Yakuza (やくざ or ヤクザ), also known as gokudō (極道), are members of traditional organized crime groups in Japan. Today, the yakuza are one of the largest organized crime phenomena in the world.
In Japanese legal terminology, yakuza organizations are referred to as bōryokudan, literally "violence groups". Yakuza members consider this an insult, as bōryokudan is a term which can be applied to any violent criminal. In the Western press they are sometimes called the "Japanese mafia," by analogy with other traditionally Italian-Sicilian organized crime groups of the same name.
History & Orgin
he term "Yakuza" comes from a Japanese card game, Oicho-Kabu (played with hanafuda or kabufuda cards), and means "good for nothing". Similar to baccarat, the values of the cards are added together and the last digit of the sum is taken as the score. The worst hand in the game is a set of eight, nine and three, which gives a sum of 20 and a score of 0. In traditional Japanese forms of counting, these numbers are called Ya, Ku and Sa respectively, thus the origin of the word "yakuza". The yakuza took this name because the Ya-Ku-Za hand requires the most skill (at judging opponents, etc.) and, obviously, the least luck in order to win (i.e., the hand is the worst that a player can receive based on luck of the draw, so only a consummate expert could have enough talent to counteract his bad luck and still win with such a hand). The name was also used because it signified bad fortune, presumably for anyone who went up against the group.
In modern Japanese counting, eight, nine and three could be pronounced "hachi-kyu-san," a name by which the yakuza are sometimes called in Japan today. The alleys and streets of Shinjuku are a popular modern Yakuza hangout. Enlarge The alleys and streets of Shinjuku are a popular modern Yakuza hangout.
There is no single origin for all Japanese yakuza. Rather, yakuza organizations developed from different elements of traditional Japanese society. In the later part of the Japanese feudal era, especially in the Edo period (1603-1837), the legal power of the feudal lords shifted away from direct ownership of land to a broader feudal tax system on land "products", mainly rice. Also, retainers samurai began to be paid with rice, which they sold to markets for cash, instead of being paid a direct salary. The samurai provided service as professional soldiers during wartime and as professional bureaucrats or administrators during peacetime. During the Edo period, most samurai lost their connection to the land and started to live around the feudal castles.
Around the same time, the policing of the community became the responsibility of members of the community, rather than the daimyō (lord). This was especially prevalent outside of the capital cities, as the Edo government allowed only one major castle in each feudal province.
Although the yakuza often insist on their origins as Japanese "Robin Hoods" and protectors, some scholars trace their beginnings to the kabukimono (raving ones), also known as hatamoto yakko (servants of the shogun). These groups of rōnin (masterless samurai) adopted strange hair styles, dressed in an outrageous manner, spoke in vulgar and specialized slang, carried unusually long swords and harassed ordinary people. Their exploits are still a popular subject of Japanese jidaigeki dramas based on the feudal era.
Some yakuza do, however, trace their origins to the communal vigilante/police groups known as machi yakko ("Servants of the town") that arose to enforce order and protect the community from intruders. These groups varied in their level of organization and formality, often simply being comprised of labourers and other "tough men" of the community. Sometimes they also included one or more ronin, as only samurai were officially allowed to carry swords. They often fought against bandits and gangs to protect their community and were even regarded as heroes.
In larger towns, several of these groups often existed simultaneously, and they often fought for territory, money and influence much like modern gangs, disregarding any civilians caught in the crossfire. Again, this is the origin of a popular theme of Japanese film and television, made famous in the West by an Akira Kurosawa film called Yojimbo in which a wandering ronin sets two such gangs against each other and eventually destroys them. Yakuza derived some practices from both machi-yakko and kabukimono. Their protection rackets can be seen as originating from machi-yakko, but their more colorful fashion and language are derived from the kabukimono tradition.
Tekiya and Bakuto
More directly, the origin of most modern yakuza organizations can be traced to two groups which emerged in 18th century Japan: tekiya (peddlers) and bakuto (gamblers). These roots can be seen in current yakuza initiation ceremonies, which incorporate either tekiya or bakuto rituals. Although the modern yakuza has diversified, some gangs still identify with one group or the other. For example, a gang whose primary source of income is illegal gambling may refer to themselves as bakuto.
