Robbery-for-Hire / Ringleaders Used Fear Tactics, Group Members Claim

Sho Komine / The Yomiuri Shimbun
An abandoned hotel in Manila that was used as a base by a Japanese fraud group in 2019 is seen on Feb. 4.

Four Japanese men suspected of being behind a recent string of violent robberies in Japan were extradited from the Philippines this week. This series of articles delves into the revelations uncovered so far about the robbery group.


The caller realized that the voice on the other end of the line was not the same as the one he had heard on other calls.

“Oh, your previous boss? He’s dead,” was the dismissive reply when the caller asked about the member of the robbery ring who had issued him orders in the past.

The man said the words sent shivers down his spine. “This organization is terrifying,” he said.

According to investigative sources, the man claims he applied for a “dark” part-time job via social media because he wanted money to repay debts and spend on entertainment. He was allegedly instructed to take a photo of his face together with his driver’s license, and to send the image to a “recruiter.” After doing so, he claims a person he assumed was an underling of the group’s boss, who used the alias Luffy, turned up at his home and asked for details about his family.

Luffy allegedly contacted the man from a phone number with the Philippine country code and other means. The man claims Luffy said, “If the police catch you, keep your mouth shut,” and Luffy’s associate Kim said, “It’s fine to kill someone when you’re committing a robbery.”

The man claims he does not know the true identities of Luffy and Kim.

He said he broke into a house in Inagi, Tokyo, in October 2022 with other members of the group as instructed, driven by fear.

About ¥35 million in cash and gold bullion was stolen. The Metropolitan Police Department arrested the man in January.

The sources said he has refused to provide investigators with precise details about the orders he was given.

He reportedly said, “Luffy will get rid of me if I say anything.”

Familiar tactics

The robbery ring’s alleged tactic of collecting personal information from recruits as a tool for intimidation overlaps with methods employed by a fraud group allegedly formed by Yuki Watanabe, who was arrested on Thursday.

From 2018, a group comprising dozens of men from Japan made fraudulent calls to Japanese targets from bases in Manila. Group members allegedly called elderly people in Japan and attempted to trick them into believing their bank accounts had been compromised.

Members in Japan would then visit victims’ homes and try to get them to hand over their bank cards, after which their bank accounts would be emptied by the fraudsters. The group is suspected of swindling victims across Japan out of about ¥6 billion.

Watanabe, 38, was allegedly the ringleader of the group, according to court testimony from one of the suspects.

Senior members of the group allegedly attacked subordinates who made mistakes with belts or broken beer bottles as a lesson to others.

In November 2019, authorities swooped on 36 members who were based at an abandoned hotel in Manila.

“I couldn’t stop doing the crimes because I was intimidated,” one of the suspects told The Yomiuri Shimbun in autumn 2020 in a phone interview from an immigration facility in the Philippines.

The man claims he responded to a post on Twitter offering “high-income” work and was interviewed in the Kanto region.

After handing over his driver’s license, the man said it became clear that the job involved scams targeting victims over the telephone. He claims he tried to pull out of the job but was threatened by someone who said, “We know your address,” after which he traveled to the Philippines as instructed.

The man used smartphones at the immigration facility, even though the possession of such devices is prohibited. Watanabe and other members of the group also had access to smartphones at the facility.

The man was eventually deported to Japan and sentenced over his involvement in the telephone scam.

Modus operandi switch

The reason behind the switch from phone scams to robberies is yet to be clarified.

“It might have been difficult to manage operations in the Philippines because some group members were being held at immigration facilities, and because of travel restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic,” an investigative source said.

It is thought that the phone operations required large numbers of people assembled at a base where they could be trained and receive instructions. The switch to robberies might have been prompted by difficulties operating a base for the phone scams.

Police authorities have not ruled out the possibility of involvement by organized crime groups or informal gangs called hangure because victims include people suspected of links to illegal activities.

“Based on information from underworld sources, it seems that in some cases, the victims were specifically targeted because they probably would not contact the police,” an investigative source said.

Some of the cases are being investigated by a police unit that specializes in organized crime.

In early February, The Yomiuri Shimbun interviewed a man in his 30s who claimed he had recruited members of the phone scam group.

“Low-ranking guys who weren’t satisfied with the money they get from the scams put their hands up to do robberies that offered big rewards quickly,” the man said. “The robberies won’t stop as long as these guys are around, even if Luffy gets arrested, because another leader will emerge.”

The Yomiuri Shimbun