It is rather ironic to know that in a country which has two of the cities considered to be the safest in the world (Tokyo and Osaka) we find one of the most important criminal organizations in the world. Beyond the classic stereotypes that we are used to seeing about gangs, such as that they are a small violent group that operates in the shadows to carry out various criminal activities. We will discover that the yakuza are in fact much more than that, that they are part of a very organized clan structure and that they are in fact present across all layers of Japanese society.
The origin of the yakuza
To understand the etymology of the word yakuza you must first learn about a card game of chance that the Japanese call oicho-kabu (represented below) , it is a derivative of the blackjack that we know. In a three-card hand the value of our deck is determined by the smallest digit of the number obtained by adding the value of our three cards. Let's take an example. If we have in hand an eight, a nine and a three, adding these numbers gives us twenty and the smallest digit of the twenty between the two and the zero is zero. Therefore we have zero points, which is simply the worst possible hand. In Japanese, eight is “ya” (possibly hachi), nine is “ku” and finally three is “za” (possibly san). The word yakuza literally means good for nothing.
The first yakuza who were born in the 17th century were therefore for the most part either card players or traders. And at the time, neither enjoyed a proud reputation. While traders who were called tekiya were considered peddlers of stolen goods, card players, called bakuto , were seen by society as thugs playing dice and illegal card games. The good-for-nothing word that refers to the yakuza begins to take on its meaning.
The bakuto and the tekiya were therefore originally two groups of individuals on the fringes of Japanese society. However, both evolved little by little, in the shadows. While merchants banded together to gain power until they were recognized as such by the Edo government, players gained influence and power by gathering together in groups in gambling houses and hiring their own security personnel.
Year after year, these criminal groups recruited members within their organization until they formed a collective present over a large part of Japanese territory. It was at this time that they officially took the name yakuza and were then seen by the rest of society as a gang of criminals who inspired fear and contempt in the rest of the population. We still find in yakuza organizations activities drawn from the deep roots of their emergence in Japanese society with links to gaming and commercial activities.
Structure of the yakuza organization and gang initiation rite
It was in the 1960s that the yakuza were most numerous, estimated by the Japanese authorities at more than 184,000 members. Since then, the number of members of the clan has decreased considerably and the split into three of the largest yakuza clan in 2015 has not helped matters. Today there are fewer than 40,000 in Japan.
The hierarchical structure of the organization is governed as a family with fathers ( oyabun ), and sons named kobun . To strengthen the bonds between them and establish unwavering loyalty, a welcome ceremony, called sakazuki , is organized where fathers and sons share a cup of sake which the kobun must keep as a sign of loyalty. When a yakuza joins the organization he must then cut all ties that bind him with his biological family in order to devote himself fully to the gang and swear total allegiance to their oyabun.
In order to ensure the total loyalty of each member to the organization, a particular ritual which is quite well known today was put in place, the yubitsume , or literally “shortening of the finger”. This practice is required of a member when he has committed a serious fault within the organization and cannot atone for his sins by simple words.
To perform yubitsume, the sinner begins by placing a piece of white cloth on the table, then on a small wooden board places his little finger, he then grabs a very sharp knife with the other hand then cuts his little finger at the level of the upper phalanx before offering it to his oyabun in the piece of fabric. The kobun is then forgiven and can resume his activities within the organization.
If a yakuza commits a serious mistake again, he will then have to re-amputate his knuckle. Thus, it is common to see yakuza who are quite old in the organization having almost no little fingers on both hands or even being forced to amputate a phalanx of the ring finger.
Yubitsume was born when the yakuza still carried swords, it was then more difficult to grip with one less finger, which made the yakuza weaker and therefore more dependent on the protection of their superiors. Thus bringing him closer to the organization.
Tattoos are certainly the most characteristic thing among the yakuza, almost all of whom are covered with them on a very large part of the body. They are an integral part of the culture of this organization. The tattoos, however, are not done on the face or on the hands in such a way that they can be hidden in public and thus not expose one's membership in the gang to everyone. There are also many yakuza who do not have tattoos along the center of their stomach so that they can wear an open kimono without having to expose their tattoos in public.
More than a simple visual decoration, yakuza tattoos have a real, deep meaning which you can also find here: meaning of yakuza tattoos . It is a form of art called irezumi and of which Horiyoshi III is one of the great masters. Having tattoos on so many parts of the body is a way of demonstrating their ability to endure pain for very long periods of time. Indeed, irezumi in addition to being a particular style of tattoo is a method of tattooing in its own right, which is also very toxic. It is done by hand using wooden tools and a needle and the pain is much greater than with a classic tattoo technique with an electric tattoo gun.
The process is so painful that some yakuza even go as far as not finishing their tattoos, or at least dragging them out for a long time before finishing them. Those who have the courage to get a full tattoo see it as a journey and a walk with the tattoo artist who often takes the time to get to know his client thoroughly in order to design a tattoo that suits him and truly represents him.
The yakuza also have the habit of meeting in onsens, traditional Japanese hot baths where you find yourself naked, which is another opportunity to expose your work and your physical resistance to pain. Generally speaking, yakuza who possess a full irezumi costume demonstrate to their peers their ability to withstand extreme physical pain, which inspires respect and great loyalty to the organization.
The different activities of the yakuza
There are several subfamilies within the overall yakuza organization and not all of them operate or involve themselves in the same type of affairs. Some families are much more criminal than others. But generally speaking, the yakuzas derive their main income from the sex and prostitution industries, firearms smuggling, the drug trade, extortion of various kinds and racketeering. But more recently on the stock market where they send members of the gang to the boards of directors of companies to manipulate prices by blackmailing executives, threatening them to reveal certain personal information that could compromise their reputation. All this while having purchased numerous shares upstream which will be surprisingly very lucrative.
However, what is quite surprising about the yakuza is that, apart from their tattoos, they do not try to hide from the eyes of the Japanese population and law enforcement. This is because although they are known to everyone for their illegal activities, it is not forbidden to belong to a yakuza gang.
These organizations do not in fact see themselves as criminals terrifying the population. On the contrary, they have shown on several occasions that they could be beneficial, as during the earthquake in 1995 when they took the initiative to help the population, even before the government reacted. Or in 2011 when the Tohoku earthquake struck they opened their doors to refugees to house and feed them.
Although the yakuza are very frowned upon by the Japanese population, they are in reality an effective way of preventing a dirty underworld from emerging in the streets due to their self-imposed code of honor, inspired by the Bushido of the samurai. , and the yubitsume which is applied is a consequence if one of the members sees themselves transgressing.