In Japan, organised crime and criminals are mostly under the control of the yakuza (ヤクザ or やくざ). According to tradition, the word “yakuza” is derived from the worst possible score in oicho-kabu (おいちょかぶ), a Japanese card game similar to blackjack or baccarat. In this game, the last digit of a player’s score determines the outcome of the game. In hand resulting in a score of 20, the worst possible score, a player’s final score would be zero. Among the losing combinations, the phonetic sound of an 8-9-3 sequence is ya – ku – sa.
The yakuza are also known as gokudō (極道). The law enforcement agencies refer to them as bōryokudan (暴力団, lit. “violent gangs”), while they prefer to call themselves euphemistically “chivalrous organisations” (任侠団体, 仁侠団体 ninkyō dantai).
Yakuza traditions signal their presence with tattoos, sunglasses, slicked-down hair (パンチパーマ panchi pāma, “punch perm”) and frequently, missing fingers. With changes in the times, younger yakuza have adopted more conventional grooming, but the other traditions remain. In yakuza gangs, fingers are removed in a ritual called yubitsume (指詰め, lit. “finger shortening”). The reasons for yubitsume are atonement for serious offences, punishment, or as a gesture of gratitude. Usually, the finger cutting for the first offence removes the top joint of the little finger, and the freshly chopped digit is wrapped in a cloth and ceremoniously handed to the offender’s boss (親分 oyabun). Further infractions might result in removal of the next joint of the finger. Formal expulsions from yakuza membership might also include yubitsume as a final mark of punishment.
Initially, the yakuza were thought to be itinerant gamblers (博徒 bakuto), peddlers (的屋, テキ屋 tekiya), renegade warriors and roving bandits (often referred to as kabukimono 傾奇者 or hatamoto yakko 旗本奴, masterless or wandering samurai or ronin, who were dressed in flamboyant clothing and behaved in a rude and violent fashion). They served shoguns and municipalities, and their legend includes a distinct Robin Hood quality that emerged in the aftermath of the Kobe Earthquake and, more recently, the Great Tōhoku Earthquake. In Kobe, the Yamaguchi-Gumi yakuza clan quickly mobilised, providing on-the-scene assistance to earthquake victims long before the national government resolved to act. Similar stories have surfaced after the Tōhoku region had been hit by the disastrous earthquake and tsunami on 11 March 2011.
Yakuza provide a constant, central theme in Japan’s popular culture and trace their origins to at least the 17th century. Therefore, among the world’s criminal organisations they are even older than the Sicilian Mafia. Yakuza strength rises and falls according to the tides of Japanese society, with estimates of the core membership of less than 60,000 (in 2014) and a peak of 184,200 members in 1963, according to Kiyoshi Nakabayashi, former head of the NPA division dealing with organised crime. Some authorities believe Japan’s National Police routinely undercount the yakuza, numbering only those names found in confiscated membership rolls, or recorded from routine police intelligence reports.
Like the Sicilian Mafia and other underworld organisations, the yakuza are formed into families, but in Japan, other distinctions emerge including that of the oyabun – kobun (子分; lit. “foster child”) relationship, between yakuza chiefs and their underlings. They emphasise loyalty, and the importance of seniority: all members of the organisation are expected to obey their seniors without question, sacrificing themselves without hesitation should the need arise. Yakuza culture states that all followers are teppodama (鉄砲玉, lit. “rifle ball”), bullets to be fired by their superiors. The bullet does not think for itself; it is simply aimed and released.
Yakuza family structure
The yakuza evolved into their current form late in the 19th century under figures like Tōyama Mitsuru (頭山満, 1855-1944). This son of a samurai founded the Dark/Black Ocean Society (玄洋社 Gen’yōsha), and later Tōyama’s top aide Ryōhei Uchida (内田 良平, 1873-1937) founded the Amur River Society (Black Dragons, 黒龍会 kokuryūkai). Like organised crime in other cultures, the yakuza began to control construction labour and dockside labour, adding to traditional areas of enterprise in the vices, prostitution, gambling, liquor distribution, and entertainment.
Arrangements between the yakuza, police, ultra-nationalists, government, political parties, and secret societies seemed to have been an accepted fact of life in Japan. The yakuza have a unique role in Japan’s history and popular culture; they are useful in providing muscle to control labour unions, and they offer anonymous services to the public for a variety of typical underworld products in vice and contraband. In the late 1960s or early 1970s the yakuza moved into the lucrative narcotics trade and in recent years have stepped up their business in firearms, other contraband and human trafficking. According to various sources, yakuza have formed alliances and working relationships with Chinese Triads, Sicilian and American Mafia, Columbian drug cartels, Jamaican Posses, and other criminal organisations throughout the world.
Yakuza are active worldwide, wherever criminal enterprises flourish. Also, Yakuza will be encountered in more significant numbers and wield greater influence wherever large communities of overseas Japan reside for work and study. The yakuza have been very skilful in the employment of intermediaries, and the absence of Japanese within a community does not mean an absence of yakuza.
Excerpts from the NPA Report “Crimes in Japan” (2007):
Characteristics of Organized Crimes in 2007
- In 2007, gun-shooting cases occurred in succession as Boryokudan gang activities became more and more invisible. The three major Boryokudan groups strengthened their control. Among them, particularly the Yamaguchi-Gumi increased its dominance of the organised crime scene.
