Police have arrested "yakuza" mob members, who recruited people who owed them money or were mentally disabled to do cleanup work in contaminated nuclear zones.
TOKYO – It has been almost two years since the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, and since then there have been multiple allegations about the role played by the Japanese mafia – the yakuza– in the reconstruction process.
On Jan. 31, Japanese police arrested a yakuza boss on suspicion of illegally sending workers into the disaster zone. According to the police, Yoshinori Arai is the head of a crime gang operating in the Yamagata prefecture – in northern Japan. His gang is affiliated with the Sumiyoshi-kai crime syndicate, the second most powerful crime syndicate in all of Japan with 12,600 members.
Arai is accused of sending day laborers to a nuclear decontamination project in the city of Date, in the Fukushima prefecture. The workers only got paid half the promised 20,000 yens ($216) per day. The rest of the money went to Arai’s crime gang.
The reconstruction of the regions devastated by the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster – and the billions of yens involved – is very appealing to the Japanese mafia.
The chance to cash in came at the right time for the yakuza, who have fallen on hard times in recent years. They have lost a huge chunk of revenue as the result of stricter anti-gang laws introduced in October 2011 and increased police crackdowns. The new laws made it illegal to do business with crime syndicates or have ties with gangs.
In Tohoku – the region devastated by the earthquake and tsunami – crime gangs are allegedly implicated in all different aspects of the reconstruction, from demolition to waste removal. The police are investigating 37 cases involving crime syndicates active in the rebuilding and cleanup effort. In May 2012, they arrested Makoto Owada, another high-ranking member of the Sumiyoshi-kai, for illegally dispatching workers to the Fukushima power plant through local front companies.
Jobs no one else wants
The close ties between the yakuza and the nuclear industry have been known for a long time. Journalist Tomohiko Suzuki wrote about it in 2011 in his book: Yakuza and Nuclear Energy: Diary of An Undercover Reporter Working at the Fukushima Plant.
He reports that yakuza have been around the Fukushima site since the nuclear disaster -- working to stem the effects of the plant’s meltdown. They “find people and send them to the site,” recruiting men who owed money to the yakuza, who were homeless, unemployed or even mentally handicapped. According to Suzuki, this system didn't start with Fukushima – the nuclear industry has always used the yakuza to recruit people for the most dangerous tasks, the jobs no one else wants.
In the first days following the nuclear disaster, Tepco, the electricity company managing the plant, who was short on manpower, asked recruiters to fetch “those who are not afraid of dying.”
In July 2011, Tepco was forced to make a public statement announcing they would be cutting ties with the yakuza. The company also decided to ask its subcontractors to sign a document stating they had no ties to the mob. But since subcontractors use front companies, this is virtually impossible to verify.
The announcement of Arai’s arrest came just as Tetsuo Nayuki, a senior official with the Japanese Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), which was set up in September 2012 to “restore public trust in Japan and abroad regarding nuclear regulation,” was being sacked. On Jan. 22, Nayuki leaked a report on the nuclear sector to the Japan Atomic Power Company (JAPC). He shared a draft report about a site survey of the company’s Tsuruga nuclear plant before its public release.
The NRA was evaluating seismic risks at every Japanese nuclear plant, and found that there was an active fault under the Tsuruga plant and that the reactors would have to be decommissioned. The JAPC wanted to get their hands on the document before its public release to be able to prepare its rebuttal.
The JAPC had denied lobbying the nuclear watchdog, saying it never gave Nayuki any money.