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Snakeheads in the Garden of Eden: Immigrants, Smuggling, and Threats to Social Order in Japan -- Rich Friman

Draft: Please do not cite without permission of author

Snakeheads in the Garden of Eden:

Immigrants, Smuggling, and Threats to Social Order in Japan

H. Richard Friman, Ph.D

Associate Professor

Department of Political Science

Marquette University

Milwaukee, WI 53201-1881


Current address (September 10 - December 28, 1998):

Max-Planck-Institute for Foreign and International Criminal Law

Guenterstalstrase 73, D-79100 Freiburg, Germany

Paper prepared for the University of California Comparative Immigration and Integration Project: Managing Migration in the 21st Century, Fall Workshop October 9-10, 1998, University of California, Davis

Snakeheads in the Garden of Eden: Immigrants, Smuggling, and Threats to Social Order in Japan

H. Richard Friman


During the mid-1990s, Japanese debates over immigration turned to the threat posed by illegal Chinese migrants--primarily male, unskilled, workers--and the smuggling networks facilitating their entry. Government and media reports attributed the rise in migrant smuggling to the shifting interests of foreign organized crime groups, especially the "Snakehead" (jatoh) syndicate rumored to be directed by Hong Kong's 14K triad. Police and immigration officials argued that Snakehead's targeting of Japan reflected two displacement effects, the first stemming from the United States crackdown on illegal Chinese immigration in the aftermath of the Golden Venture incident and the second from the pending reversion of Hong Kong to the People's Republic of China. As smuggling incidents surged in early 1997, the Maritime Safety Agency (MSA) noted further that the diversion of its resources to deal with a major oil spill had opened a unique window of opportunity for smugglers to expand their operations into Japan.

Reports of the snakehead threat, however, were not limited to migrant smuggling. Police officials noted that the new wave of immigration was responsible for a crime spree threatening public safety and social order. Annual White Papers on Police illustrated the Chinese propensity towards criminal behavior with statistics and graphical presentations positing that Chinese in Japan were responsible for over 40 percent of crime by foreigners but comprised less than 13-16 percent of the foreign visitor (rainichi gaikokujin) population. To explain this behavior, police officials stressed the expansion of the membership of 14K affiliates in Japan but stopped short of arguing that this criminal propensity of the new illegals was necessarily inherent to all Chinese. A more common claim was that the combination of Japan's slowing economy and especially the debt burdens incurred by the new immigrants had forced many into a life of crime. Japanese officials argued that to prevent a disruption to migrant trafficking operations, the Snakehead syndicate had facilitated the trafficking shift to Japan by offering its services at a discount. The migrant would rely on borrowed funds and/or pay a partial fee with the balance to be paid by relatives in China or by the migrant after securing employment in Japan. The funds in the case of the latter mode of repayment would be routed back to China through what police identified as an extensive underground money laundering network.

The Japanese concerns over migrant smuggling do reflect a kernel of truth. Smuggling incidents have increased since the late 1980s as have criminal offenses by Chinese immigrants. However, several pieces are missing from the prominent explanations of the extent and nature of the problem. One set of missing pieces lies in the inconsistent, official conceptualization of snakehead networks and the misleading public presentation of criminal statistics. The second set of pieces missing from the prominent explanations includes a discussion of Japan's history of labor brokering with China and the ramifications of the ongoing transition taking place in Japanese organized crime.

To explain why these pieces are missing, this paper argues that discussions of the "snakehead threat" to Japan partially reflect a broader pattern of state agents constructing foreigners as threats to social order. Though often referred to as a newcomer to immigration, Japan has a long history of arguments linking immigrants and crime. In the past, these arguments surfaced during periods of severe dislocation such as the anti-Korean riots in the aftermath of the 1923 Tokyo earthquake and the incidents of Japanese-Sankokujin (Korean, Taiwanese, Chinese) gang warfare over black markets during the early years of the American occupation. Crime by foreigner arguments have resurfaced in Japan since the late-1980s in the context of increased immigration and especially with the collapse of the bubble economy.

