represents Shareholders Ombudsman.

Next to be disgraced was Nomura Securities, Japan's largest brokerage firm.

Nomura President Hideo Sakamaki followed two managing directors in resigning this month after the company acknowledged making illicit trades to generate profits that were funneled to the account of the younger brother of a sokaiya. News reports put the sum at $400,000.

This was Nomura's second gangster scandal: In 1991, Sakamaki's predecessor had to resign after Nomura got caught helping a yakuza don, the late Susumu Ishii, buy up hot stocks.

Nomura's shareholders also have announced a class-action lawsuit. This time, shareholders will seek the ouster of Nomura's entire management as punishment for having failed to shape up after the 1991 scandal, Morioka said.

On the heels of the Nomura affair came the news that two executives of Ajinomoto Co.--one a former policeman--had been arrested on suspicion of paying millions of yen to sokaiya. Six alleged racketeers were also nabbed.

Japanese media reported that the money was paid to thank the racketeers for wrapping up last year's Ajinomoto shareholder meeting in just 32 minutes, avoiding the kind of nettlesome questions about the firm's golf course developments that had embarrassed the company at previous shareholder gatherings.

Although Japanese tolerance of corruption in business or government is clearly on the wane, politicians and pundits did not even bother to feign shock over the latest evidence of business-gangster collusion. After all, police have arrested 66 corporate executives and 121 racketeers since 1984.

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