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This May Be the Most Dangerous — and Most Costly — Photo in Japan

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics will cost at least $5 billion, much of it in the form of lucrative construction contracts. And a single photo threatens to freeze out a powerful crime syndicate.
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Hidetoshi Tanaka (à gauche) en compagnie de Shinobu Tsukasa, la tête des Yamaguchi-gumi, en 2005

The above picture may be worth more than $1 billion in Japan. At the very least, it's worth a severe beating by gangsters armed with baseball bats.

In September, the right-wing scandal sheet Keiten Shimbun obtained the photo of Hidetoshi Tanaka (left), the chief director of Japan University and the vice chairman of Japan's Olympic Committee. Sitting next to Tanaka is Shinobu Tsukasa, the head of Japan's largest yakuza [organized crime] syndicate, the Yamaguchi-gumi. (Note his left hand.)


The photo, which police believe was taken in early 2005, was anonymously sent to several media outlets including Keiten Shimbun; one magazine received a note with the photos that read: "I am an employee of Japan University, where many are in conflict with chief director Tanaka. Six or eight years ago, when Tanaka was elected as the chief director of the board, he went to a club in Nagoya and celebrated his promotion with the head of the Yamaguchi-gumi and many other Yamaguchi-gumi… members. He has shown us these photos over the years to intimidate us into silence. Please investigate."

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Yakuza is the umbrella term for Japan's 21 organized crime groups, which boast an estimated 60,000 members. They exist as semi-legal entities in Japan with offices, business cards, and even fan magazines, and make their money principally from racketeering, loan sharking, fraud, extortion, stock market manipulation - and construction.

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics are predicted to cost at least $5 billion. That means there's a lot of money to be made in construction.

According to police and other sources, a reporter for Keiten Shimbun attempted to seek clarification from Japan University and Tanaka about when the photo was taken and what Tanaka's current relationship, if any, is to the Yamaguchi-gumi. On the night of September 30, as the reporter was walking back to the newspaper office, he was assaulted by two men with metal baseball bats who struck him repeatedly in one place on his body. A police source said they will not specify the location of the injury "because it's something only the assailant would know, and we wish to weed out possible false confessions."


The day after the assault, almost every major media organization in Japan received threatening phone calls from people telling them not to publish the photo. One magazine editor, who spoke to VICE News on the condition of anonymity, said the threat was, "'We attacked Keiten Shimbun. If you get uppity and publish that photo of those two, you'll meet the same fate.'"

More than a month later, the photo remained unpublished. (VICE News is the first outlet to publish the photo.) However, Keiten Shimbun did publish another photo of Tanaka toward the end of October. In that photo (below), from sometime in 2004, Tanaka is pictured with another senior member of the Yamaguchi-gumi named Iwao Yamamoto, who was once close to Tsukasa. Yamamoto shot himself in front of the grave of his predecessor in December 2010.

Tanaka (right) with senior Yamaguchi-gumi member Iwao Yamamoto in 2004

"Whether or not he (Tanaka) still has associations with Yamaguchi-gumi members is something under review," said an official at the National Police Agency. "Under the Tokyo Organized Crime Control Exclusionary Ordinances, such ties would be illegal."

Tanaka has a history of shady associations. A photo of him (below) was taken at a party commemorating the promotion of gang boss Hareaki Fukuda to chairman of the Sumiyoshi-kai crime group - a rival of the Yamaguchi-gumi - in September 1998 at the New Otani hotel in Tokyo. Tanaka allegedly went to the party to congratulate Fukuda. (Sumiyoshi-kai sources say that sometime around 2003, Tanaka began to associate more closely with the Yamaguchi-gumi.)


Fukuda and Tsukasa are both well-known to US law enforcement. An investigator for a federal agency who spoke to VICE News said, "In 2012, the United States put in place economic sanctions against these two yakuza groups and forbid US citizens to associate with the groups or their leaders. These photos raise concerns about Japan's seriousness in the fight against transcontinental crime."

Japan's Olympic Committee, however, does not appear to share those concerns. The committee plays an important role in carrying out the wishes of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and making sure the games run smoothly. It also is said to be privy to information about construction taking place for the games, information that would be very valuable in winning lucrative construction contracts. The Japan Olympic Committee did not respond to questions submitted to them Monday.

The least likely suspects for the assault and threats are actually the Yamaguchi-gumi, who generally wouldn't resort to such tactics thanks to Tsukasa's influence.