Tekiya (peddlers) were considered one of the lowest of Edo castes. As they began to form organisations of their own, they took over some administrative duties relating to commerce, such as stall allocation and protection of their commercial activities. For example, during Shinto festivals, these peddlers opened stalls and some members were hired to act as security. Each peddler paid rent in exchange for a stall assignment and protection during the fair. The Edo government eventually formally recognised such tekiya organisations and granted the oyabuns of tekiya a surname as well as permission to carry a sword. This was a major step forward for the traders, as formerly only samurai and noblemen were allowed to carry swords.
Bakuto (gamblers) had a much lower social standing even than traders, as gambling was completely illegal. Many small gambling houses cropped up in abandoned temples or shrines at the edge of towns and villages all over Japan. Most of these gambling houses ran loan sharking businesses for clients, and they usually maintained their own security personnel. The places themselves, as well as the bakuto, were regarded with disdain by the society at large, and much of the undesirable image of the yakuza originates from bakuto. This includes the name "yakuza" itself.
As Japan began to industrialise and urbanization got underway, a third group of yakuza called gurentai (愚連隊) began to emerge (though the name gurentai was not given until after World War II). Whether they fall into the traditional definition of yakuza is still open to debate, but they certainly gave birth to another kind of yakuza, the bōryokudan (violence group). In short, a gurentai is a gang in a much more traditional sense, a group of young unruly thugs who peddle their violence for profit. They often engaged in the suppression of unions and other workers' organizations (much as the Pinkertons did in the United States), and such activities brought them much closer to the conservative elements of the Japanese power structure. During the militarisation of Japan, some of them became the militant wing of Japanese politics known as uyoku (right wing, 右翼), i.e. ultra-nationalists.
Unlike more traditional yakuza, uyoku did not maintain territories—they leveraged their violence for political gain. The most famous group before World War II was the Kokuryū-kai（黒龍会）, or Black Dragon Society. The Kokuryu-kai was a secret ultra-nationalist umbrella organization whose membership was comprised of government officials and military officers as well as many martial artists and members of the Japanese underworld who engaged in political terrorism and assassination. They also provided espionage services for the Japanese colonial government. Kokuryū-kai engaged in contraband operations including the Chinese opium trade, as well as prostitution and gambling overseas which provided them with funds as well as information.
During the post-War rationing, the yakuza controlled the black market much in line with traditional tekiya operations. At the same time, they also moved into controlling major sea ports as well as the entertainment industry. The biggest yakuza umbrella group, the Yamaguchi-gumi, emerged in the Kansai region, which had a large entertainment industry in the city of Osaka as well as a major sea port in Kobe. American occupation forces fought against them in vain and conceded defeat in 1950. Yakuza also adapted to a more western style, including wearing clothing reminiscent of US gangsters, and began to use firearms. At this point, tekiya and bakuto no longer confined themselves to their traditional activities and expanded into any venture they found profitable. At the same time gurentai began to adopt traditional roles of tekiya and bakuto. They also began to feud among themselves, jockeying for power and prestige.
In the 1960s, Yoshio Kodama, an ex-nationalist, began to negotiate treaties with various groups, first with the Yamaguchi-gumi of Kazuo Taoka and Tōsei-kai of Hisayuki Machii and eventually with the Inagawa-kai. Fights between individual gangs, however, are ongoing.
During the formation of the yakuza, they adopted the traditional Japanese hierarchical structure of oyabun-kobun where kobun (子分; lit. foster child) owe their allegiance to the oyabun (親分; lit. foster parent). In a much later period, the code of "jingi" (仁義, justice and duty) was developed where loyalty and respect are a way of life. The oyabun-kobun relationship is formalized by ceremonial sharing of sake from a single cup. This ritual is not exclusive to the yakuza — it is also commonly performed in traditional Japanese Shinto weddings, and may have been a part of "sworn brotherhood" relationships.
During the World War II period in Japan, the more traditional tekiya/bakuto form of organization declined as the entire population was mobilised to participate in the war effort and society came under strict military government. However, after the war, the yakuza adapted again.
