893: Yakuza

What are the yakuza? What are their historical origins? What do they eat? What do they drive? What is their natural habitat? Let’s find out.

By Jody Denoncour

Most people with an interest in Japan have at least heard of the yakuza, Japan’s centuries-old organized crime gangs. Frequently the subject of film and fiction, they are often portrayed as glitzy mafiosos. However, few people have a clear idea of their actual origins, or of the changes which have taken place in the organization during the last decade or so.

The stories differ depending on who you talk to, of course. It was early on, around 1603, that organized crime started to make an impression upon the people and culture of Japan. Tokugawa Ieyasu’s forces had just ended hundreds of years of civil war; Japan was finally unified under one Shogunate. The sudden peace left as many as 500,000 samurai without practical work. Many adapted to the new order, becoming merchants or members of the growing bureaucracy. Some, however, unable to shed the soldier mentality, began to band together, adopting outlandish weapons, names, and styles and terrorizing townspeople. Notorious as early as 1612, these roving bands were known to the common people as kabuki-mono (literally, “the crazy ones”) or the hatamoto-yakko.

Modern day yakuza, however, claim no relation to the hatamoto-yakko. Instead, they find their own real or imaginary roots in the bands of angry townspeople that rose up in defense against these brigands and murderers–the machi-yakko, “servants of the town.” Modern yakuza have identified with these classic Robin Hood figures as “honorable outlaws.”

Any tie to either group, however, must be viewed in spirit only. In the late 17th century, the Tokugawa shogunate cracked down on inter-gang warfare, wiping out both organizations. The first true forerunners of today’s gangs arose nearly a century later, in the form of the bakuto (gamblers) and the tekiya (traveling peddlers).

The most likely direct ancestors of the yakuza were the members of the bakuto. Although officially illegal since 689 CE, gambling was a popular form of entertainment which, along with labor broking and other activities, became the province of the gangs. Many of the most characteristic and widely known facets of yakuza culture were passed down through this organization, the most widely recognized being extensive tattooing. In Tokugawa Japan, criminals were marked with a black ring around the arm for each offense committed; this was adopted and flaunted by the underworld denizens. These intricate and colorful tattoos were and are to this day mostly accomplished using handmade tools—a long and painful process and therefore a mark of pride and endurance. It is also widely held that the name “yakuza” itself comes from the gambling enterprise: in the card game oicho-kabu, the worst of all losing hands was a combination of 8-9-3, sometimes pronounced as ya, ku, and sa. Hence the name yakuza, signifying that the gamblers themselves were “a bad hand,” born to lose.

The other major group, separate but related, was the tekiya. These wandering peddlers, unlike the gambling operations, operated largely under legal guises, running what essentially amounted to “protection” rackets in local markets.

Another long-standing part of yakuza culture inherited from these two groups is the tightly knit and firmly defined structure of their associations. They organized themselves into gangs or “families:” gumi which revolved around the oyabun-kobun, or “father-son” relationship, in which the kobun swore his undying loyalty and his life to his boss, in exchange for protection. The foundation of this framework reached back to the noble bushido code of the samurai, the principle of giri — devotion, obligation, and honor. Sometimes conflicting but always entwined was the idea of ninjō (“human feeling”), the counterbalance to the lawlessness of the gangs, who still styled themselves as “honorable outlaws” and took pains to see that civilians were not hurt in their transactions.

Despite the intricacy of these organizations, the gangs were yet to become the full-fledged mafia of the 20th century. They were “modernized” during and after the Meiji period, rising to the height of their power and influence after World War II. By the end of the war, many of Japan’s major cities had been firebombed into ruin; food and manufacturing were down 50% from 1937, and the urban populace faced widespread starvation. Into the chaos stepped the local yakuza gangs, setting up as many as 17,000 markets nationwide only two months after the country surrendered. As a result of popular demand and government inability to provide for the basic needs of the people, the gangs could charge exorbitant prices for their goods. Yet when government rations came late or not at all, this made all the difference between life and death for the common person. These markets remained largely unopposed thanks to the Occupation’s disarming of the Japanese police force, a move which left large portions of the populace completely unprotected. During the war large numbers of foreigners had been captured and brought to Japan to serve as slave-labor in the factories and war effort. Following Japan’s surrender, some groups of workers banded together to attack towns, and the police entreated the yakuza for help. The gangs were often able to drive off the mobs, for which (some believe) the police force owed them a long debt of giri, perhaps explaining the blind eye turned so often to criminal activities in the past and the visual abundance of yakuza above ground.

Over time Japanese authorities have begun to crack down on organized criminal activity; anti-yakuza laws were passed in the early 1990s. Also, in many ways, the organization itself is changing. Giri and ninjō go unconsidered; members forgo the ritualistic ways of the past and retreat further undercover. Yet despite these modern changes and the lawlessness to which these gangs have historically subscribed, there is no doubt that much of their past nature has had its roots deep in the Japanese culture.

Works consulted:

  • Yakuza: the Explosive Account of Japan’s Criminal Underworld, by Alec Dubro and David E. Kaplan
  • The Japanese Mafia: Yakuza, Law, and the State, by Peter B. E. Hill
  • Embracing Defeat; Japan in the Wake of World War II, by John W. Dower