The Yakuza reference article from the English Wikipedia on 24-Apr-2004
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Yakuza (やくざ or ヤクザ), also known as ya-san, are frequently called the "Japanese mafia". The origin of the name "yakuza" is obscure, but is popularly said to originate from the lowest hand in hanafuda, a popular card game: 8 (ya), 9 (ku) 3 (za) (ie: worthless), and yakuza are sometimes called "hachi-kyu-san" ("893s") in Japan.


Yakuza claim origin from 1612 and the machi-yakko (rebellious bands of city servants) who fought bandits and oppressive daimyo. Machi-yakko mainly comprised townsfolk, commoners and craftsmen who banded together in organizations modeled after those of the samurai clans. The Tokugawa shogunate executed the last known machi-yakko in 1686; perhaps in part due to this, they soon became mythologized as Robin Hood-like figures.

Some sources claim that the yakuza's true origin lies in the kabuki-mono (傾奇者, かぶきもの) or "crazy ones," the bandit gangs of ronin, the masterless samurai who, jobless, resorted to wandering together, occasionally attacking and looting villages.

The first Yakuza organizations appeared in the 18th century. The first known types were bakuto (gamblers) and tekiya (street peddlers). Tekiya dealt in shoddy merchandize and protection rackets in marketplaces as well as prostitution and loan sharking. In order to maintain control of the marketplaces, the shogunate gave tekiya leaders official status, allowing them to carry swords and use a surname.

It is with the bakuto, who were known for gambling, that the name yakuza is likely to have originated. The bakuto also originated the much-discussed tradition of yubitsume (finger-cutting) as a penance. It is likely that the bakuto were also the origin of the link between irezumi, traditional Japanese tattooing, and the yakuza.

After the Meiji restoration, yakuza moved to the cities and begun to dabble in shady construction deals, extortion, blackmail and taking their cut of the rickshaw business. Due to police action against gambling the bakuto gradually gave way to the tekiya.

Tekiya did very little that was obviously illegal. They began to become involved with various political parties, especially with the right-wing militants, and aided them when they rose to power. Prior to World War II, yakuza spread their shady activities to conquered Manchuria. After the eruption of the war against the United States, various yakuza entered into army or government service - otherwise they were imprisoned. Some worked as the Black Dragons and spied on the United States and upset commerce in Asia.

After the war, the yakuza adapted again. During the post-war rationing they controlled the black market and the gurentai were formed. American occupation forces fought against them in vain and conceded defeat in 1950. Yakuza also adapted to more western-style activities, including clothes reminiscent of US gangsters, and begun to use firearms. They also began to feud among themselves.

In the 1960's, Yoshio Kodama, an ex-nationalist, begun to negotiate treaties with various groups, first with the Yamaguchi-gumi of Kazuo Taoka and Tosei-kai of Hisayuki Machii and eventually with Inagawa-kai. Fights between individual gangs, however, have not stopped.


Prospective yakuza come from all walks of life. The most romantic tales tell how yakuza accept sons who have been abandoned or exiled by their parents. Some groups may also accept foreigners and burakumin, but this is likely unusual.

Yakuza groups are headed by an oyabun ("father") who gives orders to his subordinates, the kobun ("children"). In this respect, the organization is a variation of usual Japanese Senpai-Kohai (senior-junior) model. Members of yakuza gangs cut their family ties and transfer their loyalty to the gang boss. They refer to each other as family members - fathers and elder and younger brothers.

Yubitsume or finger cutting is a form of penance or apology. Upon a first offense, the transgressor must cut off the tip of his left pinky finger and hand out the severed portion to his boss. Sometimes an underboss may do this penance to the oyabun if he wants to spare a member of his own gang from further retaliation. Prosthetic tips have been developed to disguise this distinctive appearance, and it was even said when British cartoon Bob the Builder was first considered for import to Japan that there were plans in place to add an extra digit to each of the title character's four-fingered hands to avoid scaring children (this was not done, however).

Larger yakuza groups are composed of smaller groups that owe loyalty to a kumicho, the leader of a yakuza "clan." Kumicho have various underbosses and saiko-komon (senior advisors) that control their own turfs in different areas and cities under their control. They have various other underlings, including other underbosses, advisors, accountants and enforcers.

Yakuza try to hide their activities behind legitimate front companies and businesses like pachinko parlors or even religious organizations. However, their headquarters are usually open offices.

The most powerful yakuza group is the Yamaguchi-gumi, which controls some 2500 businesses and 500 gangs and deals in loansharking, illegal pornography, drugs smuggling, moneylending, rigged games and shady real estate deals.

Usual activities

Modern yakuza have extended their activities to banking and political corruption. Yakuza continue the usual activities connected to organized crime - extortion, drug smuggling, prostitution, white slavery, illegal gambling, protection rackets and so on. Yakuza have also attempted to influence elections in Japan, mainly by aiding a prospective candidate with money or even services of their enforcers for the express purpose of controlling him later by blackmail.

Yakuza also practice a uniquely Japanese form of extortion by sending their men to disturb proceedings like stockholder meetings. They threaten to cause an disturbance that would cause embarrassment and shame to the company unless the company pays them off. Some companies still include payoffs as part of their annual budget.

Yakuza also have ties to large corporations and other business. Kiegeya specialize in inducing small business owners to sell their property so that yakuza gans can sell the land on to real estate companies. The Yamaguchi-gumi also has a foothold in banking.

Yakuza, who see themselves as modern-day samurai, claim to follow a honorable code of conduct reminiscent of bushido and that they protect the weaker members of the society. However, they usually deal forcefully with any kind of criticism of their activities.

In various times, people in Japanese cities have launched anti-yakuza campaigns with mixed and varied success. In March 1995 the Japanese government passed the "Act for Prevention of Unlawful Activities by Criminal Gang Members." However, various observers claim that yakuza is still deeply connected to Japanese politics and the Liberal Democratic Party.

Yakuza have also spread outside Japan to USA, Thailand, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Philippines. They may have working relationship with criminal tongss and Triads.

See also