This paper offers a preliminary exploration of crime by foreigner arguments in Japan in the context of concerns over the snakehead threat of the mid-1990s. To do so, the paper's first section addresses the question of the extent of snakehead smuggling and the crimes committed by illegal Chinese migrants. The paper's second section turns to the issues of labor demand and organized crime missing from the prominent discussions of migrant smuggling. The paper's third section explores the construction of the "Snakehead" as a threat to social order in Japan.

I. Snakehead(s) and Chinese Crime

Even a brief overview of agency reports, official statements, and media analyses of the snakehead threat reveals inconsistencies in the conceptualization of the smuggling networks linking China and Japan. For example, the networks are often discussed as being either directed by a single organization or multiple organizations, while Japanese are either members, allies, or victims of snakehead operations. In contrast, the most prominent statistics on the criminal propensity of illegal Chinese migrants suffer from the selective presentation of Japanese crime data.

Snakehead(s): According to the International Organization for Migration, human smuggling occurs when "money (or some other form of payment) exchanges hands; and a facilitator (or 'trafficker') arranges passage across an international border; and such passage is illegal; and the movement is voluntary." During the 1990s, and in the aftermath of high profile incidents as the Golden Venture, Chinese traffickers began to attract extensive international attention. Taiwanese snakeheads (shetou) or "alien smugglers" played an integral role in facilitating the movement of migrants from China's Fujian province abroad. The term snakehead stems from the "image of slithering from point to point along clandestine routes." The expansion of the Taiwanese smuggling industry of the 1990s drew upon established drug transit routes and existing migrant smuggling networks that had facilitated the earlier, smaller scale movement of Fujian Chinese to the United Sates and elsewhere. Rather than a single smuggling network, snakehead groups exist at multiple levels of the illegal migration process--local, national, international, and host country. Moreover, snakehead groups vary extensively in size and formal organizational structure.

In contrast, the Japanese discussion of the snakehead threat lacks this sense of nuanced complexity. All too often, migrant smugglers are referred to by enforcement agencies and, in turn the media, as members of a single, foreign organization. For example, according to Shirakawa Katsuhiko, the chairman of the National Public Safety Commission, Snakehead is "a Hong Kong based criminal syndicate which deals in illegal immigrants." Similarly, National Police Agency (NPA) officials in reports and testimony before the Diet tend to refer to the "Hong Kong criminal syndicate Snakehead" in the singular, though occasionally acknowledging that the term refers more broadly to Chinese brokers that facilitate the smuggling process. Immigration officials, operating under the Ministry of Justice, and MSA officials reveal a similar pattern.

References to the participation of Japanese in snakehead operations also have been inconsistent. As discussed below, by the mid-1990s, enforcement authorities began to acknowledge the role of the Japanese organized crime (the yakuza) in migrant smuggling cases. But, authorities continued to posit that the guiding force in such operations remained Chinese. Perhaps the best example of this pattern was the August 1997 revelation of an international smuggling network linking China, Hong Kong, Cambodia, Europe (France, Italy), the United States and Japan. As the number of Japanese arrested overseas in the case increased, a story emerged of a Cambodian-based operation of the "Snakehead crime group, which is predominantly Chinese," and "directed by a chinese leader" where Japanese nationals were used to smuggle Chinese into the United States and Europe by passing them off as relatives. The following month, the police turned to investigating the syndicate for its role in the rash of illegal entries of Chinese into Japan.

Table 1: Incidents of Illegal Entry by Groups (shûdan mikko), 1990 through June 1998

Total Total Chinese

Incidents Apprehended Apprehended


1990 1 18 18

1991 4 89 89

1992 14 396 383

1993 7 335 329

1994 13 467 360

1995 13 324 151

1996 29 679 542

1997 73 1,360 1,209

1998 na 603 428


Source: Personal correspondence from NPA, September 1998; "Smugglers Flood Japan with Illegal Boat People," Daily Yomiuri 24 March 1997; and Keisatsu hakusho 1997 [White Paper on Police] (Tokyo: Keisatsuchôhen, 1997), p. 229.

