Japan has some of the world’s strictest gun control laws and fear of hefty punishment has resulted in even some organized crime groups, or yakuza, turning to using fake firearms.
Japan’s yakuza, are divided into over 20 groups with roughly 40,000 members. They are legal entities that insist they are humanitarian organizations; they have corporate logos, business cards, offices and monthly fan magazines cover their exploits.
They also make their money via extortion, racketeering, loan sharking, and a host of other illegal activities.
For collecting protection money, guns would seem to be ideal, but these days, fake guns serve the purpose of striking fear into victims and rivals, without the heavy penalties. However, the results are sometimes comical rather than deadly.
According to Nagoya Television and other sources, on November 29 at the Nagoya District Course, a crime boss from the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi was sentenced to three years in prison (four years suspended) for threatening a rival gang member with a toy gun.
Last December, in Nagoya City, Yoichi Yoshida, 49, chairman of the Kobe-Yamaguchi-gumi Issei-kai crime group, confronted a 46-year-old rival boss in the Yamaguchi-gumi.
He pressed a fake gun against him and repeatedly pulled the trigger, making gunshot sounds several times. In Japanese, the sounds of a gun are represented as “BAN” “DON” “GAN” rather than “BANG BANG”.
Reports at the time of the crime vary as to what the fake gun sounded like, but police confirmed that the model gun did not actually discharge any real or fake bullets, of any kind.
The Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s largest organized crime group, with over a hundred years in business split apart on August 27th 2015. The Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi, the new group, has been skirmishing with the Yamaguchi-gumi ever since. There has been relatively little bloodshed. The toy gun threat was part of that conflict.
Ryo Fujiwara, long-time writer on yakuza affairs and author of the book, The Three Yamaguchi-Gumi, says that the punishment for using a gun in a gang war or in a crime is now so heavy that most yakuza avoid their use at all – unless it is for an assassination.
“In a hit, whoever fires the gun, or is made to take responsibility for firing the gun, has to pretty much be willing to go to jail for the rest of their life. That’s a big decision. The repercussions are big, too. No one wants to claim responsibility for such acts – the gang office might actually get shut-down.”
The gang typically also has to support the family of the hit-man while he is in prison, which is also a financial burden for the organization.
Japan’s Firearms and Swords Control Laws make it a crime to illegally possess a gun, with a punishment of jail time of up to 10 years.
Illegal possession more than one gun, the penalty goes up to 15 years in prison. If you own a gun and matching ammunition, that’s another charge and a heavier penalty. The most severe penalty is for the act of discharging a gun in a train, on a bus, or most public spaces, which can result in a life sentence.
After the mayor of Nagasaki City was shot to death by a Yamaguchi-gumi member in 2007, the laws have been continually revised to make them even stricter.
A police officer in Osaka’s Organized Crime Control Division, speaking on background noted, “In the de facto world of law enforcement, when a yakuza fires a gun, we’re almost always going to charge them with attempted murder—which is a very heavy crime and serious time in ‘the pig-house’ (jail). Guns kill people, so if you use one, intent to kill is right there. Toy guns? Not so much.”
He added, “Unless you’re an old gangster and wanting to stay in jail until you die because you got nowhere else to go, you don’t use a gun. The crime isn’t worth the time in jail.”
Last June, two members of the Matsuba-kai crime group, had a wrist watch worth 850,000 yen ($7,626) sent to their office in the Arakawa district of Tokyo, cash on delivery.
When the watch arrived, one of the gang members pulled out a model gun and told the delivery workers, “Leave the watch and get out of here!”
The deliverymen, however, didn’t flinch. They grabbed back the box with the watch, took the model gun away from the yakuza, ran out of the office and called the police. The gang members were later arrested on charges of attempted extortion.
According to the National Police Agency of Japan, in a nation of over 122 million people, there were 12 shootings in the first half of 2017, with two people killed and three injured. Eight of the shootings were believed to be connected to organized crime.
A low-ranking member of the Kobe-Yamaguchi-gumi put it this way: “All of the smart guys got rid of their guns a long-time ago. The penalties are way too high. You get life in prison if you just fire a gun. That’s not fun.”
Jake Adelstein is the author of the memoir Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan and chief editor of on-line journal Japan Subculture Research.