YAKUZA AND ORGANIZED CRIME IN JAPAN: HISTORY, HONOR, PUNCH PERMS, PINKIES AND TATTOOS

YAKUZA AND ORGANIZED CRIME IN JAPAN

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The yakuza are members of traditional organized crime syndicates in Japan. It also describes a network of 22 gangs divided into factions that compete for wealth and influence. Their traditional sources of income have been as prostitution, loan sharking, extortion gambling and drug smuggling. In recent decades they have become more involved in shady real estate and business dealings. With its roots in medieval groups of gangsters, it is made of members who follow a centuries-old code and has been romanticized by some as being Robin-Hood-like. The yakuza is six times the size of the Italian Mafia and is considerably larger than the Mafia in the United States.

Across Japan, almost 83,000 gangsters operate in 22 crime syndicates, according to police data, that contribute to a mob-controlled economy worth an estimated 20 trillion yen ($242 billion) a year. The National Police Agency estimate that there were about 84,200 gangsters in Japan in 2007, down 500 from the year before. Of these 40,900 were full-time gangsters and 43,300 were part time gangsters. It was the second straight year that part timers exceeded full timers.

Yakuza are also known as gokudo The Japanese police, and media by request of the police, call them bo-ryokudan, literally "violence group", while the yakuza call themselves "ninkyo- dantai", "chivalrous organizations". The yakuza are notorious for their strict codes of conduct and very organized nature. They are very prevalent in the Japanese media and operate internationally. In July 2010, the National Police Agency issued a report that said multinational crime organizations were becoming “increasingly globalized” and were increasingly targeting Japan. It discussed how gangs were cooperating more with distinct groups to do things like run underground banks, arrange fake marriages and dissemble stolen cars for export. [Sources: Yomiuri Shimbun, Wikipedia]

Jake Adelstein, a Japan-based journalist and author of Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan, wrote in the Washington Post: “Mobs are legal entities here. Their fan magazines and comic books are sold in convenience stores, and bosses socialize with prime ministers and politicians."

Yakuza Activities and Violence See Separate Articles

Websites and Resources


yakuza documentary Good Websites and Sources: TrueTV Report on the Yakuza trutv.com/library/crime/gangsters ; Organized Crime Registry---The Yakuza orgcrime.tripod.com/japgangint ; Illegal Economy illegaleconomy.com/gangs/yakuza ;Yakuza in Japanese Politics Harvard Asia Quarterly ; Yakuza and Business japansociety.org ;

Yakuza History and Violence History of the Yakuza altman.casimirinstitute.net ; Yakuza Past and Present orgcrime.tripod.com/yakuzahistory ; Photos of a Yakuza Festival Fight tabblo.com/studio/stories Yakuza Culture: Yakuza Movies jingai.com/yakuza/movies ; Tattoos and the Yakuza inventorspot.com ; Punch Perm Hairstyle kid625.com/weblog/2005/12/yakuza_hair ; Film: The Yakuza directed by Sydney Pollack with actor Ken Takakura

Books: Yakuza Moon Memoirs of a Gangster's Daughter by Shoko Tendo and Louise Heal (2009);Yakuza Japan's Criminal Underworld by David Kaplan and Alec Dubro (2009); Confessions of a Yakuza: A Life in Japan’s Underworld by John Bester and Junichi Saga (1995); The Japanese Mafia: Yakuza, Law and the State by Peter B. E. Hill (Oxford University Press, 2003);Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan by Jake Adelstein; Tokyo Underworld by Robert Whiting (Pantheon), describes of world of street pimps, ambitious gangsters and corrupt politicians; Tabloid Tokyo volumes 1 and 2 (Kodansha International), tales of sex, crime and the bizarre. E-Book and Reviews Revelations by Yakuza Daughter guardian.co.uk ; Underground with the Yakuza globalpost.com ; e-book Yakuza, Japan ‘s Criminal Underworld by David Kaplan books.google.com/books

Links in this Website: CRIME IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; THEFTS AND ROBBERIES IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; JUVENILE CRIME IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; FAMOUS MURDERS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; FAMOUS MURDERS IN JAPAN INVOLVING CHILDREN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; YAKUZA AND ORGANIZED CRIME IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; YAKUZA ACTIVITIES AND VIOLENCE Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; AUM SHINROKYO CULT AND THE TOKYO SUBWAY SARIN GAS ATTACK Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; SECURITY, GUNS AND POLICE IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; LEGAL SYSTEM IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; DEATH PENALTY AND PRISON IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan

Number of Gangsters in 2011 Drops to Lowest Level since 1992

In March 2012, Kyodo reported: The number of members and associates of crime syndicates in Japan came to around 70,300 as of the end of last year, the lowest level since 1992, when anti-organized crime law was enforced, the National Police Agency said.

