The Yakuza have been part of the Japanese popular culture for over three hundred years. The culture has been deeply embedded in the culture of the Japanese that despite several years of the massive influence of western civilization in Japan, it has not been lost. The Yakuza is a name given to a syndicate of gangster groups that number to the thousands in Japan. They oversee and control the majority of the criminal activities in the country. Their influence has resulted in the elimination of foreign criminal elements in Japan, such as the Chinese triad. The Yakuza have an intricate relationship with the Japanese law enforcement authority and the country’s political establishment. This relationship has resulted in mixed reactions from various sectors, with many people terming the Yakuza a semi-legitimate enterprise while others are adamant that it is illegal and should be outlawed. The Japanese law enforcement has lately started to take action against the syndicate, arresting numerous members and bosses of the gangs and cutting of the syndicate’s revenue sources. This is mostly a reaction to international pressure due to the Yakuza’s involvement in international financial crimes. There exists a relationship between the Yakuza and Japanese law enforcement authorities in the post-Second World War era.
Formation of the Yakuza
The Yakuza is believed to have originated in the mid-Edo period; from 1608-1868. The conventional Yakuza do not have a converging opinion on their origin (Higgins 191). However, it is widely accepted that the syndicate originated in groups of gamblers and scam artists. Other groups claim heritage from the Samurai, more so Ronin (the masterless Samurai), and have incorporated Samurai-like rituals in their rituals and operations.
Yakuza is one of the well-organized criminal syndicates in the world. They have rules coordinating every aspect of their criminal enterprise and organization, from recruitment to the actual commission of crimes. The organization operates under the code of jingi, a Japanese word that translates to justice and duty. The code instills a sense of respect and loyalty in the organization. The Oyabun, the family head, controls each individual gangster group and has a number of subordinates who treats him with respect. The yakuza syndicate is composed of four large family groups. The Yamaguchi-Gumi is the biggest family, accounting for over half of all the Yakuza in Japan (Kaplan and Dubro 47). It has more than fifty thousand members divided into over eight hundred clans. Other groups include the Sumiyoshi-kai and the AizuKotetsu-kai.
To preserve loyalty and respect within the syndicate gang members sever their links with their families and pledge their uttermost loyalty to the gang and the gang boss, Oyabun. The Yakuza is comprised almost entirely of men with a minimal number of women considered members (Kaplan and Dubro 47). The Yakuza majorly recruit new members from impoverished backgrounds. The gangs treat their members as a family, and the members refer to each other as brothers. All this is aimed at maintaining respect and loyalty with the group. The syndicate has an overall boss, kumicho, who coordinates the numerous groups that constitute the Yakuza. The kumicho is assisted by senior advisors and several regional gang leaders who help him in controlling the massive syndicate. The yakuza members perform various rituals. The most common one is Yubitsume, which involves cutting off of one’s finger as a form of penance in case of a transgression. This otherwise crude form of punishment is essential for maintaining internal order and loyalty to the group. However, this practice is on the wane as it makes members of the Yakuza easier to identify by law enforcement authorities.
The Yakuza engage in almost all criminal activities imaginable. From extortion, blackmail, smuggling, prostitution, drug trafficking, gambling, loan sharking to day labor contracting, they virtually rule the criminal world. The Yakuza operates as a semi-legitimate organization. This means that they have and operate both legitimate business and illegitimate criminal enterprises. They have numerous ties in almost all Japanese sectors, from real estate to banking (Adelstein 159). In 1989, the Inagawa-kai section of the Yakuza bought a huge amount of stake of the Tokyo Kyuko Electric Railways stock. The Yakuza’s intricate ties and involvement in the Japanese economic market led to the March 2008 purge of all listed companies linked to the syndicate from the Osaka Securities Exchange (Higgins 213). The Yakuza are heavily involved in international crimes, with many of their members languishing in jails all over the world for crimes such as drug trafficking, racketeering, smuggling, and even human trafficking (Aldestine 160). Moreover, the Yakuza are heavily involved in Japanese political circles. They have deep ties with the Japanese political establishments and regularly fund their campaigns and intimidate their opponents (Aldestine 160). Their involvement in Japanese politics can be described as similar to that of a lobby group.
