* Homeless recruited for Fukushima at minimum wages
* Labor brokers skim their pay; charge for food, shelter
* Some say better homeless than going into debt by working
* Little oversight on companies getting clean-up contracts
* Gangsters run Fukushima labour brokers; arrests made
By Mari Saito and Antoni Slodkowski
SENDAI, Japan, Dec. 30 Seiji Sasa hits the train
station in this northern Japanese city before dawn most mornings
to prowl for homeless men.
He isn't a social worker. He's a recruiter. The men in
Sendai Station are potential laborers that Sasa can dispatch to
contractors in Japan's nuclear disaster zone for a bounty of
$100 a head.
"This is how labor recruiters like me come in every day,"
Sasa says, as he strides past men sleeping on cardboard and
clutching at their coats against the early winter cold.
It's also how Japan finds people willing to accept minimum
wage for one of the most undesirable jobs in the industrialized
world: working on the $35 billion, taxpayer-funded effort to
clean up radioactive fallout across an area of northern Japan
larger than Hong Kong.
Almost three years ago, a massive earthquake and tsunami
leveled villages across Japan's northeast coast and set off
multiple meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear plant. Today, the
most ambitious radiation clean-up ever attempted is running
behind schedule. The effort is being dogged by both a lack of
oversight and a shortage of workers, according to a Reuters
analysis of contracts and interviews with dozens of those
In January, October and November, Japanese gangsters were
arrested on charges of infiltrating construction giant Obayashi
Corp's network of decontamination subcontractors and
illegally sending workers to the government-funded project.
In the October case, homeless men were rounded up at
Sendai's train station by Sasa, then put to work clearing
radioactive soil and debris in Fukushima City for less than
minimum wage, according to police and accounts of those
involved. The men reported up through a chain of three other
companies to Obayashi, Japan's second-largest construction
Obayashi, which is one of more than 20 major contractors
involved in government-funded radiation removal projects, has
not been accused of any wrongdoing. But the spate of arrests has
shown that members of Japan's three largest criminal syndicates
- Yamaguchi-gumi, Sumiyoshi-kai and Inagawa-kai - had set up
black-market recruiting agencies under Obayashi.
"We are taking it very seriously that these incidents keep
happening one after another," said Junichi Ichikawa, a spokesman
for Obayashi. He said the company tightened its scrutiny of its
lower-tier subcontractors in order to shut out gangsters, known
as the yakuza. "There were elements of what we had been doing
that did not go far enough."
OVERSIGHT LEFT TO TOP CONTRACTORS
Part of the problem in monitoring taxpayer money in
Fukushima is the sheer number of companies involved in
decontamination, extending from the major contractors at the top
to tiny subcontractors many layers below them. The total number
has not been announced. But in the 10 most contaminated towns
and a highway that runs north past the gates of the wrecked
plant in Fukushima, Reuters found 733 companies were performing
work for the Ministry of Environment, according to partial
contract terms released by the ministry in August under Japan's
information disclosure law.
Reuters found 56 subcontractors listed on environment
ministry contracts worth a total of $2.5 billion in the most
radiated areas of Fukushima that would have been barred from
traditional public works because they had not been vetted by the
The 2011 law that regulates decontamination put control
under the environment ministry, the largest spending program
ever managed by the 10-year-old agency. The same law also
effectively loosened controls on bidders, making it possible for
firms to win radiation removal contracts without the basic
disclosure and certification required for participating in
public works such as road construction.
Reuters also found five firms working for the Ministry of
Environment that could not be identified. They had no
construction ministry registration, no listed phone number or
website, and Reuters could not find a basic corporate
registration disclosing ownership. There was also no record of
the firms in the database of Japan's largest credit research
firm, Teikoku Databank.
"As a general matter, in cases like this, we would have to
start by looking at whether a company like this is real," said
Shigenobu Abe, a researcher at Teikoku Databank. "After that, it
would be necessary to look at whether this is an active company
and at the background of its executive and directors."
Responsibility for monitoring the hiring, safety records and
suitability of hundreds of small firms involved in Fukushima's
decontamination rests with the top contractors, including Kajima
Corp, Taisei Corp and Shimizu Corp,
"In reality, major contractors manage each work site," said
Hide Motonaga, deputy director of the radiation clean-up
division of the environment ministry.
But, as a practical matter, many of the construction
companies involved in the clean-up say it is impossible to
monitor what is happening on the ground because of the multiple
layers of contracts for each job that keep the top contractors
removed from those doing the work.
