Who are the Yakuza? 10 Facts about Japan’s most successful crime syndicate

Yakuza History and facts

In the simplest of terms, the Yakuza are Japan’s mafia. They are organized and very wealthy crime groups whose impact have far-reaching consequences on Japan’s society. Yakuza started off as gamblers and street traders before descending into the world of organized crime. That descent happened in full after World War II. Today, the Yakuza is commonly regarded as one of the wealthiest crime syndicates in the world. Although they are known for perpetrating heinous crimes in and outside Japan, they have also worked in the shadows helping disaster-struck areas in Japan. Here are 10 terrifying facts about the Yakuza, Japan’s most successful organized-crime gangs.

History and origins of the Yakuza go back to the 17th century

The origin story of the Yakuza can be traced to the early 1600s. Historians state that the first members of the Yakuza emerged from two unsavory elements in the Japanese society – thieves (Tekiya) and gamblers (Bakuto).

Members of both groups were recruited from the lowest of lows in the society (the Burakumin). This included undertakers, butchers, social miscreants and outcasts.  Those that engaged in thievery had a very structured hierarchy and power structure. The less structured group were the ones that gambled. Soon, members in those two gangs started protecting their fellow members in exchange for a protection fee, thereby giving birth to the first Yakuza.

The reason why many of those people banded together to form the earliest Yakuza was because the society had neglected them. People that belonged to the Burakumin class were disenfranchised and had no other means of climbing the social ladder. The Yakuza gave them some form of identity and status in the community.

The Yakuza tend to recruit from a pool of social outcasts

Japan’s Yakuza of the modern era is not much different than the ones that sprung up in the 17th century. Japan’s organized crime syndicate still replenishes its ranks with the likes of troubled kids and homeless people from the streets. Yakuza claim that the play an influential role in remolding the lives of those disturbed people who would have otherwise ended up bitter and sad. By so doing, the Yakuza strongly believes that their activities help to raid off violent individual and spontaneous crimes from the streets of Japan.

The entry requirements to become a Yakuza member are not that difficult to meet. Literally anyone can join this criminal organization. Troubled teenagers and life thugs form the biggest pool in the recruitment. In recent times, the Yakuza has sort of made their recruitment process a bit more formal. Some groups have demanded that new members write an exam in order to demonstrate their understanding of the Japanese law. Knowledge of the laws allows members to outmaneuver the authorities.

Meaning of the word “Yakuza” comes from a game


The term “Yakuza” (ya-ku-za) translates into 8-9-3. Those numbers represent the worst possible hand one can get when playing the Japanese card game called Oicho-Kabu. The game is almost similar to Baccarat or Blackjack. In the game players take turns drawing three cards. A draw of 8-9-3 cards is considered the most worthless hand one could ever get in the game. It is for this reason why the meaning of the word yakuza comes out as “good for nothing”.

Many of their activities are brutal and heinous

Undoubtedly, the Yakuza is one of the most sophisticated and well-organized crime syndicates in world. They came about this infamous title due to their extensive crimes and atrocities. The Yakuza has its fingerprints on arms trading, investment in the stock markets, drugs, stock manipulations, loan sharking, prostitution, pornography industry, extortion, and real estate and construction. As you might have noticed, some of those activities appear perfectly legal. However, majority of their dealings are completely illegal and abhorrent.

Their association with the sex trade started in full force in WWII. The Yakuza engaged in the provision of comfort women for troops. They had (and still have) a plethora of brothels in the red-light districts of Japan. Today, some Yakuza clans are engaged in the business of forcing prostitution on young girls in debt.

The “Ninkyo Code” forbids Yakuza from letting people suffer unnecessarily

A large number of Yakuza groups still abide by the chivalrous code known as the “Ninkyo dantai”. Owing to this code, the Yakuza has consistently come to aid of people plagued by disasters. They conduct their philanthropy works in secrets. Doing so in the full glare of the public raises too much attention.

Notable mentions can be made of the 1995 devastating earthquake that struck Kōbe. Then there was also the 2011 tsunami and earthquakes that hit Japan, which ultimately caused the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. In all those disasters, the yakuza were one of the first people to arrive on the scene to hand out supplies and other support to those in the area.

