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Obama takes on… the Yakuza?

The Obama administration slapped new sanctions Thursday against one of Japan’s largest organized crime groups, showing more resolve to fight Japanese organized crime than the Japanese government. “Today’s action casts a spotlight on key members of criminal organizations that have engaged in a wide range of serious crimes across the globe,” said David Cohen, Treasury ...

Jake Adelstein
Jake Adelstein
Jake Adelstein

The Obama administration slapped new sanctions Thursday against one of Japan's largest organized crime groups, showing more resolve to fight Japanese organized crime than the Japanese government.

"Today's action casts a spotlight on key members of criminal organizations that have engaged in a wide range of serious crimes across the globe," said David Cohen, Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, in announcing sanctions on the Yamaguchi-gumi as well as Kenichi Shinoda, its kumicho ("godfather") and its wakagashira ("deputy godfather") Kiyoshi Takayama. "Today's designations are just the first under our new our sanctions authority to target transnational criminal organizations and isolate them from the global financial system."

The Treasury Department said that Shinoda and Takayama play key roles in directing all Yakuza activities and are involved in international drug trafficking, human trafficking, extortion, prostitution, fraud, and money laundering.

The Obama administration slapped new sanctions Thursday against one of Japan’s largest organized crime groups, showing more resolve to fight Japanese organized crime than the Japanese government.

“Today’s action casts a spotlight on key members of criminal organizations that have engaged in a wide range of serious crimes across the globe,” said David Cohen, Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, in announcing sanctions on the Yamaguchi-gumi as well as Kenichi Shinoda, its kumicho (“godfather”) and its wakagashira (“deputy godfather”) Kiyoshi Takayama. “Today’s designations are just the first under our new our sanctions authority to target transnational criminal organizations and isolate them from the global financial system.”

The Treasury Department said that Shinoda and Takayama play key roles in directing all Yakuza activities and are involved in international drug trafficking, human trafficking, extortion, prostitution, fraud, and money laundering.

“Today’s action is designed to protect the integrity of the U.S. financial system, to prevent U.S. financial institutions from being used unwittingly to facilitate the unlawful activities of these groups, and to deny the named individuals and entity access to the U.S. economy,” Treasury said in its statement.

The sanctions represent the first concrete implementation of an executive order President Barack Obama signed last July promising to go after transnational criminal organizations.

There’s only one problem: The Japanese government doesn’t seem to be on board. The National Police Agency (NPA), which is in charge of organized crime, has been uncooperative with the U.S. efforts to keep the Yakuza out of the United States and does not share its database of Yakuza bosses and associates with the FBI, DEA, or Homeland Security Investigations (formerly ICE), according to Jake Adelstein, the author of Tokyo Vice, an insider’s look at the Yakuza in Japan. The NPA has also rarely acted on the hundreds of tips the United States passes along about child pornography coming out of Japan.

“The Yamaguchi-gumi is the Wal-Mart of organized crime. If you count smaller Yakuza groups under their umbrella, they are more than half of the market of Japan’s 79,000 Yakuza members and associates. They also support the DPJ and ruling coalition of Japan,” said Adelstein, adding that the Yamaguchi-gumi has ties to Olympus and TEPCO, two firms that operate within the United States.

“The reaction of the Japanese ministry of justice and the National Police Agency to Obama’s executive order last year was one of shock and shame. This latest announcement is a slap in the face of Japan, telling them to really do something about their organized crime problem, which is spilling into international waters,” he said.

Without help from Japanese officials, it’s difficult for the U.S. law enforcement community to get a handle on Yakuza activities. For one thing, only the Japanese government can identify Yakuza officials, because tracking them requires knowing their names, their date of birth, their faces, and the Kanji symbols — Japanese characters — they use to identify themselves.

But in the Japanese system, the Yakuza are legally recognized entities that operate freely and have clear links to banks, legitimate businesses, and leading politicians.

“The Yakuza exists openly in Japan with fanzines and magazines,” Adelstein explained. “They are heavily involved in the stock market and there are politicians with known Yakuza ties in national politics.”

That kind of institutional corruption crosses borders, bleeding heavily into the U.S. economy. The Japanese police estimate that roughly 40 percent of foreign exchange trading companies in Japan are Yakuza-affiliated.

“With so many Japanese companies invested in the U.S. and with so many American companies investing in the Japanese stock market, which is yakuza infested, it becomes a matter of U.S. national security,” Adelstein said. “Because of the yakuza’s deep involvement in the Japanese economy and Japan’s economic ties with the U.S., the actions of the Yakuza effect the U.S. economy, therefore it’s not just a Japanese problem.”

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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