In a Bind? There Is a Way Out

Times Staff Writer

Running away from your problems is hardly unusual. Paying a professional to handle the details arguably is.

In Japan, yonigeya, or "fly-by-night arrangers," help the desperate and besieged slide past loan sharks, elude stalkers and muscle past mobsters. These artists of escape -- part detective, part mover, part psychiatrist -- earn $2,000 to $20,000 per job depending on distance, risk and complexity.

The disappearing act generally starts with a phone call from the prospective client, during which case details and cost are discussed.

Next comes a face-to-face meeting, usually at the client's house, to check out the neighborhood, severity of the threat, house or apartment layout and how many possessions will need to disappear without a trace.

In extreme cases where clients are under 24-hour surveillance, yonigeya pose as window washers or tatami mat tradesmen so they can carry out their tasks without arousing suspicion.

This is also a time to size up the client. By definition, yonigeya customers are desperate -- "I may be dead tomorrow" and "You're my last hope" are frequently heard -- and many are adept at lying.

The main reasons Japanese disappear these days include suffocating debts, often to loan sharks linked to the boryokudan, Japanese mobsters who prey on the weak and desperate.

Others are fleeing different demons, including stalkers and abusive husbands.

Yonigeya check that the client's story hangs together, rejecting jobs that seem fishy. Some run background checks on clients, others rely on instinct. Most yonigeya avoid taking on felons, gamblers or boryokudan.

There are no statistics on the number of yonigeya operating in Japan, but estimates run to several dozen. The companies profess to operate within the law, but some of their activities fall into a gray area.

Because so many of their clients are drowning in debt, yonigeya want their money in advance. Some debtors borrow more to finance the escape.

Occasionally, yonigeya take cases on credit.

"Since I'm hiding them, I know where they live," says Yoshio Onodera, the regional director of one yonigeya firm, Secret Research. "They have to pay me back."

Planning an operation generally takes a week to 10 days. Clients are told to avoid giving anything away.

"Really hard-up people keep their mouths shut," says Show Hatori, experienced yonigeya and author of the book "The Yonigeya -- If You Want to Run Away, Leave It to Me." "We're their way out." For added security, clients may not be told of the plan until the day before.

The yonigeya also use the week to learn as much about the debt collectors, stalker or abusive husband as possible, including the best time to give them the slip.

Hiroyuki Ono of the yonigeya firm Agent Express likes late-night escapes, because debt collectors are not legally allowed to contact customers after 8 p.m.

Hatori prefers late mornings when neighbors are out shopping, tradesmen are making deliveries and the garbage is being collected, creating distractions.

Several days are also spent finding a place to hide. Occasionally, clients make specific requests, but most take the yonigeya's advice, generally opting for big cities like Tokyo or Osaka where it's easier to disappear. Most yonigeya have access to a network of leases, cell phones and vehicles registered under different names.

Ideally, clients are alone, take nothing more than a small bag and leave behind their credit cards, driver's licenses and other identification.

They should also leave behind their cars, because suspicious lenders sometimes plant tracking devices in vehicles. An accident report could also give one away. But personal possessions provide a measure of mental security to clients uprooting their lives, especially when their children are involved. Some yonigeya, however, draw the line at bringing along pets while others accept them -- but only if they're small.

In the several days before the move, small items are discreetly removed in backpacks or small bags and stored elsewhere, leaving the furniture. Sometimes yonigeya disguise themselves as secondhand shop workers and "buy" the used furniture. Others pretend that they're from a department store to pick up boxes prominently marked "returned item." The vast majority, however, rely on speed.

On the appointed day, family members are told to follow their usual routine. Then at a prearranged time, the father heads out on a concocted sales call, the mother goes shopping and the children leave school for a "doctor's appointment" as operatives pick them up at agreed-upon locations.

