KITA-KYUSHU--After last call around 1 a.m. on Sept. 7, a taxi driver picked up a regular customer, a female bar owner, to take her to her condominium only a few minutes away.
When the 35-year-old woman left the cab and walked toward her home, a man wearing blue work clothes jumped out of the darkness and bumped into her.
Then he started swinging a machete.
The assailant, who also attacked the taxi driver when he ran to help the woman, warned the two victims before fleeing the scene, "You know what will happen if you go to the police, don't you?"
The woman covered her face and screamed in pain from the gash on her left cheek. The wounds of the 40-year-old taxi driver required 22 stitches to his neck and 18 stitches to his left hand.
No arrests have been made in the attack, but police suspect it was directly related to a sign placed on the entrance to the woman’s bar: No yakuza allowed.
Her bar, called Mikazuki, is located in Kita-Kyushu’s Kokura-Kita Ward, once a bustling entertainment area where revelers could drink and dine in relative peace and safety. The district, which spreads out in front of JR Kokura Station, is now filled with fear and violence.
Since August, when businesses in the area started putting up signs banning gangsters under a prefectural anti-yakuza ordinance, people who work and visit the district have been looking over their shoulders for signs of trouble.
Bar and restaurant workers cast wary eyes on unfamiliar people who open the door. A bar owner goes to work in sneakers instead of high heels so she can run away at any time. And another bar owner keeps golf clubs in the car trunk for protection.
A 21-year-old woman who has worked at a bar in the area for a year punches in "110" on her mobile phone, the emergency number to call police, after she finishes her shift.
"I keep the phone in that state until I have entered my home," she said. "If something happens, all I have to do is press the call button. Everyone is afraid here."
Incidents of violence in Kita-Kyushu increased after Fukuoka became the first prefecture two years ago to enforce an ordinance that carried possible fines or prison terms for companies that interact with or provide profits to mobsters.
The anti-yakuza signs on the bars were issued by the public safety commission, based on a revision of the ordinance.
Police have brought in reinforcements to keep the streets safe, but they have failed to stem the fears and violence in this city of about 970,000, the second largest in Fukuoka Prefecture.
After the signs went up banning yakuza, four slashings and three suspicious fires were reported in the area. Regular customers are now avoiding Kokura-Kita Ward.
Three days after the bar owner and taxi driver were slashed, the 90 or so establishments that had put up the signs all received phone calls with the same threatening message: "You are cooperating with the prefectural police. You will be next."
A 39-year-old owner of a bar said his phone display showed that the menacing call came from a pay phone. The owner got out a screwdriver and quickly removed the sign.
As for the cause of the crime wave, Fukuoka prefectural police point to a four-story building in a residential district of Kokura-Kita Ward surrounded by a 2-meter-high wall that blocks the view of passers-by.
Barbed wire and security cameras have been placed on top of the wall, and 20 men in black suits are often seen standing in two lines in front of the main entrance when visitors approach.
This is the headquarters of the Kudo-kai, one of the largest yakuza gangs in Kyushu.
One room of the headquarters is the size of 120 tatami mats and displays two sets of samurai armor.
"We are not involved in any way as an organization (in the recent incidents)," said Hiroshi Kimura, 59, a high-ranking official of the gang, which has about 600 members. "I have to question why the police and media are always pointing the finger at the Kudo-kai whenever anything happens."
Kimura held a file containing newspaper clippings related to the Kudo-kai, and showed a well-worn copy of a monthly publication for police officers.
He had nothing but contempt for the police.
"I believe there are problems in the manner in which the police are trying to force citizens to confront organized crime groups," he said. "Because we exist, undesirable foreign elements and groups of delinquents do not set up shop in the neighborhood."
The number of violent incidents has indeed increased in Kita-Kyushu this year. A former police officer who once handled Kudo-kai matters was shot and seriously injured, and a rocket launcher was found in a warehouse in a residential district.
Kimura denied the Kudo-kai’s involvement in any of those incidents.
A former Kudo-kai member said police and the prefectural government are to blame for the recent violence in the city because they decided to take on the gang.
“Kokura gangsters feel if someone doesn't listen, just kill them,” the former gangster said. “Nothing would happen if the police and local government just kept quiet. They should just let sleeping dogs lie."
That message has not been lost on some business owners in the city who say they have been forced to pay set amounts to the Kudo-kai.
Construction companies that win large contracts pay 3 percent of the contract to the gang, while bars provide between 10,000 yen and 100,000 yen ($125 and $1,250) a month, according to sources.
One bar owner who has made payoffs to the Kudo-kai said, "It all comes down to which is more important, money or my life."
Since April, the National Police Agency has gathered riot police from around Japan and sent them to patrol the streets of Kita-Kyushu. In about a five-month period, those police reinforcements have detained 290 people on suspicion of committing various crimes, such as robbery and weapons violations.
Masataka Yabu, 56, a high-ranking official of the Fukuoka prefectural police in the department dealing with organized crime, has called on citizens to do their part to eradicate yakuza activity.
"Crimes may temporarily stop if payoffs are made, but the demands will escalate. Should such arrangements be handed down to one's children?" he asked.
However, one Fukuoka prefectural police official said, "There are limits to protecting everyone in the neighborhood."
Kita-Kyushu was once a vibrant city known for its steel industry and trading business. But the city has faced tough economic times since the collapse of the asset-inflated economy in the 1990s. The recent yakuza incidents have made the situation worse.
A bar owner in his 40s was once asked by a part-time worker if he was planning to remove the sign banning yakuza. The bar owner said he thought something would likely happen because of the signs, but he didn’t expect things to go this far.
"I am so dejected because unless something is done, people will stop coming," the owner said. "We cannot retreat from the campaign to rid the area of organized crime."
While he continues to post the sign, he carefully looks around whenever he leaves his car at night.
There appears little that the police can do to reassure citizens that they are safe. And many of the crimes committed remain unsolved, including a suspected arson that melted the floor indicator panel in the elevator of a building in Kokura-Kita Ward.
The building also houses the Mikazuki bar owned by the woman who was later slashed on her way home.
The “no yakuza” sign has been removed from the entrance to her bar. In its place is a new sign that reads: "We have decided to close. The owner."
(This article was written by Koshin Shisui, Kei Fujiyama and Hiroshi Nakano.)
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