Sokaiya-- Extortion, Protection & the Japanese Corporation

January 10, 2002

Kenneth Szymkowiak,
Assistant Professor in Chaminade University's Department of Criminal Justice in Honolulu

Sokaiya, organized blackmailers and violent protesters who attack Japanese corporations, executives and their families, and disrupt shareholder meetings--often at the behest of other Japanese companies--is the subject of Sokaiya: Extortion, Protection and the Japanese Corporation (M.E. Sharpe, Inc.) by Kenneth Szymkowiak, Ph.D.

In a January 10 lecture, Dr. Szymkowiak, an Assistant Professor in Chaminade University's Department of Criminal Justice in Honolulu, stunned the audience by recounting instances of murder and mayhem by these criminals for hire who prey on corporations.

According to Dr. Szymkowiak, the subject of sokaiya is considered so dangerous and taboo in Japan that many he wanted to interview shunned him. "At a Fulbright Fellowship reception at the American Embassy in Tokyo, my hosts mentioned my topic to the guests. The first executive I was introduced to turned and walked away. He didn't even exchange business cards with me," recounted Dr. Szymkowiak. "Whenever I walked toward other Japanese men at the reception, they would turn away and stand with their backs to me. That's when I realized what a dirty and dangerous business this is. Later, others I interviewed wouldn't meet me at their offices, for fear of being harmed. I was surprised to learn that even yakuza detest sokaiya, regarding them as 'fleas' that can't be exterminated."

Sokaiya are small groups of independent male criminals who extort money from corporations. They employ various methods, including threatening to reveal corporate secrets and scandals, spreading rumors, publishing bogus "magazines," disrupting shareholder meetings, blasting right-wing rhetoric from sound trucks outside corporate headquarters and resorting to violence against executives and their families that can lead to fatalities. In spite of recent corporate stands against involvement with sokaiya, a modicum of corporate transparency and legal roadblocks, the system flourishes in Japan.

Sokaiya is a uniquely Japanese problem. As Dr. Szymkowiak wrote in his book, "There are elements of Japanese culture, history, language and even gesture that lend themselves to abuse through extortion, intimidation, domination and control. Such elements either do not exist in other cultures, or the reactions to them are quite different from those that a Japanese person might have. Certainly the concepts of the corporation and capitalism could exist in Japan without sokaiya. But the elements of Japanese society that affect how the Japanese think about themselves, about others and how they interact are also intrinsic parts of the capitalist system in Japan."

Dr. Szymkowiak noted that, "In the first half of the 20th century, there were about 300 to 400 sokaiya. After World War II, Allied-inspired reforms made corporations more vulnerable to sokaiya by instituting transparency. Their corporate secrets were now public knowledge--and available to sokaiya. But sokaiya haven't restricted their activities to corporate matters. No one likes confrontation, especially not the Japanese who consider it an embarrassment, a failure. Sokaiya were very active in the 1970s protests over the Minamata mercury poisonings and other consumer issues, as well as in support of right-wing political groups' anti-Vietnam War demonstrations," explained Dr. Szymkowiak. "Today, it is estimated that there are about 6,000 active sokaiya, many of whom have joined forces with yakuza. Some of those gangster organizations have been remaking themselves into sokaiya. Yakuza-controlled sokaiya tend to threaten any corporation, not just those they've agreed to attack on behalf of another company."

"Although violence or the threat of violence always works to some degree, an adept sokaiya doesn't need to resort to it," continued Dr. Szymkowiak. "He has many more opportunities: intimidation, embarrassment, shame, the threat of exposure. Usually, he has the power of a corporation behind him. If there's violence, the police get involved. And, the police can't be trusted. With sokaiya, a corporation knows what it's going to get, because it's either paying for the sokaiya's actions on its behalf or paying them not to attack it. Corporations' middle managers, not executives or board members, deal with sokaiya."

While Japanese middle managers fear for their own safety and that of their families, their backgrounds are often not so different from those of sokaiya. Many sokaiya are college graduates with majors in accounting or law who did not quite "make the grade" in the corporate world. "They know what they are talking about when they scream out at shareholder meetings," offered Dr. Szymkowiak.

"A few sokaiya gain managers' trust and can be useful to corporations to fend off other sokaiya. Typically, a corporation's sokaiya handler pays the sokaiya not to bother it or to react to outside threats to the company. It seems as if these groups have no formal ties to the corporation, so the corporation can always say, 'No. We didn't have anything to do with it,' whatever 'it' was. It's plausible deniability. You've got to love it," Dr. Szymkowiak mused. He went on to explain that payments to sokaiya are hidden in the corporate balance sheet as fees paid for golf competitions, donations to charities and founders' birthday celebrations, and are frequently made to sham companies for services that are never rendered.

As Japan's faltering economy continues to exacerbate its corporations' problems, Dr. Szymkowiak foresees an increase in the number and intensity of violent sokaiya attacks on Japanese corporations, their executives and families. Only time will tell if this complex culture of extortion and violence for hire will have a profound effect on Japan.

—Mel Wathen

Topics:  Business, Social Issues

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