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

Definition of yakuza

Two Yakuza at a festival

Name given by the police and the press:  Bōryokudan (Boryokudan- “Groupe de violence”)

Name given by members:  Ninkyō dantai (Ninkyo Yamaguchi- “Organization chevaleresque”)

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

The word yakuza ("good for nothing") is believed to have originated as 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 game.


Yakuza crimes and activities

Kabukicho, the red district of Shinjuku

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

Yakuza members are integrated into society, run or offer protection to certain establishments, especially in red light districts like the Kabukichō of Shinjuku.


Rituals and customs of the yakuza gang

A Yakuza boss with his followers

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 oyabun ("boss/godfather"; literally meaning "relative"), and followers are known as 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 an oath of allegiance in blood, and a member who breaks the yakuza code must show penance through a ritual in which the kobun cuts off his little finger and presents it to his oyabun: this is Yubitsume.

This ritual causes today of problems for all former yakuza, who are struggling to reintegrate into society.summer. For example, they are forbidden to open a bank account and have a normal office job: they often end up in construction trades.

According to police estimates, gang membership peaked at around 184,000 in the early 1960s. closely also between regular members and associates.

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


yakuza tattoos

Tatooed face and back of a yakuza

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

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


Are the yakuza nice?

Yakuza at a night festival

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

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

However, it is better never to mess with them.

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