Prospective yakuza come from all walks of life. The most romantic tales tell how yakuza accept sons who have been abandoned or exiled by their parents. Many yakuza start out in junior high school or high school as common street thugs or members of bōsōzoku gangs. Some yakuza "goons" are actually mentally handicapped, but recruited due to their large physiques. Perhaps because of its lower socio-economic status, numerous yakuza members come from Okinawa. However, the leadership levels of yakuza gangs usually consist of very sharp, cunning, intelligent men, as the process to rise to the top-levels in the yakuza can be very competitive and Darwinian.
Yakuza groups are headed by an Oyabun or Kumichō (組長, family head) who gives orders to his subordinates, the kobun. In this respect, the organization is a variation of the traditional Japanese senpai-kōhai (senior-junior) model. Members of yakuza gangs cut their family ties and transfer their loyalty to the gang boss. They refer to each other as family members - fathers and elder and younger brothers. The Yakuza is populated entirely by men, and there are usually no women involved except the Oyabun's wife who is called "o-nee-san" (older sister). Unlike many crime groups, women are sometimes involved in "The Life". When the Yamaguchi Gumi (Family) boss was shot in the late nineties, his wife took over as boss of the largest Yakuza Family albeit for a short time.
Each member's connection is ranked by the hierarchy of sakazuki (sake sharing). Kumicho are at the top, and control various saikō-komon (最高顧問, senior advisors). The saikō-komon control their own turfs in different areas or cities. They have their own underlings, including other underbosses, advisors, accountants and enforcers. Those who have received sake from oyabun are part of the immediate family and ranked in terms of elder or younger brothers. However, each kobun, in turn, can offer sakazuki as oyabun to his underling to form an affiliated organisation, which might in turn form lower ranked organisations. In the Yamaguchi-gumi, which controls some 2500 businesses and 500 yakuza groups, there are even 5th rank subsidiary organisations.
A group of interest were known as the Billions. They were orphaned soldiers, and according to Japanese government, they did not exist. They were thought to be the most dangerous, and the ones responsible for most violent crime that the Yakuza is rumored to have done.
Yubitsume, or finger-cutting, is a form of penance or apology. Upon a first offense, the transgressor must cut off the tip of his left pinky finger and hand the severed portion to his boss. Sometimes an underboss may do this penance to the oyabun if he wants to spare a member of his own gang from further retaliation. Its origin stems from the traditional way of holding a Japanese sword. The bottom three fingers of each hand are used to grip the sword tightly, with the thumb and index fingers slightly loose. The removal of digits starting with the little finger moving up the hand to the index finger progressively weakens a person's sword grip. The idea is that a person with a weak sword grip then has to rely more on the group for protection — reducing individual action. In recent years, prosthetic fingertips have been developed to disguise this distinctive appearance. (When a British cartoon, Bob the Builder, was first considered for import to Japan, there were plans in place to add an extra digit to each of the title character's four-fingered hands to avoid scaring children. The same thing was also considered for the show Postman Pat.)  After the rights to the Donkey Kong series were returned to Nintendo by British based Rareware, the characters Diddy Kong and Dixie Kong were given an extra digit on each hand.
Another, more radical version of penance is seppuku (切腹, also known as hara-kiri 腹切り), ritual suicide by disembowelment. Popular among Japanese samurai and soldiers who would commit it as penance for their failures, Yakuza are sometimes known to commit seppuku as well.
Another prominent yakuza ritual is the sake-sharing ceremony. This is used to seal bonds of brotherhood between individual yakuza members, or between two yakuza groups. For example, in August 2005, the Godfathers Kenichi Shinoda and Kazuyoshi Kudo held a sake-sharing ceremony, sealing a new bond between their respective gangs, the Yamaguchi-gumi and the Kokusui-kai.
When yakuza members play Oicho-Kabu cards with each other, they often remove their shirts or open them up and drape them around their waists. This allows them to display their full-body tattoos to each other. This is one of the few times that yakuza members display their tattoos to others, as they normally keep them concealed in public with long-sleeved and high-necked shirts.
