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Yakuza (part 1 of 2)

Posted July 2nd, 2015 at 05:10 PM by Offspring
Updated August 30th, 2017 at 02:56 PM by Offspring

The origins of Yakuza

The history of Yakuza has its origins in the Tokugawa era (1603-1868), which began when Ieyasu Tokuwaga unified Japan

After a long period of civil war, 500,000 samurais became unemployed. Many of them became merchants, but some, called “ronin”, became thieves or used other illegal measures to support themselves.

People called “machi-yokku” defended the cities from ronins. They were simple men who organized themselves to defend their families and goods. They spent some of their free time gambling.

The machi-yokku are the ancestors of Yakuza. Even though it’s possible for this connection to just be a legend, it plays a major role in the romantic image Yakuza members have in the present. They are hipster Robin Hoods.

The foregoers of Yakuza were split into two groups: “bakuto” and “tekiwa”. Both appeared in the XVIII century. The bakuto were gamblers. They preferred hanafuda and dice. The majority were outlaws. During the Tokugawa period, they were occasionally employed by local governments to gamble with workers, thus winning their salaries and getting a percent of them from the respective governments.

The bakuto split into many groups and extended to operations like usury. They lived in abandoned temples at the age of villages and towns. Many of them covered their bodies in complicated tattoos, which led to the current tradition of Yakuza members. The bakuto tattooed a black ring along their arms for each crime they committed.

The name “Yakuza” comes from 8, 9, 3 (“ya”, “ku”, “za”), which is a losing hand at a game called “hanafuda” (a sort of blackjack). Each player gets 3 cards. They add the value of the cards. The last digit becomes the number of points the player has. 8 + 9 + 3 = 20 => 0 points. [1]

The tekiya were merchants. They traveled to rural areas, where they sold products during fairs and festivals. They didn’t have a good reputation, because their goods were not of good quality and they often had deceiving commercial practices and sometime using coercion. They began to organize themselves and have strict codes. They started asking for protection money from communities.

Among their most important rules were “the three commandments of the tekiya”: (1) don’t touch the woman of another member (this was established, because the wives were often left alone for long periods of time), (2) don’t divulge the organization’s secret to the police and (3) be loyal to the oyabun-kobun relationship. Even tho there were conflicts between organizations, because of territorial disputes, they generally cooperated.

The government during the Tokuwaga formally recognized some tekiya organizations and allowed their leaders (“oyabun”) to carry a wakizashi (a short samurai sword). The right to carry a katana (an averages sized samurai sword) was held only by nobles and samurais. This was an important step for the tekiya, because, until then, only nobles and samurais were allowed to carry swords. [2]

The history of Yakuza

During the organization’s history, the island of Kyushu was the region were most of its members came from.

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When Japan started industrialization, Yakuza began recruiting members from the construction industry and the port industry. Yakuza started to collaborate with the authorities, in exchange for services and favors.


In the 1920s, when democratic reforms were introduced in Japan, the Communist and Socialist parties were formed. After the economic crisis from the early 1930s, the Japanese who were against democracy and Western liberalism created secret organizations. These did assassinations and blackmail. They managed to assassinate two Prime Ministers and two Finance Ministers and attacked many politicians and industrialists. Yakuza gave human resources to these organizations. The Yakuza members who were part of these organizations were called: “unyoke”. [2]

After the Second World War, the US viewed Yakuza as the biggest threat to the security of its troops. They started to pay close attention to the activities of Yakuza members, but, at the same time, the food rations introduced by the US created a black market and Yakuza was able to profit from it.

Similarly to how J. Edgar Hoover (head of the FBI) denied that there is any sort of mafia functioning in the territory of the US, Katayama (the Prime Minister of Japan) denied there Is any criminal organization functioning on the territory of Japan. In 1948, the number of press articles about the organization diminished and the public interest about it dropped. [3]

During this period, a new type of Yakuza member appeared, called: “gurentai”. They were mainly doing robberies and trading on the black market. They were influenced by American gangster movies and started wearing black suits, white shirts, sunglasses and short hair. They replaced swords with firearms. Between 1958 and 1963, the number of Yakuza members grew 150%, reaching 184,000 members.

The organizational structure

In 1967, the US Task Force on Organized Crime concluded the nucleus of organize crime is the offering of illegal goods and services to a great number of civilian consumers. The main examples were: gambling, usury, prostitution and drugs. [4]

Like the Italian Mafia, Yakuza started to organize like a family based on adoptions, not blood. The person situated at the top was called “the godfather” and the rest of the members are hierarchically organized.

A very important relationship inside of Yakuza was the father-child one (“oyabun-kabun”). The oyabun offeres the kabun advices, protection and help, in exchange for loyalty (for example, he would be expected to go to jail for a crime committed by his oyabun). Each oyabun had an adviser (called: “saikokomon”) and a staff consisting of lawyers, accountants and secretaries. [5]

The vast majority of members are male, but there are some female members. They are called “nee-san” (big sister). When the head of the Yamaguchi-gumi syndicate, Kazuo Taoka (aka "the Godfather of Godfathers"), died in 1981, his wife, Famiko, took over the leadership of that organization for a short period of time.

The ethnic Koreans and “burakumin” (the lowest class in Japan) dominated the organization, probably because, for many years, it was the only way they were able to earn a living. The quarters of the Yamaguchi-gumi are part of this category.

The big groups within Yakuza are called syndicates. The biggest three are: Yamaguchi-gumi, Sumiyoshi-kai and Inagawa-kai. Yamaguchi-gumi has its headquarters in Kobe and, according to data from 2007, it has about 20,000 registered members and 20,000 unofficial ones. This is the biggest and strongest of the three. It is composed of 99 gangs. From august 2005, Yamaguchi-gumi has been led by Kenichi Shimoda (aka Shinobu Tsukasa).

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During the time he was in jail, for 6 years, the de facto leader was Kiyoshi Takayama (aka Katame, which means "one eye"), his most trusted lieutenant.


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In 2007, Inagawa-kai had 5,000 members, while Sumiyoshi-kai had 6,000. [6] They are based in Tokyo. In 2011, Yamaguchi-gumi had 40,000 members, Sumiyoshi-kai 12,000 and Inagawa-kai 10.000. [7] Traditionally, these three have been rivals and there were many conflicts between them, which led to a significant number of civilian casualties.
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[1] David E. Kaplan, Alec Dubro, Yakuza: Japan's Criminal Underworld, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2012, p.12-13.

[2] David E. Kaplan, Alec Dubro, op.cit., p.10-12.

[3] David E. Kaplan, Alec Dubro, op.cit., p.32.

[4]
Peter B. E. Hill, The Japanese Mafia: Yakuza, Law, and the State, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2003, p.8.

[5]
David E. Kaplan, Alec Dubro, op.cit., p.8.

[6]
Eric Johnston, "From rackets to real estate, yakuza multifaceted", Japan Times, 14 February 2007, From rackets to real estate, yakuza multifaceted | The Japan Times

[7] Jake Adelstein, "Yakuza to the Resecue", The Daily Beast, 18 March 2011, Japanese Yakuza Aid Earthquake Relief Efforts - The Daily Beast
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