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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.