As seen in Table 1, official figures on the number of incidents of group smuggling into Japan increased in 1993 and remained relatively stable until a surge in 1997. As is the case for drug trafficking and money laundering, interdiction rates in the illicit global economy offer only a limited sense of the extent of actual movements of people. Moreover, as an illicit stream becomes prioritized the resources devoted (or redirected) towards interdicting it often increase, leading to a subsequent jump in official statistics concerning the trade. Implicitly drawing from the practice of drug enforcement agencies, immigration officials and scholars have also posited that Japan is only interdicting roughly ten percent of the illegal migrant traffic into the country. References to this calculation became a recurrent theme during discussions over further immigration controls in the Spring of 1997.

In March, enforcement agencies and the press revealed data noting the surge in group smuggling incidents and apprehensions of illegals. The figures emphasized that 28 incidents had taken place by the end of February alone involving 692 illegals, more than the entire previous year. These figures and the Japanese concerns were picked up by the U.S. press and, in turn, the U.S. press reports were reprinted verbatim in the Japanese press as proof of international recognition of the magnitude of the snakehead problem. Though incidents and apprehensions increased during the remainder of the year, the 10 percent claim of interdictions remains suspect. Given the array of phone calls to police by concerned Japanese citizens that have taken place when small groups of Chinese were found wandering lost in the countryside and train stations, the likelihood that almost 7,000 Chinese could be offloaded by boat illegally into Japan during the first two months of 1997, or roughly 12,000 Chinese during the course of the year, without detection is an overstatement at best. Preliminary figures for the first six months of 1998 also suggest that, in the aftermath and relative smoothness of the Hong Kong reversion, the pace of Chinese migrant smuggling may be slowing.

Crime by Chinese: During early 1997 in the midst of the surge in migrant smuggling incidents of Chinese and fears of a Chinese crime wave, the Chief of the Investigation Bureau of the NPA, Higuchi Tateshi, observed that "Japanese society is completely unprepared these people." However, part of the difficulty in preparation lies in the tendency of enforcement agencies and, in turn, the Japanese media to overstate the criminal propensity of foreigners. In the mid-1990s, reports of crime by Chinese began to replace the high-profile stories of unemployed Iranians waylaying young, diet-obsessed Japanese school girls to sell them methamphetamine. As Sugita Kazuhiro, head of the NPA's Security Bureau, noted in early 1997, "crimes by Chinese syndicates have had a serious impact on Japan's security. It is imperative to arrest would-be illegal immigrants." The director general of the MSA, Muto Kabun, argued further that "it is true that (illegal Chinese immigrants) have brought narcotics into the nation or forged pachinko pre-paid cards, jeopardizing peace and order in Japan."

Table 2: Penal code violations by Rainichi Gaikokujin, Total and by Top Three Countries of Origin, 1987-1996

Year Total First (F/T) Second Third


1987 1,871 778c (42%) 312k 169p

1988 3,020 1,643c (54 ) 398k 148p

1989 2,989 1,709c (57 ) 392k 112u

1990 2,978 1,288c (43 ) 517k 151p

1991 4,813 1,732c (36 ) 728k 561i

1992 5,961 1,933c (32 ) 876k 771i

1993 7,276 2,668c (37 ) 987k 544i

1994 6,989 2,942c (42 ) 775k 396p

1995 6,527 2,919c (45 ) 752k 318b

1996 6,026 2,661c (44 ) 732k 326p


Note: (c) refers to Chinese; (k) to North and South Korean; (p) to Filipino; (u) to United States; (i) to Iran; and (b) to Brazil.

Source: Keisatsuchô Hanzai tokei beran (or biran?) Heisei 9 [Criminal Statistics Handbook 1997] (Tokyo: Keisatsuchô, 1998), pp. 128-29; and Keisatsuchô, Hanzai tokeisho, Heisei 8nen no Hanzai [Criminal Statistics in 1996], (Tokyo: Keisatsuchô, 1997), pp. 400-401.

The most common statement by government officials, pundits, and the media was that Chinese committed over 40 percent of crimes by foreigners but comprised only 16 percent of foreigners in Japan. The statement often glossed over the distinction between legal foreign visitors, illegal foreign visitors, and total numbers of foreigners (including permanent foreign residents-zainichi gaikokujin--such as the roughly 700,000 Koreans and 150,000 Chinese). The still rarer observation was to place these figures in the broader context of total crime statistics where "only about one percent of all crimes in Japan are committed by nonJapanese."

