Members of the Takahashi-gumi gang are seen at a festival in the Asakusa district in Japan

Anthropology: Exploring the Origin, History and Workings of the Yakuza

A brief overview of the yakuza

Portrayed in countless movies and video games as tattooed, violent gangsters, the yakuza are transnational members of organized crime groups. Originating in Japan, the yakuza are also known as gokudō (the extreme path), while the Japanese police and media refer to them as bōryokudan (violent groups). The yakuza refer to themselves as ninkyō dantai, which means chivalrous organization.

Members of the Takahashi-gumi gang are seen at a festival in the Asakusa district in Japan.
Members of the Takahashi-gumi gang are seen at a festival in the Asakusa district in Japan. credit@ Sky News

The yakuza have several strict codes of conduct, their many unconventional ritual practices and their organized fiefdom nature. With tattooed bodies, slicked hair and clad in suits, they are regarded as the wealthiest and most sophisticated organizations. At their height, the yakuza held the Japanese media’s attention. Their operations ran at international levels.

At the height of their success, which was during the early 1960s, the police estimated that there were around 200,000 members. However, the numbers have dropped significantly, owing to a few factors. This includes changing marker opportunities and many social and legal developments in the country which discouraged the growth of the yakuza.

Today, the yakuza are still involved in an assortment of criminal activities. Many of the Japanese are still fearful of the threats that these gangsters pose to society. The Japanese government has passed legislation that aims at hampering revenue and increasing accountability for criminal activities. But there is no complete prohibition of the yakuza today.

Origin of the yakuza

The origin of the yakuza organizations remains uncertain to this day. However, most modern yakuza originate from two social classifications. These classifications emerged in the middle of the Edo period (1603-1868)-tekiya (mainly peddled stolen, illegal or shoddy goods), and bakuto (involved in gambling).

Tekiya

During the Edo period, the tekiya or the peddlers were considered one of the lowest social groups in Japan. Soon, they began to form organizations of their own. And while they were at it, they took up administrative duties related to commerce. These included stall allocation and protecting their commercial activities. During Shinto festivals, the tekiya opened up stalls and a few members were hired as security. In exchange for the stall assignment and protection during the festival, the peddlers paid rent.

The tekiya
The tekiya. credit@ Wikipedia

Within themselves, the tekiya were a highly structured and hierarchical organization. The oyabun or boss led from the top while the kobun or the gang members lay at the bottom. This hierarchy is similar to that of traditional Japanese family culture. The oyabun was considered as the surrogate father, while the kobun were the surrogate children. During the Edo period, the tekiya were formally recognized by the government. At the time, within the group, the oyabun was selected as supervisors. They were granted near-samurai status, which meant they were permitted the dignity of a surname and two swords too.

Bakuto

Bakuto or the gamblers had an even lower social standing than the tekiya. This was because gambling was illegal. Abandoned temples and shrines which were located at the edges of towns and villages all over the country became the perfect spots for setting up small gambling houses. A majority of these gambling houses ran loan-sharking businesses for their clients. Usually, they had their own security personnel.

Bakuto gambling in Kure, 1949
Bakuto gambling in Kure, 1949. credit@ Historical Wiki

Society generally considered these gambling houses and the bakuto themselves with much contempt. Hence, the disdain that society has for the yakuza won’t come as a surprise as it originated from the bakuto. This also includes the name, yakuza itself.

During the middle of the Edo period, the economic situation and the predominance of the merchant class, the emerging yakuza groups consisted of misfits and lawbreakers. They had either joined or formed such groups for extorting customers in local markets by peddling fake or shoddy goods.

Today, the roots of the yakuza survive through initiation ceremonies. These incorporate bakuto or tekiya rituals. While the present-day yakuza has branched out, some gangs still identify themselves with one group or the other. For instance, a gang whose main source of income comes from illegal gambling may call themselves bakuto.

Kyushu Island

Kyushu is the third-largest island in Japan, out of five main islands. For a long period of time, the island has been the largest source of yakuza members. This includes several of the renowned bosses in the Yamaguchi-Gumi. Isokichi Yoshida (1867–1936), who hailed from the Kitakyushu area, was regarded as the first renowned modern yakuza. Fukuoka, which is the northernmost part of Kyushu Island, has the highest number of designated syndicates among all the regions.

