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THE WORLD | COLUMN ONE

In a Bind? There Is a Way Out

In Japan, the yonigeya help clients disappear, be it escaping loan sharks, stalkers or abusive husbands. It often means new lives.

January 09, 2003|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

Occasionally the person they are trying to avoid is right in the house. Yusuke Matsuura, president of the yonigeya firm Support Japan, recently helped a domestic violence victim flee her violent husband. The man was unemployed and rarely left the house, but he was also a heavy drinker.

One night she plied him with alcohol until he passed out, then made a quick call to the yonigeya, who swooped in and cleaned out all the furniture and possessions within 30 minutes. "Ordinarily it would take 15 minutes, but we wanted to make sure he didn't wake up," Matsuura says.

At other times, stealth gives way to muscle. Another Support Japan case involved the owner of a failed factory fleeing $1 million in loan shark debt. The man's house was watched by boryokudan 24 hours a day, but Matsuura and his operatives dressed like rival mobsters, claimed that their debts were even larger and "kidnapped" the client and his family after out-toughing the yakuza.

Once a client is safely away, emphasis shifts to staying hidden. It's possible to hide for years, arguably for a lifetime, but it takes more discipline than most people have. It generally requires cutting all ties with one's past, never driving a car or renewing the driver's license, never using an ATM and never putting one's kids in school. Only low-end jobs are advisable, because identification isn't required. Bureaucracy is far stricter and more intrusive in Japan than in many Western countries.

It's possible to buy someone's family and residency registration papers, core Japanese documents, and assume his or her identity -- so-called rebirth service. But it's expensive, the documents are generally acquired from the homeless, and there's no guarantee that the new identity won't come with more debts and problems than the old one.

A more common yonigeya goal is to buy the client a year or two so the person can regroup. Full-service yonigeya use the interim to untangle the client's affairs, paving the way for the customer to resume at least parts of the abandoned life.

Stalkers are often persistent and tend to disregard restraining orders. Yonigeya may force them to sign a promise that they'll cut it out. If that doesn't work, the stalker may be intimidated into submission using physical violence, kidnapping or both.

Loan sharks can sometimes be persuaded to settle for the amount borrowed -- generally a fraction of the total, given interest rates that can run to 50% every 10 days -- if threatened with a lawyer. Most would rather move on to an easier target than expose their operation to close legal scrutiny.

Another tactic is for yonigeya to pretend to be part of a rival boryokudan gang that wants to buy the loan. That may even involve bringing along a known member of another gang. Negotiations can get pretty tense, especially when the mobsters don't want to relinquish the loan. "I go down to their level," says one yonigeya, requesting anonymity. "I posture, yell, scream."

Yonigeya say they often act as emotional counselors as well. Ultimately, clients are buying know-how, convenience and discretion. In order to preserve their client's hidden location, most yonigeya say they destroy all paper records after committing them to memory.

Occasionally, yonigeya find themselves on the wrong side of trouble. Onodera has been punched several times -- "It helps to be big," he says -- while Ono was kidnapped for four days and severely beaten by mobsters. Ono agreed to do a fly-by-night operation for a woman and her 6-year-old child, both domestic violence victims. What he didn't know was that she'd stolen $660,000 from the mob. The gang was convinced that he was in on the money and abducted him. He was able to escape only when a driver happened to stop on a highway, giving him a split-second opportunity to escape down an embankment, but the incident has made him much more careful, he says.

Avoiding mobster cases isn't a blanket rule, however. Hatori helped a crime-family member in Nagano prefecture disappear. The man wanted to leave the business to start a family. He tried to escape once and was badly beaten by his fellow gangsters before he turned to the yonigeya.

Hatori succeeded in helping the man start a new life. Three years later, Hatori received a letter along with a picture of the former mob member's young child reporting that everything had worked out well.

"Yonigeya have a very bad image, almost like garbage," Hatori says. "But when you get a letter like that, it makes you really proud that you've allowed someone to start over."

*

Takashi Yokota in The Times' Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.

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