Much of the current activities of the yakuza can be understood in the light of their feudal origin. First, they are not a secret society like their counterparts of the Italian mafia and Chinese triads. Yakuza organizations often have an office with a wooden board on the front door, openly displaying their group name or emblem. Members often wear sunglasses and colourful suits so that their profession can be immediately recognized by civilians (katagi). Even the way many Yakuza walk is markedly different from ordinary citizens. Their arrogant, wide gait is markedly different from the quiet, unassuming way many Japanese go about their business. Alternatively, they can be more conservatively dressed but when the need arises, they can flash their tattoos to indicate their affiliation. On occasion they also sport insignia pins on their lapels.
Until recently, the majority of yakuza income came from protection rackets in shopping, entertainment and red-light districts within their territory. This is mainly due to the reluctance of such businesses to seek help from the police. The Japanese police are also reluctant to interfere in internal matters in recognized communities such as shopping arcades, schools/universities, night districts and so on. In this sense, yakuza are still regarded as semi-legitimate organizations. For example, immediately after the Kobe earthquake, the Yamaguchi-gumi, whose headquarters are in Kobe, mobilised itself to provide disaster relief services (including the use of a helicopter), and this was widely reported by the media as a contrast to the much slower response by the Japanese government. For this reason, many yakuza regard their income and hustle (shinogi) as a collection of a feudal tax.
Yakuza frequently engage in a uniquely Japanese form of extortion, known as sōkaiya (総会屋). In essence, this is a specialized form of protection racket. Instead of harassing small businesses, the yakuza harasses a stockholders' meeting of a larger corporation. They simply scare the ordinary stockholder with the presence of yakuza operatives, who obtain the right to attend the meeting by a small purchase of stock. They also engage in simple blackmail, obtaining incriminating or embarrassing information about a company's practices or leaders. Once the yakuza gain a foothold in these companies, they will work for them to protect the company from having such internal scandals exposed to the public. Some companies still include payoffs as part of their annual budget.
Yakuza also have ties to the Japanese realty market and banking, through jiageya (地上げ屋). Jiageya specialize in inducing holders of small real estate to sell their property so that estate companies can carry out much larger development plans. Japan's bubble economy of the 1980s is often blamed on real estate speculation by banking subsidiaries. After the collapse of the Japanese property bubble, a manager of a major bank in Nagoya was assassinated, and much speculation ensued about the banking industry's indirect connection to the Japanese underworld. The Yakuza are a popular subject in films Enlarge The Yakuza are a popular subject in films
As a matter of principle, theft is not recognised as a legitimate activity of yakuza. This is in line with idea that their activities are semi-open; theft by definition would be a covert activity. More importantly, such an act would be considered a trespass by the community. Also, yakuza usually do not conduct the actual business operation by themselves. Core business activities such as merchandising, loan sharking or management of gambling houses are typically managed by non-yakuza members who pay protection fees for their activities.
There is much evidence of Yakuza involvement in international crime. There are many tattooed Yakuza members imprisoned in various Asian prisons for such crimes as drug trafficking and arms smuggling. In 1997, one verified Yakuza member was caught smuggling 4 kilograms of heroin into Canada. In 1999, Italian-American Mafia Bonnano family cap and enforcer, Mickey Zaffarano, was overheard talking about the profits of the pornography trade that both families could profit from. Another Yakuza racket is bringing women of other ethnicities/races, especially White/European and Asian to Japan under the lure of a glamourous position, then forcing the women into prostitution.
Because of their history as a legitimate feudal organization and their connection to the Japanese political system through the uyoku (extreme right-wing political groups), yakuza are somewhat a part of the Japanese establishment. In the early 80s in Fukuoka, a yakuza war spiraled out of control and a few civilians were hurt. The police stepped in and forced the yakuza bosses on both sides to declare a truce in public. At various times, people in Japanese cities have launched anti-yakuza campaigns with mixed and varied success. In March 1995, the Japanese government passed the "Act for Prevention of Unlawful Activities by Criminal Gang Members" which made traditional racketeering much more difficult.