In addition to serving as the vice chairman of Japan's Olympic Committee, Tanaka is also the chief director of Japan's largest college, Japan University, and the president of the International Sumo Association; police believe that Tanaka may have gotten to know Tsukasa and other Yamaguchi-gumi members via his sumo connections. Sumo was plagued by a scandal in 2009 when it was revealed that many wrestlers had been placing bets on baseball games with Yamaguchi-gumi bookies. There were also allegations that wrestlers had rigged matches, but the police investigation yielded nothing.


When contacted by VICE News, a spokesperson at Japan University said, "The University received these photos with a written threat in early September and have filed a report with the police on charges of intimidation. Mr. Tanaka has no memory of ever meeting these individuals and we consider the photos to be fakes." Japan University has not submitted the photos to an outside institution for forensic analysis and could not explain how the photos might have been faked. VICE News was told it was not possible to speak to Tanaka, though through the university he has admitted to accidentally meeting Fukuda several years ago. Tanaka also met Yamaguchi-gumi consigliore Heo Young Joong in the 1990s, but he has said it was not a close relationship. The meeting was reportedly to enlist the politically influential Joong's help in making sumo an official Olympic sport by 2008.

Questions remain about who exactly attacked the journalists and threatened harm to other magazines if the pictures were published. The police are currently operating on the theory that the Sumiyoshi-kai may have released the photos and staged the attacks to make people believe the Yamaguchi-gumi was responsible. This could initiate a crackdown on all Yamaguchi-gumi front companies in the construction industry, forcing them out of the lucrative Olympic racket. The remaining pie could then be divided among other yakuza.

The least likely suspects for the assault and threats are actually the Yamaguchi-gumi, who generally wouldn't resort to tactics like that against a reporter thanks to Tsukasa's influence. Since leaving prison in 2011 after serving time for weapons charges, the longtime yakuza has strictly enforced the old code of the Yamaguchi-gumi: Don't assault civilians, don't engage in petty theft or robbery, don't sell or use drugs. That said, not everyone in the organization shares Tsukasa's beliefs in traditional yakuza family values.


Tanaka (left) at a party commemorating the promotion of Hareaki Fukuda to chairman of the Sumiyoshi-kai crime group in 1998

Questions also remain about where the photos came from and why they're surfacing now. According to the monthly news magazine FACTA, the Tokyo Regional Tax Agency has begun an investigation of Japan University on suspicion of tax evasion, and there is a possibility the photos surfaced during that process. The note attached to the photos may actually be authentic - a frustrated board member leaking photos that were used to intimidate Tanaka's political opponents in the university. The police are still attempting to date the photos, but view them as authentic.

Regardless, it is doubtful that the revelation of past or present connections between Tanaka and the yakuza will result in any attempt to clean up the committee or the Olympics. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's grandfather Kishi Nobusuke - a former prime minister himself whom Abe is known to admire - had friendly ties with the Yamaguchi-gumi; in 1971, Nobusuke helped put up the bail money for a Yamaguchi-gumi member accused of murder. In 2012, a photo surfaced of Abe and Yamaguchi-gumi member Ichuu Nagamoto - along with US politician Mike Huckabee - taken in 2008.

Abe insisted that he didn't know Nagamoto, and claimed he'd been photo-bombed.

And so it's possible that the yakuza involvement in the Olympics isn't a problem because the Abe administration doesn't see it as a problem - just as they don't appear to see yakuza involvement in the nuclear industry, entertainment industry, and construction industry as problems. The Tokyo district court ruled in January 2013 that one of the major construction companies handling Olympic projects had hired yakuza to intimidate someone during negotiations. That has had no effect on the company's ability to land Olympic construction work.

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Since September, two of Abe's newly appointed cabinet members have had to resign after allegations surfaced that they broke political regulatory laws. The recently appointed minister of Trade Industry and Commerce had to apologize for the use of public funds by his subordinates to attend an S&M club. And Eriko Yamatani, the current head of the Public Safety Commission, which supervises the police, has had a history of association with yakuza-backed extreme right-wing groups.

As planning and construction for the Olympics moves forward, there will be chances to ask questions. But the odds of press-club reporters asking about yakuza influence are about as likely as sumo finally becoming an official Olympic sport in 2020.

Follow Jake Adelstein on Twitter: @jakeadelstein