The number sank some 20,000 from 20 years ago as police stepped up their crackdown on organized crime, and local governments worked to exclude criminal groups from their communities, making it difficult for them to raise funds, the NPA said. As a result, groups were forced to disband or lost many their members, according to the agency.

Meanwhile, the number of crime syndicate members and associates rounded up by police last year totaled 26,272, up 586 from a year earlier. Cases involving extortion and gambling decreased but fraud and theft increased. The number of armed attacks at corporations increased 16 to 27, of which two resulted in police clampdowns.

Law enforcement authorities are keeping a vigilant eye on crime syndicates after Kenichi Shinoda, chief of the Kobe-based Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan's largest underworld syndicate, was released from prison last April.

The police agency says total membership of crime syndicates fell from 88,600 in 1990 to 78,600 in 2010. Despite the dip, the yakuza remain a powerful force in Japanese society.

Yakuza Name and Coats of Arms

According to tradition, the name yakuza is derived from the worst possible score in a Japanese card game. It comes from Japan's counterpart to Black Jack, Oicho- Kabu. The general difference between the cardgames is that in Oicho- Kabu is that a winning total of the cards is 19 instead of 21. As you see, the sum of 8, 9 and 3, is 20, which is over in Oicho-Kabu. In a 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. It's from there the name, yakuza is derived... without worth to society. This doesn't mean that they have no use for the society, it means that the members are people that somehow do not fit in the society, in other words societies misfits. [Source: "Okinawa Japan Virtual Ginza Your Door to Okinawa Japan," April 7 2002]

Jake Adelstein wrote on the The Atlantic Online: All yakuza groups have a coat of arms or crest known as a daimon that represents the group. The Yamaguchi-gumi daimon is often called hishi-gata because of its shape. Cops in Tokyo who investigate organized crime, because of their similarity in appearance to the yakuza they arrest, sometimes jokingly refer to the flower-symbol of the TMPD, as their own daimon. Sakurada literally means, "field of cherry blossoms." [Source: Jake Adelstein, The Atlantic, October Oct 1, 2011]

Openness of the Yakuza in Japan

Incredibly, yakuza membership is not illegal. "In most other countries crime syndicates are banned, but Japan still recognises their right to exist," Atsushi Mizoguchi, Japan's foremost expert on organised crime, told The Guardian. Yakuza gangs are not a secret society like their counterparts of the Italian mafia and Chinese triads. Yakuza organizations often have an office with a wooden board on the front door, openly displaying their group name or emblem

Until recently many yakuza members worked out offices with the names of their organizations prominently displayed. Some yakuza members carry business cards with the name of their crime syndicate on it.Jake Adelstein wrote on the The Atlantic Online: The government tacitly recognises their existence, and they are classified, designated and regulated. Yakuza make their money from extortion, blackmail, construction, real estate, collection services, financial market manipulation, protection rackets, fraud and a labyrinth of front companies including labour dispatch services and private detective agencies. They do the work that no one else will do or find the workers for jobs no one wants.

The police have traditionally been tolerant of the yakuza. The roots of this towards can be traced back to the 1800s, when the forerunners of the yakuza were permitted to carry weapons, provided they helped to maintain order when the police were short of manpower.

Yakuza’s Role in Japanese Society

The Yakuza have traditionally been itinerant gamblers, peddlers, renegade warriors and roving bandits. They served shoguns and municipalities and stories about them legend includes a distinct Robin Hood quality. This quality emerged during the Kobe Earthquake, when the yakuza group Yamaguchi-gumi quickly mobilized on the scene and provided assistance to Kobe's earthquake victims more quickly and efficiently than the national government initially did. Yakuza form a central theme in Japan's popular culture and trace their origins to at least the 17th century, making them older than the Sicilian Mafia. [Source: "Okinawa Japan Virtual Ginza Your Door to Okinawa Japan," April 7 2002]

Yakuza strength rises and falls according to the tides of Japanese society, with estimates of core membership ranging from 80,000 to more than 110,000 in the years from 1945 to 1996. 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 organizations, the Yakuza are formed into families, but in Japan other distinctions emerge including that of the oyabun - kobun (father role - child role) relationship, between Yakuza chiefs and their underlings.