Statistics on crime by foreigners can be shaped by a number of factors beyond the scope of this paper, including potential bias in enforcement patterns, the nature of crime reporting by victims, and discretionary steps by street-level enforcement agents. These caveats aside, the presentation of criminal statistics plays an essential role in shaping public and governmental concerns over migrant smuggling. More important, this presentation has overstated the snakehead threat.

Japanese criminal statistics are divided into two broad categories: penal code violations and special law violations. Penal code offenses include felonies, violent offenses, and larceny, while special law offenses include issues such as drug crimes and immigration regulations. Penal law data has played the central role in the debate over crime by foreigners though references to specific categories of special law violations such as drug crimes also garner attention. The 40 percent figure of crimes by Chinese reflects penal code violations, though a number of media reports have glossed over this distinction.

The NPA publishes statistics--both those for public consumption and for use by in-house researchers--in a compartmentalized manner. Separate sections on foreigners do not compare foreign offenses to total offenses for either category of violations. More important, the statistics on specific types of penal or special law offenses make no distinction between legal visiting foreigners, illegal migrants, illegal overstayers, or permanent foreign residents.

The statistics presented in Table 2 illustrate total arrests for penal code violations by visiting foreigners and a breakdown by the top three countries of origin. From 1987 through 1996, these statistics suggest that Chinese have been the leading foreign violators of Japan's penal code followed by Koreans (North and South), and a shifting mix of Iranians, Filipino, Americans, and Brazilians. For Japanese enforcement officials, the upturn in the raw numbers and percentage of Chinese violations beginning in 1993 (Table 2) and the increase in snakehead incidents revealed in Table 1 supports the linkage between illegal migrants and crime. However, Table 2 reveals nothing as to whether these Chinese violators were legal foreign visitors, visa overstayers, or illegals smuggled in groups into Japan through snakehead networks. In effect, all Chinese crime has become snakehead-related.

Table 3: Penal Code Violations in 1996, by total arrests (Japanese and non-Japanese), arrests of foreigners (visiting and permanent), and arrests of Chinese (visiting and permanent).

Total Foreigner Chinese (C/T) (C/F)


Penal code 295,584 10,741 3,140 1% 29%

-felony 5,459 329 72 1 22

-violent 37,110 1,225 114 .3 9

-larceny 162,675 5,486 1,869 1 34


Note: Additional penal code offenses include intellectual crimes (e.g., counterfeiting), moral (e.g., gambling), and a broad category of other.

Source: Keisatsuchô, Hanzai tokeisho [1996], pp. 1, 389.

Table 2 also reveals nothing as to the types of penal code violations committed by the visiting Chinese. To make more specific claims, enforcement agencies and the media have selectively turned to data such as that presented in Table 3. The table reveals penal code violations for all foreigners (visiting and permanent) in 1996, broken down by specific categories of penal code violations. Enforcement officials have turned to the finding that the primary crimes committed by Chinese were larceny offenses to support the view that illegal Chinese migrants have turned to crime to meet financial obligations to their snakehead smugglers. However, the figures are not disaggregated enough by immigration status to fully support such arguments. Moreover, the table reveals other patterns that suggest a less threatening picture of crime by Chinese in Japan. For example, Chinese accounted for roughly one percent of total penal code violations and less than one-half a percent of violent crimes (assaults, battery, and the like). Relative to other foreigners, Chinese also fall well short of the 40 percent figure for penal code violations.

The second piece of the argument on the criminal propensity of Chinese--pointing to criminal offenses relative to Chinese as 16 percent of the foreigner visitor population--is also suspect. For example, estimates of the rainichi gaikokujin population tend to be calculated from official figures on legal entries into Japan. These figures would not include illegal entrants such as those Chinese brought in by boat through snakehead operations. As a result, the foreign visitor population and the Chinese percentage of this population would be understated in official figures. In contrast, relative Chinese criminality would be overstated by including those illegals not captured in official immigration statistics but arrested for penal code violations. In effect, enforcement authorities by positing a massive surge in illegal immigration face contradictions in their own arguments on the subsequent criminal threat. In the absence of more accurate statistics than those currently in use in discussions of the snakehead issue, the more extensive the snakehead smuggling, the greater the potential flaw in the argument that Chinese are disproportionally prone to crime.

