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Tokyo shop owners stop paying protection fees to crime groups amid pandemic difficulties

A store owner who stopped paying protection fees is seen in Tokyo on April 22, 2021. (Mainichi)

With falling revenues amid the coronavirus spread, an increasing number of restaurants and other establishments have stopped paying "protection fees" of money or goods that organized crime groups demand in exchange for letting them operate.

    According to Tokyo's Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), at least 20 or more stores have been confirmed since the end of 2020 to have stopped making the payments. One Tokyo-based store owner, 57, explained why he chose to in an April 22 interview with the Mainichi Shimbun and other media.

    It began on a late December night about five years ago, when two men suddenly entered his store and asked him if he wanted to buy a traditional "shimekazari" Japanese New Year decoration. The owner initially refused, saying he didn't need it, but then one of them, a sharp-eyed man, whispered to him, "Don't you care what happens?" Out of concern for what might befall his customers and employees, he ended up paying 10,000 yen (about $92) for the decoration.

    The same duo has since shown up at the end of each year to sell the decoration. While he didn't want to pay the relatively high price, he kept buying them thinking it was better than getting in trouble.

    In December 2020, a police officer doing the rounds of nearby stores to warn them about protection fee demands, known as "mikajime-ryo" in Japanese, visited the man's business for the first time. The officer then came to the store many times to consult with him. The owner decided to stop making payments, partly because a coronavirus-caused drop in customers was putting the shop severely in the red.

    That year, just one of the two men came. When the owner refused and told him he'd been speaking to the police, the man gave up and left. Later, he heard from a police officer that the same man was issued with suspension order based on the Act on Prevention of Unjust Acts by Organized Crime Group Members.

    The owner has yet to be harassed by gang members since, and he said cheerfully, "I feel relieved. Even if in future a member of a gang comes to my shop, I'll refuse them."

    Demanding protection fees from privately owned stores is a longstanding fundraising tactic called "shinogi." But according to one member of an organized crime group, recently targets often refuse to pay due to the pandemic, and they revealed: "Police exposure of our other incomes sources, like specialized fraud, means we can't obtain funds for our activities."

    According to the MPD's third organized crime division, in the past when police officers would go around stores urging them not to pay, businesses were reluctant to speak up for fear of gang retaliation.

    But it's thought now that recently many more stores can no longer afford to pay the fees due to the difficult management conditions caused by the pandemic, and the division's chief Shinya Kimura said, "We would like to take this as an opportunity to break years of constraints. We will take prompt action, so please consult with the police."


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