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  , also known as   and violence groups, are members of traditional organized crime syndicates in Japanmarker.


The term Yakuza comes from a Japanese game, Oicho-Kabu (played with hanafuda or kabufuda cards). The worst hand in the game is a set of eight, nine and three. In traditional Japanese forms of counting, these numbers are called Ya, Ku and Sa, thus the origin of the word yakuza. The yakuza took this name because the Ya-Ku-Za hand requires the most skill (at judging opponents, etc.) and, obviously, the best luck in order to win. The name was also used because it signified bad fortune, presumably for anyone who went up against the group.

Divisions of origin

Despite uncertainty about the single origin of Yakuza organizations, most modern Yakuza derive from two classifications which emerged in the mid-Edo Period: tekiya, those who primarily peddled illicit, stolen or shoddy goods; bakuto, those who were involved in or participated in gambling.

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.

The Edo government eventually formally recognized such tekiya organizations and granted the oyabun (servants) 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 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.

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.


The Burakumin are a group that is socially discriminated against in Japanese society. The burakumin are 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 or leather workers. They traditionally lived in their own secluded hamlets and ghettos. Discrimination against the Burakumin continues into the present day, a legacy of the Japanese feudal/caste system.

According to David E. Kaplan and Alec Dubro, burakumin account for about 70 percent of the members of Yamaguchi-gumi, the biggest Yakuza syndicate in Japan.

Mitsuhiro Suganuma, ex-officer of the Public Security Intelligence Agency, testified that burakumin account for about 60 percent of the members of the entire Yakuza.

Organization and activities


Yakuza hierarchy

During the formation of the yakuza, they adopted the traditional Japanese hierarchical structure of oyabun-kobun where kobun (子分; lit. foster child) owe their allegiance to the oyabun (親分; lit. foster parent). In a much later period, the code of jingi (仁義, justice and duty) was developed where loyalty and respect are a way of life.

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.

During the World War II period in Japan, the more traditional tekiya/bakuto form of organization declined as the entire population was mobilised to participate in 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. Many yakuza start out in junior high school or high school as common street thugs or members of bōsōzoku gangs. Perhaps because of its lower socio-economic status, numerous yakuza members come from Burakumin and ethnic Korean backgrounds.

Yakuza groups are headed by an Oyabun or Kumichō (組長, family head) who gives orders to his subordinates, the kobun. In this respect, the organization is a variation of the traditional Japanese senpai-kōhai (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" (姐さん older sister). When the Yamaguchi-gumi (Family) boss was shot in the late nineties, his wife took over as boss of Yamaguchi-gumi, albeit for a short time.

The Yakuza have a very complex organizational structure. There is an overall boss of the syndicate, the kumicho, and directly beneath him are the saiko komon (senior advisor) and so-honbucho (headquarters chief). The second in the chain of command is the wakagashira, who governs several gangs in a region with the help of a fuku-honbucho who is himself responsible for several gangs. The regional gangs themselves are governed by their local boss, the shateigashira.

Each member's connection is ranked by the hierarchy of sakazuki (sake sharing). Kumicho are at the top, and control various saikō-komon (最高顧問, senior advisors). The saikō-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 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 organisations. In the Yamaguchi-gumi, which controls some 2,500 businesses and 500 yakuza groups, there are even 5th rank subsidiary organisations.


Yubitsume, or the cutting of one's finger, is a form of penance or apology. Upon a first offence, the transgressor must cut off the tip of his left little finger and hand the severed portion to his boss. Sometimes an underboss may do this in penance to the oyabun if he wants to spare a member of his own gang from further retaliation.

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.

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.

Yakuza in prison sometimes perform pearling: for each year spent in prison one pearl is inserted under the skin of the penis.

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.

Another prominent yakuza ritual is the sake-sharing ceremony. This is used to seal bonds of brotherhood between individual yakuza members, or between two yakuza groups. For example, in August 2005, the Godfathers Kenichi Shinoda and Kazuyoshi Kudo held a sake-sharing ceremony, sealing a new bond between their respective gangs, the Yamaguchi-gumi and the Kokusui-kai.

