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Sales are booming at Toa Security, a normally sleepy shop off Tokyo's beaten track. It's doing a roaring trade in its speciality line - bullet-proof vests at up to $2,250 each - to terrified financiers.

The shop is protective of its customers, but the manager admitted some individuals have bought up to 10 vests a time.Japan's financial crisis has recently taken a violent twist.

Several weeks ago a nationalist belonging to the right-wing Nihon Kominto drove a bus laden with gas cans into the gates of parliament in protest against $6.6 billion of taxpayers' money being used to bail out seven bankrupt housing loan companies.

Another right-winger crashed his car into a government building in Tokyo and asked as he got out: "This is the Ministry of Finance, isn't it?" He too was protesting against this use of his taxes.

Luckily for the finance mandarins, he had mistakenly driven into the National Police Agency.

But the personal threat that's really scaring the bankers is the one posed by the "boryokudan" or "yakuza" - Japan's gangsters.

"Please don't identify me since I don't want to encourage myself as a target," said the head of a major bank.

Another banker observed: "The heads of the `jusen' (housing loan companies) may have something to worry about, and the Finance Ministry has a lot to answer for, but I don't see myself in the front line - yet."

Some have already paid a dreadful price. The manager of Sumitomo Bank's branch in Nagoya was shot dead early one morning in September 1994 at his apartment. His mistake was trying to sort out the losses the bank had incurred during the extravagance of the "bubble economy" in the late 1980s. In the process he reportedly put too much pressure on people with yakuza connections.

If this were New York, Chicago or Italy, it wouldn't be surprising. But in Japan women and small children walk unharmed after dark, and there's a saying that "water and safety are free."

The number of incidents involving guns is still small compared with the U.S. - only 70 deaths by gunshots in the past two years and just 14 robberies with guns last year.

Since the start of the decade, however, there have been up to 50 attacks by yakuza members on top Japanese corporate executives. Sumitomo, for instance, has faced about 25 gangster attacks since 1993.

At the root of this violence is Japan's financial mess. According to the government, financial institutions have bad debts of up to $375 billion as a result of the bursting of the 1980s bubble, although the true figure may be nearer $750 billion.

Such was the fevered climate of the time that some of the smaller institutions in particular were careless about checking the identity of those they were lending to. Now they are especially vulnerable to pressure from the yakuza.

At the eye of the storm are the jusen, which bear the biggest proportion of the debts, especially those held by the yakuza. While the banks were forced to restrict their lending back in 1990, the same rules did not apply to the jusen.

The jusen were unfortunate orphans. Founded by banks in the early 1970s when the big institutions weren't allowed to offer mortgages, they were deserted by their parents when the banks gained that permission.

They were frequently weak creatures, run by the less able among the "amakudari" - former Ministry of Finance officials joining the companies they had been responsible for regulating.

When the economic bubble was pricked, the jusen misread the signs, disregarded the instructions and expanded spectacularly, straying from house mortgages into luxury apartments, holiday resorts and golf courses. Many of these investments would never have paid off, even without the property collapse.

But the jusen had another flaw. They were fed money by agricultural cooperatives, politically well connected but regarding themselves as bound by the Ministry of Agriculture and the instructions of their officials and amakudari.

All these provided murky waters for the yakuza, greedily looking for their share of the pickings.

Given their devious ways, getting accurate figures is not easy, but Takazu Nakamori, head of the information department of Teikoku Databank, which tracks corporate bankruptcies, says there's no doubt that gangsters are involved in more than half Japan's property debt.

Any thoughts the jusen might have of repossession are fraught with peril, however: the magazine counted nine yakuza-related companies sitting in six of the buildings. It quoted a "person related to the boryokudan" as saying: "It may be bloody and life may be taken."

The simple "market" solution would have been to stop trying vainly to prop up land prices and let the jusen go. But this would have hurt the agricultural co-ops and politically no one was prepared to do that. But the consequence of the $6.6 billion taxpayer handout is also dire.

"The current plans for dealing with non-performing debt will amount to having Japan's public hand over large sums of money to gangsters," says Nakamori of Teikoku Databank.

The police claim that repossession of buildings is a civil matter to be tackled by bankruptcy courts and they cannot intervene unless there's a criminal act.

Describing the limits of police action, an agency official said that if a gangster told you, "We know that your daughter goes to X school; please take good care of her," that would only be an implied threat and would provide insufficent grounds for the police to move.

But unless Japan cleans up its criminal industry at the same time as its financial mess, it risks undermining the structure of its society.

Kenro Miyazaki is a leading lawyer alarmed by what he sees as the cancer of violence creeping into the financial sector. "Now it is an emergency situation," he says. "Unless (the government) increases the number of judges and begins to prosecute the boryokudan, Japan risks becoming a mafia-like country similar to Italy."