Organization

Yakuza hierarchy

When the yakuza were forming their groups, they adopted the hierarchy of a traditional Japanese structure. The structure was that of oyabun-kobun, which means kobun owe their loyalty to the oyabun. During later periods, the code of jingi or justice and duty were established, where respect and loyalty are a way of life.

The Yakuza during a Shinto festival
The Yakuza during a Shinto festival. credit@ People

The yakuza are headed by the oyabun, who is also known as kumichō (family head). He gives orders to the kobun, his subordinates. Yakuza members cut ties with their families and transfer their loyalty to their boss or leader. The members refer to each other as family members, fathers, elder and younger brothers. Most of the yakuza population are men. The very few women who do receive recognition are the wives of the bosses. They are called by the title, ane-san, which means older sister. In the early 1980s, when Kazuo Taoka, the third Yamaguchi-Gumi boss, died, his yakuza group was taken over by his wife, Fumiko, although for a short while.

There is more to this complex organized structure. The kumicho is the overall leader of the syndicate, while saiko komon (the senior advisor) and so-honbucho (headquarters chief) come directly under him. The saiko-komon govern their own turfs in different cities. They have their own subordinates, which include other underbosses, accountants, advisors and enforcers. The second in command is the wakagashira, who leads many gangs in one region. This is done with the aid of a fuku-honbucho, who himself is responsible for many gangs at once. The local boss, the shateigashira, governs the regional gangs.

Sharing of the sake

The relationship between oyabun and kobun is formalized through a ceremonial sharing of sake from one cup. This significant ritual isn’t just exclusive to the yakuza. Traditional Shinto weddings and ancient sworn brotherhood relationships also shared this ritual.

An anime representation of the sake sharing ritual
An anime representation of the sake sharing ritual. credit@ Mago Wiki

The sakazuki (sake-sharing) determines each member’s connection and rank. Those who receive sake from oyabun themselves are part of the immediate family. They are given the rank of elder or younger brothers. In turn, each kobun can offer sake as oyabun to those under him and create an affiliated organisation. This may further in turn lead to the formation of lower-ranked organizations.

During the Second World War period in Japan, the war had adverse effects on the traditional tekiya and bakuto organizations. The entire country was mobilised to do their part in the war. Society was controlled by a strict military government. However, when the war ended, the yakuza sprang up again. Potential yakuza includes people from all walks of life. Many of the tales concerning its members narrate how the yakuza took in sons who had either been exiled or abandoned by their parents.

Yakuza rituals

Finger cutting

A yakuza member with his fingertips cut off
A yakuza member with his fingertips cut off. credit@ Elite Readers

One of the rituals of the yakuza groups is the Yubitsume also otoshimae, which is the cutting off of one’s finger, as a form of apology or penance. Upon the first offence, the person must sever the tip of the little finger of their left hand. The severed piece is then handed over to his boss. Sometimes, the underboss may take up this penance so as to spare a member of his gang from further punishment. However, this practice has begun to fade amongst the younger generations, since it serves as an easy identifier for the police.

The origin of this practice came from the traditional way of holding a Japanese sword. While the three bottom fingers of both hands are used to hold the sword tight, the thumb and index fingers are held loosely. When the digits are removed, beginning with the little finger moving up to the index finger, it progressively weakens the person’s grip on the sword. The idea is that a member who has a weak sword grip has to depend on the group for protection. This brings down individual action. Recent years have seen the development and use of prosthetic fingertips to disguise themselves.

Tattoos

Many of the yakuza members have tattoos all over their bodies, including their genitalia. The tattoos, called irezumi in Japan, are sometimes hand-poked. This means that the ink is inserted under the skin by the use of hand-made, non-electrical and handheld tools. The tools have needles of steel or sharpened bamboo. The entire procedure is painful, expensive and may take years to complete.

A yakuza member with his elaborate tattoos
A yakuza member with his elaborate tattoos. credit@ BlendUp

When the members play Oicho-Kabu cards with each other, their shirts are often removed or draped around their waists. This is to display their elaborate tattoos to each other. Playing cards is one of the few occasions when the yakuza members do display their tattoos. Usually, when in public, they keep them hidden by wearing high-necked and long-sleeved shirts. When a new member joins, it is often required by them to take off their trousers as well, to see their lower body tattoos.

Three largest yakuza syndicates

While the yakuza membership has gone down significantly since the Anti-Boryokudan Act was implemented in 1992, the numbers are still large. As of 2020, there are around 25900 active yakuza members in Japan. As said before, the yakuza aren’t just one single group. They are several different syndicate groups that form one of the biggest organized crime groups in the world.