Principal families

Although yakuza membership has declined following an antigang law aimed specifically at yakuza and passed by the Japanese government in 1992, there are thought to be more than 87,000 active yakuza members in Japan today. Although there are many different Yakuza groups, together they form the largest organized crime group in the world. Most yakuza members belong to four principal families (see below.)

Principal families Description Mon
Created in 1915, the Yamaguchi-gumi is the biggest yakuza family, 45% of all yakuza in Japan, with more than 45,000 members divided into 750 clans. Despite more than one decade of police repression, the Yamaguchi-gumi has continued to grow. From its headquarters in Kobe, it directs criminal activities throughout Japan. It is also involved in operations in Asia and the United States. Shinobu Tsukasa, also known as Kenichi Shinoda, is the Yamaguchi-gumi's current oyabun. He follows an expansionist policy, and has increased operations in Tokyomarker (which has not traditionally been the territory of the Yamaguchi-gumi.) Yamabishi (山菱)
, sometimes known as The Sumiyoshi-rengo is the second largest yakuza family, with 10,000 members divided into 177 clans. The Sumiyoshi-kai, as it is sometimes called, is a confederation of smaller yakuza groups. Its current oyabun is Shigeo Nishiguchi. Structurally, Sumiyoshi-kai differs from its principal rival, the Yamaguchi-gumi, in that it functions like a federation. The chain of command is more lax, and although Shigeo Nishiguchi is always the supreme oyabun, its leadership is distributed among several other people.
The Inagawa-kaï is the third largest yakuza family in Japan, with roughly 7,400 members divided into 313 clans. It is based in the Tokyo-Yokohama area and was one of the first yakuza families to expand its operations to outside of Japan. Its current oyabun is Hideki Inagawa.
, sometimes called Founded by Hisayuki Machii in 1948, the Tao Yuai Jigyo Kumiai yakuza family quickly became one of most influential yakuza groups in Tokyomarker. It is composed of yakuza of Korean origin, and numbers more than 1,000 divided into 6 clans. Its current oyabun is Satoru Nomura.

Current activities


Much of the current activities of the yakuza can be understood in the light of their feudal origin. First, they are not a secret society like their counterparts of the Italianmarker mafia and Chinesemarker triads. Yakuza organizations often have an office with a wooden board on the front door, openly displaying their group name or emblem.

Members often wear sunglasses and colourful suits so that their profession can be immediately recognized by civilians (katagi). Even the way many Yakuza walk is different from ordinary citizens. Their arrogant, wide gait is markedly different from the quiet, unassuming way many Japanese go about their business. 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.

Until recently, the majority of yakuza income came from protection rackets in shopping, entertainment and red-light districts within their territory. This is mainly due to the reluctance of such businesses to seek help from the police. The Japanese police are also reluctant to interfere in internal matters in recognized communities such as shopping arcades, schools/universities, night districts and so on.

In this sense, yakuza are still regarded as semi-legitimate organizations. For example, immediately after the Kobe earthquakemarker, 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. For this reason, many yakuza regard their income and hustle (shinogi) as a collection of a feudal tax.

Yakuza are heavily involved in sex-related industries, such as smuggling uncensored pornography from Europe and America into Japan (as the local pornography is censored in ways Western pornography is not). They also control large prostitution rings throughout the country. In Chinamarker, where the law restricts the number of children per household and the cultural preference is for boys, the yakuza can buy unwanted girls for as little as $5,000 and put them to work in the mizu shōbai, which means water trade and refers to the night entertainment business, in yakuza-controlled bars, nightclubs and restaurants.

The Philippinesmarker is another source of young women. Yakuza trick girls from impoverished villages into coming to Japan, where they are promised respectable jobs with good wages. Instead, they are forced into becoming prostitutes and strippers.

