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All about Japan - Yakuza: Origin and Rituals of the Japanese Criminal Organization

Definition of yakuza

Two Yakuzas during a festival

Name given by the police and the press: Bōryokudan (暴力団 - “Violence group”)

Name given by members: Ninkyō dantai (任侠団体 - “Knightly organization”)

Yakuza (ヤクザ) is the largest criminal faction in Japan and the world, with over 100,000 members.

The word yakuza ("good for nothing") is believed to have originated from the name given to a worthless hand in a Japanese card game similar to baccarat or blackjack. Indeed, the ya-ku-sa ("eight-nine-three") cards, when added together, give the worst possible total in this Japanese game called Oicho-Kabu.

This is a losing combination of the game, implying that the Yakuza are losers, outcasts of society.

Origin of the yakuza

Although this mafia originated in Japan, its history still raises many questions about the origin of its members.

The yakuza made their first appearance during the Edo period. Historical facts date their emergence around the 8th century, as descendants of the Kabuki-mono, samurai who worked under the shogun during the Tokugawa era. The establishment of the "Pax Tokugawa" led to these men becoming unemployed, thus pushing them to become criminals.

They committed various atrocities against the Japanese people and were known for their extravagances and their skill with swordsmanship. However, no written source provides concrete evidence establishing a relationship between the yakuza and these criminals. The yakuza themselves claim to be direct descendants of the Machi-Yakko (city servants) group.

To protect themselves against the abuses committed by these fallen samurai (ronins), some would have formed a group of vigilantes. It is from these defenders of the oppressed that the yakuza drew their customs (such as yubitsume and irezumi). Thus, two distinct castes appeared:

  • The Bakuto, also known as "professional gamblers", who acted as self-appointed vigilantes in cities and also dominated the gambling market. In fact, these games remained the most lucrative activity of the yakuza.
  • The Tekiya, who were found on the streets as street vendors, selling a variety of goods at low prices.

Yakuza crimes, activities and hierarchy

Kabukicho, the red light district of Tokyo, occupied by the yakuza

The Japanese mafia commits few murders or thefts. It is involved in extortion, embezzlement, prostitution, gambling, money laundering, arms and drug trafficking.

Yakuza members are integrated into society, direct or offer protection to certain establishments, particularly in red light districts such as Shinjuku's Kabukichō.

The Yakuza are made up exclusively of men. Women are barely visible, their role limited mainly to discreet support (especially in entertainment venues). Yakuza clans recruit their members directly from the burakumin community or from Koreans.

The hierarchical structure of the Japanese mafia is quite similar to that of the Sicilian mafia. It is pyramidal and family, with the following levels:

  • Oyabun: also called kumicho, equivalent to “godfather”. As in the feudal system, it is a hereditary title transmitted from father to son. Any member who joins the yakuza becomes a protégé (kobun) and takes an oath of loyalty and obedience to the oyabun. Both are bound by a moral code (the code of jingi), and the kobun can eventually become a sponsor to expand the organization.
  • Saiko-komon: advisors who assist the head of the family. This is an administrative position that supervises attorneys, treasurers, etc.
  • Waka-gashira: under the oyabun, he is the number two in the family (sort of right-hand man). He receives direct orders from the patriarch and supervises executives, such as directors.
  • Shatei-gashira: below the waka-gashira in terms of authority, he serves as an intermediary between the number two of the clan and the intermediate members.
  • Wakashu: intermediate rank composed of kyodai (big brothers) and at the bottom of the hierarchy, shatei (little brothers). The junkōseiin is the family apprentice.

Yakuza gang rituals and customs

A Yazuka leader surrounded by his minions

Similar to the Italian mafia, the yakuza hierarchy takes the form of a family. The leader of any yakuza gang or conglomerate is known as the oyabun ("boss/godfather"; literally meaning "parent"), and the followers are known as the kobun ("proteges" or "apprentices") ; considered as children).

Despite their gangster image, they follow a code of honor, like samurai. Loyal, they are forbidden from hiding money from the group, going to the police or disobeying a superior. 

The kobun traditionally takes a blood oath of allegiance during the Sakazuki induction ceremony. A member who violates the yakuza code must show penance via a ritual in which the kobun cuts off his little finger and presents it to his oyabun: this is Yubitsume.

This ritual today causes problems for all former yakuza, who have difficulty reintegrating into society. For example, they are prohibited from opening a bank account and from having a normal office job: they often end up in the construction trades.

According to police estimates, gang membership reached its highest level, around 184,000, in the early 1960s. However, by the start of the 21st century their numbers had fallen to around 80,000, spread across few equally between regular members and associates.

Members are organized into hundreds of gangs, most of them affiliated under the umbrella of one of approximately 20 main gangs. The largest conglomerate is Yamaguchi-gumi, founded around 1915 by Yamaguchi Harukichi.

The Yamaguchi-gumi, the largest yakuza family

Its main activities were centered around entertainment and games. It is one of the largest criminal organizations in the world and also one of the richest. According to a statistical assessment, in 2010 this family represented more than 40% of the yakuza present in Japan.

In the area of ​​organized crime, Yamaguchi-gumi generates several billion dollars each year through its illegal activities. These include arms and drug trafficking, prostitution, extortion and pornography.

Shinobu Tsukasa is the new head of the family, having taken power in 2005 following the retirement of Watanabe Yoshinori. In 2007, Tsukasa launched an expansion campaign in Tokyo, where he established his headquarters. The former headquarters, located in Kobe, is now under the governance of the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi, a secessionist group composed of clans excluded from the Yamaguchi. Despite the increasingly severe laws against the yakuza and their tarnished image, the Yamaguchi-gumi tries to continue.

Yakuza tattoos

Front and back of a yakuza's tattooed body

Tattoo = proof of courage and loyalty of new members, sign of belonging to a clan and representation of the forces of the yakuza (determination - Koi carp, courage - tiger, power - dragon)

They cover the back, buttocks, thighs, torso and arms. Parts are left bare so that the irezumi is hidden by clothing (face, hands, feet, line in the middle of the torso).

The problem with tattoos being so visible? Impossible for the yakuza to access most public baths and other Japanese onsen .


Are the yakuza nice?

Yakuza during a night festival

Although often using blackmail, the organization helped a lot after the earthquakes. For example by providing emergency services, welcoming people into their offices. 

They participate in festivals, like Sanja Matsuri (where they reveal their tattoos).

However, it is best never to mess with them.

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