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Japan's livestock thefts and struggling foreign workers: A series of arrests (Pt. 1)

In an example of one of the livestock thefts reported in the northern Kanto region in 2020, two individuals are seen carrying a calf upside down toward a parked vehicle where another person is waiting, visible on the right-hand side of frame. The image, taken in Ashikaga, Tochigi Prefecture, on Aug. 22, 2020, was captured by a security camera and provided by Tsuruta Farming.
Police investigators are seen outside one of the homes in which a group of 13 Vietnamese people lived before their arrests on suspicion of breaking the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act and other rules, in Ota, Gunma Prefecture, on Oct. 26, 2020. (Mainichi/Tsutomu Takahashi)

Since October, there have been continued reports of Vietnamese nationals arrested in Japan on suspicion of crimes including overstaying their visas, in connection with a number of large-scale livestock and produce robberies from businesses primarily in the east Japan regions including Gunma and Tochigi prefectures.

    A significant number of those arrested in relation to the thefts were young people working as technical intern trainees across the country who were seized on suspicion of contravening the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act by overstaying in Japan. But what were their aims in all of this? The Mainichi Shimbun's investigations into the background of the cases brought up a picture of foreign technical intern trainees placed in harsh working conditions, and lives blighted by the coronavirus crisis.

    This is the first in a three-part series in which the Mainichi Shimbun looks at the darkness behind the events leading up to the arrests.

    The city of Ota lies in the eastern part of Gunma Prefecture, and serves as the host for automaker Subaru Corp.'s major manufacturing hub. There, in a corner of a residential area in the company town, stands a two-floor apartment building. From around the summer of this year, "animal smells" began hanging in the air around the housing block. Residents in the area who smelt the odor at the time couldn't have imagined it would be connected to the events that later came to light.

    From the start of this year, the northern Kanto region has been seeing local producers become victims of livestock and crop thefts. In Gunma Prefecture, so far some 720 pigs and about 140 chickens have been confirmed stolen. Farmers in the nearby prefectures of Tochigi, Ibaraki and Saitama have also been hit in a stream of thefts.

    In connection with the cases, Gunma Prefectural Police on Oct. 26 arrested 13 Vietnamese men and women in their 20s and 30s living in Ota on suspicion of breaking the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act for overstaying, among other accusations. The 13 lived in groups in two rented single-story homes.

    The bathroom in an apartment in Kamisato, Saitama Prefecture, where it is alleged that a technical intern trainee cut up a pig, is seen on Nov. 1, 2020. (Mainichi/Hayato Narisawa)

    Of them, 10 were technical trainee interns who had come to Japan in 2016. They had worked in locations including Tokyo, Saitama, Ibaraki and Kumamoto doing jobs in industries such as construction and agriculture. But a majority of them had gone on to disappear from their places of employment.

    When police searched the properties, they found about 30 chickens worth of meat stuffed in plastic bags under the floors. Additionally, prefectural police obtained a delivery slip from a home delivery center in Ota with the names of two of the arrested suspects on it.

    The group used a social media account whose name in Vietnamese translates roughly to "Big brother Gunma," through which they would find customers and relay goods to them. Meat appears to have been sold at a cost of around 2,000 yen (about $19) for a few kilograms. The account also had pictures of a butchered pig, but when news reports began to emerge this summer of livestock robberies, the majority of the images were deleted.

    The police's investigation then went a step further.

    On Oct. 28, Gunma Prefectural Police announced it had arrested from a separate apartment in Ota four other Vietnamese nationals in their 20s and 30s working as technical trainee interns. They were seized on suspicion of violating the Slaughterhouse Act by cutting up a pig on their kitchen floor without permission from the prefectural government. Pig bristles were found in the room, and two of the four were quoted as telling police, "We bought the pig on social media, then cut it up and ate it amongst ourselves."

    A number of Vietnamese people spoken to concerning this case said that because pigs are readily available at markets in Vietnam, many people from the country know how to butcher them.

    The aforementioned "animal smells" had come from the area around the four's apartment. A 17-year-old high school student living nearby reported that, from around the summer, he would smell something that "wasn't normal" when he went past the building they lived in. He went on to say that "around noon on Saturdays and Sundays, I'd see about five Vietnamese people outside having barbecues."

    But evidence that a pig had been cut up on the property was scarce, and their cases ended up not being referred to prosecutors.

    A pear tree which had fruit stolen from it is seen with some of its fruit scattered on the ground around it, in Takasaki, Gunma Prefecture, on Sept. 3, 2020. (Mainichi/Hinako Kikuchi)

    On Nov. 1, Saitama Prefectural Police arrested a 29-year-old former technical intern trainee with Vietnamese citizenship on suspicion of breaking the Slaughterhouse Act. It was claimed they may have cut up a pig in the bathroom of their apartment in the prefectural city of Kamisato, and then tried to sell pieces of it on social media. The suspect was reported to have disappeared from their technical intern traineeship, and to have told police, "I wanted a little more money." A man who lives nearby reported, "During the night, smoke would sometimes come from the (suspect's) apartment."

    It's not just livestock that has been taken from businesses in the northern Kanto area; orchards have also lost huge amounts of pears, grapes and other produce. A Vietnamese person who spoke to the Mainichi Shimbun and said they were acquainted with one of the 13 arrested in Ota on suspicion of overstaying their visa revealed that they had "seen them eating fruit they stole."

    According to an individual close to the investigation, there are also eyewitness reports that pears had been carried into the apartment in Kamisato inhabited by the Vietnamese national arrested by Saitama Prefectural Police.

    Prefectural police are investigating the suspect's potential involvement in the series of thefts, but it appears that the stealing was carried out by a number of groups in a sporadic approach. One source connected to the investigation speculated, "It doesn't seem that they were organized crimes with people giving orders and others carrying them out, but more like they might have been done in a guerilla fashion."

    The majority of those arrested in connection with the thefts were Vietnamese technical intern trainees. But what happened to those people to bring them to this point? In the next article in this series, the Mainichi Shimbun looks at the harsh realities faced by technical intern trainees in Japan.

    (Japanese original by Hinako Kikuchi and Naomichi Senoo, Maebashi Bureau, and Yuki Nakagawa, Saitama Bureau)

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