After the arrest of a yakuza boss for his alleged role in supplying workers to TEPCO’s Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Plant, we are learning the details of how Japan’s nuclear industry relied on organized crime. Since July of last year, a few months after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami resulted in a triple meltdown at the Fukushima plant, investigators have been probing possible yakuza links to TEPCO and the nuclear industry under the guidance of the National Police Agency.

“Yakuza involvement in the nuclear industry is believed to go back to 2007 or earlier," said a police source, "and the gangs involved were dispatching yakuza to nuclear sites all over Japan.”

The yakuza boss arrested has been identified as Makoto Owada, a high-ranking member of the Sumiyoshi-kai (住吉会) crime group, the second largest organized crime group in Japan with roughly 12,000 members. Owada is charged with illegally dispatching workers to the reconstruction site from May to July of last year. The Fukushima plant is located in Sumiyoshi-kai territory (in yakuza parlance nawabari). However, in his initial statements to the police at the time of his arrest, Owada admitted that he had dispatched workers, including his own yakuza soldiers, to nuclear power plant construction sites all over Japan from as early as 2007.

“If we didn’t do it, who would?” asked one mid-level yakuza boss, who defended the criminal groups’ involvement. He even praised the yakuza workers as heroes in the aftermath of the disaster. “When everyone else was running away as Fukushima melted down, our people stayed to avert disaster. We’re not the bad guys.”

Police suspect that Owada was also working with Japan’s largest crime group, the Yamaguchi-gumi, in providing labor to areas outside of the Sumiyoshi-kai turf in a “joint business venture.”  Organized crime in Japan tends to be extremely organized. (At right is an issue of a yakuza fanzine that is dedicated to the Sumiyoshi-kai.) And, in fact, one of the business partners, Yamaguchi-gumi Oshuaizukaikka, which also calls Fukushima Prefecture home, has been praised for their fast and effective relief efforts after the quake—even providing hot food and security from possible looters at disaster shelters. The other business partner, the Yamaguchi-gumi Shimizu-ikka was founded by one of the four yakuza who received a liver transplant at UCLA under controversial circumstances.

However, it’s becoming apparent that yakuza involvement in Japan’s nuclear industry is not limited to the Sumiyoshi-kai and Yamaguchi-gumi. In January of this year, the Fukuoka Police Department arrested an executive at a front company for the Kyushu-based yakuza Kudo-kai, for her role in illegal labor contracts with the KEPCO (Kansai Electric Power Company) managed Ooi Nuclear Power Plant.

Police and underworld sources said that starting in late May of last year, Owada allegedly dispatched several people, including gang members, to the devastated Fukushima nuclear power plant where they did cleanup work and reconstruction of damaged areas. According to these sources, Owada did not directly dispatch workers to the nuclear power plant; he first sent them to an official TEPCO subcontractor in Tochigi Prefecture. These sources say the way the scheme worked is that Owada then received the extra hazard pay (危険手当) that TEPCO was giving to workers at the radioactive Fukushima site. Some of that money was allegedly kicked back to the Sumiyoshi-kai as “association dues.”

While most firms in Japan now have in place exclusionary clauses in all contracts that forbids the use of organized crime or affiliated companies, TEPCO has been fairly lax about taking similar measures. Last July, according to the National Police Agency and TEPCO, the firm began meeting regularly with officials from the National Police Agency to discuss rooting out organized crime influence at the company. Up until October 1, 2011, however, it was not necessarily illegal to employ yakuza at nuclear facilities or work with their front companies. It is now.

The involvement of the yakuza in Japan’s nuclear industry has gone on long before last year’s disaster. According to Japanese government sources, Yakuza have been supplying labor to Japan’s nuclear industry since the late 90s. TEPCO and other firms have paid off yakuza groups in the past to remain silent about safety problems at their nuclear plants and other scandals. In 2003, the Japanese media reported that TEPCO had been making protection payments to a Sumiyoshi-kai front company for over ten years. The June 2005 issue of the political and news magazine, SEIKEI TOHOKU, had an in-depth expose of TEPCO pay-offs to a Yamaguchi-gumi boss. Police sources also confirmed that TEPCO ties to organized crime dated back to the late nineties.

“The yakuza provide the labor for a job no sane person would do considering the crappy working conditions,” said Tomohiko Suzuki, author of Yakuza and the Nuclear Industry: Diary of An Undercover Reporter Working at the Fukushima Plant (ヤクザと原発-福島第一潜入記-鈴木-智彦). “The only way to get the yakuza out of the atomic power business is probably to shutter all the reactors. Even then, like savvy vultures, the yakuza will be living off the cleanup work for years to come.”

Considering the intimate entanglements between organized crime and nuclear power in Japan, it would not be a shock if this investigation has a very short half-life.  “The arrest of Owada is just the tip of the iceberg but how far the investigation will go or be allowed to go is difficult to say,” said the police source. “Things don’t change overnight.”