"If you started looking at every single person, the project
wouldn't move forward. You wouldn't get a tenth of the people
you need," said Yukio Suganuma, president of Aisogo Service, a
construction company that was hired in 2012 to clean up
radioactive fallout from streets in the town of Tamura.
The sprawl of small firms working in Fukushima is an
unintended consequence of Japan's legacy of tight labor-market
regulations combined with the aging population's deepening
shortage of workers. Japan's construction companies cannot
afford to keep a large payroll and dispatching temporary workers
to construction sites is prohibited. As a result, smaller firms
step into the gap, promising workers in exchange for a cut of
Below these official subcontractors, a shadowy network of
gangsters and illegal brokers who hire homeless men has also
become active in Fukushima. Ministry of Environment contracts in
the most radioactive areas of Fukushima prefecture are
particularly lucrative because the government pays an additional
$100 in hazard allowance per day for each worker.
Takayoshi Igarashi, a lawyer and professor at Hosei
University, said the initial rush to find companies for
decontamination was understandable in the immediate aftermath of
the disaster when the priority was emergency response. But he
said the government now needs to tighten its scrutiny to prevent
a range of abuses, including bid rigging.
"There are many unknown entities getting involved in
decontamination projects," said Igarashi, a former advisor to
ex-Prime Minister Naoto Kan. "There needs to be a thorough check
on what companies are working on what, and when. I think it's
probably completely lawless if the top contractors are not
The Ministry of Environment announced on Thursday that work
on the most contaminated sites would take two to three years
longer than the original March 2014 deadline. That means many of
the more than 60,000 who lived in the area before the disaster
will remain unable to return home until six years after the
Earlier this month, Abe, who pledged his government would
"take full responsibility for the rebirth of Fukushima" boosted
the budget for decontamination to $35 billion, including funds
to create a facility to store radioactive soil and other waste
near the wrecked nuclear plant.
'DON'T ASK QUESTIONS'
Japan has always had a gray market of day labor centered in
Tokyo and Osaka. A small army of day laborers was employed to
build the stadiums and parks for the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo.
But over the past year, Sendai, the biggest city in the disaster
zone, has emerged as a hiring hub for homeless men. Many work
clearing rubble left behind by the 2011 tsunami and cleaning up
radioactive hotspots by removing topsoil, cutting grass and
scrubbing down houses around the destroyed nuclear plant,
workers and city officials say.
Seiji Sasa, 67, a broad-shouldered former wrestling
promoter, was photographed by undercover police recruiting
homeless men at the Sendai train station to work in the nuclear
cleanup. The workers were then handed off through a chain of
companies reporting up to Obayashi, as part of a $1.4 million
contract to decontaminate roads in Fukushima, police say.
"I don't ask questions; that's not my job," Sasa said in an
interview with Reuters. "I just find people and send them to
work. I send them and get money in exchange. That's it. I don't
get involved in what happens after that."
Only a third of the money allocated for wages by Obayashi's
top contractor made it to the workers Sasa had found. The rest
was skimmed by middlemen, police say. After deductions for food
and lodging, that left workers with an hourly rate of about $6,
just below the minimum wage equal to about $6.50 per hour in
Fukushima, according to wage data provided by police. Some of
the homeless men ended up in debt after fees for food and
housing were deducted, police say.
Sasa was arrested in November and released without being
charged. Police were after his client, Mitsunori Nishimura, a
local Inagawa-kai gangster. Nishimura housed workers in cramped
dorms on the edge of Sendai and skimmed an estimated $10,000 of
public funding intended for their wages each month, police say.
Nishimura, who could not be reached for comment, was
arrested and paid a $2,500 fine. Nishimura is widely known in
Sendai. Seiryu Home, a shelter funded by the city, had sent
other homeless men to work for him on recovery jobs after the
"He seemed like such a nice guy," said Yota Iozawa, a
shelter manager. "It was bad luck. I can't investigate
everything about every company."
In the incident that prompted his arrest, Nishimura placed
his workers with Shinei Clean, a company with about 15 employees
based on a winding farm road south of Sendai. Police turned up
there to arrest Shinei's president, Toshiaki Osada, after a
search of his office, according to Tatsuya Shoji, who is both
Osada's nephew and a company manager. Shinei had sent dump
trucks to sort debris from the disaster. "Everyone is involved
in sending workers," said Shoji. "I guess we just happened to
get caught this time."
