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Sunday, March 19, 2000

Telephone club firebombing sparks fear intergang warfare is flaring up


Staff writer

KOBE -- The fatal firebombing of one of Kobe's largest telephone dating clubs has led to fears of a renewed intergang war among rival affiliates of the Kobe-based Yamaguchi-gumi.

During the early morning hours of March 2, two unidentified men entered the Rin-Rin House Motomachi telephone club in Chuo Ward carrying Molotov cocktails.

Heading up to the second floor of the three-story building housing the club, witnesses said, the two men tossed the gasoline bombs into the reception area. One of the bottles exploded prematurely, however, dousing the man who threw it in flames.

Both men then fled to a waiting car outside. Kobe firefighters said the blaze spread quickly, killing four men and severely burning six.

A 38-year-old man who turned up at a Hiroshima hospital about six hours later with severe burns is believed to be one of the alleged attackers. He remains in serious condition and police planned to arrest him once his condition improved.

On March 6, police arrested Shinya Kameno, 24, unemployed, on suspicion he stole a license plate in Kobe on Feb. 29 to place on the attackers' getaway van. Kameno was at the bedside of the burn victim from the time of his hospital admission and has allegedly confessed to his own involvement in the firebombing attack.

Authorities immediately suspected the attack was part of a turf war among subgangs of the Yamaguchi-gumi. The man being treated in Hiroshima has been identified as a member of an affiliated gang.

Police believe the attackers were taking revenge on Rin-Rin House after the establishment refused to pay them off in the form of protection money. Rin-Rin House was allegedly paying protection money to a different Yamaguchi-gumi affiliate.

About 10 minutes before the attack on Rin-Rin, another telephone club located about 1 1/2 km away was also hit by a Molotov cocktail that injured three workers. Both clubs are run by Shinjuku Soft, a Tokyo-based nationwide chain of 55 telephone clubs.

The incidents have police worried about further violence. The attack occurred the day before the monthly general meeting of the approximately 110 affiliated gangs from around Japan at Yamaguchi-gumi headquarters in Kobe's Nada district.

Police report that Saizo Kishimoto, the ex-Kobe city bureaucrat-turned-gang member who normally runs the meetings, told the assembled bosses not to pursue those responsible.

In Japan's major cities, telephone clubs, usually membership-based businesses at which clients can arrange dates or prostitution services over the telephone, are a ubiquitous presence. While most are small, low-profile operations, Rin-Rin House was different. Part of the Shinjuku Soft chain, the Motomachi branch sat on fashionable Tor Road.

The establishment, taking up the second and third floors of the three-story building, contained sofa beds and showers, and was reportedly a favorite stop for many who didn't want to sleep at a capsule hotel.

"In recent years, the telephone club business hasn't done very well. But a lot of people liked Rin-Rin House because it was more like a hotel than a telephone club," said one man, who refused to divulge his name, at a rival telephone club nearby.

Although there are calls for police to crack down on telephone clubs as a means to stem further gangland violence, authorities say they are limited in what they can do because the telephone clubs are legally registered as private offices.

One way police have managed to gain entrance is by conducting safety checks to ensure that the clubs are in compliance with fire safety regulations. In the days following the arson, Hyogo police and fire authorities conducted spot checks at 23 different telephone clubs in the Motomachi district.

"Our biggest concern was that the clubs were following fire safety laws and had fire extinguishers handy," said a spokesman for the Hyogo police.

The result of the investigations showed that, while all of the clubs were following the letter of the law, many had cramped, narrow hallways and doors that, fire officials judged, would make a quick escape almost impossible.



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The Japan Times

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