In Japan, sweet potato thefts raise suspicions of yakuza involvement

Julian Ryall

Japan’s autumn harvest season is proving to be a busy time for thieves, with the latest victim a farmer in Ibaraki prefecture whose entire crop of 15 tonnes of sweet potatoes was pilfered earlier this month.

The 53-year-old smallholder from Oarai told the Ibaraki newspaper of his shock when he walked into a warehouse by the side of his recently harvested potato fields, only to discover that it had been completely cleaned out.

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The theft took place less than 48 hours after he had packed the potatoes into around 1,000 bags ready to be passed on to the local agriculture cooperative.

An estimated 1.87 million yen (US$17,160) worth of root vegetables were stolen in the raid, which was made all the easier by the fact that the farmer, who has not been named, did not lock the warehouse door.

Given a number of recent robberies across the country in recent weeks, that oversight was a mistake.

Another farmer in the same prefecture had 2.7 tonnes of harvested sweet potatoes stolen a few weeks ago, while 390kg of premium Koshihikari rice – valued at US$3,578 – was purloined from a farm in Niigata prefecture in late September.

Even more brazenly, thieves stripped an orchard in Aomori prefecture of 250 apples in the space of a couple of hours in late October, following the theft of more than 500 apples from another nearby orchard just days earlier and the disappearance of 600 bunches of grapes from a vineyard in Tsuruta, also in Aomori prefecture.

Premium Koshihikari rice has been another target of thieves. Photo: Shutterstock

The theft of fruit and vegetables has become a serious problem in Japan in recent years, with farming communities that are already struggling with a shortage of manpower and dwindling numbers of younger residents now having to contend with thefts that threaten their very livelihoods.

There have been reports of farmers banding together around harvest time to patrol fields and orchards to make sure their crops are not stolen, while some have even started to deploy drones equipped with video cameras in an effort to keep an eye on their produce as it ripens.

Yet arrests – and convictions – are few and far between. Police investigating the recent thefts in Ibaraki told the local newspaper that they suspect there may be a link between the recent sweet potato heists, but appeared to have no firmer leads.

Sweet potatoes are an autumn delicacy in Japan, often sold from small trucks fitted with special wood-fired stoves that tour neighbourhoods using loudspeakers to drum up custom.

Given that any thieves would need to have a reliable outlet for their pilfered perishables, it has been suggested that criminal gangs might have had a hand in the thefts and may be selling their ill-gotten gains on to family-run greengrocers who do not ask too many questions about their provenance.

That assumption is given added credence by a case in 2018 in which a yakuza gang that was finding it hard to make ends meet through its more traditional “businesses” – prostitution, protection rackets, loan sharking, drugs and underground gambling – started raiding watermelon farms for their crops.

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