Osada, who could not be reached for comment, was fined about
$5,000. Shinei was also fined about $5,000.
'RUN BY GANGS'
The trail from Shinei led police to a slightly larger
neighboring company with about 30 employees, Fujisai Couken.
Fujisai says it was under pressure from a larger contractor,
Raito Kogyo, to provide workers for Fukushima. Kenichi Sayama,
Fujisai's general manger, said his company only made about $10
per day per worker it outsourced. When the job appeared to be
going too slowly, Fujisai asked Shinei for more help and they
turned to Nishimura.
A Fujisai manager, Fuminori Hayashi, was arrested and paid a
$5,000 fine, police said. Fujisai also paid a $5,000 fine.
"If you don't get involved (with gangs), you're not going to
get enough workers," said Sayama, Fujisai's general manager.
"The construction industry is 90 percent run by gangs."
Raito Kogyo, a top-tier subcontractor to Obayashi,
has about 300 workers in decontamination projects around
Fukushima and owns subsidiaries in both Japan and the United
States. Raito agreed that the project faced a shortage of
workers but said it had been deceived. Raito said it was unaware
of a shadow contractor under Fujisai tied to organized crime.
"We can only check on lower-tier subcontractors if they are
honest with us," said Tomoyuki Yamane, head of marketing for
Raito. Raito and Obayashi were not accused of any wrongdoing and
were not penalized.
Other firms receiving government contracts in the
decontamination zone have hired homeless men from Sasa,
including Shuto Kogyo, a firm based in Himeji, western Japan.
"He sends people in, but they don't stick around for long,"
said Fujiko Kaneda, 70, who runs Shuto with her son, Seiki
Shuto. "He gathers people in front of the station and sends them
to our dorm."
Kaneda invested about $600,000 to cash in on the
reconstruction boom. Shuto converted an abandoned roadhouse
north of Sendai into a dorm to house workers on reconstruction
jobs such as clearing tsunami debris. The company also won two
contracts awarded by the Ministry of Environment to clean up two
of the most heavily contaminated townships.
Kaneda had been arrested in 2009 along with her son, Seiki,
for charging illegally high interest rates on loans to
pensioners. Kaneda signed an admission of guilt for police, a
document she says she did not understand, and paid a fine of
$8,000. Seiki was given a sentence of two years prison time
suspended for four years and paid a $20,000 fine, according to
police. Seiki declined to comment.
UNPAID WAGE CLAIMS
In Fukushima, Shuto has faced at least two claims with local
labor regulators over unpaid wages, according to Kaneda. In a
separate case, a 55-year-old homeless man reported being paid
the equivalent of $10 for a full month of work at Shuto. The
worker's paystub, reviewed by Reuters, showed charges for food,
accommodation and laundry were docked from his monthly pay
equivalent to about $1,500, leaving him with $10 at the end of
The man turned up broke and homeless at Sendai Station in
October after working for Shuto, but disappeared soon
afterwards, according to Yasuhiro Aoki, a Baptist pastor and
Kaneda confirmed the man had worked for her but said she
treats her workers fairly. She said Shuto Kogyo pays workers at
least $80 for a day's work while docking the equivalent of $35
for food. Many of her workers end up borrowing from her to make
ends meet, she said. One of them had owed her $20,000 before
beginning work in Fukushima, she says. The balance has come down
recently, but then he borrowed another $2,000 for the year-end
"He will never be able to pay me back," she said.
The problem of workers running themselves into debt is
widespread. "Many homeless people are just put into dormitories,
and the fees for lodging and food are automatically docked from
their wages," said Aoki, the pastor. "Then at the end of the
month, they're left with no pay at all."
Shizuya Nishiyama, 57, says he briefly worked for Shuto
clearing rubble. He now sleeps on a cardboard box in Sendai
Station. He says he left after a dispute over wages, one of
several he has had with construction firms, including two
handling decontamination jobs.
Nishiyama's first employer in Sendai offered him $90 a day
for his first job clearing tsunami debris. But he was made to
pay as much as $50 a day for food and lodging. He also was not
paid on the days he was unable to work. On those days, though,
he would still be charged for room and board. He decided he was
better off living on the street than going into debt.
"We're an easy target for recruiters," Nishiyama said. "We
turn up here with all our bags, wheeling them around and we're
easy to spot. They say to us, are you looking for work? Are you
hungry? And if we haven't eaten, they offer to find us a job."