It is somewhat ironic in the sense that: how can such a ruthless organization (an organization engaged in drug trafficking (mostly crystal meth), prostitution, money laundry, etc.) still have the heart to help people in trouble? Many observers and writers have stated that the Yakuza offer help because they themselves know what it is like to be in a bad situation and to be treated like the scum of the earth. Bear in mind, their past dates back to the early 17th century, when people considered them unclean misfits.

Yakuza has a large membership

The four biggest Yakuza organizations in Japan are: Yamaguchi-gumi, Sumiyoshi-kai, Inagawa-kai, and Aizu Kotetsu-kai. The Yamaguchi and the Aizu totetsu are the biggest and oldest groups respectively.

Those four organizations have in effect monopolized organized crime in Japan. It has been estimated that those organizations comprise a total of 2,000- 3,000 gangs. All in all, there are 20 major clans (conglomerate gangs) in the country.

In most cases, the Yakuza run its organization in the same manner as a fully-fledged private corporation. They have a well-organized hierarchical (with recognized headquarters) structure that allows them to cash in big from their illicit activities. The only difference between the Yakuza and normal business enterprises is that the former engage in crimes.

The Japanese society, including the security agencies, tries as much as possible to not get overly involved in the details of Yakuza’s operations. As  a matter of fact many Japanese quite frankly prefer this arrangement to having a disorganized crime gang.

Yamaguchi-gumi is the largest and wealthiest organized crime organization in the world

Yakuza history and facts | center – Kenichi Shinoda is the boss of Yamaguchi-Gumi | Image: CNN

Established in 1915, the Yamaguchi-gumi alone has close to 500 separate criminal groups in the country. They are the richest crime organization in the world, with net annual revenue in the region of $80 billion. Compared to Italy’s legendary Ndragheta mafia group, which rakes in about $69 billion, the Yamaguchi-gumi is a real force to reckon with.

Finger chopping (Yubitsume) is a common practice in the Yakuza

Contrary to popular belief, the Yakuza don’t chop off their members’ fingers as part of the initiation process. Instead, a Yakuza member’s finger (usually the pinkie) gets cut off for two reasons: debt repayment, or payment for one’s misdeed or wrong footing. In some cases, the only possible way to maintain one’s tenure in the organization (that is, after a mistake) is to have the pinkie finger chopped off.

Other times, it is simply a matter of life or death. By chopping off the pinkie finger, a Yakuza member can get his life spared. The term giving to that is a “dead finger”. On the other hand, a “living finger” refers to situations where a yakuza chops off his/her finger to save a friend or a subordinate’s life.

It is not all the time that finger chopping occurs. In some yakuza organizations, monetary payments are demanded in lieu of the finger chopping. This is particularly common with the younger generation.

Yakuza Tattoos (Irezumi) are extremely painful and expensive

Yakuza History and Facts | Image: stuff.co.nz

Many Yakuza groups often deploy a well-designed tattoo (Irezumi) – sort of like a corporate symbol – that they brand across the entire torso, except for a small patch of line down the chest. In some cases, members go in for tattoos that cover their entire bodies. What this means is that it locks the members into an almost lifelong servitude in that organization.

Due to the excruciating pain that Yakuza tattoos inflict on the individual, it sends out a message that the person is rich and tough. Getting a tattoo done is often an extremely expensive and time-consuming endeavour. Sometimes it takes a lifetime to get it done. The tattoos are often done with a needle made out of steel or bamboos.

Members are hardened criminals and extremely well-connected

In Japan, the stereotypical image of Yakuza member is that he/she is a hardened social outcast. They are also viewed as extremely wealthy and well-connected people.

In recent times, they have largely moved away from the hardcore illicit activities to engaging in some bit of legal businesses. Regardless of this, the Yakuza still holds some degree of influence on the Japanese society in general. They have been linked (allegedly) to top politicians and government officials. They have also gone into the corporate and financial world. Many of them engage in several stock trading improprieties such as insider trading, extortion and blackmailing of financial executives.

