Japan Yakuza
A Yakuza leader has been arrested in Japan for stealing Pokemon collectible cards. Twitter / QuickUpdate @quickuupdate

Japan's once-mighty Yakuza, notorious figures in organised crime, has seemingly fallen on hard times. Tokyo police recently arrested a high-ranking member of the Takinogawa gang, part of the country's second-largest yakuza syndicate, the Sumiyoshi-kai. His crime? Stealing Pokémon cards.

Yakuza, the Japanese equivalent of gangsters or mafiosos, was once a powerful force in organized crime. Their membership peaked in the 1960s at over 180,000. In 2013, US regulators assisted Japan in cracking down on the Yakuza by targeting their finances.

The recent arrest shatters the media stereotype of the Yakuza as terrifying figures known for full-body tattoos and involvement in loansharking, extortion, and violence.

Yakuza Leader Nabbed for Stealing Pokemon Cards

SoraNews24 reported that Keita Saito, a 39-year-old yakuza leader (or kanbu), was apprehended in late April for his involvement in a December 2022 petty theft involving stolen items worth 252,000 yen (£1297.40), including 25 Pokémon trading cards.

The outlet attributed the rise in trading card thefts in Japan to several factors, including portability, ease of resale for cash, and difficulty tracking stolen cards.

Police also apprehended 56-year-old Hidefumi Kuboshita, unemployed and with no known yakuza ties, for allegedly playing a planning or leadership role in the heist.

Kuboshita denies the charges, while Saito confesses to burglary and theft. Authorities are searching for two additional accomplices recruited online for the crime. Kuboshita can be seen in his mugshot, while Saito, with his unassuming demeanour, looks like someone you might expect to see entering a Pokemon card game tournament.

French newspaper Le Monde highlights the unusual nature of a yakuza leader's arrest for petty theft in Japan. This is a stark contrast to their well-known involvement in far more serious criminal activities, as evidenced by the 2015 gang split that forced a Yakuza syndicate to cancel its annual Halloween trick-or-treat event for children.

Easy Cash? Why Trading Cards Are a Target for Thieves

In recent years, gangs have undergone a significant shift, moving away from violent crime and increasingly turning towards white-collar offences. This aligns with a decline in gang membership and overall brutality over the past few decades, as reported by DW.

DW reports that stringent anti-gang laws have crippled the financial viability of gangs. These laws target businesses that associate with gangs and restrict gang members' access to various financial services such as credit cards and pensions, making gang membership a less profitable endeavour.

Pokemon Cards
Pokemon trading card games are hugely popular worldwide, and especially so in Japan. These cards can be very valuable, especially rare ones. Twitter / FADA Pack Magic @FadaPackMagic

The COVID-19 pandemic further strained the Yakuza's finances, according to DW. Lockdowns and social distancing measures reduced demand for illegal activities like gambling, sex work, and drug trafficking, a key source of income for the criminal organisation.

Yakuza membership has lost its lustre for younger generations, according to Tomohiko Suzuki, a renowned Yakuza expert, in a 2020 interview with The Guardian. "They have to sacrifice a lot to lead the life of a gangster, but for increasingly diminishing returns," he told the newspaper.

The report painted a picture of an ageing Yakuza - with the average member exceeding 50 and a growing number pushing into their 70s. The Yakuza is known for its well-documented history of unorthodox revenue generation, from adult entertainment to harvesting sea cucumbers. Stealing Pokemon cards likely doesn't fall in their definition of acceptable business ventures.