The Yakuza-Police Relationship
The Yakuza have an intricate relationship with Japanese law enforcement authorities. Usually, the police refer to the syndicate as an illegal and criminal enterprise. However, most critics have termed the police relationship with the Yakuza as cozy. Matters are even made more difficult with the alliance between the Yakuza and the Japanese political establishment. This has led to many terming the syndicate as not illegal (Siniawer 630). A good example is the previous Japanese justice minister who resigned after being entangled in an organized crime scandal. For a long time, the Yakuza have been viewed as gangsters with a strong code of honor who assist the Japanese law enforcement with their investigations and help keep the Japanese streets clean from foreign criminal organizations such as the Chinese triads.
The Yakuza has also been active in community service projects and has helped during disastrous times in Japanese history. In the aftermath of the Kobe earthquake, the Yamaguchi-Gumi section of the yakuza provided much-needed relief services to the victims. The Japanese people lauded their actions as they were quicker to respond than the Japanese government. They were also involved in the provision of aid to the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami victims. They have also been involved in the Fukushima nuclear clean-up. These selfless acts have helped the syndicate to be painted in good light and to win some favors more so from the Japanese people. Critics have, however, lambasted their efforts stating that the aids are desperate attempts by the gangsters to create and reinforce a Robin Hood-like status in Japan.
In recent times, the Yakuza have come under heavy attack, especially from the Japanese law enforcement authorities, resulting in a massive reduction of its membership. The Japanese lawmakers and police feel that the Yakuza’s code of honor is weakening, and therefore, aim to choke the syndicate’s sources of revenue as a means of stifling its existence (Tabuchi). The international community, especially the United States of America, has constantly pressurized the Japanese government to crackdown on the syndicate that has been a significant player in international financial crimes. The Act for Prevention of Unlawful Activities by Criminal Gang Members, an anti-racketeering legislation passed in March 1995, was aimed at eliminating the syndicate from being involved in any legitimate businesses in Japan. Through the Yakuza exclusion ordinances, the syndicate is slowly but surely being brought to heel by the Japanese government. The ordinances stop companies from knowingly dealing with the Yakuza, and this has the effect of reducing the group’s financial might. This was followed by the 2008 Osaka Securities Exchange purge of all listed companies with ties to criminal organizations.
The Yakuza have been a part of Japanese popular culture for more than three hundred years. From their elaborate body tattoos, stringent code of ethics, as well as honor to their criminal activities, the organization has become synonymous with many aspects of the Japanese way of life. The Yakuza, like all criminal organizations, is harmful to Japanese society, but it is also beneficial in one way or another to the Japanese. The numerous incidents of their interventions to aid those affected by natural calamities, such as earthquakes and nuclear disasters, point to their benefit to the Japanese. Moreover, their impacts of helping to eliminate foreign criminal enterprises, such as the Chinese triads from Japanese streets, are laudable. The latest government crackdown on the Yakuza is meant to suppress and ultimately see the elimination of the organization in Japan. However, this is a daunting task that will impact Japanese popular culture in a big way.
Adelstein, Jake. “Global Vice: The Expanding Territory of The Yakuza.” Journal of International Affairs 66.1 (2012): 155-161, https://www.jstor.org/stable/24388258
Higgins, Silke. “Yakuza Past, Present, and Future: The Changing Face of Japan’s Organized Crime Syndicates.” Themis: Research Journal of Justice Studies and Forensic Science 2.1 (2014): 12, http://scholarworks.sjsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1017&context=themis
Kaplan, David E., and Alec Dubro. Yakuza: Japan’s criminal underworld. Univ of California Press, 2012.
Siniawer, Eiko Maruko. “Befitting Bedfellows: Yakuza and The State in Modern Japan.” Journal of Social History 45.3 (2011): 623-641, https://academic.oup.com/jsh/article-abstract/45/3/623/1746075
Tabuchi, Hiroko. “Japan Pushing the Mob Out of Businesses.” The New York Times,18 Nov. 2010, https://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/19/business/global/19yakuza.html