Yakuza: The Japanese Mafia

by Nabanita Dutt, Jul 15, 2002 | Destinations: Japan / Tokyo

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"The nail that sticks up must be hammered down" - Japanese proverb

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There's no room for individuality in traditional Japanese society. In a country where uniformity is valued above all else, you have to keep the rules - or keep out. An inability to conform, to fall in with the customs and mores of the times, thus, has spawned sub-societies of `outsiders' at every turn of Japanese history. While some have expressed their differences in harmless ways, the frustrations of others have come out as violent rebellion.

The Yakuza - with 300 years of violence to their credit - is the oldest and most frightening of them all. Between 1958 and 1963, the number of Yakuza members rose to 184,000, more than the Japanese army, with over 5,000 separate gangs staking their claim over large pockets of the country. The figure plummeted to half in later years, but with bloody gang wars and new areas of illegal operations, the Yakuza is as much a blight to modern society as it was in its high-expansion years.

A section of Yakuza experts trace their origins to a group of trouble-mongers known as kabuki-mono, who raised hell in the early-1600s with their brawls and bad language. Masterless samurais, who were out of jobs during these times of peace, they roamed the countryside in search of booty, hustling passersby, terrorizing and often killing them with the long samurai swords they wore on their belts.

The Yakuza, however, prefer to claim the idealist class of machi-yakko as their ancestors. With `kyoki wo kujiki yowaki wo tasukeru' (`help the weak and oppose the strong') as their clarion call, this group was at loggerheads with the rogue elements of society - the lawless gang of hatamoto-yakko in particular.

They helped the poor, safeguarded the honor of women and kept peace in the neighborhood by raising their swords against thieves, dishonest businessmen and corrupt samurais. Their success at keeping the local bullies in check elevated their position in public mind, and the machi-yakko class was revered and venerated until the samurais cut down their powers in the early 18th century, in an effort to control their popularity.

The Yakuza, in its early avatar at least, had a lot in common with the machi-yakko. People spurned by society - jailbirds, criminals, black sheep, orphans, bastards - all found a home here. The Yakuza name in fact resolves into ya-ku-za (8-9-3), the worst losing hand in the Japanese game of oicho-kabu. The combination of the numbers symbolized the losers and castoffs who banded together to comfort one another and create for themselves a sense of group identity.

Like the machi-yakko before them, the Yakuza did not question the background of a new member, and the organization functioned as one big family. With an initiation ceremony involving the ceremonial exchange of sake cups (prepared by the guarantor) with the boss, an individual came into the Yakuza fold. An oath was also extracted at the ceremony to look out for the group interest and put the Yakuza before oneself under any circumstance.

There was no role for women in the Yakuza set-up. The members feared the looseness of the female tongue and even the wives were kept in the dark about their husband's criminal activities. The only female to command any respect was the boss' wife, known as one-san or `big sister'. There are a couple of isolated instances in Yakuza's history, however, when a newly-widowed one-san has taken control of the gang for a short period in the absence of an immediate successor.

Each Yakuza outfit had an oyabun or `father' at its head, who ruled over the wakashu, his `children', with all the powers of the head of a family. The children, in turn, were allowed to have Yakuza sub-families of their own, and all was okay in the Yakuza household so long as the children honoured their father's wishes. This custom of paying obeisance to the oyabun is prevalent even today, and few wakashu will ever think of revolting against their oyabun. There are countless instances of members going to jail or even laying down their lives at the instance of their boss.

Given the price one has to pay for the smallest trespass, this unconditional loyalty is pretty understandable. To atone for every minor misdemeanor, a Yakuza member amputates the last joint of the little finger in a practice known as yubizume and presents it - gift-wrapped -- to the oyabun. A second offence means the next joint on the block and additional offences can take out the next finger as well. The yubizume ritual apparently goes back to the days of the samurai, when removing a part of the smallest finger would weaken a warrior's grip on his sword. The reasoning went that a damaged finger would make the swordsman more dependant on his master for protection. The samurai sword has long been replaced with modern firearms, but the Yakuza has kept this custom alive to rein in the troublemakers within the organization.

Another Yakuza custom which has stood the test of time is the body tattoo, known as irezumi. The Yakuza get elaborate and colourful tattoos done all over their arms, torso and legs, so that the body appears dressed even when naked. Every gang has their trademark tattoo and the police have often identified pick-ups by the motifs drawn on his body. The tattooing process is laborious and extremely painful. The Yakuza has to return to the tattoo artist repeatedly to complete his irezumi, and a whole body suit can take as many as 10-12 years to complete. The painful procedure is considered an attestation to the member's high tolerance threshold and proves that he can withstand all the hardships he will encounter in his career as a Yakuza.