- Boryokudan gangsters arrested in methamphetamine cases increased in number and continued to account for more than half of all methamphetamine-related arrestees.
- Felonious cases using handguns occurred in succession. The number of seized handguns increased significantly.
- Both cleared-up offences and arrests involving foreign visitors to Japan fell in number. However, they continue to follow an increasing trend in the long-term perspective.
- The number of cleared-up money-laundering offences increased. Boryokudan gangsters were still found to be involved in such offences.
Characteristics Indicated by Case Studies
Source: Crimes in Japan in 2007 (PDF, published by the Police Policy Research Center, National Police Academy)
- Recently, Boryokudan organised crime syndicates have advanced into securities exchange business aiming to make a huge amount of money in a shorter period as possible. They target start-up companies whose volume of stocks in circulation and stocks traded in the market is small and intervene in trading by price manipulation to rake in proceeds in the thousands of millions of yen. Their fund-raising methods are becoming more and more adroit and sophisticated.
- They also plot to acquire funds through various methods and ways such as abducting “remittance-soliciting fraud” group members to force them to commit such crimes on their behalf.
- Behind these activities, there are people who gain profit by aiding Boryokudan crime syndicates through operating in a symbiotic relationship with them, causing Boryokudan fund-raising activities to be more clandestine and invisible.
- On the other hand, on the fringe of criminal groups formed by foreign visitors to Japan, there are people who encourage such groups and support them with committing crimes. They include, among others, Japanese who buy stolen goods from larceny groups. Some Japanese were found to have played a leader-like role within such criminal groups.
The three largest yakuza syndicates:
- Yamaguchi-Gumi (六代目山口組 Rokudaime Yamaguchi-Gumi): created in 1915 and with their headquarters in Kobe, the Yamaguchi-Gumi is the most prominent yakuza family, with more than 55,000 members divided into 850 clans. Yamaguchi-Gumi continues to expand their activities even on foreign turf, despite all police efforts to curb their growth.
- Sumiyoshi-kai (住吉会): more like a federation than a family, Sumiyoshi-kai has 20,000 members divided into 277 clans. Their boss Ryoichi Sugiura was shot in his car in Tokyo on January 5, 2007.
- Inagawa-kai (稲川会): based in the Tokyo/Yokohama area, Inagawa-kai has about 15,000 members, divided into 313 clans.
- Bōsōzoku (暴走族, lit. “violent running tribe”): a Japanese subculture and public nuisance, associated with motorcycle gangs. They are known for their reckless driving, jumping red signals, weaving through traffic and removing mufflers. In the past, they have often resorted to violence and were seen as a hotbed for yakuza recruitment. Due to amendments in the road traffic regulations, the police were able to crack down on them more efficiently, reducing their numbers to roughly 9,000 members (in 2009). Those restrictions have resulted in bōsōzoku riding in smaller groups on scooters.
- Burakumin (部落民): “hamlet people”/”village people”, a social minority group and descendants of outcast communities of the feudal era, which mainly comprised those with occupations considered “tainted” with death or ritual impurity (such as executioners, undertakers, workers in slaughterhouses, butchers or tanners), and traditionally lived in their own secluded hamlets and ghettos. Though officially liberated in 1871, they continue to suffer from discrimination. It is estimated that up to 70% of all yakuza descend from them.
- Chimpira (チンピラ): “hoodlum”, low-ranking members of the yakuza, usually those assigned the “dirty jobs”. Notorious for their flamboyantly coloured suits, sun glasses and “punch perms”.
- Images 1-3: Kabukimono appeared in Japan, between the end of the Muromachi era and the beginning of the Edo period. Kabukimono is often translated into English as 'strange things' or 'the crazy ones'. They were masterless or wandering samurai or ronin, or men who had once worked for samurai families who, during times of peace, formed gangs.
- Image 4,6 and 8: Tattooed yakuza members posing
- Image 5: Top members of a yakuza family (probably Yamaguchi-Gumi, the late 70s/early 80s) attending a funeral.
- Image 7: Yubitsume ('finger shortening') is a Japanese ritual to atone for offences to another, a way to be punished or to show sincere apology to another
- Image 9: Tattooed yakuza in a public bath: usually public baths (sentō) prevent yakuza members from entering
- Image 10: Yakuza often take part in local festivals such as Sanja Matsuri where they often carry the shrine through the streets proudly showing off their elaborate tattoos
- Image 11: Notice in a public bath (sentō) requesting 'individuals with tattoos' to stay away
- Image 12: A sign on the perimeter of the Tokyo Sky Tree site advertises the commitment of all the construction companies involved in ensuring no yakuza involvement in the project
- Ex-Tokyo cop speaks out on a life-fighting gangs — and what you can do (Japan Times, 6 Nov 2011)
- Membership of Japan’s yakuza crime gangs falls to the all-time low (The Guardian, 6 Mar 2014)
- National Center for the Elimination of Bōryokudan (in Japanese)
- An Introduction to the Yakuza (Let’s Play Archive)
- Introduction to Yakuza Japanese
- Crimes in Japan in 2007 (PDF, published by the Police Policy Research Center, National Police Academy)
- BBC in pictures: The Yakuza
- Who are Japan's Yakuza? In 60 seconds