Yakuza: Japanese Organized Crime やくざ

Asakusa Yakuza

Japanese organized crime and its members are commonly referred to as Yakuza. More formally, and derogatorily in the eyes of the mobsters themselves, they are called boryokudan (literally, "violence groups") by the police and in the media.

It is estimated that there are 86,000 active members in Japanese organized crime. This only includes known, or made, mobsters. That makes Japan home to one of the largest number of organized crime figures in the world.

The origins of the word and the criminal groups known as "Yakuza" are not known exactly. Yakuza themselves propound the theory that their forebears were the 17th century machi yokko, who guarded villages from bandits.

These men were themselves not too far removed from the criminals they were allegedly guarding against; however, they were beloved by the villagers.

Folk tales similar to Robin Hood that feature the derring-do of these Yakuza abound in Japan.

The Yakuza & Popular Culture

The Yakuza have featured prominently in popular culture for hundreds of years. Today Japanese mob movies and television programs remain intensely popular. In popular culture, as in real life, mobsters sport sleek sunglasses, flashy clothing (now more often than not an expensive sweatsuit) and full-body tattoos - and project an air of being untroubled by life's ordinary worries.

An unblinking account of modern Yakuza life can be found in Shoko Tendo's Yakuza Moon. She writes based on her experiences in an Osaka crime family, and she harbors no romantic notions about the life they (and she) led. She is pictured below right.

Another theory has their origins in the wayward samurai - known as ronin - who when disbanded in the Edo Period lost their government stipend and thus turned to crime to support themselves.

As a result, other samurai sold their services as body guards and protection against their less ethical peers. Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo is an excellent depiction of this scenario.

By the mid-Edo Period, two types of gangsters had emerged: Tekiya and Bakuto. The former, which can be found to this day at festival stalls selling trinkets and rigged games, traded in stolen goods. The latter were gamblers or low-level bookies.

One theory about the origin of the word "Yakuza" itself is related to the latter group. "Yakuza" literally means 8 (ya), 9 (ku), 3 (za). In a card game the Bakuto often ran at the same fairs and festivals, 8+9+3 was the equivalent of 0 - hence the slang term for "zero," or a useless person.

Yakuza movie.
Shoko Tendo Yakuza Tattoo.

The police in Japan have long regarded the mob as an unfortunate but unavoidable part of life. As such the police have for many years worked closely with the mob. The cops see organized crime - closely monitored - as better than disorganized crime.

There has thus never been an Elliot Ness or Rudolph Guiliani type lawman who confronts the mob. The Japanese legal system works with and attempts to constrain as much as possible their activities - and therefore at the same time turns a blind eye to much illegal behavior.

In safe, well organized, nearly slum-free Japan who becomes a mobster?

Out-castes & the Yakuza

In general, two groups of people are represented in organized crime well in excess of their numbers in the general population: Burakumin and Korean-Japanese.

The Burakumin, or Dowa, are the descendants of Japan's outcaste community. Their ancestors did unclean work - anything to do with corpses, animal skins, etc. - and were legally compelled to live in certain parts of cities and rural areas designated for them. They were and are discriminated against, and are perhaps the last living element of Japanese feudalism. Some estimates have Yakuza membership as being as much as 60-70% Burakumin. The other group is Korean-Japanese, who were forcibly brought to Japan as laborers in the pre-War period. They also continue to face discrimination.

Like Chinese Triads and the Italian Mafia, the Japanese Yakuza's primary raison d'etre is to make money, lots of money. They have done this through real estate, drugs, prostitution, pornography, control of ports and construction, and with a heavy hand in all of Japan's entertainment areas. They are also rumored to control pro wrestling and track bike racing.

Japanese organized crime also uses blackmail to get money or favors from the powerful. This often includes a Who's Who of Japanese industry and entertainment.

Ironically, the Yakuza are also closely tied to if not actual card-carrying right-wing nationalists. Considering their origins - with many of them coming from socially despised groups - their nationalism is hard to comprehend. However, they have in the past played a roll in breaking up union demonstrations and anything with a leftward slant. Similarly, the mob has deep connections with the uyoku (far right) groups who drive their ubiquitous black sound trucks through Japanese cities railing about North Korea, the US, and any perceived insult to the Emperor. The uyoku can be very violent and are one way the mob can influence the political process.

Their self-image though is still rooted in the Robin Hood myth with a Japanese slant. The concepts of "honor" and "service" are very important. Following the Kobe earthquake in 1995, for example, the Yamaguchi-gumi crime syndicate, which is based in Kobe and is Japan's largest crime group, made headlines by performing disaster relief efforts that the government failed to.

Shortly thereafter, in March 1995, the Japanese government passed the "Act for Prevention of Unlawful Activities by Criminal Gang Members" law. This made traditional racketeering much more difficult.

Membership was said to have dipped a bit following passage of this law. However, the Yakuza are nothing if not inventive and they continue to exercise tremendous influence on Japanese society.

Related Japan Resources

Buraku Liberation League

Books on Japan's Yakuza

Yakuza Moon
The Cape and Other Stories from the Ghetto
Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan

C. Ogawa

Books on Japanese Culture