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Amateur Tokyo highlights the robbery trend as crime gangs exploit the youth

TOKYO — When three crowbar-wielding men ransacked a luxury watch store in broad daylight in Tokyo’s posh Ginza shopping district this week, onlookers stood by and watched the heist unfold in stunned amazement.

Dressed in black clothing and masked in white, the thieves smashed the Quark watch store’s showcase on a heavily traveled street, setting off security alarms and rubbernecking passers-by. Several witnesses recorded the entire theft on their phones, until the thieves ran into their rented getaway van and then sped through a red light, doors still open, to get away.


Police officers investigate a crime scene after a robbery at a luxury watch store in Tokyo’s Ginza shopping district on May 8, 2023.

Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty

Local networks said the hapless thief, chased by at least four patrol cars, may have driven past the National Police Agency headquarters and the country’s parliament.

Even trapped in a dead-end alley two miles away, the suspects dispersed on foot – still being recorded on the smartphones of various mute witnesses. One surrenders after literally talking off an edge. Another hysterically begged the police to stop hitting him while subduing him. Less than an hour after the episode began, all four, including the getaway driver, were in custody.

Police recovered about 70 of the nearly 100 watches stolen, valued at more than $700,000.

All the suspects are between 16 and 19 years old.

“Yami-baito”: exploitation for crime

The young robbers told the police that they were strangers who had met for the first time on the “job”. Totally brazen, the oddly amateurish robbery bears all the hallmarks of a yami-baito, or black market part-time job, an increasingly lucrative angle for criminal groups that allow them to outsource scams and theft to the young, naive and financially desperate. By using Yami-baito, it is possible for such gangs to commit crimes in no time.

Yami-baito ads reel in pans with promises like “Big Money!”, “Fast Cash” and “Newcomers Welcome.”

Juveniles rob Rolex store in Tokyo

A view of the interior of a luxury store robbed by minors the day before, in the Ginza shopping district of Tokyo, Japan, May 9, 2023.

David Murray/Anadolu Agency/Getty

The Yomiuri newspaper, citing police statistics, cited about 50 yami-baito-related robberies and thefts since mid-2021. Many of those arrested are in their teens and twenties. Another group of youths, who instigated a crime wave that spread across Japan’s six prefectures, said they were recruited through Instagram.

Shizuoka University professor Hiroshi Tsutomi told the newspaper that the youths “seemed to be more afraid of their main leader than the threat of arrest.” Growing poverty coupled with the ease of online recruitment, he said, is making young people easy targets to serve as “disposable” tools for experienced organized crime groups.

The watch shop robbery was the fifth similarly brazen robbery by amateurs to hit precious metals dealers or jewelers in Tokyo since March. A shocked investigator told the Tokyo Shimbun newspaper that “young people who don’t seem to understand this crime must be arrested.”

A fast growing trend

Tokyo’s Metropolitan Police said they found about 3,500 yami-baito listings on Twitter last year, reflecting a more than 50% year-on-year increase despite efforts to stamp out ads. Yami-baito crime rings have even been known to advertise on legitimate job-listing websites.


An image from the video shows four suspects using the van as a getaway vehicle in the brazen robbery of a luxury watch store in Tokyo’s Ginza shopping district on May 8, 2023.

TV Tokyo/Reuters

When journalists from the Mainichi newspaper applied for the Yami-Baito job, they were immediately instructed to communicate through the encrypted Telegram app and offered to work as phone scammers earning more than $20,000 a month.

Seduction and blackmail

Police say that once someone is lured into such acts, threats against their families, even vulnerable individuals, are used to keep them under the thumb of the crime groups orchestrating them.

In a typical case, police arrested 20-year-old Yuna Hatkenaka in late April. He told police he “understood it was a scam, but I had already given (the crime group) my photo ID and a video of my parents’ house, so I felt I had no choice but to commit the crime.”

He and accomplices, impersonating police officers, persuaded an elderly woman to hand over her bank ATM card.

Former prosecutor Mikio Uehara said that crime groups “exercise psychological control that makes it so that those trapped within them cannot even think of leaving.”

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