Yakuza frequently engage in a uniquely Japanese form of extortion, known as sōkaiya (総会屋). In essence, this is a specialized 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 the 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 the public. Some companies still include payoffs as part of their annual budget.

The Yakuza have a strong influence in Japanese professional wrestling, or puroresu. Most of their interest in wrestling activities and promotions is purely financial. The Yakuza have mostly gotten involved by financially supporting wrestling promotions with fading fortunes, or simple business loans.

Many venues used by wrestling (arenas, stadiums, and so forth) are owned by or connected to the Yakuza, and as such, when a promotion uses one of their sites, the Yakuza receive a percentage of the gate. The Yakuza as a whole is regarded as a great supporter of both puroresu and MMA.

It's not unusual for wrestlers to receive specific instructions on what to do in their matches so as to appeal just to Yakuza members in the crowd. It is thought in Japan that it is safe to say that none of the large wrestling promotions in Japan would fold, because they would be rescued by the Yakuza.

The pioneer of wrestling in Japan, Rikidōzan, was killed by the Yakuza. Former WWE wrestler Yoshihiro Tajiri was asked to start a Yakuza gimmick, an offer he quickly refused, fearing that he would be targeted by the real Yakuza. Professional wrestler Yoshiaki Fujiwara is often referred to as Kumicho (i.e., "Godfather") and his wrestling promotion was called the Pro Wrestling Fujiwara Gumi. He often portrays Yakuza figures as an actor on Japanese television comedies and dramas.

Yakuza also have ties to the Japanese realty market and banking, through jiageya (地上げ屋). Jiageya specialize in inducing holders of small real estate to sell their property so that estate companies can carry out much larger development plans. Japan's bubble economy of the 1980s is often blamed on real estate speculation by banking subsidiaries. After the collapse of the 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.

Yakuza have been known to make large investments in legitimate, mainstream companies. In 1989, Susumu Ishii, the Oyabun of the Inagawa-kai (a well known Yakuza group) bought US$ 255 million worth of Tokyo Kyuko Electric Railway's stock. Japan's Securities and Exchange Surveillance Commission has knowledge of more than 50 listed companies with ties to organized crime, and in March 2008 the Osaka Securities Exchange decided to review all listed companies and expel those with Yakuza ties.

As a matter of principle, theft is not recognised as a legitimate activity of yakuza. This is in line with the idea that their activities are 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.

There is much evidence of Yakuza involvement in international crime. There are many tattooed Yakuza members imprisoned in various Asian prisons for such crimes as drug trafficking and arms smuggling. In 1997, one verified Yakuza member was caught smuggling 4 kilograms (8.82 pounds) of heroin into Canada.

In 1999, Italian-American Mafia Bonanno family member, Mickey Zaffarano, was overheard talking about the profits of the pornography trade that both families could profit from. Another Yakuza racket is bringing women of other ethnicities/races, especially East European and Asian to Japan under the lure of a glamourous position, then forcing the women into prostitution.

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. In the 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 a truce in public. At 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.

United States

The Yakuza have had presence in Los Angelesmarker, San Franciscomarker,Yakuza: Japan's Criminal Underworld (2003) Kaplan, D. & Dubro, A Part IV San Bernardinomarker, Seattlemarker, Las Vegas, Arizonamarker, Houstonmarker, Floridamarker, Virginiamarker, and New York Citymarker.

Yakuza activity in the United Statesmarker is mostly relegated to Hawaiimarker, but have made their presence known in other parts of the country. The Yakuza are said to use Hawaii as a way station between Japan and mainland America, smuggling crystal methamphetamine into the country and smuggling back firearms to Japan. They easily fit into the local population, since many tourists from Japan and other Asian countries visit the islands on a regular basis. They also work with local gangs, funneling Japanese tourists to gambling parlors and brothels.

