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While it would be easy to identify them with their Western counterparts, the mafia, or the triads, the yakuza are not quite the same. The list of vices they engage in is nothing new: prostitution, gambling, drugs, human trafficking, pornography. But what sets these gang members, with chopped off fingers and full-body tattoos, apart, is the fact that they are pretty mainstream- gangsters in business suits. Imagine American mafia opening its office on Wall Street and proudly sporting its emblem on the front door? That’s nothing uncommon for the yakuza in Japan-and neither are the press conferences, their own magazine with haiku poems, participation in tsunami relief efforts or mediation of disputes.
The origins of the yakuza can be traced back to feudal Japan: bakuto, outlaws who participated in gambling, and tekiya, or street peddlers, both of them coming from the lowest social groups. The name yakuza is popularly believed to be derived from the card game, oicho-kabu, in which a losing hand is named ya-ku-za.

Yubitsume: Chopping off Fingers
Yakuza members who transgress are forced to cut off their fingers. It starts with a left pinkie, but the more transgressions, the more fingers are to be cut off. Many former yakuza members resort to synthetic fingers to fit better into a society. For this reason, Bob the Builder has 5 fingers in Japan, and 4 everywhere else in the world- so that people would not think he was a yakuza.

Initiation Ritual
The hierarchical structure of a yakuza organization resembles that of a family. New recruits are referred to as a kobun (child), and they are subordinated to oyabun (father). This kobun-oyabun link is cemented in the ritual of sakazukigoto. Kobun and oyabun drink sake, a Japanese rice wine, kobun drinking a smaller portion and oyabun having his glass filled to the brim, a sign of his position of authority. The ritual ends when they swap their drinks.

Sumo connection
In traditional Japanese Kabuki theatre, there is a play about a sumo wrestler who becomes a yakuza. In real life too, there are many sumo wrestlers who became yakuza enforcers or even bosses. Back in 2010, a scandal broke out, with 15 wrestlers and 14 stable masters being accused of participating in illegal gambling organized by the yakuza.

The yakuza sport full-body tattoos ( irezumi) featuring dragons, women, mountains, or samurai. They cover even the private parts of the yakuza, and are seen as a symbol of bravery, because the procedure of their application is very painful and takes a long time. Tattooed skin of dead yakuza members can be found on display in some Japanese museums.

It is not all booze, women, gambling and drugs for the yakuza. They even have a poetic side, their magazine Yamaguchi-gumi Shinpo featured haiku poems and practical life advice for yakuza members. Many yakuza members participated in the Japanese tsunami relief efforts in 2011, delivering supplies and aiding affected people in many ways, because that is what their code of honor demands.

The yakuza comprise three syndicates, the largest of which is Yamaguchi-gumi with 55.000 members and 80 billion dollars worth, making them one of the richest gangs in the world. They are spread internationally, with the US blacklisting several of their leaders. In 2009, Yamaguchi-gumi gave a 12-page exam to its members, testing their knowledge on Anti-Organized Crime Law. Their members are forbidden from engaging in drug trafficking.
Current Yakuza groups and their crests:





Samurai Connection
The earliest ancestors of the yakuza were the kabuki-mono, or the “crazy ones“, rogue samurai ronins (masterless samurai), who often took pleasure in testing the sharpness of their blades on people passing by.

Political Scandals
Keishu Tanaka, Japanese minister of justice, was forced to resign because of his yakuza links, but he is not the only one. The largest political party in Japan, Liberal Democrat Party, also has strong yakuza links, relying on the gang to help its campaign and provide bodyguards to its officials.

Women in the yakuza
There are not many women in the yakuza, but those who are members are known as ane-san (older sisters). History knows of some onna-oyabuns (female godmothers), who had their own gambling crews. Kill Bill: Volume 1, features O-Ren Ishii, the head of the Tokyo yakuza.

Modern-day Robin Hoods
Known by authorities as boryokudan (violent groups), the yakuza prefer to call themselves ninkyo dantai (chivalrous organizations). They portray themselves as modern-day Robin Hoods, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor.

Kanji Yakuza

Katana-Favorite Weapon
Because of samurai connection, the weapon of choice for the yakuza is katana, traditional Japanese sword. Back in 1994, Fujifilm vice president Juntaro Suzuki was slain with katana after refusing to pay bribes.