Sources of the Snakehead Threat

Efforts to explain migration dynamics commonly explore an array of possible push and pull effects. The discussion of migrant smuggling in Japan has emphasized the push effects of economic and political uncertainty in China and the presence of organized smuggling networks controlled by Chinese organized crime. To a lesser extent these discussions also have addressed the pull effects of relative Japanese economic prosperity, lax security, and domestic Chinese affiliates of the snakehead network. However, other pull effects such as Japan's demand for low-skilled labor and the growing interest of Japanese organized crime in the financial gains from migrant smuggling have attracted still less attention.

Labor Demand and Paths of Access: Though Japan's demand for unskilled labor has been a major theme in the broader discussions of immigration, the ramifications of this demand for the rise of snakehead smuggling remain underexplored. Scholarship on Japanese demand patterns commonly points to needs generated by the construction, manufacturing, and service booms of the 1980s bubble economy. These dynamics combined with declining Japanese birth rates, a limiting socioeconomic structure regarding women and elderly in the work place, labor market inefficiencies shaping employment practices in the service sector, and a general aversion of younger Japanese to unskilled, labor-intensive jobs. Though faced with rising demand, employers lacked the legal framework for recruiting unskilled labor through the front door of Japanese immigration regulations. In brief, the import of unskilled workers was prohibited. As a result, employers turned to a number of side and back doors or indirectly explored these options by working through layers of subcontractor cutouts.

Access patterns for unskilled foreign workers (gaikokujin rôdôsha) into Japan have varied by country of origin. Through the early 1990s, migrants from countries such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Iran could draw on labor brokers at home and in Japan to take advantage of visa-exemption accords negotiated during the 1970s. These migrants would gain access into Japan as "tourists," but would engage in illegal work and overstay their visas. Lacking the option of exploiting similar visa exemption accords, Chinese migrants sought access to Japan through paths such as admission to Japanese language and vocational schools (on a shûgakusei visa). Japanese regulations on such schools--and the outside work prohibitions on students attending them--had eased during the mid-1980s as part of the Nakasone administration's pledge to educate 100,000 students by the year 2000. New mainland Chinese entrants surged through this side-door into the Japanese labor market. The mainland students were typically from Fujian province, mid-to-late 20s in age, and 50-60 percent male. Their numbers increased from 113 new Chinese students in 1982 to 7,178 in 1987, and 28,256 by 1988, the latter figure comprising roughly 74 percent of all entrants through this category into Japan.

In response to growing evidence of language schools serving primarily as side doors into the unskilled labor market, however, Japanese authorities slowly began to impose new regulations. These steps included new visa provisions in 1989 requiring proof of a financial guarantor, and new restrictions in 1990 reducing the maximum allowable outside work by students to 20 hours per week. Seeking to offset these changes, brokerage agencies emerged in China and Japan offering potential students "forged fictitious documents" of financial support and proof of acceptance from a Japanese language school. However, even tighter regulations through the mid-1990s and the ebb and flow of post-Tiananmen emigration provisions decreased the accessibility of the student path into Japan. By 1989, new Chinese students entering Japan had dropped to 9,142, roughly half of the total number of entrants. In 1992, new Chinese students increased to 16,265 out of a total of 27,000 students. By 1996, however, these numbers had fallen dramatically as only 2,567 new Chinese students, roughly 30 percent of the total foreign students, entered Japan on the shûgakusei visa.

The concurrent decline in student visa access by Chinese into Japan and the rise of migration through snakehead smuggling incidents suggests that the latter emerged, in part, as a replacement path into the Japanese labor market. Given economic conditions in Japan, this argument of a pull effect initially appears unconvincing. The collapse of the bubble economy and Japan's economic recession of the mid-1990s adversely affected employment opportunities, especially for illegal labor. In addition, illegal workers were displaced by the 1990 Immigration Act's provisions for side-door access of unskilled, primarily Latin American labor of Japanese descent (nikkeijin). However, though well short of full employment conditions, demand for unskilled Chinese workers still exists in Japan.

