Yakuza - All about the Japanese mafia

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Have you heard of the Japanese mafia yakuza? Do you know how they are organized? What are your codes of conduct? How do the Japanese view yakuza? In this article, we’ll see everything about Yakuza.

Yakuza [ヤクザ] is the name of the largest criminal faction in Japan and the world. It is also known as Gokudō [極道]. There are more than 100,000 members around the world belonging to the crime syndicate Yakuza.

Definition - What is Yakuza?

For the Japanese police and press, this criminal organization is called Bōryokudan [暴力団], whose meaning is “Violence Group”, but members usually refer to themselves as Ninkyō dantai [任侠団体], which means “Chivalrous Organization”.

The yakuza have a code of conduct and are very organized like the ancient samurai. Its members follow a code of rules based on loyalty and fidelity, they also have some obligations such as not hiding money from the group, not going to the police and never disobeying a superior's order.

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According to the members themselves, they do not commit crimes and carry out activities legally. Although some commit crimes, many make investments and offer protection for some establishments.

Origin - How did the Yakuza Mafia come about?

It is believed that yakuza emerged in the mid Edo Period (1603 - 1868). They were divided into 2 groups:

  • Tekiya [的屋] - Peddlers or traders who sold illicit, stolen or poor quality goods;
  • Bakuto [博徒] - Players who were involved or participated in games of chance involving cards and dice;

The name Yakuza derives from the junction of Ya [八] Ku [九] Za [三] which is a number sequence 893 [八九三]. The numerical sequence is considered the worst type of hand in a Japanese card game like hanafuda [花札].

Realize that everything is involved with games, even the tattoos that members of the yakuza gang wear, became popular because of the Bakuto who tattooed their entire bodies and displayed themselves during games of chance.

The Tekiya they also influenced the activities carried out by Yakuza members. During Shinto festivals, peddlers opened tents and hired some members as security guards. The gang generally generates its income through protection for traders.

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Yakuza - all about the Japanese mafia

Yakuza crimes and activities

The members of the Yakuza they do not usually commit murder and robbery too much like the drug dealers in Rio de Janeiro. They are organized men who may fall into the category of politicians and religious leaders.

This is because many members of the yakuza they live in the midst of society discreetly and have a social life like any other. They are not chased by the police and are not usually at large.

Many families in the yakuza has their homes in prominent places, mansions full of security guards, some own business or control companies. Not even weapons are common among members of the yakuza.

The Japanese mafia is involved in extortion, embezzlement, prostitution, gambling, money laundering, arms and drug trafficking, and more sophisticated white collar crimes.

Many traders and companies maintain relations with groups of the Japanese mafia. According to a report by the National Agency for Police, in 2014, more than 22 thousand people linked to yakuza groups were arrested in Japan.

There is no official data on the amounts handled by the Japanese mafia, but estimates are that the Japanese mafia moves “billions of dollars” a year illegally in Japan.

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Usually members of the yakuza run bars, hostesses and massage parlors in red light neighborhoods like kabukicho. They are very discreet, so there is usually little to comment on about their activities.

Yakuza is not so mean

Of course, some groups are involved in drug trafficking, human trafficking, prostitution and many others. But it is not so scary, it is considered a semi-legitimate organization and they have already helped many.

For example, after the Kobe Earthquake, Yamaguchi it mobilized to provide relief services (including the use of a helicopter) that arrived before government aid itself. This was widely reported and commented on.

THE yakuza repeated its aid after the earthquake and tsunami in Tohoku in 2011, with groups opening their offices for refugees and sending dozens of trucks with supplies to affected areas.

Many unions with the Yamaguchi-gumiofficially prohibits its members from engaging in drug trafficking. They make large investments in well-known and legitimate companies, also have links with the real estate market and banks.

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Yakuza - all about the Japanese mafia

They often participate in local festivals, such as the Sanja Matsuri, where they carry a sanctuary through the streets displaying their elaborate tattoos. Sometimes they have children's parties, or participate in festivals setting up their own tents.