Back at the house, a crew of workers swoops in, packing and hauling boxes into waiting vans at a furious pace. An agent keeping watch has memorized the faces, license plates and vehicles of potential pursuers. The operation can be called off if necessary, but if well advanced, agents sometimes rough up anyone who threatens to stop them. And there's often an extra car on hand to block any vehicle tempted to follow them.

Occasionally the person they are trying to avoid is right in the house. Yusuke Matsuura, president of the yonigeya firm Support Japan, recently helped a domestic violence victim flee her violent husband. The man was unemployed and rarely left the house, but he was also a heavy drinker.

One night she plied him with alcohol until he passed out, then made a quick call to the yonigeya, who swooped in and cleaned out all the furniture and possessions within 30 minutes. "Ordinarily it would take 15 minutes, but we wanted to make sure he didn't wake up," Matsuura says.

At other times, stealth gives way to muscle. Another Support Japan case involved the owner of a failed factory fleeing $1 million in loan shark debt. The man's house was watched by boryokudan 24 hours a day, but Matsuura and his operatives dressed like rival mobsters, claimed that their debts were even larger and "kidnapped" the client and his family after out-toughing the yakuza.

Once a client is safely away, emphasis shifts to staying hidden. It's possible to hide for years, arguably for a lifetime, but it takes more discipline than most people have. It generally requires cutting all ties with one's past, never driving a car or renewing the driver's license, never using an ATM and never putting one's kids in school. Only low-end jobs are advisable, because identification isn't required. Bureaucracy is far stricter and more intrusive in Japan than in many Western countries.

It's possible to buy someone's family and residency registration papers, core Japanese documents, and assume his or her identity -- so-called rebirth service. But it's expensive, the documents are generally acquired from the homeless, and there's no guarantee that the new identity won't come with more debts and problems than the old one.

A more common yonigeya goal is to buy the client a year or two so the person can regroup. Full-service yonigeya use the interim to untangle the client's affairs, paving the way for the customer to resume at least parts of the abandoned life.

Stalkers are often persistent and tend to disregard restraining orders. Yonigeya may force them to sign a promise that they'll cut it out. If that doesn't work, the stalker may be intimidated into submission using physical violence, kidnapping or both.

Loan sharks can sometimes be persuaded to settle for the amount borrowed -- generally a fraction of the total, given interest rates that can run to 50% every 10 days -- if threatened with a lawyer. Most would rather move on to an easier target than expose their operation to close legal scrutiny.

Another tactic is for yonigeya to pretend to be part of a rival boryokudan gang that wants to buy the loan. That may even involve bringing along a known member of another gang. Negotiations can get pretty tense, especially when the mobsters don't want to relinquish the loan. "I go down to their level," says one yonigeya, requesting anonymity. "I posture, yell, scream."

Yonigeya say they often act as emotional counselors as well. Ultimately, clients are buying know-how, convenience and discretion. In order to preserve their client's hidden location, most yonigeya say they destroy all paper records after committing them to memory.

Occasionally, yonigeya find themselves on the wrong side of trouble. Onodera has been punched several times -- "It helps to be big," he says -- while Ono was kidnapped for four days and severely beaten by mobsters. Ono agreed to do a fly-by-night operation for a woman and her 6-year-old child, both domestic violence victims. What he didn't know was that she'd stolen $660,000 from the mob. The gang was convinced that he was in on the money and abducted him. He was able to escape only when a driver happened to stop on a highway, giving him a split-second opportunity to escape down an embankment, but the incident has made him much more careful, he says.

Avoiding mobster cases isn't a blanket rule, however. Hatori helped a crime-family member in Nagano prefecture disappear. The man wanted to leave the business to start a family. He tried to escape once and was badly beaten by his fellow gangsters before he turned to the yonigeya.

Hatori succeeded in helping the man start a new life. Three years later, Hatori received a letter along with a picture of the former mob member's young child reporting that everything had worked out well.

"Yonigeya have a very bad image, almost like garbage," Hatori says. "But when you get a letter like that, it makes you really proud that you've allowed someone to start over."

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Takashi Yokota in The Times' Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.

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