Ex-bar owner sues yakuza for return of protection money

TOKYO - A woman has sued the head of Japan's largest organised crime group for the return of protection money and damages in the first case of its kind in the country.

Protection money refers to the sums that eating and drinking establishments are obliged to pay the yakuza, or gangsters, in return for being able to operate their businesses.

The former bar owner wants Kenichi Shinoda, 71, chief of the Yamaguchi-gumi, to pay her back 17.35 million yen (S$219,000) in all. The woman's name has not been made public for her safety. The sum includes monthly payments of 30,000 yen to 100,000 yen that she was forced to pay the local Kodokai yakuza for 12 years in Nagoya. She has also sued the Kodokai chief.

Nagoya is within the "territory" staked out by the Kodokai, which comes under the umbrella of the Yamaguchi-gumi.

In 2008, when the woman refused to pay off the Kodokai, she was allegedly told: "If you say that, your place will be burnt down."

Her lawyers told reporters that the suit against Shinoda was made possible by a 2008 law revision that holds the heads of organised crime groups responsible for acts perpetrated by their members which caused damage to life or property.

According to the National Police Agency, 11 cases have been brought against organised crime groups since the 2008 legal revision, most of them seeking damages resulting from gangland fights.

This is the first time, however, that someone is suing for the return of protection money.

In a separate case, also in Nagoya, the owner of a "kyabakura" torched by the Kodokai in 2010 has sued the Yamaguchi-gumi chief for nearly 100 million yen in damages.

"Kyabakura" is a type of bar where men go to drink and talk to hostesses to relieve stress.

Two gangsters who started the blaze, which killed a male employee and injured two hostesses, have since been found guilty and sentenced, one to life imprisonment and the other to 30 years in jail.

In May, the parents of the dead man sued Shinoda for 155 million yen in damages.

Gangsters in Japan, unlike in many other countries, are not driven underground but are registered and closely monitored by the law enforcement authorities. However, they continue to be shunned by the public even though they have occasionally engaged in charitable activities.

During the 1995 Kobe earthquake, Yamaguchi-gumi members distributed food and other aid to victims voluntarily. The group is headquartered in the Nada district of Kobe city.

During the quake and tsunami disaster that hit northern Japan in 2011, the Tokyo-based Inagawa-kai yakuza group sent members to badly hit areas to dish out hot food to survivors.

Such activities by the gangsters are not reported in the mainstream Japanese media.

Yakuza membership has been falling in recent years. Police data showed there were 63,200 such members at the end of last year, the eighth straight year of decline. The number of members was down 7,100 from 2011.

The Yamaguchi-gumi, which accounts for 27,700, or about 40 per cent of the total membership, saw 3,300 fewer members than in 2011.

Earlier this month, the group distributed a newly published newspaper to senior members. Besides the obligatory inspirational messages from leaders, the newspaper had articles on hobbies such as fishing and Japanese chess.

Police say the aim is probably to strengthen solidarity within the group.