For months, people have seen photos circulating online that allegedly show Japan Olympic Committee Vice Chairman Hidetoshi Tanaka hobnobbing with Japanese yakuza bosses. But on Tuesday, Japan saw its first significant official response to the photos.
At a House of Representatives committee hearing, Diet member Yoshio Maki demanded an independent investigation into the allegations surrounding Tanaka. Maki did so while displaying paper copies of several news reports, including a story published by VICE News in November. That story marked the first time the above photo was published, showing a smiling Tanaka sitting to the right of Shinobu Tsukasa, the head of Japan's largest yakuza syndicate, the Yamaguchi-gumi.
Tanaka also serves as the chairman of the board of directors of Japan University [Nihon Daigaku], which has reportedly received more than $100 million in subsidies from the Japanese government. The 2020 Olympics are under the supervision of the Ministry of Education, as is Japan University. But Minister of Education Hakubun Shimomura told Maki at the committee meeting that he had been unaware of the problem.
Despite making several attempts, VICE News was unable to reach Tanaka after the meeting.
Last September, reporters for the Keiten Newspaper obtained the photo of Tanaka and the Yamaguchi-gumi supreme boss. But before the newspaper could publish the photo, its reporters were attacked and severely injured. The Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department Organized Crime Control Division is still investigating the case, and no arrests have been made yet. (VICE News obtained the photo independently.)
Yakuza is a term encapsulating Japan's 21 organized crime groups that boast an estimated 60,000 members. They exist as semi-legal entities with offices, business cards, and fan magazines, and make their money from racketeering, loan sharking, fraud, extortion, stock market manipulation, adult entertainment, and construction.
The estimated cost of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics is more than $50 billion, which means there's a lot of money to be made in building and refurbishing Olympic facilities. The yakuza are said to collect about 5 percent of all construction revenue in Japan.
At Tuesday's meeting, Maki addressed his concerns about Tanaka and questioned the Ministry of Education about its response to the articles in the English press.
"We asked the JOC (Japan Olympic Committee) and the university about these allegations," a ministry official said, "and were told that there was no problem."
Maki called the ministry's response "extremely lax," and said that when he spoke to "key figures" at Japan University, they told him that they were aware of Tanaka's ties to the yakuza — and afraid for their lives if they went public.
When contacted by VICE News last year, a spokesperson at Japan University said: "The university received these photos of Tanaka with the head of the Yamaguchi-gumi along 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."
Several sources, including police, told VICE News that the photos are authentic.
At the committee meeting, Maki asked a National Police Agency official to clarify whether a criminal complaint had been filed or not, but the police official twice refused to comment.
After he finished his questioning, Maki told VICE News: "I have spoken to officials at the university who said that they were shown the photographs of Tanaka with a yakuza boss by Tanaka himself, who used the photos to intimidate them and warn them of the consequences of opposing him. They are very afraid for their lives and afraid to oppose Tanaka for fear of what will happen to them. I believe the photos are real."
Maki suggested at the meeting that the Ministry of Education create an independent investigation committee and look into the matter.
"This is the first time I've heard of the problem," Shimomura told Maki. "We will consider creating an investigative panel in the ministry or having the university create a third-party investigative committee. I personally would like to conduct an inquiry."
It was a surprisingly enthusiastic answer from Shimomura, who has received donations from a Yamaguchi-gumi front company and has recently been under scrutiny for his alleged association with a Yamaguchi-gumi associate named Masahiro Toyokawa, who donated money to Shimomura and helped create a political support group for him.
The US Government has blacklisted two of the yakuza bosses allegedly photographed with Tanaka and forbidden association with them and their organization. Under an executive order from President Barak Obama, the Department of Treasury has frozen about $55,000 of yakuza holdings, according to Bloomberg. It is illegal in Japan to pay off the yakuza or work with them.
Tanaka, according to a university spokesman, has admitted to meeting Yamaguchi-gumi consigliere Kyo Eichu in the late 1990s, but said that it was not a close relationship. The meeting was reportedly to seek help in getting Sumo made an official Olympic sport.
Nevertheless, neither Japan's Olympic Committee nor the body that oversees it, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), appear to be especially troubled by the allegations. In an email, an IOC spokesman told VICE News that it not their job to keep criminal elements out of the Japan 2020 Olympics, and that the IOC has not investigated.
"The IOC, as a sports organization, does not have any law enforcement power or jurisdiction," the spokesman said. "If there is any proof or evidence of an individual's involvement in criminal activities, it would be up to the Japanese public prosecution and criminal court to prosecute and to sanction such an individual."
The administration of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which made the successful bid for the 2020 Olympics, has been dogged by allegations of organized crime connections. Eriko Yamatani, whom Abe appointed to be the head of the Public Safety Commission — it oversees the National Police Agency — had a history of association with the yakuza-backed right wing group Zaitokukai. The group has been labeled a public security risk by the National Police Agency. According to police sources, the group was created with the backing of the Yamaguchi-gumi and until recently also had close ties to the Sumiyoshi-kai, Japan's 2nd largest crime group.
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Prime Minister Abe himself has been photographed with a major financier of the Yamaguchi-gumi and members of the Zaitokukai, but has denied knowing them.
The alleged yakuza ties are not the only scandal plaguing Tanaka. According to an article published in February in the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest newspaper, Tanaka allegedly received a kickback of about $42,000 related to a construction project connected to the university.
Follow Jake Adelstein on Twitter: @jakeadelstein