Most of the information in this section comes form the book Yakuza: Japan's Criminal Underworld, 2003
The U.S. has its Mafia and Japan has its Yakuza. Both are highly organized criminal networks that traffic in drugs, prostitution and, at times, violence.
In movies the Yakuza dress in all black and sport major tattoos on their body.
Japan has had its own bandits for centuries. All the way back in the 1600's a group of criminals called kabuki-mono, "the crazy ones" were causing trouble. They wore wild costumes and strange haircuts, used a lot of slang and had odd names. The group was made up of samurai, some of then called ronin, samurai whose lords had died and who now were basically left to shift for themselves.
Logically, that is the group that would be considered the ancestors of the present-day Yakuza, but actually the Yakuza consider their ancestors to be the machi-yakko , a group of townspeople that fought the kabuki-mono.
Although the town groups battled the rogue samurai they were not paragons of virtue themselves. Gambling became an early undertaking of theirs and their devotion to their leader is what probably gave birth to today's Yakuza's relationship to their own leaders.
The mass media of the time (plays, basically), portrayed the towns groups as heroes and champions of the weak. Time went by and the ideas of the machi-yakko and the legends associated with them were adopted by the bakuto, who were gamblers, and the tekiya, who were street peddlers. The people making up these two groups were basically the rejects of society. The Yakuza family evolved from these groups, with heavy emphasis on having a leader that "protected" those under him, and those under him owed him undying loyalty.
The level of this obedience and trust is on a much different scale than in the Mafia, helping to hold Yakuza groups very tightly together. It also accounts for another identifying characteristic of Yakuza and that is a missing part of one or more fingers. If a member does something to offend the leader that member will sacrifice a part of one of his fingers in atonement for whatever wrong he did.
The street peddlers were about the same level as "snake-oil salesmen" were in the American wild west. By the 1700's they developed a five-level structure of organization, ranging from the oyabun, or boss, at the top, down to the apprentices.
The bakuto, or gamblers, were sometimes actually hired by the government for "irrigation and construction projects," although how the two of those things were suppose to actually link together is somewhat beyond me.
The gamblers were the ones that gave the Yakuza it's name which is actually from a three-card game where the absolute worst score is zero in an 8-9-3 combination (add the three numbers together and you get 20, then take the 0 as the total being the last number in the total itself.) The term for that was ya-ku-sa, which meant something useless. The gamblers basically adopted the name for themselves and later established a hierarchy system and, in some quarters, are seen as the direct ancestors of the today's Yakuza.
It was also the gamblers who came up with the finger-cutting as atonement and also adopted the practice of being tattooed, a long and painful process that basically was interpreted as showing how brave they were to go through the process.
What is very, very interesting in the history of the Yakuza is how the group came to be tied to ultra-nationalist beliefs. The gangs still remained on the level of cities, though, and not what was basically a one-nation Mafia type of organization.
As Japan began its process of imperialistic expansion the Yakuza were able to profit in a variety of ways, so supporting the right wing became, for them, both patriotic and profitable at the same time.
The Yakuza took over the prostitution business when prostitution was outlawed by the Japanese government in 1958. On the other hand, the government legalized some formerly illegal forms of gambling, such as horse, bicycle and speedboat racing, forcing the some of the Yakuza to find some other lines of business.
Over time the Yakuza and various politicians developed a very close relationship, leading to increased corruption in the government. Even in today's world the Yakuza can, at times, dominate local politics.
Targets of today's ultra-nationalists include China and Russia, foreigners, the U.S., and people in Japan who question the far-right's view of history as when there was forced cancellation of showings of a movie in 1997 on the Rape of Nanking due to protests by rightists.
The basic tenets of the Yakuza are not to reveal any secrets of the organization, to never violate the wife or children of another member, to not personally use narcotics, don't withhold money from the gang, don't fail to obey your superior, and don't appeal to the police.
From 1960 through 1992, the Yakuza were responsible for up to 20% of homicides, 20% of burglaries, 25% of assaults, 40% of blackmail and 50% of intimidation, and they form about 40% of the prison population.
The Yakuza get most of their members from ethnic Koreans living in Japan, from the burakumin, and from some of the resident Chinese. Youth gangs can also end up being a pass into the Yakuza.
In some lines of thinking the Yakuza aren't all bad. The police, for example, would rather deal with a highly organized system of crime than with a large number of individuals operating totally independently of each other. Yakuza are sometimes in place of attorneys or the police when those two groups would take too long to solve some kind of problem a person is facing.
The Yakuza today are also involved in obtaining women for sexual purposes and in trying to smuggle weapons into the country.
From An Insider's Guide to The Real Japan (2005)
”Following a devastating earthquake in Kobe in 1995, yakuza gangs in the city and elsewhere in the area were among the first to bring food, water and other essentials to the 300,000 people who were made homeless by the quake. The news media was quick to note that the yakuza were better organized and more effective than the local, regional and national governments.
”Among other things, when the yakuza made requests to major food chains and others for contributions to the earthquake victims no one refused them.”
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