Diapers from Japan’s mafia

The yakuza stepped in quickly to provide tsunami relief, and are reaping the benefits

Diapers from the mafia

Damir Sagolj/Reuters; Frank Zeller/AFP/Getty Images

Post-earthquake reconstruction in Japan is providing a much-needed boost to the country’s reeling economy–as well as its crime mobs. Whether it’s about removing tonnes of debris from flattened coastal villages or erecting new homes and office buildings, the yakuza, Japan’s entrenched mafia, is reportedly winning lucrative contracts for all sorts of public projects in the aftermath of the March earthquake and tsunami. The mafioso have even stepped in to clear radioactive rubble near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, a task many private firms have shied away from, according to the Guardian newspaper.

The reason why crime bosses are reaping such profits, many suspect, has much to do with the way the yakuza provided rapid and efficient relief to quake-stricken communities. Hours after the first shock waves, unlabelled trucks loaded with “paper diapers, instant ramen, batteries, flashlights, drinks” and other essentials arrived in the hard-hit Ibaraki and Fukushima prefectures, according to Jake Adelstein, a Japan-based journalist and a leading expert on the country’s criminal underworld. Unloading the vehicles were men wearing long sleeves and gloves to conceal tattoos and missing fingers, the classic trademarks of yakuza members. The Sumiyoshi-kai and Inagawa-kai, Japan’s second- and third-largest crime families, were at the forefront of a rescue operation that delivered an estimated $500,000 worth of food and first aid supplies, according to Adelstein.

The mafia syndicates, whose regular business includes drug trafficking, extortion, gambling and prostitution, were careful not to openly advertise their charitable activities, Japan-watchers noted. The mobsters didn’t want to irritate the police, who have long been trying to dull the aura of mystery and even heroism that often surrounds bosses and their strongmen in the eyes of some Japanese. Yet the yakuza’s silent PR efforts did not go to waste. Few quake victims, including local politicians, failed to notice that crime syndicates reached out faster than Tokyo officials. Now, it seems, Japan’s godfathers are getting their payback.

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