Tokyo — When three men armed with crowbars ransacked a luxury watch store in broad daylight in Tokyo’s posh Ginza shopping district this week, onlookers stood and watched in amazement at the heist.

Dressed in black outfits and white costume masks, the thieves smashed the windows of the Quark watch store on a busy street, undaunted by the wails of security alarms and the thump of passers-by. Several witnesses recorded the entire theft on their phones, until the thieves ran to their rental van, then ran a red light with the doors open to escape.

Police officers investigate a crime scene after a robbery at a luxury watch store in the Ginza shopping district of Tokyo, May 8, 2023.


Local networks report that the hapless thieves, who are being chased by at least four patrol cars, were likely passing by the grand headquarters of the National Police and the country’s parliament.

Trapped in a cul-de-sac less than two miles away, the suspects scattered on foot — still recording on the smartphones of various startled witnesses. One gave up after being literally talked off the ledge. Another was hysterically begging the police to stop hurting him while they restrained him. Less than an hour after the episode began, all four, including the getaway driver, were apprehended.

Police found about 70 of the nearly 100 stolen watches worth more than $700,000.

All suspects are between 16 and 19 years old.

“Yami-baito”: exploitation for crime

The young thugs told the law enforcement officers that they were strangers who met for the first time at “work”. The utterly brazen, remarkably amateur heist bore all the hallmarks of yami-baito, or black-market part-time employment, an increasingly lucrative angle for criminal gangs that allowed them to pass on scams and thefts to the young, naive and financially desperate. With the use of yami-baito, such gangs can commit a crime without wasting time.

Yami-baito ads reel in pawns with promises like “Big Money!”, “Fast Money” and “Beginners Welcome”.

A Rolex store was robbed by minors in Tokyo
An interior view of a luxury store robbed by minors earlier in Tokyo, Japan’s Ginza shopping district, on May 9, 2023.

David Murray/Anadolu Agency/Getty

The Yomiuri newspaper, citing police statistics, noted about 50 robberies and thefts related to yami-baito since mid-2021. Many of those arrested were in their teens and twenties. Another group of youths who have fueled a crime wave that is spreading across Japan’s six prefectures said they were recruited through Instagram.

Shizuoka University professor Hiroshi Tsutomi told the newspaper that the youths “apparently feared their mastermind more than the threat of arrest.” He said the rise in poverty, combined with the ease of online recruitment, made young people easy marks to serve as “disposable” tools for experienced organized crime groups.

The watch shop robbery was the fifth such brazen robbery by hobbyists targeting precious metals dealers or jewelers in Tokyo since March. A surprised investigator told the Tokyo Shimbun newspaper that “young people don’t seem to understand that this crime will definitely get them arrested.”

A fast growing trend

The Tokyo Metropolitan Police said it found nearly 3,500 yami-baito lists on Twitter last year, an increase of more than 50% from last year, despite efforts to crack down on the ads. Yami-baito criminal gangs have been known to post ads even on legitimate job listing websites.

A video image shows a van used as a getaway vehicle by four suspects in a brazen robbery of a luxury watch store in Tokyo, Japan’s Ginza shopping district, on May 8, 2023.

TV Tokyo / Reuters

When reporters from the Mainichi newspaper applied for yami-baito jobs, they were immediately directed to communicate via the encrypted Telegram app and offered to work as phone scammers earning more than $20,000 a month.

They teased and blackmailed

Police say that once someone is drawn into such work, threats, even subtle ones, against their family are used to keep them under the control of criminal gangs.

In one typical case, police arrested 20-year-old Yuna Hatakenaka in late April. She told police she “knew it was a scam, but I had already given (the gang) my photo ID and a video of my parents’ house, so I felt I had no choice but to commit the crime.”

She and her accomplices, pretending to be police officers, tricked an elderly woman into handing over her ATM bank cards.

Former prosecutor Mikio Uehara said that criminal gangs exercise “mental control that makes it so that those who fall into them cannot even think of saying that they will leave.”

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