Pretty much, everyone remembers the devastation that resulted from the 2011 earthquake and resulting tsunami that became known as the 2011 Tohoku earthquake.  It was a magnitude 9.0 undersea mega thrust earthquake off the coast of Japan that occurred at 14:46 JST on Friday 11 March 2011, with the epicenter approximately 70 43 miles east of the Oshika Peninsula of Tōhoku.  It was the most powerful known earthquake ever to have hit Japan, and the fifth most powerful earthquake in the world since modern record-keeping began in 1900.  The earthquake triggered powerful tsunami waves that reached heights of up to 133 feet.  The earthquake moved Honshu (the main island of Japan) 8 feet east and shifted the Earth on its axis by estimates of between 4 inches and 10 inches, and generated sound waves detected by the low orbiting GOCE satellite.

Now Japanese gangsters are illegally gaining decontamination contracts and they are using some of the less than desirable people, in their society, to help clean up one of the earthquakes worst damaged areas and that is the area around the former Fukushima nuclear plant.  All the while, they are skimming off millions of dollars.

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.  What most people, outside of Japan, do not know is that these men being recruited are all homeless and forgotten people.

“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.

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 company.

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.

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.

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 approved by the construction ministry.

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.

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 Corporation, Taisei Corporation and Shimizu Corporation.

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.

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 their wages.

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 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.

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 disaster.

Earlier this month, the government pledged to “take full responsibility for the rebirth of Fukushima” and 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.

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.

“I don’t ask questions. That’s not my job,” Sasa said.  “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.  Some of the homeless men ended up in debt after fees for food and housing were deducted.

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 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 2011 disaster.”

In Fukushima, 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 August.

A spokeswoman confirmed that the  man had worked for her but said she treats her workers fairly. She stated that she 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 holidays.

“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.  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.”

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