History of Japanese Organized Crime, the Yakuza

Japanese man posing as a mobster in dark alley

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They are famous figures in Japanese movies and comic books - the yakuza, sinister gangsters with elaborate tattoos and severed little fingers. What is the historical reality behind the manga icon, though?

Early Roots

The yakuza originated during the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603 - 1868) with two separate groups of outcasts. The first of those groups were the tekiya, wandering peddlers who traveled from village to village, selling low-quality goods at festivals and markets. Many tekiya belonged to the burakumin social class, a group of outcasts or "non-humans," which was actually below the four-tiered Japanese feudal social structure

In the early 1700s, the tekiya began to organize themselves into tight-knit groups under the leadership of bosses and underbosses. Reinforced by fugitives from the higher classes, the tekiya started to participate in typical organized crime activities such as turf wars and protection rackets. In a tradition that continues to this day, tekiya often served as security during Shinto festivals, and also allocated stalls in the associated fairs in return for protection money.

Between 1735 and 1749, the shogun's government sought to calm gang wars between different groups of tekiya and reduce the amount of fraud they practiced by appointing oyabun, or officially sanctioned bosses. The oyabun was allowed to use a surname and to carry a sword, an honor previously allowed only to samurai. "Oyabun" literally means "foster parent," signifying the bosses' positions as the heads of their tekiya families.

The second group that gave rise to the yakuza was the bakuto, or gamblers. Gambling was strictly forbidden during Tokugawa times and remains illegal in Japan to this day. The bakuto took to the highways, fleecing unsuspecting marks with dice games or with hanafuda card games. They often sported colorful tattoos all over their bodies, which led to the custom of full-body tattooing for modern-day yakuza. From their core business as gamblers, the bakuto branched out naturally into loan sharking and other illegal activities.

Even today, specific yakuza gangs may identify themselves as tekiya or bakuto, depending on how they make the majority of their money. They also retain rituals used by the earlier groups as part of their initiation ceremonies.

Modern Yakuza

Since the end of World War II, yakuza gangs have rebounded in popularity after a lull during the war. The Japanese government estimated in 2007 that there were more than 102,000 yakuza members working in Japan and abroad, in 2,500 different families. Despite the official end of discrimination against burakumin in 1861, more than 150 years later, many gang members are descendants of that outcast class. Others are ethnic Koreans, who also face considerable discrimination in Japanese society.

Traces of the gangs' origins can be seen in the signature aspects of yakuza culture today. For example, many yakuza sport full-body tattoos which are made with traditional bamboo or steel needles, rather than modern tattooing guns. The tattooed area may even include the genitals, an incredibly painful tradition. The yakuza members usually remove their shirts while playing cards with each other and display their body art, a nod to the bakuto traditions, although they generally cover up with long sleeves in public.

Another feature of yakuza culture is the tradition of yubitsume or severing the joint of the little finger. Yubitsume is performed as an apology when a yakuza member defies or otherwise displeases his boss. The guilty party cuts off the top joint of his left pinkie finger and presents it to the boss; additional transgressions lead to the loss of additional finger joints. 

This custom originated in Tokugawa times; the loss of finger joints makes the gangster's sword grip weaker, theoretically leading him to depend more on the rest of the group for protection. Today, many yakuza members wear prosthetic fingertips to avoid being conspicuous.

The largest yakuza syndicates operating today are the Kobe-based Yamaguchi-gumi, which includes about half of all active yakuza in Japan; the Sumiyoshi-kai, which originated in Osaka and boasts about 20,000 members; and the Inagawa-kai, out of Tokyo and Yokohama, with 15,000 members. The gangs engage in criminal activities such as international drug-smuggling, human trafficking, and arms smuggling. However, they also hold significant amounts of stock in large, legitimate corporations, and some have close ties with the Japanese business world, the banking sector, and the real estate market.

Yakuza and Society

Interestingly, after the devastating Kobe earthquake of January 17, 1995, it was the Yamaguchi-gumi who first came to the aid of victims in the gang's home city. Likewise, after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, different yakuza groups sent truck-loads of supplies to the affected area. Another counter-intuitive benefit from the yakuza is the suppression of petty criminals. Kobe and Osaka, with their powerful yakuza syndicates, are among the safest towns in a generally safe nation because small-fry crooks do not trespass on yakuza territory.

Despite these surprising social benefits of the yakuza, the Japanese government has cracked down on the gangs in recent decades. In March of 1995, it passed tough new anti-racketeering legislation called the Act for Prevention of Unlawful Activities by Criminal Gang Members. In 2008, the Osaka Securities Exchange purged all of its listed companies that had ties to the yakuza. Since 2009, police across the country have been arresting yakuza bosses and shutting down businesses that cooperate with the gangs.

Although the police are making serious efforts to suppress yakuza activity in Japan these days, it seems unlikely that the syndicates will disappear entirely. They have survived for more than 300 years, after all, and they are closely entwined with many aspects of Japanese society and culture.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "History of Japanese Organized Crime, the Yakuza." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/the-yakuza-organized-crime-195571. Szczepanski, Kallie. (2023, April 5). History of Japanese Organized Crime, the Yakuza. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-yakuza-organized-crime-195571 Szczepanski, Kallie. "History of Japanese Organized Crime, the Yakuza." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-yakuza-organized-crime-195571 (accessed June 3, 2023).