Gangsters' murder campaign terrorises corporate Japan

TOKYO - A Japanese bank manager was shot dead yesterday by suspected gangsters in an attack that has sent tremors through corporate Japan, writes Terry McCarthy.

The killing of Kazufumi Hatanaka, the manager of the Nagoya branch of Sumitomo Bank, follows a series of gangland attacks on Sumitomo and a scandal-plagued subsidiary, Itoman Corporation. It is also the latest vicious twist in the saga of bad debts following Japan's free-spending years at the end of the 1980s; for Mr Hatanaka was the third Japanese executive to be shot dead in the space of 12 months. Police suspect the deaths were ordered by the yakuza, Japan's organised crime syndicates, and a number of top executives are now receiving police protection.

Mr Hatanaka, 54, was found by his neighbour in the corridor outside his apartment, shot through the head. There were no signs of a struggle. Police are investigating how the killer got past the building's security system.

Bankruptcies and soaring debts caused by the recession, and a change of tactics by the yakuza, have brought extortion, terror and death threats into the mainstream of Japanese business. The yakuza, who had traditionally concentrated on gambling and prostitution, began strong-arming their way into legitimate business in the 1980s, accumulating huge debts from property and stock speculation. As the banks try to retrieve what might be as much as pounds 300bn in bad debts, the yakuza have been fighting back.

Sumitomo's troubles are thought to come from a scandal involving Itoman, a textile firm allied to the group. It began reckless investments in the property and art markets in the 'bubble years' of the 1980s. Later it emerged that the board of directors had been infiltrated by yakuza. In December 1992 Sumitomo stepped in, taking over Itoman and putting its debts in order. As the yakuza were evicted from the business, the intimidation began. Last year there were 22 attacks on Sumitomo managers' houses and the bank's president has received three death threats. A bank spokesman yesterday said: 'We will have to wait for the results of the police investigation' before knowing if Mr Hatanaka's death was linked to these incidents.