It is for the above reasons why the United States Treasury Department continuously imposes sanctions on Yakuza members or Yakuza–affiliated corporations. The last of such U.S. sanctions came in 2018. It mostly targeted the Yamaguchi group.

You can read more about samurai in Samurai: History and Key Facts

The Yakuza are ruthless but disciplined

Yakuza in Japan

Similar to that of a family, the Yakuza has an overarching patriarchal hierarchy. They have their set of samurai-like customs and codes that members must abide by.

At the top is the Kumicho (or Oyabun) – the godfather figure who supervises the Waka Gashira (leader of several regional gangs). Aiding the person at the top are the lieutenants and advisers.

At the bottom are the foot soldiers (Kobun). The yakuza makes sure that discipline is observed at every level of the hierarchy. Owing to their disciplined approach of doing business, the Yakuza have been able to thrive all these years. At all times, the members are obliged to be loyal and obedient to those above them.

Should a member flout the rules in the Yakuza, he/she has to pay for it dearly. Getting a finger cut off is just one of the least punishments that a member can receive. In some cases, the recalcitrant member gets killed or brutally maimed or expelled from the gang.

Other interesting facts about the Yakuza

History and facts about the Yakuza

  • When the late 1990s children’s show Bob the builder was introduced into Japan, the producers and creators decided to give him five fingers. In the original version of Bob the Builder, the character had four fingers. The creators did not want to have their show associated with the Yakuza’s finger-cutting tradition.
  • Membership in the Yakuza increased several folds after World War II. In the 1960s, the figure shot up to about 184 thousand members. However, it dropped to around 60,000 after the Japanese government became a bit tough on the Yakuza in the 1990s. As at 2016, Yakuza had slightly above 30,000 members.
  • Taoka Kazuo (1912-1981) was commonly recognized as the godfather of godfathers in Japan’s criminal world. He was the boss of the Yamaguchi. He started in the 1920s and became a blood member a decade later. He was often called Kubo, which means bear. An expert organizer and a cunning criminal, Kazuo was responsible for shaping the criminal fortunes of the Yamaguchi organization, making the gang the largest and richest in Japan.
  • In some cases wives of yakuza members have also had to get a tattoo. Going through that ordeal was a way for them to show their unshakable loyalty to their husbands.
  • Yakuza’s network of criminals goes far and beyond the shores of Japan. The Yamaguchi organization for example can boast of sister criminal organizations all across the world.
  • The Yakuza is not one big organization. Instead, it is made up several gangs named bōryokudan or gokudō (violent groups).
  • Some people claim that the lineage of the Yakuza can be traced to gangs of Rōnin around the early 17th century. Rōnin was the term given to Japanese samurais without masters.
  • The members of the Japanese yakuza are sometimes called “Goduku”. The term means “dangerous or extreme path”.
  • Yubitsume – a finger shortening practice – traces its origin to feudal Japan. The punishment was meted out to people who defaulted on their debt repayment. Usually, the pinkie finger was the one that was shortened. A shortened pinky finger made it difficult for the person to handle a sword. This in turn took away their abilities to defend themselves properly. Yubitsume was a deterrent measure to keep members in line and prevent them from re-offending the boss. A cut finger forced the person to become more reliant on their bosses or clans for protection.
  • These days, Yubitsume rarely happens because the Yakuza members have realized that it draws attention to them whenever they are in public.
  • Accepting to be a member of the Yakuza was often done over a ceremonial glass of sake, a Japanese traditional drink. Once accepted, some clans insist that the new member severs ties with his biological family. The clan becomes the member’s new family.
  • In the 1960s, the Japanese government use Yakuza members to shore up the security detail for the visit of U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower.
  • In the modern era, the Yakuza have realized that legitimate businesses fetch more profits that the ones that involve bloodshed and violence. Many Yakuza members are engaged heavily in white collar businesses such as stock trading, real estate, banking, etc. In the 21st century, the government has been a bit tough on this new path that the Yakuza are taking. A host of anti-Yakuza laws have been passed in recent years. Japan is afraid of the international ridicule that it could face once people realize that their financial and real estate industries contain elements of thugs and gangsters.

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