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A Cost-Savings Measure Carries $5.4 Million Tab

Japan's largest robbery sends a message to bank that firing its armed guards might not have been such a smart move

THIS is a story for those who cut budgets. Sometimes when you try to save money, you can lose money. A lot of money.

In the Japanese port of Kobe, a city famous for good restaurants and the world's most marbled beef, is a branch of the Fukutoku Bank, a regional institution based in nearby Osaka.

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In October 1992, about 18 months into a recession that is still hobbling the Japanese economy, the bank's managers decided to reduce costs by canceling a contract with the security service that handled the banks' cash transfers. They had their employees move the money instead.

The managers aren't speaking to the press, so it's impossible to know how much this maneuver saved them. Until this summer, there was no harm done.

At 9:20 a.m. Aug. 5, three Fukutoku employees drove the bank's white station wagon into a side street and parked near the back door of the branch.

When they began to unload three aluminum cases they had just picked up from the Kobe office of the Bank of Japan, two men approached. Inside the cases was a weekend's supply of bills - 540 million yen, or about $5.4 million. The street was very quiet.

Both men wore hats. One had his face wrapped like a mum-my. The other wore sunglasses and held a gun. According to the employees, the man with the gun said: ``This is genuine. Be silent.''

This request was no problem for bank employees. ``I couldn't say a word - my mind went blank,'' one said at a press conference later that day.

The mummy-faced assailant put the cases into a minivan, and the two men departed. A half-mile away, they ditched the van, which police say had been stolen a week earlier and disguised with license plates stolen last year. The next day, a woman found the empty cases in the storage yard of a construction company in Osaka, about 15 miles away.

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The heist was the largest robbery of a financial institution in Japanese history, and there are no arrests in sight. On Sept. 5, the one-month anniversary of the crime, the police held a press conference, but they didn't have much to say.

That didn't surprise too many people in Kobe, who have seen other robberies go unsolved. ``I don't think the police have the capability to solve this case,'' says Hiroyuki Kyohara, the Kobe bureau chief of the Tokyo-based Sankei newspaper.

Theories about the perpetrators abound. The police say the yakuza, Japan's organized-crime groups, may be responsible, although armed robbery is not one of their practices.

Others insist it was an inside job. ``If I were a police investigator,'' says Kobe cab driver Zenkichi Hanada, ``my first target would be the former security-company employees who were discharged by the bank.'' This is the kind of case cab drivers love to talk about.

Fukutoku Bank was insured, so it's unfair to say a cost-cutting measure ended up costing 540 million yen. On the other hand, record-breaking robberies aren't great publicity for a bank, nor do they help keep insurance premiums down. And an old budget line item has reappeared: The bank has again engaged a security service to transfer its cash.

Japan has a re-markably crime-free society, but stealing money from financial institutions is something of a growth in-dustry. In 1989, there were 79 robberies of banks, post offices (the postal service runs the country's largest savings system), and credit associations, says Kanehiro Hoshino of Tokyo's National Research Institute of Police Science. Last year, there were 140, he says.

``The police try to convince potential victims of the danger [of robberies], but they won't follow the advice because of the expense'' of instituting security measures, Dr. Hoshino adds.

Nonetheless, the security-service industry is also growing. Total sales in 1986 were 729 billion yen; by last year, they had doubled to 1.56 trillion yen.

If the Fukutoku executives can be faulted, it is for failing to remember their mission. A bank may be first and foremost a profit-making institution, but it's also a place where people go to keep their money safe.

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