As larger firms turned to meeting labor needs through the nikkeijin, medium and especially smaller firms essentially were priced out the legal unskilled labor market. Illegal migrants from Asia offered such firms both a cheaper alternative to the nikkeijin and a labor force better able--than Iranians, for example--to pass cursory inspections by immigration authorities. Opportunities for Chinese workers also arose in the context of the post-Kobe earthquake reconstruction projects and the extensive work required for the Nagano Winter Olympics. Contractors interviewed in Nagano in early 1998, for example, noted that they didn't want to use (Chinese) illegals but had "no choice" given the labor needs. The source of the Chinese illegals, media reports argued further, appeared to be linked with snakehead smuggling networks. The Nagano incident also revealed, however, that while opportunities for Chinese illegals exist in Japan they can be fleeting. Following the completion of the Olympic construction projects in 1997 and through 1998, police and immigration officials waged a large-scale crackdown on illegals in the Nagano area (designated "Operation White Snow").

The Yakuza and Migrant Smuggling: Japanese authorities increasingly have acknowledged the growing role of the yakuza in alien smuggling as part of a larger trend towards linkages between foreign and domestic organized crime groups. Police arrest reports and subsequent media stories have noted instances of the yakuza affiliation of Japanese arrested in conjunction with snakehead smuggling incidents. These reports reveal the participation of members of minor organized crime groups as well as affiliates of the major syndicates such as the Yamaguchi-gumi. The most common explanation for why the yakuza might be participating in the migrant trade has been economic: the collapse of the bubble has adversely affected the yakuza's illicit operations as well as organized crime's incursion into the stock market and real estate markets during the boom of the 1980s (often termed the expansion of the economic yakuza or keizai yakuza). Less attention in the public debate has been focused on the longer history of organized crime's participation in labor brokering and their increased reliance on brokering of illegals as an unintended impact of anti-organized crime legislation.

For all the images of corporate networks, intensive education, and lifetime employment that dominate the public image of Japan, unskilled labor has remained an essential part of the Japanese economy. Major Japanese cities all contain day laborer settlements (yoseba) with long histories, such as Kotobuki in Yokohama, Kamagasaki in Osaka, and San'ya in Tokyo. Labor brokers, tied into state agencies (e.g. employment offices through the Ministry of Labor) or illegal, private networks, link unskilled day laborers with construction and other jobs. The yakuza have played an integral role in the construction industry as well as the yoseba areas, brokering labor supplies, running protection, drug, and gambling operations, and serving as a check on freelance crime. In some areas, the yakuza also have served as a check, implicitly state-supported, on union organizing among day labors. In others, the yakuza have been less successful, with yakuza-union conflicts erupting into full-scale violence.

By the mid-1980s, yakuza brokering of labor was still focused primarily on Japanese workers. Even as illegal foreign workers began to settle in and around the yoseba areas, Ministry of Justice figures estimated that only 14 percent of foreigners were being brokered by the yakuza. The reason for the limited involvement was primarily based on cost considerations relative to other sources of income. For example, Wolfgang Herbert notes a 1989 interview with a Yamaguchi-gumi lawyer who observed that "recruiting male migrant workers and acting as agent for them is not seen as being lucrative enough to warrant large-scale yakuza involvement." The one exception to this pattern of involvement with foreigners was with female migrants and a shift earlier in the decade in the entertainment/sex industry. During the 1970s, the yakuza played an integral role in facilitating the sex tourism business from Japan into East and Southeast Asia. By the early 1980s, faced with growing protest in the host countries, the yakuza shifted focus towards recruiting, smuggling, and job placement for women from the Philippines, Thailand and other countries into the lucrative Japanese sex industry.

By the mid-1990s, however, the yakuza interest in male, migrant labor had changed. According to Raisuke Miyawaki, a former NPA official in charge of organized crime operations, the yakuza began to shift activities into a number of new areas with the collapse of the bubble economy including "smuggling illegal aliens into the country." One sign of the competitive shift into migrant smuggling, according to police analysts, was that contending yakuza groups were even accepting smaller profit percentages from their Chinese counterparts, settling for 20 percent rather than a 50 percent share that had distinguished earlier efforts at yakuza participation. Yet, the reasons for the shift were not solely tied to changing economic circumstances.