In California, the Yakuza have made alliances with local Vietnamese and Korean gangs as well as Chinese triads. In New York City, they appear to collect finders fees from American mafiosos and businessmen for guiding Japanese tourists to gambling establishments, both legal and illegal.

Handguns manufactured in the U.S. account for a large share (33%) of handguns seized in Japan, followed by Chinamarker (16%), and the Philippinesmarker (10%). In 1990, a Smith & Wesson .38 caliber revolver that cost $275 in the U.S. could sell for up to $4,000 in Tokyo, and by 1997 it could sell for $500 due to the proliferation of guns in Japan during the 1990s.

The FBI suspects that the Yakuza use various operations to launder money in the U.S.

In 2001, the FBImarker's representative in Tokyo arranged for Tadamasa Goto, the head of the group Goto-gumi, to receive a liver transplant in the United Statesmarker, in return for information of Yamaguchi-gumi operations in the U.S. This was done without prior consultation of the NPA. The journalist who uncovered the deal received threats by Goto and was given police protection in the US and in Japan.


Yakuza in Mexicomarker are most notably involved in illegal immigration. There were cases in the 1990s of Yakuza recruiting young women (mainly with diplomas and good English knowledge) with promises of legitimate work in Japanmarker. When the women arrived in Japan they were forced into prostitution. Some women were able to escape their employers and return home to Mexico and alert authorities. In some incidents, Mexican authorities were able to apprehend the Yakuza members and deported them as illegal immigrants.

Similar incidents have also occurred in Perumarker where women have been enticed to work in Japan. The Association of Hispanic Women Against Discrimination and Gender Violence or "Women in Action" estimates nearly 3,000 Mexican women recruited by the various Yakuza clans prostitute themselves in Japan.

Ethnic Korean Yakuza

While Koreans in Japan comprise only 0.05% of the population, they are a prominent part of Yakuza, despite or perhaps because Koreans suffer severe discrimination in Japanese society along with burakumin.Yakuza: Japan's Criminal Underworld (2003) Kaplan, D. & Dubro, A. p. 133. In the early 1990s, 18 of 90 top bosses of Inagawa-kai were ethnic Koreans. National Police Agency suggested Koreans comprised 10% along with 70% of burakumin in Yamaguchi-gumi. Some of the representatives of the designated Bōryokudan are also. The Korean significance had been an untouchable taboo in Japan and one of the reasons that the Japanese version of Kaplan and Dubro's Yakuza (1986) had not been published until 1991 with deletion of Korean-related description such as the component of Yamaguchi-gumi.

Although Japanese-born people of Korean ancestry are a significant segment of the Japanese population, they are still considered resident aliens because of their nationality. But Koreans, who are often shunned in legitimate trades, are embraced by the Japanese yakuza precisely because they fit the group's "outsider" image.

The man who paved the way for Korean-Japanese in Japan by organizing Tōsei-kai was the Korean-Japanese yakuza godfather Hisayuki Machii.Kaplan and Dubro (2003) p. 48, 228. Born Chong Gwon Yong in 1923 in Korea under Japanese rule, Machii was an ambitious street hood who saw opportunity in Japan and seized it.

After the Japanese surrender, Machii worked with the United Statesmarker Counter Intelligence Corps, which valued his staunch anti-communist beliefs. While leaders of the Japanese yakuza were imprisoned or under close scrutiny by the American occupying forces, the Korean yakuza were free to take over the lucrative black markets. But rather than trying to rival the Japanese godfathers, Machii made alliances with them, and throughout his career, he remained close to both Kodama and Taoka.

In 1948, Machii established the Tosei-kai (Voice of the East Gang) and soon took over Tokyo's Ginza district. The Tosei-kai became so powerful in Tokyo that they were known as the Ginza police, and even the Yamaguchi-gumi's all-powerful Taoka had to cut a deal with Machii to allow that group to operate in Tokyo.

