Japan: banking on the mob

The old ties between the banks and the yakuza may be coming to an end, reports Martin Fackler

Dai-Ichi Kangyo Bank was certain to be embarrassed by tough questions at its shareholders' meeting, so it did what many self-respecting Japanese companies do: hired some gangsters.

Mingling with the grey-suited employees and shareholders at the 1988 meeting were a dozen men in crewcuts and shirts stretched taut by muscle.

When executives of the world's largest bank stood up to speak, these men cried "Bravo!" and "Well done!" When shareholders asked how a deputy branch manager had managed to embezzle $30m (pounds 19m), the gangsters shouted them down.

Seated near a wall, arms crossed, clad in a quiet grey suit, Ryuichi Koike smiled. He was the "sokaiya" the bank hired, a type of gangster unique to Japan who either blackmails companies or keeps blackmailers off their backs.

The bank, it turned out, had made a pact with Koike that a decade later would lead to one of the biggest financial scandals in Japanese history.

Koike, 54, stands at the centre, a man whose career casts light on the subculture of corruption that spreads throughout Japanese business and politics.

Between 1988 and last year, Koike would squeeze more than a quarter of a billion dollars in loans out of the bank at low interest rates and without putting up sufficient collateral. With Dai-Ichi Kangyo as his piggy bank, he spent $15m buying stock in Nomura Securities, Japan's biggest brokerage, and in other big brokerages.

Then he used his status as a major shareholder to extort from Nomura, too. The brokerage admits it paid Koike $3.3m; prosecutors say most of it was to keep him quiet at a 1995 shareholders' meeting, where Nomura wanted quietly to reinstate its former chairman and president. The reason Nomura wanted to keep it quiet? The two had resigned in disgrace in 1991 after helping Tokyo's biggest crime boss manipulate a stock.

Police have arrested Koike, Nomura's president, the chairman of Dai-Ichi Kangyo and more than a dozen other executives. They and other top managers at the bank and the brokerage have resigned. A former chairman of the bank hanged himself.

And the scandal keeps growing. Authorities recently raided Yamaichi Securities, Japan's fourth-largest brokerage, where the chairman, president and nine other top managers resigned too.

Koike was born in 1943 to a poor family in Niigata, a destitute rural prefecture on the northwest coast of Japan's main island. While in school, he worked as a "tekiya," a street peddler for the "yakuza", the Japanese mob. In 1970 he moved to Tokyo where he was taken under the wing of Kaoru Ogawa, who ran what was then Japan's largest sokaiya group, the Hiroshima Group.

Ogawa was impressed, he recalls, by Koike's diligence and "cold heart": Koike enjoyed making university-educated executives squirm.

When parliament cracked down in 1982 by making it illegal for companies to pay off sokaiya, Koike moved into the quieter and more lucrative side of the racket - protection.

Protection rackets have long been one of the costs of doing business in Japan. Hiring an "insider" or pro-company sokaiya means the company doesn't have gangsters trooping through its offices demanding envelopes full of yen. Their pet sokaiya can handle the payoffs to the tougher blackmailers and scare off the weaker ones.

Koike had a tutor in this new racket, too, another ambitious man from Niigata. This was Rikiya Kijima who offered protection to the major banks.

In 1985 Kijima took Koike to one of his best customers, Dai-Ichi Kangyo Bank, and introduced him to executives, according to the bank's own investigation into the scandal. Koike was soon receiving monthly loans of $8,500.

Bankrolled by Dai-Ichi Kangyo, Koike began to amass a fortune in property and stocks. But when the market collapsed in 1991, Koike could no longer meet the payments on his loans, artificially low as they were.

In 1995 the hard-pressed Koike saw a chance to put the squeeze on Nomura. The brokerage had better reimburse him for losses it had incurred trading for him, he said, or he'd start asking questions about the two disgraced executives Nomura wanted to restore.

Nomura gave him $3m in cash and hid part of it on the books as art purchases. Koike paid the money into Dai-Ichi Kangyo to cover missed interest payments.

A tip from someone inside Nomura led the police to Koike, and from there the money trail led straight to the bank.

Koike sits in a Tokyo jail awaiting trial. If found guilty, he faces just six months in prison for each of three charges of taking money from Nomura and Dai-Ichi Kangyo.

"Koike may be the last of the big insider sokaiya," says Kenji Ino, a journalist who writes about the yakuza. "Those looking to make money off companies must learn new tricks."

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