The Anti-Organized Crime Law of 1992 increased the means by which Japanese authorities were able to interfere in the activities of organized crime groups including protection rackets and gang-owned or operated establishments. Subject to increased monitoring and declining revenues, membership in the yakuza began to fall. Organized crime groups turned to consolidation efforts to stem their losses and violent conflicts erupted between and within syndicates over possible dissolution of affiliates, protecting established revenue sources, and capturing new areas of expansion.

By August 1997, these tensions had erupted into the gangland-style slaying of the number two official of the Yamaguchi-gumi (Masaru Takumi) in a Kobe hotel lobby and a subsequent onset of gang warfare in cities including Kobe, Osaka, and Tokyo. The wave of retaliatory shootings and firebombings prompted extensive police crackdowns and the accelerated introduction of new anti-gang legislation with measures to increase police powers under the Japanese criminal code, further adding to pressure on the yakuza. In this context, Japanese organized crime groups have gone further underground. Some groups have increased their willingness to subcontract higher profile operations--such as street-level drug trafficking--to foreigners. More important, syndicates and lower-level affiliates have turned their efforts to expanding less traditional sources of revenue, including migrant smuggling in cooperation with snakehead networks.

The Construction of the Snakehead Threat

The selective presentation of smuggling and crime data and the relative absence of discussions of the impact of Japanese labor demand and government anti-crime campaigns lead to the question of why these pieces have been missing from the discussion of the snakehead threat. The remainder of the paper turns to the enforcement agencies that have played a central role in defining this issue, offering the primary information as to the extent of migrant smuggling, its ramifications, and its sources. One possible explanation for the absence of a more nuanced exploration of migrant smuggling lies in the simple, narrow self-interest of state enforcement agencies in the post-bubble economy. A second, broader explanation lies in constructed norms concerning the sources of social order in Japan and the place of enforcement agencies in defending that order.

Self-Interest: As argued by Masao Miyamoto, conflict over scarce economic resources and influence is extensive between, and within the Japanese ministries. To obtain leverage, bureaucrats provide information to the media, knowing full well the media's reliance on the ministries for access to information and the media's tendency to oversell issues/threats (mondai or "problems") to the public to enhance readership. The information can be leaked, or provided through official reports written for public distribution. As the information from official sources generates "public concern" (demonstrated in the media headlines and reports and, subsequent public reaction) the ministry, bureau, or section can point to this concern as justification for greater financial and staff resources.

With the collapse of the bubble economy, Japanese ministries soon faced extensive economic pressures. In addition to falling revenue allocations from the Ministry of Finance, ministries faced external as well as internal demands for reorganization as a means to decrease financial and staff requirements. That Japanese enforcement agencies in this context turned to stressing the criminal threats posed by the late-1980s wave of immigration, has not gone unnoticed. Herbert argues that "for the agencies of control themselves and for the framers of criminal policy, the postulation of rising crime rates [by foreigners] serves to legitimize demands for more financial resources and staff in the sector 'internal security.'" Such arguments in the context of "public concern" with the threat of crime by foreigners (gaijinhanzai) have been successful in obtaining support from the Ministry of Finance for the expansion of the enforcement bureaucracy with staff allocations (immigration), new departments (the NPA), new task forces and crime fighting equipment and training (prefectural police agencies).

The narrow self-interest of enforcement agencies helps to explain the construction of the issue of migrant smuggling. The picture of a single snakehead organization, directed by Chinese affiliated with the infamous 14K crime group, smuggling crime-prone Chinese migrants into Japan is threatening. The picture is clearly more threatening than if enforcement agencies posed the existence of multiple smuggling networks, illegal migrants who are not prone to engage in additional criminal behavior, the culpability of Japanese employers, and the unintended results of anti-organized crime legislation on the yakuza. Moreover, the enforcement bureaucracy has benefitted from the snakehead threat. For example, the public image of the MSA as defender of Japan's coastal waters has improved since the early 1990s when the agency was consistently and publicly chastised by the police for failing to do its part in curtailing the illicit drug trade. MSA, immigration, and national and prefectural police officials also have obtained support for new task forces and operations to respond to the threat of alien smuggling and related crime.