Yakuza members may sometimes be seen at Pachinko parlors. Though pachinko (legalized form of arcade game based gambling) halls are not necessarily run or managed by the Yakuza.

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Religions in Japan and Religious Symbols in Japan


What is Shintoism? Worshipping the nature and worshiping the ancestors. Japan’s own religion that started with the Emperor Gimmu in BC 600s. Everything has a spirit and humans have a good nature. Evil spirits should be kept away by praying and giving offerings to the higher level spirits. The most important deity is the Sun god Amaterasu.
Important values: Ritual purity, sincerity, animism (mountains, rivers have spirits, people become spirits, words have spirits), presence (no life after death), imperial family is sacred, nature should be preserved and worshipped, people with grudge become evil spirits, festivals are important, festivals are must for social harmony and good harvest

Shrine: Shinto Shrines are called Jinja, Taisha or Jingu. Shinto shrines tend to have elevated basements X shaped roofs. The most famous Shinto Shrine is Ise Jingu located in the Mie Prefecture housing more than 100 shrines in it. There are about 81,000 Shrines in Japan and about 650 of them are in Kyoto. There are about 30,000 Inari shrines in Japan but Fushimi Inari Taisha is the largest Inari shrine.

Shimenawa: Rice Straws and mulberry papers. These thick ropes are put around something purified or something sacred or something that houses a deity (e.g. a tree). The rope represents the straw the sun god Amaterasu hid. The white zig zag papers usually have 3 , 5 or 7 strips and represent the offerings for the deities.

Temizuya: Water basin for the purification ritual. Purification is the most important aspect of Shintoism. The purification ritual 1- Pour water to your left hand 2- Pour water to your right hand 3- Pour water to your left hand and cleans your mouth with that water. 4- Tilt the scoop 90 degrees and let the remaining water clean the scoop.

Tori gates: Tori gates separate the secular world and the sacred world. When entering and leaving under the torii gate, one should bow and not occupy the middle point. The middle is reserved for the deity to walk. Torii gates are always the red/vermillion color which keeps evil spirits away and which represents the “purified.” Sometimes there are torii gates but no shrine (e.g. in  a lake) that torii gate is for the deity that is inside the lake.

Koma Inu: Protective lion dogs. These two dogs are the guardians of the shrines. One of them has an open mouth and the other one has the closed mouth which represents the beginning and ending. In the Fushimi Inari shrine there are foxes instead of dogs.

Kazaridaru: Sake barrels. Rice wine breweries or wealthy people donate these barrels which weigh around 30 liters and cost around 1000 USD. In certain occasions, weddings and celebrations, these barrels are broken and people drink sake from the square-shaped wooden cups. The ones displayed in shrines tend to be used empty ones.

Tomoe: The 3 commas represent the earth, the sky and human. Often displayed on the roof tiles of shrines or taiko drums. They also represent the Shinto gods.

Orange color lanterns: Different from stone lanterns, the orange color lanterns tend to be found mostly at shrines not temples.
Fox statues: Foxes are messengers of gods. Fox statues are often found in Shinto shrines sometimes holding scrolls, keys, gems and rice straws in their mouth. They wear red bib to keep evil spirits away.

Rope with a bell: When making a wish, one pulls the rope to call attention of the gods. In buddhist temples there is a relatively thinner rope and the gong bell, a quieter bell compared to the Shinto bell. The ritual: 1- Throw the coin into the box (as much as you’d like but throwing 5 yen is believed to be good to bring good relationships because 5 yen (go-en) is the same word in Japanese with good relationship.) 2- Ring the bell a few times 3- Bow twice (90 degrees) 4- Clap twice 5- Remember your wish and thank gods (in your mind) 6- Bow once

Open stage: Ceremonial noh dance and kagura dance are performed in Shinto shrines.

Honden and Haiden: Main hall and offering hall exist in Shrines. The main hall usually houses the deity enshrined. Offering hall is the area where people make wishes.

Kannushi: Shinto priests. Shinto priests are less commonly seen compared to buddhist monks. They usually wear a tall black hat (Heian style) and sometimes carry the sakaki tree leaves.

