Unlike the yakuza, Japan’s latest crime menace is anonymous and faceless

"Yamibaito," or shady part-time work in Japanese, promises a lofty payout for minimal work. Such work, however, is often illegal and runs the gamut from murder to armed robbery, scams and drug trafficking.

Walter Sim

Walter Sim

The Straits Times


Former child actor Kirato Wakayama is suspected to be among a growing number of people doing work for quasi-gangster groups. PHOTO: THE_GOLDEN_DAWN/X/THE STRAITS TIMES

June 11, 2024

TOKYO – As a child actor, Kirato Wakayama was one of Japan’s most recognisable faces, starring in historical epics, the Kamen Rider superhero series, and the 2014 live-action remake of Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service.

Now a young adult at 20, he is behind bars awaiting trial over his alleged role in the gruesome double murder of a Tokyo couple whose charred corpses were found in the woods of Nasu, 200km north of the capital, in April.

Wakayama, who is said to be in financial trouble, is suspected to be among a growing number of young people recruited for yamibaito (shady part-time work, in Japanese) with promises of a lofty payout for minimal work. Such work, however, is often illegal and runs the gamut from murder to armed robbery, scams and drug trafficking.

Much of the yamibaito is orchestrated by tokuryu (anonymous and fluid) quasi-gangster groups, which the traditional hierarchical yakuza syndicates have morphed into after stricter regulations against organised crime.

Dr Noboru Hirosue of Ryukoku University’s Criminology Research Centre told The Straits Times that a vast majority who tend to fall prey to yamibaito schemes are impressionable youth hailing from troubled backgrounds and aspiring to a glamorous lifestyle.

“But they are treated as disposable errand boys, and the masterminds do not care if they get arrested,” said the former probation officer in Japan’s Ministry of Justice.

He observed that people are reeled in either through vague recruitment advertisements on social media that do not explicitly mention what the job entails, or through invitations by friends or acquaintances.

Such crimes are posing a growing challenge for the Japanese law enforcement authorities and a threat to civic order. In 2023, there were 19,033 cases associated with the tokuryu, up 8.3 per cent from 2022.

Many cases made front-page headlines: the heist of a luxury watch shop in Tokyo’s Ginza in broad daylight in May 2023, for instance, and a spate of violent robberies throughout Japan orchestrated by the notorious Luffy crime syndicate from behind bars in the Philippines in recent years.

Among the runners arrested for yamibaito were a 23-year-old former member of the Self-Defence Forces, a 22-year-old former nursery school teacher, and even high-school students. Some were older and saddled with debt, like a 36-year-old real estate firm employee, and even a 72-year-old woman whose assignment was to con another retiree of her ATM card.

Yet the shapeshifting nature of the crime groups makes it difficult to track down the masterminds, who are shrouded in secrecy. They seldom meet their charges, and use burner phones and apps which offer anonymity like Signal and Telegram.

Meanwhile, the tasks are divided up among the runners, who would often be assembled randomly without knowing one another, and the group is disbanded once the deed is done.

Kyushu University Professor Koji Tabuchi, a published author on criminal procedure law, said: “Because these recruits, who are employed for specific roles, do not know the overall structure of the group, including who was calling the shots, it makes it difficult to trace the masterminds.”

The growth of the tokuryu comes as the yakuza wanes, with numbers more than halving over a decade to 20,400 in 2023, according to Japan’s National Police Agency (NPA). At its peak in 1963, its numbers were at 184,100.

The NPA, as well as criminologists, attributed this to legislation in 2011 to combat organised crime, with yakuza members barred from opening bank accounts and renting apartments, among other things.

But former police investigator Yu Inamura said this had an unintended effect, telling ST: “This is a prime example of a cat-and-mouse chase. To evade the law, criminal groups changed their form and went underground.”

Now the director of the Japan Counter-Intelligence Association consultancy, Mr Inamura warned that the situation will likely worsen. “There is no silver bullet to eradicate this.”

He noted that many runners felt trapped and unable to back out even if they had second thoughts, because they had given their personal information to tokuryu groups, which would then threaten to inflict harm on them or their family members.

Dr Hirosue says the police must do more to raise awareness of the risks of accepting yamibaito or being involved in the tokuryu, such as direct outreach on channels that are often used by young people.

There should also be a focus on rehabilitation, he noted, given that many delinquents end up in a “very vicious cycle” because they are unable to integrate into society upon release.

In Wakayama’s case, he was among six people arrested for the murder of Mr Ryutaro Takarajima, 55, and his wife Sachiko, 56, who ran multiple restaurants in the bustling Ameyoko in Tokyo’s Ueno district.

The police have attributed the incident to bad blood within the family, with the alleged mastermind being Seiha Sekine, the 32-year-old partner of the couple’s daughter.

Wakayama and his friend, South Korean national Kang Gwang-gi, 20, were said to have been offered 5 million yen (S$43,100) to murder the couple and dispose of their corpses.

The Yomiuri newspaper warned of an “extremely serious situation” in an editorial on June 3. “Casually accepting offers on social media simply for a reward can lead to irreversible consequences. People need to know that there is no such thing as easy money,” it said.

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