The Yakuza, Japan’s premier crime syndicate, are among the most mysterious and misunderstood criminal organizations in the world. The operations and more importantly, the societal roles played by members of the Yakuza differ greatly from those of the Italian Mafia or the Chinese Triads.
At over 50,000 members, the Yakuza is the world’s largest criminal gangs. And though they engage in prostitution, money laundering, gambling, and bribery, they possess a rich cultural heritage that makes them unique in the world of organized crime…
The name Yakuza is derived from the Japanese card game of Oicho-Kabu, which is similar to blackjack. Ya-ku-za, which stands for 8-9-3, represents a losing hand. The actual origins of the gang itself, however, can be traced back to the 17th century, when masterless Samurai, or Ronin, marauded across the country. In the 18th century, these bandits banded together for protection, and the Yakuza was born.
Today, just as it was in the early days of the gang, Yakuza members wield katanas, the traditional Japanese sword originally used by samurais. Though they don’t fight with the swords anymore, the weapons still play an important and traditional role. Even in modern times, many prominent politicians and businessmen have been killed by katanas. Tradition may play a major role in Yakuza culture, but respect is far more important.
As with everything in Japanese tradition, men and women who exist lower on the societal ladder offer unwavering loyalty and complete obedience to those above them.The power structure within any given Yakuza crime family is a typical pyramid structure. The head at the top disseminates power to his henchmen on lower tiers, who disseminate power to their henchmen, etc.
In the same way, the Yakuza is populated almost entirely by men and like Japan itself, is a very patriarchal organization. Still, some women exist within the syndicate and are called “ane-san” or “older sisters”. In 1982, a woman even became boss of the Yamaguchi-gumi syndicate for a time after her husband’s untimely death. She led with great distinction and garnered great respect. The greatest Yakuza boss in its history, however, was Yoshio Kodama…
Yoshio Kodama was the face of organized crime in Japan from the 1950’s until the 1970’s. Kodama was a power broker of the highest order. He rose to power in the aftermath of WWII, quickly becoming the syndicate’s first “Godfather” and swelling the organization’s ranks to previously unseen numbers by using his underworld contacts to broker alliances.
Kodama was extremely right-wing and a Japanese nationalist, who wanted to bring the country back to the power it had before WWII. He hated anyone and anything non-Japanese and used his political contacts to suppress anything he deemed the least bit communist or anti-nationalist. It was Kodama’s play in the political arena that placed the Yakuza in the public eye and made them the transparent organization they are today…
Unlike other crime organizations, the Yakuza operates out in the open for everyone to see. Yakuza buildings, which bear the name of the Yakuza family on a plaque on the side of the edifice, are legally allowed to exist: despite the fact that they are obvious fronts for the Yakuza’s illegal operations. Members of the gang run legitimate businesses as well, from adult films to building construction and even Sumo gambling.
It’s all part of their elaborate disguise that the Yakuza puts on in order to keep their business illegitimate business dealings off of the radar. All of the actual muscle work done by the gang is carried out by hirelings or people who are unaffiliated with the gang itself. That way, none of the Yakuza members can actually be arrested if something goes wrong and the high-level bosses are safe from prosecution. All of this makes the gang very enticing to new members…
Poets of Crime
The Yakuza are poets at heart. They see violent death as a poetic, tragic, honorable way to die and will actively seek it out if the situation arises. Like Robin Hood, the Yakuza are also known to aid the weak and downtrodden and only steal from the rich. These romantic notions help to put the gang in a favorable light. They even released a magazine specifically for Yakuza members which contained poetry, fishing tips, and stories detailing the gang’s “good works.”
The organization is often peddled to impressionable, young Japanese outcasts as a sort of “second family”. New recruits need to pass a written exam in order to become a member of the Yamaguchi-gumi family. The exam tests the potential gang member´s knowledge of Yakuza lore, traditional rituals, and rules. Once they’re a member, however, the real tests begin…
In the Japanese tradition, new recruits to a Yakuza family are required to take a subservient role to one of the more experienced members. The initiation ritual for a new recruit is one based around sake, or Japanese rice wine. The new gang member sits across from his Oyabun or “Father” and drinks a glass of sake that is only half-filled, while their Oyabun drinks one that is full to the brim. They drink, then swap the cups and then the initiate is in.
The other drawing factor for impressionable Japanese youths, besides the excitement and companionship, is money. According to the U.S. State Department of Treasury, the Yamaguchi-gumi, who are the largest of the Yakuza gangs in existence today, are worth 80 billion dollars. This available wealth acts as a status symbol all of its own to Yakuza initiates, though they will also bear other symbols as they progress through the ranks…
Symbols and Tattoos
Members of the Yakuza gang are notorious for their ornate full-body tattoos, many of which depict scenes from Japanese folklore, symbols that have special meaning to the gang member, or even artistic recreations of the Yakuza’s personal journey. These tattoos, which are known as irezumi, are still “hand-poked,” or inserted beneath the skin using handheld, non-electrical tools made of steel and bamboo.
Though the procedure is very expensive and painful, the tattoos are extremely important in Yakuza culture and sort of an unofficial rule. They are indicators of the Yakuza’s alignment and the tale of their journey and strength. In the early days of the gang, they used to meet in bath houses, where they could see one another’s tattoos and ensure that no one was carrying any sort of concealed weapon. For those who go against the gang, the punishment is severe…
When an underling fails in their duty or assignment and must apologize to their superior, they are expected to make recompense and practice the art of yubizume. The failed gang member will cut off a piece of either their pinkie or ring finger and present it on a white napkin to their boss. This practice can be traced back to the days when the Ronin would fight with katanas. Cutting off either of those fingers would mean that the Ronin wouldn’t be able to properly wield a sword.
Sokaiya, which is the form of large-scale bribery practiced by the Yakuza, is one of the most unique forms of extortion in the world today. The Yakuza buys shares in a company, enough to get them a place at a shareholder’s meeting, then dig up as much dirt as they can about the company leaders. They then use the information to extort the company CEOs, who fear shame above almost anything else. But it doesn’t end there…
The unique aspect of this form of extortion is that it is often carried out with the utmost politeness. Threats are made in such a way that they appear to be commonplace, rather than simply blackmail. They make the intended blackmail targets pay in roundabout ways, such as paying exorbitant fees for tickets to events which the Yakuza is holding and which the extortion targets are beholden to attend.
Another stipulation amongst the Yakuza gang that separates them from other such criminal organizations, is their overall opinion on the trafficking of narcotics. Many syndicates, including the largest among them,the Yamaguchi-gumi, officially forbid their members from engaging in drug trafficking of any kind. Others, however, like the Dojin-kai, are heavily involved in drugs and use it as their primary business. But the Yakuza aren’t all bad, many actually help the public in several ways…
When an earthquake and subsequent tsunami hit Japan in 2011, the Yakuza were there, even before the first responders. Members of the gang delivered food, water, blankets, and toiletries to evacuation centers in the northeast. They had done the same in 1995 as well after the Kobe earthquake. It is actions like this that separate the Yakuza from other criminal organizations, with the exception of the Hell’s Angels, who often engage in philanthropic or charitable works.
It is said that the reason the Yakuza show up to help in times of need is simply because the bulk of the gang is made up of outcasts, or those who were previously alone or downtrodden. There is some truth to this, as people like that can usually sympathize with those in extremely dire situations. Additionally, it is acts like these that legitimize what the Yakuza does and helps keep them in a positive light in the public eye.