Miko: Maidens serving the shrine. Young girls with vermillion color skirt and white dress. They were originally considered to be shamans who can communicate with deities. Nowadays they do the sacred cleansing, ceremonial dance , etc.

Altar: A.k.a. Kamidana enshrines a Shinto god Kami. Ofuda, papers displaying the names of deities, are usually received from a local shrine and put inside the altar. Deities inside must be offered rice, water, salt and sake, regularly. Shrines and kamidana, must face the east (direction of the rising sun).

Raijin and Fujin. The God of thunder and the god of wind exist in both shrines and temples.The concept is similar to the mythical Greek wind and thunder gods.

Omamori: These are small portable amulets that can be purchased at shrines or temples. Omamori means “protection” in Japanese.

Omikuji: These are white papers in the form of amulets that may have good fortune and bad fortune written on them. One picks without seeing the fortune. If it is good fortune it should be kept in the bag, if it is bad fortune it should be tied to a tree to let the bad fortune go away. Nowadays both good and bad fortune papers are tied to the tree in the shrine.

Ema Wooden Plates: Wish plates sold at shrines. People donate money to buy them and then write their wishes on them. Then they leave the wooden plates on the designated wall at a shrine.


What is Buddhism: Awakening by following the teachings of Buddha. Everyone can become a Buddha. The world is suffering and people suffere in different lives. Cessation of suffering leads to enlightenment. Human greed is the root of all evils. Don’t eat meat and don’t drink alcohol, believe in Karma and Reincarnation. Arrived to Japan from China in 538. Refrain from the 5 precepts (harming living things, stealing, etc.). 5 main sects: Tendai, Shingon (e.g. Mt Koya), Jodo, Zen and Nichiren.
Important Values: Transience, impermanence, selflessness, harmony, balance in the universe, the law of karma, enlightenment is possible when alive, striving for mental strength, suffering is natural and a must.

Temple (Tera, -Ji): Buddhist temples are called tera and most of the time the name ends with -ji (KinkaJI, GinkakuJI, RyoanJI, etc.) Buddhist temples tend to have big roofs (more than 60% of the building) and gold plated objects on the black background. 5 elements should be observed in a temple: fire, air, water, earth, wisdom. There are 77,000 temples in Japan and 1600 of them are in Kyoto.

Pagoda (to): Pagodas represent the stupa where the Buddha’s ashes were kept. They usually have 3 or 5 stages. In Japan pictures of deities are placed on different floors. The Horyuji temple’s pagoda is considered to be one of the oldest wooden structures in the world. There used to be thousands of pagodas in Japan but most of them were destroyed by fires or earthquakes.

Incense burner (Jokoro): Burning incense is a typical Buddhist tradition. Buddhist temples have a jokoro and people believe if the smoke touches the body it would heal the body.

Buddha Statue: Buddhist temples have many Buddha statues (Garutama Buddha) though many people tend to confuse Buddha with Daitoku or Boddhisatwa. The giant Buddha statues are called Daibutsu, The ones in Nara and Kanagawa are to be taller than 10 meters.

Boddhisatwa & Deities: Boddhisatwa is a person who is about to become a Buddha but chooses to remain as humanbeing to suffer for the humanity. Many temples have a few Bodhisatwa statues and also Buddhist deities besides a Garutama Buddha statue. Sanjusan Gendo has many different statues of deities.

Jizo statue: Jizo is a boddhisatwa who is a protector of travelers and protector of little kids. Jizo often wear red bibs and red hats believed to be safe and keep the evil spirits away.

Wisdom Kings: The statues of five heavenly kings are often found in buddhist temples. The most common one is Fudo Myoo (Acala) who holds a sword in one hand (wisdom cutting through the ignorance) and the rope in another (to catch demons).

Mandala Scrolls: Mandala means universe and mandala scrolls are the charts that show the relationship between various Boddhisatwas and deities.

Manji sign: The buddhist temple symbol. This sign represents the balance of opposite powers in life as well as good luck and health. Usually the direction of the lines are different from the typical Swastika sign.

Cemeteries (haka): Since traditionally the funerals tend to take place in temples, most cemeteries tend to be inside or near Buddhist temples.

Agyo & Ungyo: Protective demons at the gate (Agyo (mouth open), Ungyo (mouth closed): These are also called NIO protectors. The open mouth and closed mouth represent life and death or beginning and ending.