The Yakuza evolved into their current form late in the 19th-century under figures like Toyama Mitsuru. This son of a Samurai founded the Genyosha (Dark Ocean) Society, and later Toyama's top aide Ryohei Uchida, who founded the Amur River Society (Black Dragons). Like organized crime in other cultures, the Yakuza began to control construction labor and dockside labor, adding to traditional areas of enterprise in the vices, prostitution, gambling, liquor distribution, and entertainment. In the late 1960s or early 1970s the Yakuza moved into the lucrative narcotics trade and in recent years have stepped up their trade in firearms and other contraband. According to various sources, Yakuza have formed alliances and working relationships with Chinese Triads, Sicilian and American Mafia, Columbian drug cartels, Jamaican Posses, and assorted other criminal organizations throughout the world.

Because of their unique role in Japan's history and popular culture, and their usefulness in providing muscle to control labor unions, and providing anonymous services and vices to the public, police, ultranationalists, government, and political parties, the yakuza are an accepted fact of life in Japan. Yakuza are active worldwide, wherever criminal enterprises flourish. The Yakuza have been very skillful in the employment of intermediaries and the absence of Japanese within a community does not mean an absence of Yakuza.

Yakuza Influence in Japan

Peter Hessler wrote in The New Yorker: the Yakuza are notoriously bad shots, because practice is hard to come by, but somehow they have gained enormous influence. The police estimate that there are nearly eighty thousand members of yakuza organizations, whereas in America the Mafia had only five thousand in its heyday. [Source: Peter Hessler, The New Yorker, January 9, 2012]

Many yakuza became rich during the bubble economy of the eighties and nineties, and they developed extensive corporate structures. Nowadays, yakuza run hedge funds. They speculate in real estate. The economic collapse of the nineteen-nineties is sometimes called "the yakuza recession," because organized crime played such a significant role.

"I can't think of a similar major civilized country where you have this kind of criminal influence," an American lawyer who handles risk assessment on behalf of a major financial firm told me recently, in Tokyo. He has a background in intelligence, and extensive experience reviewing potential investments to make sure they aren't connected to organized crime. "Every month, we turn away about a dozen companies that want to do business with us, because they have ties to the yakuza," he said. He told me that during the crash of 2008 Lehman Brothers lost three hundred and fifty million dollars in bad loans to yakuza front companies, while Citibank lost more than seven hundred million. The lawyer didn't want me to use his name or identify his firm.

American reporter Jake Adelstein told Press Freedom News and Views: Yakuza business operations often affect political and economic interests, the latter’s bread and butter, says Adelstein---whose reporting revealed that a talent agency with the power to grant ratings-grabbing media interviews with some of the country’s top celebrities was run by organized crime.

Yakuza History

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Some have suggested that the yakuza are the true heirs of the samurai. Both are organized into a strong hierarchal systems based on honor and subservience. Both regard violence as an efficient way to get things done. And both have a strong sense of tradition and pride.

Yakuza expert Peter B. E. Hill argues that the Robin Hood and samurai links are not accurate. He says the yakuza are more closely linked to insurgent criminals who defined themselves by their “reactionary political views, exaggerated attire, elaborate rituals and defiant self-exclusion” and grew out of three groups: 1) bakuo gamblers (first recorded in the 7th century), 2) tekita itinerant peddlers and 3) civil defense groups used by the Tokugawa shogunate in the early 17th century to combat reactionary insurgent gangs.

After World War II, the yakuza was on the forefront of the anti-Communist movement In one famous incident in 1952 yakuza thugs surrounded the parliament building in Tokyo to keep out left-leaning legislators while the Subversive Activities Bill was passed.

Origin of the Yakuza

The origin of the yakuza can be traced as far back as to the year 1612 to men known as kabuki-mono (the crazy ones). Their odd clothing style, the distinct haircuts and bad behavior, longswords quickly got everybody's attention. They were known as masterless samurais, ronin, and several of them began to wander around in Japan as a band of robbers, plundering villages and small cities. [Source: "Okinawa Japan Virtual Ginza Your Door to Okinawa Japan," April 7 2002]

Yakuza however do not see kabuki-mono as their "ancestors" instead they feel that they are machi-yakko (city servant). Machi-yakko became the people's heroes, praised by the citizens for their help against kabuki-mono. The Machi-yakko were often weaker, far less trained and equipped than kabuki- mono. Therefore they were compared with England's Robin Hood. Almost all yakuza have the same type of background poor, criminals and misfits. The Yakuza became a family for them. They got help with problems, got attention and could feel a certain safety.

Kabuki-mono were generally samurai who were unemployed during long peaceful times. They were known for their ruthless behavior and terrorizing all the surrounding areas. They were well known for stabbing people for pleasure. Kabukimono gave their groups scary names and spoke in vulgar slang.