Machii's vast empire included tourism, entertainment, bars and restaurants, prostitution, and oil importing. He and Kodama made a fortune on real estate investments alone. More importantly, he brokered deals between the Korean government and the yakuza that allowed Japanese criminals to set up rackets in Korea.

Thanks to Machii, Korea became the yakuza's home away from home. Befitting his role as fixer between the underworlds of both countries, Machii was allowed to acquire the largest ferry service between Shimonoseki, Japan, and Busanmarker, South Korea—the shortest route between the two countries.

In the mid-1960s, pressure from the police forced Machii to officially disband the Tosei-kai. He formed two supposedly legitimate organizations around this time, the Toa Sogo Kigyo (East Asia Enterprises Company) and Toa Yuai Jigyo Kumiai (East Asia Friendship Enterprises Association), which became fronts for his criminal activities.

He was widely believed to have helped the Korean Central Intelligence Agency kidnap then-leading Korean opposition leader Kim Dae Jung from a Tokyo hotel (see kidnapping of Kim Dae-Jung). Kim was whisked out to sea where he was bound, gagged, blindfolded and fitted with weights so that his body would never surface.

The execution by drowning was abruptly cancelled when an aircraft buzzed the ship, and Kim was mysteriously delivered to his neighborhood in Seoul. American intervention is said to have saved his life. A police investigation revealed that Machii's people had rented every other room on the floor of the hotel where Kim had been staying, but Machii was never charged with any crime in connection with kidnapping. Machii "retired" in his 80s and was frequently seen vacationing in Hawaiimarker. He died on September 14, 2002.

Also, Tokutaro Takayama was the kaicho of the Fourth Aizukotetsu yakuza gang. An ethnic Korean, he rose to power as the head of the Kyoto-based gang until his retirement in the 1990s.

See also




  1. Bruno, A. (2007). "The Yakuza, the Japanese Mafia" CrimeLibrary: Time Warner


  • Kaplan, David, Dubro Alec. (1986). "Yakuza" Addison-Wesley (ISBN 0-201-11151-9)
  • Kaplan, David, Dubro Alec. (2003). "Yakuza: Expanded Edition" University of California Press (ISBN 0-520-21562-1)
  • Hill, Peter B.E. (2003). "The Japanese Mafia: Yakuza, Law, and the State" Oxford University Press (ISBN 0-19-925752-3)
  • Johnson, David T. (2001). "The Japanese Way of Justice: Prosecuting Crime in Japan" Oxford University Press (ISBN 0-19-511986-X)
  • Miyazaki, Manabu. (2005) "Toppamono: Outlaw. Radical. Suspect. My Life in Japan's Underworld" Kotan Publishing (ISBN 0-9701716-2-5)
  • Seymour, Christopher. (1996). "Yakuza Diary" Atlantic Monthly Press (ISBN 0-87113-604-X)
  • Saga, Junichi., Bester, John. (1991) "Confessions of a Yakuza: A Life in Japan's Underworld" Kodansha America
  • Schilling, Mark. (2003). "The Yakuza Movie Book" Stone Bridge Press (ISBN 1-880656-76-0)
  • Sterling, Claire. (1994). "Thieves' World" Simon & Schuster (ISBN 0-671-74997-8)
  • Sho Fumimura (Writer), Ryoichi Ikegami (Artist). (Series 1993-1997) "Sanctuary" Viz Communications Inc (Vol 1: ISBN 0-929279-97-2; Vol 2:ISBN 0-929279-99-9; Vol 3: ISBN 1-56931-042-4; Vol 4: ISBN 1-56931-039-4; Vol 5: ISBN 1-56931-112-9; Vol 6: ISBN 1-56931-199-4; Vol 7: ISBN 1-56931-184-6; Vol 8: ISBN 1-56931-207-9; Vol 9: ISBN 1-56931-235-4)
  • Tendo, Shoko (2007). "Yakuza Moon: Memoirs of a Gangster's Daughter" Kodansha International [7338] (ISBN 978-4-7700-3042-9)


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