Society

How The Japanese Mafia Is Making Millions From The Fukushima Cleanup

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.

Radioactive money for the yakuza
Radioactive money for the yakuza
Philippe Mesmer

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.

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Coronavirus

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."


Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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