Bakuto and Tekiya and the Early History of the Yakuza

The current yakuza did not evolve until about the middle of the 17th century. Its members were bakuto (gamblers) and tekiya (street vendors who often specialized in illegal or stolen goods). Something that was remarkable about them was their loyalty to each other. They protected each other even if it meant going against their own family.

Tekiya (peddlers) were considered one of the lowest social groups in Edo. As they began to form organizations of their own, they took over some administrative duties relating to commerce, such as stall allocation and protection of their commercial activities. 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. [Source: Wikipedia]

The Edo government eventually formally recognized such tekiya organizations and granted the oyabun (leaders) of tekiya a surname as well as permission to carry a sword---the wakizashi, or short samurai sword (the right to carry the katana, or full-sized samurai swords, remained the exclusive right of the nobility and samurai castes). 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 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 society at large, and much of the undesirable image of the yakuza originates from bakuto; this includes the name yakuza itself (ya-ku-za, or 8-9-3, is a losing hand in Oicho-Kabu, a form of blackjack).

Because of the economic situation during the mid-period and the predominance of the merchant class, developing yakuza groups were composed of misfits and delinquents that had joined or formed yakuza groups to extort customers in local markets by selling fake or shoddy goods. The roots of the yakuza can still be seen today in initiation ceremonies, which incorporate tekiya or bakuto rituals. Although the modern yakuza has diversified, some gangs still identify with one group or the other; for example, a gang whose primary source of income is illegal gambling may refer to themselves as bakuto.

History of the Yakuza in Early Industrial and Postwar Japan

Thoroughout history, especially since the modern era, the Kyushu island has been the largest source of the yakuza members, including many renowned bosses in the Yamaguchi-gumi. Isokichi Yoshida (1867-1936) was from the Kitakyushu area and considered the first renowned modern yakuza. Recently Shinobu Tsukasa and Kunio Inoue, the bosses of the two most powerful clans in the Yamaguchi-gumi, are from Kyushu. Fukuoka, the northernmost part of the island, has the largest number of designated syndicates among all of the prefectures.

When Japan began to industrialize, the yakuza began to recruit employees within the construction business and people working at the docksides. They also began to check the rickshaw business. At this time the gambling side was downgraded because the police were cracking down roughly on the bakuto gangs. Tekiya on the other hand prospered and expanded since most of their activities were not considered illegal. [Source: "Okinawa Japan Virtual Ginza Your Door to Okinawa Japan," April 7 2002]

At this time the yakuza began to develop an interest in politics and started affiliations with certain political officials. They began to cooperate with the authorities in return for services and favors and to ease the harassment from the authorities. In the 1920s when democratic reforms were introduced to Japan the the communist and socialist parties were founded. After the Great Depression took hold globally in the 1930 Japanese militarists that opposed democracy and Western liberalism and created secret organizations were created that trained its members in warfare, languages, assassination, blackmail and the like. The ultranationalism terror that resulted murdered two prime ministers and two finance ministers and attacked several politicians and industrialists. The Yakuza supplied these groups with muscle and manpower and training. This type of yakuza became known as unyoke (political right).

After World War II when the American troops occupied Japan the American saw the yakuza as the biggest threat against their forces. They began to watch the yakuza's activities but at the same time rationed out food, creating a black market that made the gangs rich and powerful. It was during this occupations that a new sort of yakuza began to grow: the gurentai (street hustler).

Gurentai were involved primarily in robbery and black market trading. Peter Hessler wrote in The New Yorker, “These outsiders proved to be nimble after Japan’s defeat in the Second World War II, an era explored in “Tokyo Underworld,” by Robert Whiting. During this period organized crime groups established black markets where citizens could acquire necessities and they were skilled at dealing with the occupying Americans.”

These yakuza became influenced by the American gangster movies and began to dress in black suits with white shirts, black sunglasses and cropped hair. They became tougher and more violent; their swords were replaced by firearms. At this time not just gamblers and storekeepers became exposed to violence but also the ordinary people. Between the years of 1958 and 1963 the number of yakuza- members increased over 150 percent to 184,000 members. There are an estimated 5,200 different gangs in Japan during that time. In this era the gangs began to mark out their territories and wars started between them. The wars between the gangs were settled, it is said, by a man named Yoshio Kodama. Kodama was Japan's underworld counterpart to America's Al Capone.

