Tokyo — When three men armed with crowbars ransacked a luxury watch store in broad daylight in Tokyo’s chic Ginza shopping district this week, onlookers stood by and watched the heist in bewildered amazement.
Dressed in black outfits and white costume masks, the thieves smashed the windows of the Quark watch store on a busy street, undeterred by blaring security alarms and jeering passers-by. Several witnesses recorded the entire heist on their phones, right down to the moment the thieves ran to their rented getaway van and then ran a red light with the door still open to escape.
Local networks reported that the hapless thieves, chased by at least four patrol cars, may have passed the imposing headquarters of the National Police Agency and the country’s parliament.
Trapped in a cul-de-sac less than two miles away, the suspects dispersed on foot – still being recorded on various smartphones of dumbfounded witnesses. One surrendered after literally being talked off the ledge. Another hysterically begs the police to stop hurting him while they calm him down. Less than an hour after the episode began, all four, including the getaway driver, were in custody.
Police have recovered about 70 of the nearly 100 stolen watches worth more than $700,000.
All the suspects are between the ages of 16 and 19.
“Yami-baito”: Exploitation for a crime
The young bandits told the police that they were strangers meeting for the first time at “work”. The highly brazen, oddly amateur heist bore all the hallmarks of yami-baito, or part-time black market work, an increasingly lucrative angle for criminal gangs, allowing them to outsource fraud and theft to the young, naive and financially desperate. With the use of yami-baito, it is possible for such gangs to commit the crime without serving time.
Yami-baito’s ads reel in pawns with promises like “Big Money!”, “Fast Money” and “Beginners Welcome”.
The Yomiuri newspaper, citing police statistics, noted about 50 yami-baito-related robberies and thefts starting in mid-2021. Many of those arrested were in their teens and twenties. Another group of youths who sparked a crime wave spanning six prefectures of Japan said they were recruited through Instagram.
Shizuoka University professor Hiroshi Tsutomi told the newspaper that the youths “obviously feared their driver more than the threat of arrest.” Rising poverty, combined with the ease of online recruitment, he said, makes young people easy targets to serve as “disposable” tools for sophisticated organized crime groups.
The watch shop robbery was the fifth such brazen robbery by amateurs targeting precious metals dealers or jewelers in Tokyo since March. A stunned investigator told the Tokyo Shimbun newspaper that “young people don’t seem to understand that this crime will definitely get them arrested.”
A fast growing trend
The Tokyo Metropolitan Police said they found nearly 3,500 yami-baito ads on Twitter last year, reflecting an annual increase of more than 50 percent despite efforts to remove the ads. Yami-baito criminal gangs have been known to advertise even on legitimate job posting websites.
When reporters from the Mainichi newspaper applied for yami-baito jobs, they were immediately directed to communicate through the encrypted Telegram app and offered jobs as phone scammers, earning over $20,000 a month.
Lured and blackmailed
Police say that once someone is drawn into such work, threats, even subtle ones, are used against their family to keep them under the thumb of organized crime groups.
In one typical case, police arrested 20-year-old Yuna Hatakenaka in late April. She told police she “realised it was a hoax but I had already given (the gang) my photo ID and video from my parents’ home so I felt I had no choice but to commit the crime “.
She and accomplices, posing as police officers, tricked an elderly woman into handing over her bank cards from an ATM.
Former prosecutor Mikio Uehara said that criminal gangs exert “mind control that makes it so that people who are caught up in them cannot even think of saying that they will leave”.