A Japanese woman is suing the country’s biggest crime boss for a refund of protection money

Sumo wrestlers bow in 2010 to apologize for the sport’s involvement with yakuza groups.
Sumo wrestlers bow in 2010 to apologize for the sport’s involvement with yakuza groups.
Image: The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP Images
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Victims of organized crime don’t typically think to sue the mafia, unless they’re living Japan.

Japan’s organized crime syndicates, known as the yakuza, are fearsome organizations. With over 100,000 members between them, they hold considerable power and influence, going so far as having their own pension plans and magazines for “employees.” They even helped out with earthquake relief efforts—albeit for a profit.

But they are not unassailable. Japanese law does not make the existence of yakuza illegal, although many of their activities are, and a 2008 legal addition makes gang leaders liable for damages inflicted by members. The new law has inspired some plucky victims to fight back—and cash in. One such person, an un-named Japanese restaurateur from Nagoya, is using the law to sue crime-boss Kenichi Shinoda for a 17 million yen ($170,000) refund of protection money, a classic mafia-style arrangement whereby the yakuza agrees to prevent criminal damage to her restaurant for a fee, accompanied by an implicit threat if she stops paying.

The plaintiff allegedly paid an affiliate of Kenichi’s Yamaguchi-gumi syndicate—the largest in Japan—around 10.85 million yen over 12 years, but, predictably, was threatened with arson by the gang when she stopped paying. Jake Adelstein, an investigative journalist and expert on yakuza, tweeted an ominous warning in reference to the case and the affiliated gang: “that’s a gutsy move,” he said, “in light of the fact that Kodo-kai members really did burn down a bar killing people in 2010.” The parents of one of the three people killed in that fire have also tried to sue Kenichi. Judging by previous cases, they might have a chance of winning.