Yakuza Organization

Yakuza clans have been compared to the Sicilian mafia "families". The clan has a hierarchal structure and is structured much like a common family in traditional Japan. The clan chief is called Oyabun (“Father”). Beneath him are his children (“Wakashu”) and brothers (“Kyodai”). These are not his real children and brothers, only designations of rank and position within the clan. All the members in the clan obey the Oyabun and in return he protects them against all dangers. Oyabun is almighty within the clan and his words is the law. All obey him without hesitation or concern for their own life. The oyabun has an adviser that is called Saiko-komon and he has a staff of advocates, accountants, secretaries and advisers. The Wakashu’s boss is called Waka gashira. He is number two in the clan after Oyabun, not in rank but in authority. He acts as a middleman to see that the oyabun's orders are being accomplished.

Yakuza organization is a variation of the traditional Japanese senpai-ko-hai (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 almost entirely by men, and there are very few women involved who are called "nee-san" (older sister). When the 3rd Yamaguchi-gumi boss (Kazuo Taoka) died in the early 1980s, his wife (Fumiko) took over as boss of Yamaguchi-gumi, albeit for a short time.

Wakashu leaders often control their own subgangs and over time can move up in the structure. In this way large clan become large groups made of subgangs and families. The oyabun's Kyodai boss is called Shatei gashira. Shatei gashira is of higher rank than Waka gashira but doesn't have more authority. "The Brothers" have their own "children" or "younger brothers"(Shatei) and Shatei can have their own sub gangs. Everyone obeys their gangleader, but oyabun always has the final word.

Yakuza Members

It has been said that in the yakuza it doesn't matter were you came from and that the yakuza welcomes and takes care of the misfits in the society. Yakuza members can be youth that been abandoned by their parents, school dropouts, burakumin (equivalent of low-cast Japanese), Koreans or Chinese. The gang boss becomes their father and their comrades their brothers. The Yakuza offers not only companionship but also money, status, authority and a sense of belonging. There are no thresholds or requirements in order to become a member. But when you are inside strict obedience to the superiors is demanded. The yakuza sees himself, as Machi-yakko, the people's rescuer and helper. Long before working judicial courts existed in Japan the yakuza existed. If your clans chief couldn't or wouldn't help resolve a dispute you could turn to the local yakuza for help. They solved the problem in return for money. The solution however was often more brutal than if you had turned to the police.

Ethnic Koreans and burakumin dominate the yakuza, perhaps because for many years it was only form of employment open to them. Three quarters of the members of the Yamaguchi Gumi are ethnic Koreans or burakumin. The burakumin (boo-RAH-koo-min) are a group of Japanese that are not ethically different from other Japanese yet they traditionally have had a status similar to that of the untouchables in India. In the old days, they were outcasts who performed unclean tasks like slaughtering animals, butchering, tanning skins, making leather products, digging graves and handling corpses.

There are two main types of yakuza, clan yakuza and freelance yakuza. Freelance yakuza are generally wannabe yakuza that don't commit serious crimes and are usually little more than a group of hustlers. They often have difficulties surviving since the clan yakuza do not afford them any protection or assistance and generally don't allow them to operate within their territories. Clan yakuza can tip the police about crimes that the freelance yakuza commit. If a freelance yakuza earns too much money, the clan yakuza can make him disappear. The clan yakuza however have certain uses for a freelance yakuza. If the clan yakuza needs something done that they not want the clan to be associated with, they pay freelancing yakuza to do their dirty work. Freelance yakuza can also be used as scapegoats for crimes. Freelance yakuza that stay at it often either become clan members or get killed.

Yakuza Appearance and Lifestyle

Takeshi Kitano, a popular film director and television personality who was brought up in a Tokyo neighborhood dominated by the yakuza, said, "When we were kids the stars of the neighborhood were gangsters---they gave us candy and told us to be polite to our parents. They had a positive influence."

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Yakuza members with punch perm
Many yakuza members are street toughs recruited at a young age. Chimpiras are young quasi punks who have bleached yellow or orange hairs, and baggy suits. They look like the members of the British groups Duran Duran or Spandau Ballet and other new Romantics. They sometimes engage in petty crime and are notorious for harassing women. Their dream is to be recruited by the yakuza.

Describing two retired yakuza he met Hessler wrote: “Both men were heavyset with broad noses that loooked to have been broken in the past. Their eyes were incredible expressive---they had high arched brows, as fine as manga brushstrokes, that fluttered when they got excited. One had his shoulders and arms tattooed with chrysanthemums, a patriotic symbol of imperial Japan.

In the old days yakuza members tried to stand out. They wore black pinstriped suits or track suits, had capped teeth and sported greasy pompadours or tight "punch perms." These days they often wear three piece suits and try to blend in more with the crowd. One crime investigator told Time, "The yakuza are so mainstream today that it is hard to pick them out."