Homogeneity Myths and Social Order: However, to attribute the absence of the more nuanced conceptualization of Chinese migrant smuggling and its sources to the narrow self-interest of enforcement agencies for increased resources would be misleading. Scholarship on Japan as well as interviews of national and prefectural level police officials over the past four years on questions of foreigners and crime suggest a more complex process at work. In his analysis of Japanese security issues, Peter Katzenstein argues for a focus on the "politically contested," constitutive norms that "express actor identities" and help to "define...and thus shape behavior." Perhaps the most pervasive constitutive norm in Japan is that of collective identity, conceptualized as Japan as a homogeneous country with the primary sources of its domestic, social order deriving from this homogeneity.

Clearly, though less diverse than other advanced industrial democracies, Japan is not homogeneous nor has it ever really been. The homogeneity myth, stridently promoted in the late-1800s and early 1900s, has recast, discounted, or simply ignored portions of Japan's history. These portions include the migrations that shaped country's origins, the forced migration of Koreans and Chinese earlier in the century and the postwar compromises that shaped the rise of a permanent foreign resident population, and the impact of the most recent waves of immigration of the 1980s and 1990s. However, despite growing local efforts at greater integration of immigrants into Japanese society, the constitutive norm of Japan as homogeneous country--and especially the belief that this collective identity facilitates social order--is institutionalized and still carries weight.

This is particularly the case within the more conservative state agencies that comprise Japan's enforcement bureaucracy. For enforcement officials, immigration, especially the uncontrolled nature of migrant smuggling, poses a threat to the country's homogeneity and, in turn, the heart of Japan's social order. As observed by one immigration official, illegal migrants "come to Japan through the black market, ignoring the system of immigration control, so this problem shakes the very foundation of the Japanese government." The Japanese police have always had difficulty in dealing with the country's minority populations. By the mid-1990s these difficulties had increased with new languages and the wider cultural diversity of the immigrant population. Where the police would often seek to hold immigration officials accountable for the access of illegal workers through violations of the country's visa system (e.g. overstayers), the rise in migrant smuggling incidents bypassed the immigration control process entirely and posed additional challenges and responsibilities for the police. The prominence in these incidents of mainland Chinese, who by 1993 were already a source of concern for the police and the yakuza alike in major cities such as Tokyo, added to the problem.

In short, operating under the linkage between homogeneity and social order, Japanese enforcement officials have perceived illegal Chinese migrants as disproportionate criminal threats and the very dynamic of migrant smuggling as driven more by external than internal dynamics, and more by organized Chinese gangs than by a varied array of smuggling networks. In addition, enforcement officials have used this interpretation to seek acknowledgement of the migrant smuggling threat from the broader public, and to obtain support for a more active response.


During the bubble economy of the 1980s, Japan implicitly tolerated and relied on illegal immigration by male, unskilled workers. Immigration reforms in 1990 reaffirmed the country's formal opposition to such immigration but introduced a series of partially-regulated side doors into the labor market that allowed access by unskilled workers. By the mid-1990s, however, migrant smuggling, especially from China, had added a new dynamic to the Japanese immigration debate. Japanese enforcement authorities posited the rise of the Snakehead threat, suggesting a single organization of smugglers directed by the 14K crime group. Moreover, the illegal migrants were responsible for a growing wave of crime by foreigners throughout Japan.

This paper has argued that though incidents of migrant smuggling have increased since the early 1990s, the snakehead threat has been oversold by Japanese enforcement authorities and, in turn, the media. Through the selective use of statistical data, authorities have overstated the extent and nature of migrant smuggling as well as the relative criminal propensity of Chinese immigrants. Authorities also have downplayed the pull effects of Japanese labor demand for illegal Chinese workers and the diversification of yakuza operations in the face of anti-gang legislation. Their reasons for doing so reflect a combination of narrow self-interest in the context of post-bubble economy pressures on the Japanese bureaucracy and the broader perception of illegal (Chinese) migrants as posing a threat to Japan's collective identity and the all important, and related, linkage between homogeneity and social order.