Japan gangster takes airline for costly ride

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The Independent Online
A JAPANESE gangster extorted nearly double the amount of compensation from Japan Airlines (JAL) for his wife's death in an air crash in 1985 than was given to relatives of other victims, according to a Japanese newspaper.

In a rare expose of the murky world of sokaiya, or cor porate extortionists, Asahi newspaper also revealed that the man went on to set up a travel agency with JAL's help, and has prospered from a preferential commission rate on ticket sales.

The gangster's windfall began with the crash of a Boeing 747 in Japan in August 1985. More than 500 people, including the man's common-law wife, died in the plane, which was on a flight from Tokyo to Osaka. Most relatives of the victims negotiated a fixed compensation payment with JAL's insurers.

But the self-confessed gangster reportedly went directly to the airline's headquarters and beat up several executives, breaking one man's glasses. He finally received a payment of 70 million yen ( pounds 424,000), compared to the 45 million yen paid to other relatives.

Although technically a violation of Japan's commercial code, companies regularly pay off sokaiya who threaten to embarrass them or disrupt business. On the other side of the coin, corporations often hire the sokaiya - usually burly men with short, permed hair, wearing garish ties - to ensure their shareholders' meetings pass smoothly with no embarrassing questions from the floor. Last November four executives from Kirin, Japan's largest brewery, were indicted for paying sokaiya pounds 278,000 to keep the shareholders' meeting short and sweet.

The JAL plaintiff, however, was not satisfied with his one- off padded pay-out. In 1990 he returned to JAL and said he was setting up a travel agency. According to Asahi, he was given a commission rate 5 per cent higher than the industry norm for the sale of JAL tickets. This has helped him to create a business turnover of some pounds 18m this year, only three years after opening shop. JAL will not comment on the crash compensation issue, and denies giving the man preferential commission rates. But the airline admits it helped him set up his travel business.

Not all sokaiya aim so high. The lowest of the low, and perhaps a disappearing species, is the banzai sokaiya, a man who buys a small number of a company's shares and then wanders into the company's premises shouting banzai, the Imperial rallying call, at the top of his voice. When approached, he will say that as a new shareholder he is doing this to enhance workers' productivity, but a cash-filled envelope will usually restrain his vocal corporate enthusiasm.

Not all sokaiya are so harmless. Their first big entry into public consciousness was in the early 1970s, when Chisso corporation, a fertiliser company, sought to hush up the mercury poisoning caused by its effluents into Minamata Bay in southern Japan. It installed gangsters at its shareholders' meetings to stop any complaints and they beat up a number of victims. Since then the police have been trying to curb the activities of the sokaiya but, two decades on, the extortionists still survive.