Yakuza members are fond of black Mercedes with tinted glass. Some have rows of Hello Kitty dolls sitting on the dashboard. Golf clubs are popular weapons.

Peter Hessler wrote in The New Yorker, “For yakuza, the liver is a crucial body part, a target of self-abuse on a par with the pinkie finger. Many gangsters inject methamphetamines and dirty needles can spread hepatitis Cm which is also a risk of the big tattoos. In addition there’s a lot of drinking and smoking. In the yakuza community, a sick liver is a badge of honor. Something that a proud samurai like Goto brags about in his memoirs (“I drank enough to destroy three livers”). [Source: Peter Hessler, The New Yorker, January 9, 2012]

Stereotypes, Acting, Bluffing and the Yakuza

According to Wikipedia: Old stereotypes are: members often wear sunglasses and colourful suits so that their profession can be immediately recognized by civilians (katagi); and even the way many yakuza walk is different from ordinary citizens. Their wide gait is markedly different from the unassuming way many Japanese prefer to adopt.[citation needed] Alternatively, yakuza can dress more conservatively and flash their tattoos to indicate their affiliation when the need arises. On occasion, they also sport insignia pins on their lapels. One yakuza family even printed a monthly newsletter with details on prisons, weddings, funerals, murders, and poems by leaders.

Comparing being yakuza with acting one yakuza told The New Yorker, “It’s an atmosphere, a presence. My oyabun told me when you’re yakuza people are always watching you. Think of yourself as being onstage all the time. It’s a performance. If you’re bad at playing the role of yakuza, then you’re a bad yakuza.” [Source: Peter Hessler, The New Yorker, January 9, 2012]

Peter Hessler wrote in The New Yorker,”Bluffing always has been part of the image. For the most par, the yakuza eschews violence against civilians, because of the image of criminality was effective enough in an orderly society. “

Yakuza Tattoos

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Some yakuza members have body tattoos with dragons, carp, Chinese goddesses, and mythic characters of strength. The tattoos are usually located on the backs, shoulders and upper arms, places hidden by clothing. Often the only place where people see the tattoos is at public baths.

Yakuza members often tattoo themselves with their gang’s or clan's badges, emblems and symbols. The origin of the yakuza tattoo comes from the Bakuto (gamblers), who used to tattoo black ring around their arm for each crime they committed. Later it became a symbol of strength. It can take over 100 hours to do an entire back tattoo. Tattoos were seen as a sign that an individual was unwilling to accommodate himself to society’s rules and norms. Now its is more of a sign of clan affiliations.[Source: "Okinawa Japan Virtual Ginza Your Door to Okinawa Japan," April 7 2002]

Many yakuza have full-body tattoos. These tattoos, known as irezumi in Japan, are still often "hand-poked", that is, the ink is inserted beneath the skin using non-electrical, hand-made and hand held tools with needles of sharpened bamboo or steel. The procedure is expensive and painful and can take years to complete. [Source: Wikipedia]

When yakuza members play Oicho-Kabu cards with each other, they often remove their shirts or open them up and drape them around their waists. This allows them to display their full-body tattoos to each other. This is one of the few times that yakuza members display their tattoos to others, as they normally keep them concealed in public with long-sleeved and high-necked shirts. When new members join, they are often required to remove their trousers as well and reveal any lower body tattoos

Most ordinary Japanese avoid tattoos because of their association with the yakuza and gangsters. People with full body tattoos are often prohibited from entering public baths. Horimono say these associations are unfair. Yes, they say, there is certain amount of machoness associated with full body tattoos and some gangsters have them, but a direct connection between the two comes from formulaic gangster films.

Because tattoos are associated with the yakuza tattoo artists are sometimes called on by police to help solve crimes.

Yakuza Cut-Off Pinkies

Some yakuza members are missing pinkie joints. According to yakuza tradition, disobedience within the gang is punished by severing the last joint on the little finger. If other punishable offenses occur, more joints are removed. Cutting off fingers has traditionally been a way to apologize to bosses and is regarded as a testimony of loyalty and commitment to the gang. In the old days offenders reportedly were forced to cut the joint off themselves to demonstrate their toughness. These days, someone else usually cuts off the finger while a friend holds down the hand.