As a matter of principle, theft is not recognized as a legitimate activity by the yakuza. This is in line with the idea that their activities are semi-open; theft, by definition, would be a cowardly activity. 

Core activities, such as merchandising, loan sharking or bookmaker administration are usually managed by members outside the yakuza, who pay protection fees for their activities.

Even so, you must be careful not to irritate a member of the yakuza. They are generally moody and don't like to communicate with strangers. Don't even think about hunting a fight with one, otherwise you can literally die.

I had a friend of a friend who crashed into an expensive car from a member of yakuza. The guy who was Brazilian, simply ran away from the city to avoid having to pay. Believes that the yakuza located him?

Yakuza family and structure

The crime syndicate yakuza it's a family like the old mafias. Members live for and honor the group that adopts a traditional Japanese hierarchical structure known as oyabun-kobun.

Kobun [子分] literally means foster child, who are the members who owe their loyalty to oyabun [親分] who is the adoptive father of the family. The system follows a moral code of justice and duty called jingi [仁義].

Yakuza gang members sever their family ties and transfer their loyalty to the gang leader who is also called kumicho [組長] which means boss.

Saiko-komon (最高顧問): is a kind of senior consultant and so-honbucho is a head of headquarters who is below the kumicho. O shingiiin [審議委員] takes care of legal matters while the kaikei [会計] is literally the accountant.

waka-gashira [若頭] and the fuku-honbucho [副本部長] are responsible for running a number of groups in a region. Each group is led by a shatei-gashira [舎弟頭].

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Group members also use a general hierarchy called siblings as if it were a religion. Kyoudai [兄弟] is used for older brothers and shatei [射程] for younger members (brothers) of the group.

Yakuza - all about the Japanese mafia

The biggest yakuza families

There are many families spread across Japan. The main ones are listed below:

Yamaguchi-gumi [六代目山口組] - Created in 1915, it is the largest family in Yakuza, has more than 40 thousand members and is divided into 750 clans. His Oyabun (leader) is Kenichi Shinoda.

Sumiyoshi-rengo [住吉会] or Sumiyoshi-kai [住吉会] - It is the second largest family with more than ten thousand members divided into 177 clans. His current Oyabun is Shigeo Nishiguchi, Osomuya Tanaka. It is Yamaguchi-gumi's death enemy.

Inagawa-kaï [稲川会] - It is the third largest family with more than 7 thousand members and is divided into 177 clans. His current Oyabun is Kakuji Inagawa. It was the first to operate outside and inside Japan

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Towa Yuai Jigyo Kumiai [東亜友愛事業組合] or [東亜会] - It is the fourth largest family with more than a thousand members and is divided into 6 clans. His current Oyabun is Satoru Nomura. It was the first to be created in Korea.

Yakuza Rituals and Customs

When one yakuza commits an offense or wants to show regret, he amputates his finger in a ritual called “yubitsume”.

Many yakuza have a body full of tattoos. These tattoos, known as irezumi, are often still made by hand, that is, the ink is inserted under the skin using non-electric hand tools with bamboo or steel needles. The procedure is expensive, painful and can take years to complete.

When members play cards Oicho-Kabu with each other, they usually take off their T-shirts or open them and tie them around the waist. This allows them to show their tattoos to others.

Yakuza - all about the Japanese mafia

This is one of the only times when members of the yakuza display their tattoos to others. They usually keep them hidden in public with long-mangad shirts and a high collar.

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Due to the association with Yakuza, the Japanese developed a prejudice regarding tattooing, but that does not prevent them from being seen as great works of art around the world.

Of course, there are still many other curiosities and facts about the Japanese mafia. I also recommend playing games like Yakuza, watch dramas like My boss my hero and some films to delve into the culture.

Finally, I will leave a report from R7 talking about Yakuza. Just remembering that the media usually generalize things.