Yakuza members wear their irezumi proudly and display their severed little fingers in public places to get preferential treatment at ticket counters, restaurants and shops. Nobody wants to get mixed up with a Yakuza gang member, and these sights always ensure that ordinary people will give them a wide berth. Yakuza members thrive on this fear, strutting about the busy streets of Shinjuku and Roppongi in shiny, tight-fitting suits, pointed shoes and long, pomaded hair - a ridiculous throwback to the 1950s. Several mafia gangs have their own symbols, like the rhombus-shaped pins Yamaguchi-gumi (the largest Yakuza gang in Japan today) members wear on their lapels.

In the last decade or so, their mafia activities have grown to encompass almost every thriving area of business in Japan. Corporate extortion, gambling, loan sharking, narcotics, real estate, stock manipulation, tourist scams, gun-running and pornography -- the mafia is kingpin in every illegal activity.

Sex-related enterprises are the Yakuza's big revenue earners and they cater to every whim of the country's overworked, buttoned-down salaried men. Truckloads of pornographic photographs and literature are smuggled into Japan from Europe and America and the mafia controls the prostitution rings throughout the country. The national obsession for sex with young, uniformed schoolgirls has made their international trade in little girls a lucrative proposition. The Yakuza source them from Philippines where impoverished parents are forced to sell off their daughters for about US$ 5,000 to feed the rest of the starving family. The Chinese one-child rule has also created a good market in unwanted female children, and the mafia is assured of their choicest pickings here.

Once in Japan, the girls become `comfort workers', dancing and plying for customers in the Yakuza-controlled sex bars and brothels in places like Tokyo's Kabuki-cho.

Gunrunning is another mafia-active area, where the principle customers are the criminals themselves, and the gangs also specialize in the production and sale of illegal drugs such as amphetamine and methamphetamine (speed).

Corporate extortion is more complicated and requires some degree of finesse, but this too the Yakuza has down to an art. They have devised myriad ways in which members can enter a profitable company in the guise of small shareholders. Once they are firmly ensconced in the company boardroom, the players get the dirt on those in high positions and blackmail them with the threat of revealing the damning secrets at the shareholders meetings. Posing as magazine publishers is another common scam, whereby the mafia men encourage their targets to take out ads or buy subscriptions in exchange for favourable reporting about their company. Since the mafia is more than capable of following through with their threat of bad press, the hapless executives channel large sums of money into the mafia accounts to keep them quiet. Yakuza gangs routinely shake out big corporate honchos by inviting them to a beauty pageant or a gala evening thrown to back some non-existence cause. The invitees are expected to arrive at the venue with fat donations towards the cause, and they are advised by the mafia to think long and hard before turning down such an invitation.

Over the years, the Yakuza have tried to enter legitimate businesses, but the going has got much tougher with the law enforcement agencies snapping harder than ever at their heels. In 1992, the Act for Prevention of Unlawful Activities was passed by the government which empowered the police - and even the common people - to rally and come down harder on Yakuza activity. In this era of more stringent control, speculations are rife that the 300-year-old mafia is at last losing control.

Between April 21 and May 25 this year, police stations in many prefectures claim to have received nearly 145 calls from gangsters and their families wanting to end their criminal careers and go legitimate. In response to this cry for help, over 60 Japanese companies took the unprecedented step of offering reformed Yakuza members jobs with them.

Yakuza strongmen of yesteryears rue the mafia's fall from grace. The high Robin Hood-like principles of the samurai, which early Yakuza swore by, have been thrown by the wayside in pursuit of big money. Infighting and back-stabbings have made bloody intra-gang war commonplace and ordinary people, who the Yakuza are not permitted to kill, are regularly caught in the crossfire. The image of the Japanese mafia, according to them, has been sullied beyond repair by punks and petty hoodlums who have reduced grandiose Yakuza activities to the level of common criminality.

The association with other fringe societies have also affected the reputation of the Yakuza. Bosozokus - gangs of youth on noisy motorcycles who disturb the peace by engaging in acts of random violence without any fear of the police - have been linked in public mind to the Yakuza. Also, they regularly take the rap for many boryokudan activities, as their organization has been clubbed with these organized crime units.

All of this, some commentators feel, have diminished their influence over society. People, fed to the teeth, have at last found a voice against their oppression without fear of retribution. Residents in many areas have managed to get Yakuza social clubs banned from their neighborhood, and caller informations have helped the police raid many a dice and gambling den. The Ichiri Ikka gang learnt a tough lesson in the hands of commoners in a celebrated case when their headquarter in the town of Hamamatsu was staked out by local residents. The green-painted building was captured on CCTV with Yakuza members going in and out, and the tapes were later handed over to enforcement agencies, who then had enough evidence to throw the Ichiri Ikka out. The humiliation and publicity which the eviction engendered was hard to swallow and the gang went on a rampage, killing a lawyer and a town activist and ransacking private property. The harm, however, had been done, and the Yakuza no longer seemed invincible.

In the absence of correct figures, it is difficult to ascertain the extent of Yakuza power in Japan today. Maybe, as the police would have us believe, they are on their way out. Maybe, with their growing alliances with the South East Asian Triads and billions of dollars worth of business spreading over Europe and America, their focus has shifted elsewhere. Or maybe, they are just being more careful.

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