The origin of the cut off pinkies also comes the Bakuto. If a gambler couldn't pay back a debt or something like that the tip of his little finger was got cut off. The damage to the hand meant the victim could not hold his sword as well as before. The missing digit also showed others that the victim hadn't paid a debt, which could bring other problems, since gambling always been prohibited in Japan. [Source: "Okinawa Japan Virtual Ginza Your Door to Okinawa Japan," April 7 2002]

Its origin stems from the traditional way of holding a Japanese sword. The bottom three fingers of each hand are used to grip the sword tightly, with the thumb and index fingers slightly loose. The removal of digits starting with the little finger moving up the hand to the index finger progressively weakens a person's sword grip. The idea is that a person with a weak sword grip then has to rely more on the group for protection---reducing individual action. In recent years, prosthetic fingertips have been developed to disguise this distinctive appearance. [Source: Wikipedia]

Under yakuza tradition yubitsume is when you cut off a joint of one of your fingers and send it to the Kumicho. This is done as an apology for disobedience. It can be done to atone for a wrongdoing but can also be done to spare one of your "children". When you have done something that your Kumicho dislikes you take a sharp item, cut off a fingertip, wrap it in paper and send it to the Kumicho and beg for his forgiveness. Anthony Bruno wrote in TruTV Crime Library: If a yakuza member displeases or severely disappoints his boss, the punishment is often yubizume, the amputation of the last joint of the little finger. A second offense will require the severing of the second joint of that finger, and additional offenses might require moving on to the next finger. A man knows that he must commit yubizume when his immediate superior gives him a knife and a string to staunch the bleeding. Words are not necessary. [Source: Anthony Bruno, TruTV Crime Library]

One gang member told The New Yorker he cut off his finger in front of his boss in the gang’s office. “There was some trouble and I had to lose the finger,” he said. A doctor stopped the bleeding but did not treat the nerve endings. “To repair the finger would be to take back the apology,” he said. He then explained that finger amputation was connected to seppuku (ritual samurai suicide) and that men with nine fingers could receive special disability grants from the Japanese government but declined this also out of repect to his apology. [Source: Peter Hessler, The New Yorker, January 9, 2012]

When National Geographic reporter William Graves had dinner with yakuza boss he noticed that many of the 40 guests were either missing a joint on their left hand and others kept their hands tucked away in pockets. When the yakuza boss noticed Graves staring at one man who had two joints missing on four of his fingers, the boss explained that the jointless man hadn't been punished, rather he caught his hand in a milling machine. [Source: William Graves, National Geographic, November 1986]

Yakuza Sake Initiation Ritual

The oyabun-kobun relationship is formalized by ceremonial sharing of sake from a single cup. This ritual is not exclusive to the yakuza---it is also commonly performed in traditional Japanese Shinto weddings, and may have been a part of sworn brotherhood relationships. Each member's connection is 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. [Source: Wikipedia]

Those who have received sake from oyabun are part of the immediate family and ranked in terms 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 ranked organizations. In the Yamaguchi-gumi, which controls some 2,500 businesses and 500 yakuza groups, there are even 5th rank subsidiary organizations.

Anthony Bruno wrote in TruTV Crime Library: A successful candidate for admission into the Mafia must participate in a ceremony where his trigger finger is pricked and the blood smeared on the picture of a saint, which is then set on fire and must burn in the initiate’s hands as he swears his loyalty to the family. In the yakuza initiation ceremony, the blood is symbolized by sake (rice wine). The oyabun and the initiate sit face-to-face as their sake is prepared by azukarinin (guarantors). The sake is mixed with salt and fish scales, then carefully poured into cups. The oyabun’s cup is filled to the brim, befitting his status; the initiate gets much less. They drink a bit, then exchange cups, and each drinks from the other’s cup. The kobun has then sealed his commitment to the family. From that moment on, even the kobun’s wife and children must take a backseat to his obligations to his yakuza family. [Source: Anthony Bruno, TruTV Crime Library]

Yakuza Honor and Politeness

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Yakuza video game character
Yakuza members are said to have a strong sense of honor; value obligations, tradition, respect and dignity; hate losing face above all else; and also reportedly squeal easily. They are required to pledge an oath of loyalty to their boss. When making their first set of threats yakuza speak politely in soft tones. Peter Hessler wrote in The New Yorker, yakuza “believe that true yakuza do honorable work: they go after deadbeats who don’t repay loans, and they allow people to solve problems without wasting money on lawyers.” [Source: Peter Hessler, The New Yorker, January 9, 2012]

In Japan, the yakuza have a reputation for being street toughs with hearts of old and men who help the weak and poor. In the past they helped the police to control street violence and intimidate terrorist groups. The bosses often require their subordinates to be polite and friendly and visit their elders on Respect for the Aged Day.