Yamaguchi-gumi

Being the largest yakuza family, the Yamaguchi-Gumi accounts for more than 8200 members (as of 2020). Its headquarters lie in Kobe, but it organizes criminal activities throughout the nation. Outside the country, it is also involved in activities in the United States and Asia. The current oyabun of the Yamaguchi-Gumi is Shinobu Tsukasa, who also goes under the name Kenichi Shinoda. His expansionist policy has increased operations in Tokyo, which traditionally wasn’t the territory of the group. The success of the Yamaguchi family has led to its name being synonymous with Japanese organized crime even outside Japan.

Sumiyoshi-kai

The second-largest yakuza family, the Sumiyoshi, has an estimated 4200 members. It is a confederation of smaller yakuza groups. Isao Seki is the current head. Compared to its rival, the Yamaguchi-Gumi, the Sumiyoshi-kai functions more like a federation. While the hierarchy remains the same, the chain of command is more lenient. The leadership is distributed amongst many members.

Inagawa-kai

The third-largest group with 3300 members, the Inagawa-kai, is based in the Tokyo-Yokohama area. It was one of the first yakuza groups to expand operations outside the nation.

Designated bōryokudan

A Shitei Bōryokudan or a designated boryokudan is any yakuza group that is particularly dangerous and registered by the Prefectural Public Safety Commissions under the Organized Crime Countermeasures Law, implemented in 1991. Groups are labelled as boryokudan when the members use their gang’s stronghold to conduct business, have one leader and if a large number of their members have criminal records.

A yakuza syndicate.
A yakuza syndicate. credit@ ESDAW

Twenty four syndicates have been registered as designated boryokudan groups. When the Organized Crime Countermeasures Law was implemented, many of the yakuza syndicates took measures to appear more legitimate and professional.

Usually, designated boryokudan groups are large organizations. Most of them were formed before the Second World War and some of them prior to the Meiji Restoration of the 19th century. However, there are a few exceptions, like the Namikawa-kai, which was registered after just two years of its formation.

Constituent members of the yakuza

Burakumin

According to estimates, at least 60% of yakuza members come from burakumin. The burakumin descended from a feudal outcast class. Around 30% of them are Japanese-born Koreans while 10% hail from non-burakumin ethnic groups from Japan and China.

The Burakumin, whose history dates back to the Heian period in the 11th century, is a socially discriminated group in Japan. This is because they descended from outcast members from the pre-modern and feudal eras. Their ancestors’ occupations were regarded as tainted with ritual impurity or death. These included executioners, butchers, leather workers and undertakers. Traditionally, they resided in their own isolated hamlets.

Ethnic Koreans

In the Japanese population, ethnic Koreans make up only 0.5% of it. But despite their small number, they are prominent members of the yakuza. This is because they too, like the burakumin, suffer discrimination. Japanese-born Koreans who retain their South Korean nationality are regarded as resident aliens. They are accepted by the yakuza for who they are due to their outsider image.

Activities

The yakuza groups and their members control drug trafficking in the nation, especially methamphetamine. But not all groups do so. For instance, the Yamaguchi-Gumi forbids its members from engaging in such activities. But other yakuza syndicates, like the Dojin-kai, are deeply involved in it. Some of the yakuza groups deal with human trafficking too. They trick women and young girls from poverty-stricken villages with the promise of jobs with good wages. However, they are forced into prostitution and other such activities.

The yakuza members helping at the tsunami-hit areas.
The yakuza members helping at the tsunami-hit areas. credit@ Business

While a majority of people consider the yakuza to be just criminal gangsters, it’s not so. For instance, when the Kobe earthquake hit in 1995, the Yamaguchi-Gumi, which is based in Kobe, provided disaster relief services. Help came again after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami when the yakuza groups opened their offices for the refugees. They sent hundreds of trucks carrying supplies to the devastated areas. Food, water, sanitary supplies and blankets found their way to the affected individuals. The yakuza upholds their code of honour by valuing justice and duty and forbids letting others suffer.

Conclusion

As mentioned above, the yakuza have had mixed relations with the society of Japan. Despite their outsider status or image, some of their actions may have had positive effects on society. For instance, they prevent other criminal activities in their area and provide relief aid. These actions have brought the yakuza to a positive light in the country. However, the use of violence, gang-wars, human trafficking and other such activities have dragged their image through the mud.


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