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Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2006

Osaka rights funds, 'buraku' kingpin, mob enjoy shady ties


Staff writer

OSAKA -- Calls for fundamental changes in how Osaka funds human rights activities are mounting following new allegations of fraud and discoveries of further links involving a disgraced former official representing the "burakumin" community and underworld figures.

In May, Kunihiko Konishi, then head of the Asuka-kai social welfare foundation and a senior official at the Osaka chapter of the Buraku Liberation League, a grouping for descendants of the feudal-era outcast class, was arrested and charged with embezzling 10 million yen from a municipal contract with Asuka-kai.

Since then, hardly a day has gone by without further evidence of Konishi's links to the underworld or discoveries that Osaka, which has done business with Konishi for more than 30 years, failed to properly account for the tax money that was being distributed to his organizations.

Nor have city officials or the Buraku Liberation League provided detailed answers about how much they knew about Konishi's activities. His relationship with the Yamaguchi-gumi underworld syndicate was generally known to police and many local journalists before his arrest, but it was rarely talked about publicly.

Since early August, however, new details about that relationship have emerged.

While being questioned about his relationship to Konishi, the president of an Osaka real estate firm (whose name is not disclosed) told police Aug. 3 that the head of the Tenno-gumi, a Yamaguchi-gumi affiliate, tried to force him to sell a piece of land in 2004.

The realtor told police the Tenno-gumi needed the money because it had borrowed nearly 500 million yen from Asuka-kai. Konishi allegedly threatened the president with retaliation if he did not help the Tenno-gumi by selling the property.

Tenno-gumi members had served as bodyguards for Konishi since shots were fired at Asuka-kai's headquarters in 1997. Police believe the Tenno-gumi was involved in the assassination of the Yamaguchi-gumi's No. 2 man about a month before the attack on Asuka-kai.

Following the president's testimony, Kim Jong Ki, head of the Tenno-gumi, and an associate were arrested Aug. 4 on charges of extortion. Both have denied any wrongdoing.

While police continue to investigate Konishi's links to organized crime, Osaka officials, in the face of mounting public anger, are reviewing their relationship with Konishi-affiliated firms, including not only a human rights center but also a hospital.

For over three decades, under it's "dowa" policy, in which tax money was allocated for social welfare projects to end social and economic discrimination against buraku people, the city has pumped billions of yen into projects run or managed by Konishi, as well as other members of the Buraku Liberation League.

"Under the banner of protecting human rights, the Buraku Liberation League has used its political power and underworld connections to force the city to finance whatever projects the league wanted. Konishi was well known among city officials as a bully who threatened violence to get whatever he wanted," said Toshihito Shimoda, a member of the municipal assembly from the Japanese Communist Party.

On Aug. 3, the day before police arrested Kim, the Prefectural Citizens Union to Guard Democracy and Human Rights, a JCP-affiliated nongovernmental organization that has long been critical of the Buraku Liberation League, formally called for the end of the city's long-standing policy of financially supporting the body.

At a municipal assembly meeting a week later, Shimoda criticized the city's cozy ties with the league and demanded that funds allotted for the dowa policy be frozen.

Osaka has budgeted nearly 460 million yen for various human rights projects, most of which are connected to the city's dowa policy.

Mayor Junichi Seki denied in the assembly that the league dictated Osaka's human rights policy.

"The city decides its human rights policy on its own. However, we are investigating the affect of our dowa policy on all the city's projects," Seki said.



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