In a wealthy neighborhood in the hills above quake-battered Kobe, hundreds of well-dressed residents join a line that snakes around the block of a large walled compound. They leave loaded down with buckets of water, six-packs of toilet paper, bags of disposable diapers and packets of noodles, cake and powdered milk.
“Distribution point for baby goods,” says a sign on the wall.
Is this a government distribution point for the needy?
Hardly. It’s the fortress-home of a leading boss of the Taokagumi, a branch of Japan’s largest gang, the Yamaguchi Gumi.
The boss is part of a large group of gangsters and right-wing radicals who have moved quickly into a relief effort while the government has been slow to perform. Their action has underscored the problems of organizing disaster relief in a society of rigid bureaucracies and private relief groups that are typically small and understaffed.
“They (the gangs) are better organized,” said one young man in line Saturday, who like most others refused to give his name. “The government is too slow; you can’t depend on them.”
Seiji Kessha is one of seven rightwing organizations with an estimated 100 members involved in the relief effort. The groups are typically associated with patriotic, anti-foreign, pro-military views.
Outside the Taokagumi boss’s fortress, residents said the gangs’ efforts were particularly appreciated the day after the quake, when food and water were scarce. The gang headquarters contains a well that was not affected by the disaster.
Some locals are wary of the gangsters’ motives. The Taokagumi boss, for example, has a personal reason to win neighborhood approval. Just a block away from his house is a large sign that says: “Chase the gangsters out of Nadaku.” Locals say there have been several shooting incidents over the years, and the neighborhood has been trying to organize an effort to push the gangsters out of their wealthy neighborhood.
“It drops the value of your land,” a housewife said. But she isn’t shy about accepting the gifts. “This is food and water we need to live,” she said sheepishly.
A nationwide call for relief supplies has brought thousands of boxes piled high in Kobe city centers, but a lack of trucks has made distribution difficult. The Taokagumi didn’t have that problem. Saturday morning, five large trucks entered the gang’s compound with supplies.
Has the publicity helped the gangsters and right-wing groups? Some neighbors said it will be hard to organize against the gangs because of their charity. But others say their feelings won’t change.
“I’m thankful, but somebody else should be doing it,” said a young female college student, blaming the government for its ineffectiveness in providing relief.