The term yakuza is used to refer both to Japanese criminal organizations and to members of these organizations. The history of the yakuza can be traced back to the 17th century, making these organizations among the oldest criminal groups in the world. Many people are fascinated by the group's culture and traditions, just as they are intrigued by the activities of the Sicilian mafia. Within Japan, the yakuza have tremendous influence on some aspects of Japanese society, and they also have far-reaching authority, with the ability to affect everything from sports to business.
Yakuza may also be referred to as gokudo or “violence groups,” and depending on the group to which a member belongs, he may perform a variety of tasks. Unlike gangsters in other societies, the organizations are also quite open about what they do. Many clans even have offices open to the public, complete with signs displaying the group's crest, and they tend to dress and behave in a more flashy fashion than ordinary members of Japanese society.
As one might imagine from the term “violence group,” many yakuza activities are violent in nature. Like mobsters the world over, these groups are involved in extortion, racketeering, protection schemes, and a variety of other activities, and most groups offer their violence for hire in addition to using violence to achieve their ends. They are also heavily involved in gambling, Japanese sports, and the sex industry in Japan.
Yakuza culture is just as rigid and hierarchical as Japanese culture in general. The gangs have a very set hierarchy, and each member of the group knows his place and is aware of how to behave when interacting with other members of the group. Yakuza commonly share various ritual ceremonies with each other, cementing their connections and bonds and highlighting their positions in the hierarchy.
One of the more distinctive features of the yakuza is their famous tattoos, known as irezumi. Many of these tattoos are produced in the traditional hand-poked way, rather than with tattoo machines, and it can take years to complete the full-body tattoos associated with the organizations. Irezumi are also extremely ornate, with classical Japanese themes and designs which often feature the crest of the organization to which the gangster belongs. Because of their associations with the yakuza, tattoos have negative connotations in Japanese society in general, and people with visible tattoos are banned from some venues.