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Gangster glam lures youngsters into life of crime

Japan is one of the safest and most law-abiding countries in the world. But, alongside the order, exists the biggest mafia in any developed nation - the Yakuza. With an estimated 80,000 members, they are a mighty force to combat.

In a bid to stem the highly successful recruitment of young people to the Yakuza, the country's police are now visiting schools. Law enforcers in Japan's southern island of Kyushu have decided they need to get to the country's disaffected young before the crime bosses do.

Usually drifting from the relatively innocuous antics of teenage Bosozoku motor cycle gangs - which terrorise residential areas by revving their bike engines in the dead of night - to apprenticeships with their older, tattooed minders, some youngsters find in the Yakuza the succour, respect and kudos that conventional Japan often denies them.

Police in Fukuoka, Kyushu's biggest city, are hoping to disabuse youngsters of the merits of a vocation in villainy with a series of organised crime education and awareness classes given at middle and high schools by their anti-Yakuza units.

According to a blog published by an expert on the Yakuza and author of the revelatory book Tokyo Vice, Jake Adelstein, police say widespread tolerance of the Yakuza often results in troubled youths looking up to gangsters.

While it is arguable just how far the Japanese tolerate their mafia - tattoos, for example, will get you thrown out of the baths - or are even aware of what they do, gangsters in Japan enjoy a patina of gutsy glam, and a decidedly attractive aura of power and wealth. Manga comics favoured by kids of all ages often feature the exploits of Yakuza bosses, many of whom liken themselves to modern-day Samurai.

But Fukuoka's police force is determined to drive home to young minds just how repugnant much of the Yakuza's work is - forced prostitution, eviction of the elderly from potential redevelopment sites, drug-pushing and so on.

Police also include practical advice for pupils on how to, for instance, turn down overtures from pushy gangsters (rather delicately, one imagines) and how to deal with anti-social forces shaking you down for your pocket money, bus fare or more.

To give an idea of the scale of the problem, the police have released details of a survey taken by 24,000 of the 69,000 pupils who have participated in the classes so far. Extraordinarily, 40 per cent said they had some "Yakuza presence in their lives", while 2 per cent reported that they were even invited to join the Yakuza, according to the Adelstein blog.

Whether the police can tackle its influence through the classroom, especially with the economy again in recession, remains to be seen.

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