, also known as and violence groups, are members of traditional organized crime syndicates in Japan.
The term Yakuza
comes from a Japanese game, Oicho-Kabu
(played with hanafuda
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
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
(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.
(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
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.
are a group that is socially
discriminated against in Japanese society. The burakumin are
communities of the feudal era
, which mainly comprised
those with occupations considered tainted with death or ritual impurity
, such as executioners
. They traditionally lived in their own secluded
. Discrimination against the Burakumin
continues into the present day, a legacy of the Japanese feudal
According to David E. Kaplan
and Alec Dubro, burakumin
account for about 70 percent of the
members of Yamaguchi-gumi
biggest Yakuza syndicate in Japan.
Mitsuhiro Suganuma, ex-officer of the Public Security Intelligence
, testified that burakumin account for about 60 percent
of the members of the entire Yakuza.
Organization and activities
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
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
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
and ethnic Korean
Yakuza groups are headed by an Oyabun
(組長, family head) who gives orders to his subordinates, the
. In this respect, the organization is a variation of
the traditional Japanese senpai
(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
directly beneath him are the saiko komon
(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
himself responsible for several gangs. The regional gangs
themselves are governed by their local boss, the
Each member's connection is ranked by the hierarchy of sakazuki
(sake sharing). Kumicho are at the top, and control various
(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
, 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
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
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
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
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
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
||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 Tokyo (which has
not traditionally been the territory of the
|, 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
|, sometimes called
||Founded by Hisayuki Machii in 1948, the Tao Yuai Jigyo
Kumiai yakuza family quickly became one of most influential yakuza
groups in Tokyo. It
is composed of yakuza of Korean origin, and numbers more than 1,000
divided into 6 clans. Its current oyabun is Satoru Nomura.
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 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.
Members often wear sunglasses and colourful suits so that their
profession can be immediately recognized by civilians
). 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
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 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.
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
Europe and America into Japan (as the local pornography
Western pornography is not). They also control large prostitution
rings throughout the country. In China, 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.
Philippines is another source of young women.
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
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
(i.e., "Godfather") and his wrestling promotion
was called the Pro Wrestling
. 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,
(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
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
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
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
In 1999, Italian-American Mafia Bonanno family
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
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
(extreme right-wing political
groups), yakuza are somewhat a part of the Japanese establishment.
In the early 80s in Fukuoka
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.
have had presence in Los
Japan's Criminal Underworld (2003) Kaplan, D. & Dubro, A Part
Bernardino, Seattle, Las Vegas, Arizona, Houston, Florida, Virginia, and New York City.
activity in the United
States is mostly relegated to Hawaii, but have
made their presence known in other parts of the country.
Yakuza are said to use Hawaii as a way station between Japan and
mainland America, smuggling crystal methamphetamine
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 China (16%), and
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.
representative in Tokyo arranged for Tadamasa Goto, the head of the group Goto-gumi, to receive a liver transplant in the United States, 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.
Mexico 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
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.
incidents have also occurred in Peru 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
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
. Some of the
representatives of the designated
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"
The man who paved the way for Korean-Japanese in Japan by
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
was an ambitious street hood who saw opportunity in Japan and
Japanese surrender, Machii worked with the United States Counter
Intelligence Corps, which valued his staunch anti-communist beliefs.
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
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
, and even the Yamaguchi-gumi's all-powerful Taoka had
to cut a deal with Machii to allow that group to operate in
Machii's vast empire included tourism, entertainment, bars and
, 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.
his role as fixer between the underworlds of both countries, Machii
was allowed to acquire the largest ferry service between Shimonoseki, Japan, and Busan, 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
kidnap then-leading Korean opposition
leader Kim Dae Jung
from a Tokyo hotel
(see kidnapping of Kim
). Kim was whisked out to sea where he was bound,
gagged, blindfolded and fitted with weights so that his body would
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 Hawaii.
died on September 14, 2002.
Also, Tokutaro Takayama
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.
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