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What is the Yakuza?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a CulturalWorld.org researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon238828 — On Jan 05, 2012

Yes, they are criminals, but just stay out of their business and no harm will come your way. Actually, some of them are very polite and respectful.

I remember one night, I heard so much commotion coming from the house next to us and all of the neighbors came out to watch. We knew that the Yakuza wanted something from that man. The next day, they came door to door saying that they are so very sorry about the disturbance and that they'll try not to let it happen again. I know not all of them are like this, but some are.

By yumdelish — On Aug 12, 2011

@wander - You are so right. I lived in Tokyo for several years and the yakuza are pretty much an accepted part of society.

If you go to the entertainment district of Roppongi you can easily spot the lower ranking henchmen, standing guard outside the bar or club their boss is having a drink in. They rarely bother people if you leave them alone and are not involved in their dealings.

I remember when I first arrived in Japan and heard about the yakuza. As well as the infamous tattoos they sport, other signs are said to be having curly permed hair, and perhaps missing part of one or more fingers. (Which have been chopped off as punishment for breaking a gang rule.) I used to freak out if I saw anyone who resembled that image.

Once, when I lived in a walk up apartment, I turned a corner of the stairwell and nearly jumped out of my skin! There in the hallway, right outside another tenant's door, were two dead white rats! I was told later that this is a typical warning sign from local yakuza. I never found out who lived there, but I wasn't really trying I will say.

By pennywell — On Aug 12, 2011

@yseult - I think it's not as black and white as that. Since the Yakuza's power and more importantly, money, are tied to so many major industries in Japan, they make it harder for the authorities to get rid of them.

To draw a parallel, think of cigarettes. We all know that they're bad for us and that they cause cancer and death. So why does the government still allow such a product to be sold everywhere?

By yseult — On Aug 12, 2011

@peabody - Even so, if they do operate out in the open, why don't the police simply arrest them and make them reveal the names of other members or cells?

By peabody — On Aug 11, 2011

@anamur - simrin's explanation is a really good one. With an organization as large and powerful as the Yakuza, they must have considerable influence and ties within the government and other official authorities.

Because the Yakuza are such a large group, presumably they are able to cover their tracks fairly well. Essentially, they are able to operate out in the open so easily because they make it hard for the police to pin down a crime on any one person. It's a bit useless suspecting that a group of people (numbering in the tens of thousands!) have committed a crime without knowing exactly who to blame.

By turquoise — On Aug 11, 2011

@simrin-- Yea, the yakuza donated a lot for the earthquake victims but they also had to keep it a secret because they knew that the people would not take the aid if they knew from the yakuza. The Japanese people don't like the yakuza at all.

Even the word yakuza in Japanese means "losers" or "good for nothing." I think they emerged when Japanese samurais were left without jobs and couldn't find anything else to do other than form gangs and it grew from there.

The funny thing is that crime is almost nonexistent in Japan. How such a huge crime group like the yakuza manages to exist in such a society is beyond me. I read that the yakuza has about 90,000 members in Japan and this is not a very large country.

By wander — On Aug 10, 2011

@anamur - The yakuza are thought to have ties very high up in the chains of politics and law enforcement. Often government officials are paid hefty sums to look the other way and allow the yakuza to go about their business.

Interestingly if you visit Japan there seems to be an underlying respect for the yakuza. While there is fear, it seems that the gangsters there know their business and as long as you don't interfere in it they give you no trouble.

Basically it works out that the yakuza are a powerful force with a lot of financial backing. They control so much of the gambling, sports, and sex industry in Japan that it seems to me that they, at their core, are a brotherhood of businessmen. So I think that the yakuza get away with murder much in the same fashion as large corporations do.

By SteamLouis — On Aug 10, 2011

@anamur-- You asked that question so easily but the answer, if there is one, is way too complex.

I'm no expert or anything but I think that looking at the yakuza from an American perspective won't make much sense to us because in our country, organized crime is something that is supposed to be defeated and wiped out.

In Japan, I don't think that the common folk are happy with the yakuza either, but I think that it is so embedded in the society that even trying to get rid of it (not that it would be possible) would probably have very negative effects on the society and government, even the economy.

Why won't the Japanese government do something? I think they won't because there are people in the Japanese government who are friendly with the yakuza and some are said to have an organized crime background themselves. At least it used to be that way in the past, I'm not too sure about now.

And Yakuza is more than organized crime. I had read that in the recent Japan earthquakes, the Yakuza and other organized crime groups in Japan sent huge amounts of food and other essentials to the victims as aid! I usually don't hear about many organized crime groups doing that.

By animegal — On Aug 09, 2011

The yakuza are a huge figure in much of Japanese pop culture and continue to appear in a lot of movies and occasionally even in animation. There is nothing better in most stories that a heroine or hero battling a group of corrupt lawmakers with their yakuza ties.

One of the most famous appearances of the yakuza in movie history can be found the story of Yojimbo, a movie from 1961 that featured two competing crime lords. I remember my Japanese culture professor getting us to watch this film and being enthralled by the scheming and graphic battles.

If you want to watch some movies about the yakuza, there are oodles. Just be forewarned that most movies are usually bloody.

By serenesurface — On Aug 09, 2011

How is it possible for a criminal group to operate so openly? Why won't the Japanese authorities, the government and the police do something about it?

Are the yakuza so powerful that even the Japanese government are pretending that they are not there?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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