Bonsho: Buddhist bell. Temples have these bells to tell the time or to call the priests for the prayer. Sometimes it was used in the battles to communicate. On the new years day the bell is rung 108 times to rid of the 108 big sins in Buddhism. The dots on the bell also represent the big sins.

Buddhist monks (Obo-san, Bouzu): Buddhist monks usually wear black outfit with a bamboo hat and only eat vegetarian food (mostly rice, pickles and miso soup). He lives a very simple life and he does not show emotions. The bamboo hat covers his face because he must be selfless (I am not important, I am no body).

Rock Gardens (Karesansui): Gardens which are built to represent the universe (ripples*waves, big stones: islands, small stones: mountains and hills, green moss: forest, etc.) usually found at the temples, not shrines. Most rock gardens were built during the Muromachi period. During late Edo and Meiji periods , green gardens were most common.

Colored banners (Goshikimaku): The 5-color flag that symbolizes the 5 wisdom of Buddha

Altar: Butsudan: Mostly in a shape of cabinet which is supposed to be a house of Buddha and the house of the spirits of those who deceased. People burn candle sticks on the cabinet or offer rice or tea. Tehy tend to be in the colors of black and gold.

Raijin and Fujin: The God of thunder and the god of wind exist in both shrines and temples.The concept is similar to the mythical Greek wind and thunder gods.

7 Lucky Gods (Shichi Fukujin): These gods are derived from Hinduism and then spread to China and Japan. They can be found both  Ebisu (God of fishermen and farmers), Daikokuten (god of commerce), Bishamonten (god of war and god of authority), Benzaiten (God of beauty and music), Fukurokuju (god of wisdom), Jurojin (god of longevity), Hotei (guardian of children).

Omikuji amulets: These are white papers that may have good fortune and bad fortune written on them. One picks without seeing the fortune. If it is good fortune it should be kept in the bag, if it is bad fortune it should be tied to a tree to let the bad fortune go away. Nowadays both good and bad fortune papers are tied to trees or wires in shrines and temples.

Omamori amulets: These are small portable amulets that can be purchased at shrines or temples. Omamori means “protection” in Japanese.

***The Shinto and Buddhist beliefs are different from monotheistic religions, they are more like philosophies rather than religions. That’s why they can coexist, that is why most Japanese are both Buddhists and Shintoists and that is why about 50% of marriages in Japan takes place in a Christian Church and that’s why many temples have shrine features and many shrines look like temples. Traditionally, when a Japanese baby is born, the ceremony is almost always in a Shinto shrine and when a Japanese person dies, the ceremony is almost always in a Buddhist temple. Most temples and Shrines were built together or next to each other up until the Meiji period. During the Meiji period, temples and shrines were separated and Buddhism was temporarily banned in order to promote the national identity as Buddhism came from overseas. Haibutsuku Kishaku (the attempt to suppress Buddhism in Japan by destroying Buddhist temples between 1868 ~ 1874) did not reach its goal and eventually Buddhism was treated respectfully again. However, thousands of Buddhist temples disappeared mostly in the southern Satsuma region. Some say this was political as Buddhist temples strongly supported the Tokugawa shogunate and they were naturally against the new imperial government.

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A torii is a traditional Japanese gate most commonly found at the entrance of or within a Shinto shrine, where it symbolically marks the transition from the profane to sacred.
The presence of a torii at the entrance is usually perceived as the simplest way to identify Shinto shrines, and a small torii icon is representing them on Japanese road maps.
The oldest existing stone torii was built in the 12th century and belongs to a Hachiman Shrine in Yamagata prefecture.
2001 Tokyo: Meiji shrine Torii Gate #6
The oldest wooden torii is a ryōbu torii at Kubō Hachiman Shrine in Yamanashi prefecture built in 1535.
Torii gates were traditionally made from wood or stone, but today they can be also made of reinforced concrete, copper, stainless steel or other materials. They are usually either unpainted or painted vermilion with a black upper lintel. Inari shrines typically have many torii because those who have been successful in business often donate in gratitude a torii to Inari, kami of fertility and industry. Fushimi Inari-taisha in Kyoto has thousands of such torii, each bearing the donor’s name.
Fushimi Inari Shrine