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Sunday, Nov. 6, 2011
CLOSE-UP: Kiyoshi Nakabayashi
Ex-Tokyo cop speaks out on a life fighting gangs — and what you can do
By EDAN CORKILL
Kiyoshi Nakabayashi well remembers how, when he was a high school student in the late 1950s and early '60s, newspapers were full of stories of violent gang wars being fought out openly on the streets of Tokyo.
Most Japanese reacted to those brazen displays of violence with mute fear or, perversely, thrilled admiration. Nakabayashi's reaction was different. "Like a doctor treats a sickness," he says, he wanted to cure society of its ills.
So, immediately after he graduated from high school in his native Nagano Prefecture, he went to Tokyo and signed up with the Metropolitan Police Department.
It was in 1963, a year after Nakabayashi joined the police force, that the gangs — known in popular culture as the yakuza, but to officialdom as bōryokudan (violent groups) — reached a peak in their combined membership. It's estimated they then numbered more than 184,000.
Since then, the officially estimated number of gang members nationwide has been in a more or less steady decline. In 2009, the last year for which figures are available, the total gang membership hit 80,900 — but that decrease has done little to slow the regular drumbeat of murders, robberies, extortion, blackmail, fraud and other crimes that at regular intervals explode into very public scandals and remind Japan's regular citizens of organized crime's continuing role in society.
Recently, however, efforts to curb gang activity have also made the headlines. One month ago, Tokyo and Okinawa became the last of Japan's 47 prefectures to enact ordinances prohibiting, among other things, the payment by companies or businesses of any monies or other remuneration to the gangs. It's always been illegal to extort. Now it's illegal to pay an extortionist, too.
One person who welcomes the new regulations is Nakabayashi, who never forgot that it was a desire to deal with the gangs that set the trajectory for his near half-century career in law enforcement.
Patrol officer, detective, sergeant: The physically imposing yet flawlessly professional Nakabayashi flew up the police ranks. By the age of 26 he had been transferred to the department responsible for dealing with organized crime. He retired from the force in 2003, having risen to be head of that department's division dealing with Japanese organized crime.
Nakabayashi agreed to talk to The Japan Times about his career because he believes passionately that the only true way to solve the problem of the gangs is to change the consciousness of the public.
Japanese people, he says, have to shake off a mindset that tends toward resignation in the face of difficulties and a fear of being shamed, especially in public. This mindset, he believes, is the true lifeline of the gangs. But he thinks the new ordinances are a step in the right direction.
After retiring, Nakabayashi worked for several years at the government-mandated National Center for the Elimination of Bōryokudan ("Bōtsui Center"), which maintains a national network of facilities — at arm's length from the police force — aimed at encouraging people who have fallen victim to the gangs, or worry that they might, to seek help.
Now 67, Nakabayashi currently serves as an adviser to the Bōtsui Center. It was in their office in Tokyo's Bunkyo Ward that he sat down last week to speak with The Japan Times.
Why did you want to join the police?
I was in high school during the postwar period of rapid economic development, around 1960. I thought a lot about what I should do, whether I should go to university or not.
The newspapers were full of stories of gang wars — shootouts in broad daylight and so on. We were told it was the period of "postwar peace," but domestically, Japan was at war, and that left a deep impression on me. I decided I wanted to do something to fix the illness that was afflicting society — like a doctor. I became interested in the police force and their gritty detectives who were standing up to the gangs.
At the same time, the student movements were beginning, so I didn't think I could learn anything at university. The police force, which in Tokyo was working to ensure the safety of that massive metropolis, was the "university" for me.
You graduated from high school in Kiso, Nagano Prefecture and then you came to Tokyo to join the force.
That's right. I went through the initial training and started working here.
Was the job what you expected it to be? You joined in 1962, two years before the Tokyo Olympics.
Yes, it was an extremely tense period. Establishing order in Tokyo was paramount. And of course, a key part of that was dealing with the gangs. They had taken advantage of the confused postwar situation and in 1963, a year before the Olympic Games, they hit the peak of their membership — about 184,200.
And yet there were problems in the police force, too. In 1963, there was the infamous "Yoshinobu Incident," in which a 4-year-old boy was abducted. The police messed up the early phases of the investigation and ended up going to pay the ransom — but then letting the criminal escape. They caught him two years later and discovered that the boy had actually been killed soon after being abducted. This was a huge scandal. Calls were made for the whole force to be overhauled and bolstered.
I was a new patrolman at the time, but as a result of that upheaval I was sent to detective school when I was just 22.
What did you learn there?
That the Yoshinobu Incident failures should never be repeated. They lectured us on carrying out investigations as part of a team; how to think as a team. They talked about developing an instinct for detective work; how to project authority; how to place yourself in a position of superiority over someone — and how dedication, sincerity and strength of will are essential. Those are the qualities you need when you confront a suspect or a bad person, and they are also essential in gaining the trust of a victim or an informant. If you can achieve that state of mind, then the details fall into place.
What was your first posting after you became a detective?
I went to a suburb out near Kichijoji, which at the time was like many developing areas in that it combined the elements of a dormitory town with an entertainment district near the train station.
We had to do everything, but the most common trouble was street violence — the bōryokudan were everywhere. Of course, there were also robberies, fraud, youth crimes and so on. But I came to realize that the people pulling the strings were the bōryokudan. They bought the stolen goods and they organized the youths into gangs.
You saw how their system worked?
That's right. And the next step in a police career is to become a sergeant. There was an exam, and I passed when I was 24. I was posted to a different station, and when I arrived there the chief of the detective section was waiting. "Oh, this guy's big, and he looks earnest and capable. He can do bōryokudan!" he said.
And that was fine by me except that in this particular suburb, the bōryokudan were very powerful — they would march right into the police station and shout at the chief. I won't name the station now, but it was really rough.
We soon realized that the best weapon we had against the bōryokudan was to prosecute them for gambling (which is illegal in Japan except under highly restricted conditions).
Gravel-making was an important industry in that area. It was necessary for making concrete, and with the building boom the stuff was like diamonds. People were needed to make the gravel, as well as to be drivers, middlemen and dealers. And then there were executives from local companies and shop-owners, and every night they'd gamble at illegal dens. So we went after them.
Exactly how did you do that?
At the time, the usual approach was to try to catch people in the act of gambling, but we focused on past offences. The idea was to build up evidence, then obtain a warrant and make the arrests.
We'd identify the den operators — the bosses — and the fixers who set up the venues. We'd investigate the gambling clientele. And, to avoid prosecuting the wrong people, we'd check up on alibis, investigate movements of funds in bank accounts, identify the hotels and houses where gambling took place — all the details. The better the initial investigations, the easier it was to join the dots and make the arrests.
But, actually, in the middle of doing this kind of work I started pushing myself too hard and eventually got very sick, with a really high fever. My wife was so shocked that she insisted we went to a large hospital. They had an internal medicine specialist and he decided I should be hospitalized. It was a sudden inflammation of the kidneys, and if it had become chronic, I could have died. I was stunned, because I thought I was very healthy, doing judo and all.