You might assume that the only connection that Japanese gangsters have with video gaming is via Sega's popular Yakuza series, but a little digging reveals anecdotes about console shipment times being shifted to avoid criminal interference and even suggestions that Nintendo itself could have historic ties with the organisation.
While these disturbing reports trickle through from time to time, it is clear that western knowledge of other criminal activity in the Japanese games industry over the past few decades is almost non-existent, and even in Japan such events are hushed up to prevent any problems or embarrassment. However, we've come across a truly staggering story which involves one of Japan's most famous video game companies, an alleged kidnapping and a totally smashed-up arcade unit.
Before we fully recount this disturbing and almost unbelievable tale, it's worth pointing a few things out. The following interview is found in John Szczepaniak's book The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers Volume 2, and many of the names are redacted for legal reasons. Szczepaniak also interviewed the source under the agreement of complete anonymity.
The interviewee - speaking under the catch-all pseudonym Hideo Nanashi (the interview in question is in fact an amalgamation of several interviews with different people) - talks to Szczepaniak about cancelled titles and other topics before addressing what has to be one of the most explosive stories in the entire book - his sibling's abduction by gangsters at the behest of a leading Japanese game maker, which shall remain nameless:
My younger sister was kidnapped. [REDACTED] hired some gangsters to do it. They did it to make me stop cooperating with Nintendo.
While this all sounds stranger than fiction, a little context is called for. In Japan, the arcade industry had links to organised crime - namely the Yakuza. Nanashi explains:
In Japan, you have these evil companies that always crop up, and unlike the West, in Japan there's a perception that "play" is bad, the opposite of hard work. So amusement-oriented industries inevitably become infested with evil companies and ties to the underworld. Take arcades, for example. In legal terms, they're covered under laws regarding the entertainment and amusement trades. So they're managed under the same laws that regulate the adult, or "pink", industry. Because of that, the underworld gets involved. The only companies that have been able to do business while staying clean are probably Nintendo and Namco.
Nanashi then recounts the amazing kidnapping story in more detail, explaining that he hired a truck-mounted crane to drop an arcade machine in front of the company's offices to show he meant business:
It was one of their game machines. I dropped it in front of their offices, smashed it. And I told them that one of their employees would be next. To show them that I was serious. That way they would feel ashamed of their actions, you know? It was easy for me to get a [REDACTED] arcade cabinet cheaply, so I bought one from a distributor. I thought about robbing a [REDACTED] arcade, too, but that's much more difficult, and that would make me a criminal. With what I ended up doing, I could have been charged with something like unlawful dumping of garbage, but that's a minor offence. Whereas if I had robbed a [REDACTED] arcade, I would have been arrested. [REDACTED] was well-versed in using the underworld to get what they want, so if you're going up against them, you have to be smart. They're a big company, so if you try to fight them with ordinary methods, they'll work with the police and get the legal system to come after you. They might even pay off a politician, like a member of the National Diet. Who knows what they're capable of?
I just smashed it in front of their main office in the middle of the night. It was easy. The [REDACTED] headquarters are in [REDACTED] now, but back then they were near [REDACTED] Airport. Their office building was right in front of a major street, in a commercial district without any residential homes.
...I didn't dump it myself. I had someone else do it, because I don't have a driver's license. I had him just drop the machine and dump it, so I don't know how damaged it was, but I assume it smashed apart. And then I sent [REDACTED] a letter.
Apparently, this isn't the first time that the company in question has come under fire in Japan for its shady working practices, and Nanashi touches upon another controversy from a while back:
I don't know how much you know about [REDACTED], but are you aware of the "quarantine room" [隔離部屋, literal translation: "Isolation room"] problem from around the year 2000? They would put employees alone in a room and give them absolutely nothing to do, in order to make them resign. [REDACTED] did that, and former [REDACTED] employees sued them and won. That's the kind of thing [REDACTED] did back then. They didn't just put people behind a partition or something, they sent them away to a completely different floor of the building. [REDACTED] didn't just lose a lawsuit over this, they completely tarnished their image. Nobody wanted to buy games from a company like that. It became a major social issue. Like this article, about [REDACTED] being sued for the quarantine room and issuing a public apology.
We've done our own research to verify such claims and are aware of the identity of the company in question and the person being interviewed, but like Szczepaniak we are withholding names as not doing so could trigger legal action. In addition, for those of you that dig and uncover the name of the company, this report should not be considered to be reflective of the company as it stands today. Even so, it nevertheless stands as a terrifying example of just how deeply organised crime managed to penetrate the Japanese video game industry 20 years ago.
Szczepaniak's book is utterly essential reading, and is available now.