Yakuza : Japanese crime organization and the tradition of tattooing


The origin of the Yakuza is a pretty controversial topic :  some believe that members of the Japanese mafia derived from kabuki-mono, the seventeenth-century samurai serving the Shogun that during the Tokugawa era (one of the most peaceful periods in the history of Japan), became ronin, coalescing in communities devoted to management of gambling and other racketeering activities.

But members of the monder Yakuza refuse these origins, proclaiming themselves descendants from “servants of the city” (yokko-machi), heroes to defend the poor and the peasants during the Middle Ages in Japan.

Whatever is the origin of the Yakuza, this criminal organization has branched out in Japan to the point of controlling different aspects of social and economic life of the country.

Considerate that the Yakuza has been used several times by foreign governments and by the same Japanese government for dirty work.


The first modern godfather Yoshio Kodama, has been working spying and trafficking materials (from minerals to drugs) from and toward China behalf of the Japanese government, earning the rank of admiral. Kodama was also hired by the CIA on several occasions, given his dislike of communism.

They can be mentioned also the multinational and Japanese companies, which are often rely on the Yakuza for new areas of influence. An example is the Lockheed scandal of 1976, when Kodama was paid two million dollars to influence the Japanese aircraft market dismissing McDonnell-Douglas and Boeing in favour to Lockheed.

The Yakuza is divided into three general categories:

Tekiya : street vendors, whose roots date back to the eighteenth century. They were essentially the sellers of “snake oil” of rural areas and into the black market, especially during the Second World War.

Bakuto : they are the gambling managers (see Pachinko). Initially itinerants, they took care of the game of dice and “hanafuda“, a collection of cards in use for several games.

The tradition of members of the yakuza to cover their bodies with elaborate tattoos (called “irezumi“) derives from bakuto. The irezumi tattoos are still done with a manual method using steel needles or bamboo, as a long and painful procedure that may take years to complete.

Gurentai : they are the criminals who follow the way of Occidental gangster, mainly dedicated to extortion and threats. They brought the Japanese underworld to a new level of violence by introducing the use of a firearm during the Second World War.


A member of the Yakuza is very proud to be a considered an “outcasts“.

Yakuza is derived from a regional dialect, and has this meaning:

– “Ya” : number 8

– “Ku” : number 9

– “Za” : number 3

Numbers which, together, give 20, the number of a losing hand in the game of hanafuda.

In modern times, the Yakuza has extended its range of illegal activities taking well beyond the gambling and extortion. Manages prostitution (activity called “selling spring”) thanks to a traffic sex slaves from China and other Asian countries like Philippines and Thailand.

The Yakuza is also capable of supplying arms to a country with a rigid and strict legislation on the arms.

The Yakuza is also specialized in the production of methamphetamine, a popular drug in Japan and used as prostitutes to get money and guns.

In Japan, the Yakuza can count on an army of more than 110,000 members divided into 2,500 families. There are also appearances abroad, but small compared to the impressive numbers in Japan.

During the Second World War, however, the Yakuza was much larger: more than 180,000 members, divided in 5200 between families and bands, plus many of the same Japanese army.


This huge number of criminals did start a war for territory in different regions of Japan, until Yoshio Kodama, considered the first patron of the twentieth century, managed to bring peace.

The structure of the Yakuza is rigidly pyramidal, with a patriarch at the top and subjected to a series of different ranks, although there are differences with the structure of a traditional Mafia organization.

On top of all is the Oyabun (godfather), considered as a real father. Everything is based on the relationship between Oyabun and Kobun (“son”), report that a member of the Yakuza must accept fully as a way of life, offering their unconditional loyalty and blind obedience. In return, the Kobun receive protection and favors. The relationship is so binding to force members of the Yakuza to cut with their families and to give priority to Yakuza over everything else, including private life, in whatever order is given by their superiors.

Just below in the hierarchy is Saiko-Komon, the senior adviser, and the So-Honbucho, which can be considered a “chief operating officer.”

Going down there is Wakagashira (“number two”), chief regional manager for a large number of bands. The Wakagashira is assisted by Fuku-Honbucho, responsible for part of the band under the tutelage of his superior. The Fukui-Honbucho in turn is seen Shateigashira.

Further down, there are Shatei (“younger brothers”), the Wakashu (“young leaders”), up to the members of the lowest order, perpetrators of any order is given.

As previously mentioned, the entry into the Yakuza involves absolute loyalty and blind obedience. To have offended the boss in failure, the punishment is amputation (yubizume) of the last phalanx of the little finger. In case of a second offense, the second joint is cut, and continue in this way, changing the finger if necessary.


The origin of this practice stems from the fact that the removal of the phalanges of the little finger would have weakened wielding a samurai sword, as the little finger plays a key role in the proper use of the katana. This would have made the samurai still more dependent on the protection of his master.

The methods are obviously more brutal if the injury done to Oyabun entity is larger, up to the ritual suicide, or murder deployed by assassins.

Among the hundreds of families belonging to the Yakuza, some stand out in importance and magnitude:

Yamaguchi-gumi: the larger family of all over Japan, which has about 50% of all members of the Yakuza in the country (55,000 members divided into 850 clans). Founded in 1915, continues to grow, and its headquarters in Kobe directs various criminal activities in Japan, and even outside the country.

Sumiyoshi-Rengo: Yakuza second family to many members (about 20,000 in 277 clan). It ‘a confederation of smaller yakuza families governed by a common Oyabun (currently Shigeo Nishiguchi) and this makes the structure less rigid chain of command.

Inagawa-kai: third in the number of family members (15,000 in 313 clan), based in Tokyo, in Yokohama. It was one of the first families with dedication to international affairs.

Toua Yuai Jigyo Kumiai: Founded in 1948 by Hisayuki Machi, of Korean origin, is one of the most influential groups in Tokyo. It is mainly composed of members of Korean descent, for a total of 5,400 items divided into 10 clans.

Sanja Matsuri, in Senso-ji, in the quarter of Asakusa, in Tokyo, is one of the biggest festivals in Tokyo.

The festival as such is nothing too special if you have seen others. It is particular, though, by how Yakuza show off their status in the clear.


Apparently Yakuza are not supposed or allowed to show off their tatoos.

Only (supposedly) in the Sanja Matsuri, not only they do not hide themselves, but become a full-fledged showcase of art on flesh Sanja Matsuri, in Senso-ji, in the quarter of Asakusa, in Tokyo, is one of the biggest festivals in Tokyo.

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