Yakuza members have been elected as mayors and members of parliament. During the Kobe earthquake the Kobe-based Yamaguchi-gumi organized crime group provided mineral water, powdered milk, fresh eggs, bread and diapers to thousands of quake victims. Meals were given out in the parking lot next to Yamaguchi-gumi headquarters at a rate of 8,000 a day Many Kobe residents said they did a better job providing help than the government.

Some say the old traditions are disappearing. Former yakuza boss Takayama told the Washington Post, the yakuza "doesn't care anymore about obligations, tradition, respect and dignity. There are no rules anymore. In America's pioneer days, there were rules that you should never shoot a man in the back. Today in Japan, that kind of rule is dying.

Yakuza, Government, Politics and Right-Wing Political Groups

Peter Hessler wrote in The New Yorker, “At least one Japanese Prime Minister has been documented socializing with yakuza, and politicians have the kind of contact with criminal groups that would destroy a career elsewhere. In the mid-1990s, Shizuka Kamei, who was the minister of exports, admitted that he accepted substantial donations from a yakuza front company though he denied being aware of the criminal links. This did so little damage to his reputation he eventually became minister of the agency that regulated Japan’s finance industry.” [Source: Peter Hessler, The New Yorker, January 9, 2012]

Because of their history as a legitimate feudal organization and their connection to the Japanese political system through the uyoku (extreme right-wing political groups), yakuza are somewhat a part of the Japanese establishment, with six fan magazines reporting on their activities. One study found that one in ten adults under the age of 40 believed that the yakuza should be allowed to exist. In the 1980s in Fukuoka, a yakuza war spiraled out of control and civilians were hurt. It was a large conflict between the Yamaguchi-gumi and Dojin-kai, called the Yama-Michi War. The police stepped in and forced the yakuza bosses on both sides to declare a truce in public.

The yakuza use political connections or intimidate local government officials to secure construction contracts and ignore regulations and avoid taxes. The yakuza also profit from its political and construction connections when the government tries to stimulate the economy by pouring money into public works projects and those projects go to yakuza-affiliated contractors.

Politicians seek money and help of the yakuza to win elections. If a politician borrows money from the yakuza for a campaign, according to the usual agreement, he must pay back twice the amount if he wins. Usually the money is paid after the politician is invited to a yakuza wedding and give the money he owes as a wedding present.

The yakuza cooperated with the Japanese government before a 1995 summit meeting by curtailing its activities during the duration of the meeting. "All members of our group want to do our part for our country," a representative of Yamaguchi-Gumi told the New York Times. "So we agreed to exercise self-control over our businesses."

One parliament member who was shaken down by the yakuza told the Yomiuri Shimbun he was summoned to a bar by one of his supporters, When he arrived there were a number of black luxury cars parked outside and men standing outside that looked like gangsters or bodyguards. Inside, he said, there were around 30 men, who looked liked gangsters, talking loudly. In a meeting that lasted only 10 minutes the legislator said a man who “didn’t have a little finger...offered me and glass of whiskey and water” and asked him to refrain from asking questions about land deals in teh Minami-Aoyama area in Diet sessions.

The legislator, Masaki Itokawa, also received threatening letters and bullets in the mail. Two men with alleged ties to organized crime were arrest for threatening him. One of those arrested, police said, told Itokawa, “I believe my friends in Tokyo won’t forgive you if you continue to ask such question...Your life might be affected. This is an affair related to us and a gang organization.”

A survey in 2009 found that 141 government offices had been harassed by gangster or rightist groups in the previous year.

Yakuza: Good Samaritans?

Immediately after the Kobe earthquake, the Yamaguchi-gumi, whose headquarters are in Kobe, mobilized itself to provide disaster relief services (including the use of a helicopter), and this was widely reported by the media as a contrast to the much slower response by the Japanese government. The yakuza repeated their aid after the 2011 To-hoku earthquake and tsunami, with groups opening their offices to refugees and sending dozens of trucks with supplies to affected areas. [Source: Wikipedia]

Following the To-hoku earthquake and tsunami on 11 March 2011, the Yakuza sent hundreds of trucks filled with "food, water, blankets, and sanitary accessories" to aid the people in the affected areas of the natural disaster. CNNMéxico said that although the Yakuza operates through extorsion and other violent methods, they are also "[moved] swiftly and quietly to provide aid to those most in need." Such actions by the Yakuza are a result of their knowing of what it is like to "fend for yourself," without any government aid or community support, because they are also considered "outcast" and "dropouts from society." In addition, the Yakuza's code of honor reportedly values justice and duty above anything else, and forbids allowing others to suffer. Image Sources: Wikipedia, Wiki Commons, exorsyst blog, British Museum, Samurai archives, YouTube

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2012

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