Yakuza (from Japanese やくざ or ヤクザ), also known as gokudō, are members of traditional organized crime groups in Japan.
In Japanese legal terminology, yakuza organizations are referred to as Bōryokudan, literally "violence groups", or more traditionally "samurai heritage". 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 frequently called the "Japanese mafia".
Origin and History
The term “Yakuza” comes from a Japanese card game, similar to blackjack, called Oicho-Kabu. The worst hand is a set, which includes an eight, a nine, and a three. These three numbers are called Ya, Ku, and Sa, so a good translation is said to be “useless hand”.
There is no single origin of 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, 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, retained samurai began to be paid with rice, which they sold to markets for cash instead of being paid a direct salary. These 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. As a consequence, a large part of commerce began to take place outside of the feudal system.
Around the same time, the policing of the community became the responsibility of members of the community, rather than the daimyo (lord). This was especially prevalent outside of the capital cities, as the Edo government allowed only one major castle in each feudal province.
Some yakuza 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 (masterless samurai) 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. Some of these groups were known as kabukimono (raving ones). They adopted strange hair styles, dressed in an outrageous manner, spoke in vulgar and specialized slang, and harassed ordinary people. Their exploits are still a popular subject of Japanese jidaigeki dramas based on the feudal era.
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 where a ronin is hired to rescue a community from these bullies. Yakuza derived some practices from both machi-yakko and kabukimono. The protection racket can be seen as originating from machi-yakko, but their more colourful fashion and language are derived from the kabukimono tradition.
However, not all yakuza originated from these relatively honourable communal police forces. The origin of some yakuza organizations can be traced to two special groups known as tekiya (peddlers) and bakuto (gamblers). Their origin can be seen in current yakuza initiation ceremonies, which incorporate either tekiya or bakuto rituals.
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", which is said to derive from 8(ya)-9(ku)-3(za), the worst hand in a card game called hanafuda. Many bakuto had tattoos on their body, meant to be displayed when bakuto dealt cards or rolled dice half naked. At the time, it was common practice for day labourers and carpenters to carry tattoos also. In modern times, tattooing has become the exclusive practice of yakuza in Japan. Folklore states that the bakuto also originated the yakuza tradition of finger cutting (yubitsume) as a way of offering penance, because this would weaken the holding of the dice box which they used to deal in dice games. However, the more traditional Yakuza prefer to believe that the tradition of yubitsume comes from samurai, whose masters, upon disobedient or shameful actions, would remove joints from the pinky finger. This weakened the samurai's grip on his katana, as the smallest finger plays the largest role; therefore making him significantly less powerful and effective.
When the Edo Shogunate ended with the Meiji restoration, the yakuza transformed into a form much closer to the modern organizations. The Meiji government instituted its own police forces, slowly eroding the legitimacy of the communal vigilante groups. Also, the new government took much stricter action against gambling houses in temples and shrines, driving bakuto further underground. During this time, there was also a large movement from the rural areas into the cities. As a result, yakuza moved to the cities and started to provide protection to certain urban districts or activities, such as commercial, entertainment or red-light districts. This protection sometimes evolved into a racket, which often targeted rickshaw or construction businesses.
Also, as Japan began to industrialise and the urban movement really got underway, a third group of yakuza called gurentai began to emerge (though the name gurentai was not given until after WWII). 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 boryokudan (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 engage in suppressing worker's organizations in factories and such activities brought them much closer to the conservative elements of Japanese power structure. During the militarisation of Japan, some of them became the militant wing of Japanese politics known as uyoku (right wing), i.e. ultra-nationalists.
Unlike more traditional yakuza, uyoku did not own turf - they peddled their violence for political gain. The most famous group before WWII was the Kokuryu-kai (Black Dragon Society). 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. Kokuryu-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 the tekiya operation. At the same time, they also moved into controlling major sea ports as well as the entertainment industry. The biggest yakuza umbrella group, '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 Tosei-kai of Hisayuki Machii and eventually with the Inagawa-kai. Fights between individual gangs, however, are ongoing.
Organization and Activities
During the formalization of the yakuza, they adopted the traditional Japanese hierarchical structure of oyabun-kobun where kobun (children) owe their allegiance to the oyabun (father). In a much later period, the code of "jingi " (justice and duty) was developed where loyalty and respect are a way of life. The relationship of oyabun-kobun is formalized by ceremonial sharing of sake from a single cup. This is not exclusive practice of yakuza, as this is still a common practice of Japanese Shinto wedding.
During the fascist period of Japan, the more traditional tekiya/bakuto form of organisation declined as the entire population were mobilised to 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. Unlike its Italian counterpart, yakuza accept non-Japanese as members (such as Korean Japanese) and blood relation is not necessary.
Yakuza groups are headed by an Oyabun ("father") or Kumicho (family head) who gives orders to his subordinates, the kobun ("children"). In this respect, the organization is a variation of usual Japanese Senpai-Kohai (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 no women involved except the Oyabun`s wife who is called “ane-san” (older sister). This is due to the fact that women, in general, are considered weak and unable to possess the absolute loyalty required of Yakuza. Their role is therefore to raise children and provide for their husband’s comfort.
Each members connection are ranked by the hierarchy of sakazuki (sake sharing). Kumicho are at the top, and control various saiko-komon (senior advisors). The saiko-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 immediate family and ranked in term 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 rank organisations. In the yamaguchi gumi, which controls some 2500 businesses and 500 yakuza groups, there are even 5th rank subsidiary organisations.
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. Prosthetic tips have been developed to disguise this distinctive appearance, and it was even said that 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 (this was not done, however).
Much of the current activities of yakuza can be understood in their feudal origin. First, they are not a secret society like their counterparts of Italian mafia and Chinese triads. The word "mafia" means those organisations which can not have open offices. Yakuza always have an open office with a (wooden) board on the front door displaying their group name or their emblem. Members often wear sunglasses and colourful suits so that their profession can be immediately recognised by civilians (katagi). 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 suits.
Until recently, the majority of yakuza income came from protection rackets in shopping, entertainment and red-light districts within their territory. This is closely associated with reluctance of these business establishments to seek help from Japanese police forces. Japanese police are also reluctant to interface with internal matters in recognised communities such as shopping arcades, schools/universities, night districts and so on. In this sense, yakuza are still regarded as semi-legitimate organisations. For example, immediately after the Kobe earthquake, Yamaguchi-gumi whose headquarters are in Kobe mobilised itself to provide disaster relief services, and this was reported by media as a contrast to the much slower response by the Japanese government. For this reason, many yakuza regard their income and score (shinogi) as a collection of a feudal tax.
Yakuza frequently engage in a uniquely Japanese form of extortion, known as sokaiya. In essence, it is a specialised 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 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 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. Jiageya specialize in inducing holders of small real estate to sell their property so that estate companies can carry out much larger development plan. The bubble economy of 80s are often blamed on real estate speculation by banking subsidiaries. After the collapse of 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.
As a matter of principle, theft is not recognised as a legitimate activity of yakuza. This is in line with idea that their activities, along with their office, is 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.
Due to their history as a legitimate feudal organisation as well as their connection to Japanese political system through the uyoku, yakuza are somewhat a part of the Japanese establishment. Assassination of government officals by mafia as in Italy would be unthinkable in Japan, as such acts would make the semi-open nature of yakuza activities impossible. If a yakuza organisation does commit an open crime such as murder, a member from the yakuza organisation will often volunteer to turn themselves in to protect senior member of organisation. That also saves the police the trouble of investigation. In 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 truce in public. In 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.