F.A.Q | D&D Mailing List | Oriental Adventures Mailing List | About Me

curve Phillip Riley's Homepage

 Search by FreeFind

 Like a modern day Diogenes.

Yakuzas F.A.Q.

Yakuza Introduction

Italy has the La Cosa Nostra.

America has the Mafia.

The Irish and Jews have their own crime organizations in America.

Southeast Asia has the Triads.

China, Hong Kong and Taiwan have the Tong.

Truly well-known organized crime organizations indeed.

However, there is one organization that was not mentioned in the above list, a group that has been around for over 300 years. A group that has as much honor and principle as the Mafia, and is just as strong, if not stronger.

The group is yakuza.

History of the Yakuza Feudal Japan


The yakuza can trace its origins back to as early as 1612, when people known as kabuki-mono ("crazy ones"), began to attract the attention of local officials. Their odd clothing and haircuts and behavior, along with carrying longswords at their sides, made them quite noticable. Kabuki-mono made a habit of antagonizing and terrorizing anyone at their leisure, even to the point of cutting one down just for sheer pleasure.

The kabuki-mono were eccentric samurai, taking outrageous names for their bands and speaking heavily in slang. Their loyalty to one another was remarkable. They would protect each other from any threat, including against their own families.

In fact, the kabuki-mono were servants of the shogun, also taking the name of hatamoto-yakko ("Servants of the shogun"). The groups were comprised of nearly 500,000 samurai that were forced into unemployment during the time of peace during the Tokugawa era, forcing them to become ronin ("Wave man," a masterless samurai). Many had turned into bandits, looting towns and villages as they wandered throughout Japan.

The hatamoto-yakko cannot truly be seen as the forebears of that yakuza. Instead, the yakuza see the machi-yokko ("Servants of the town") as their ancestors. These people were the ones who took up arms and defended the villages and towns from the hatamoto-yokko. These people consisted of such occupations as clerks, shopkeepers, innkeepers, laborers, homeless warriors and other ronin. Everyone who was part of the machi-yakko was an adept gambler, which helped them develop a closely-knit relationship with each other and their leaders, much like today's yakuza.

The machi-yakko soon became folk heroes, praised by the townspeople for their actions against the hatamoto-yakko, though they were, for the most part, untrained and weaker than the hatamoto-yakko. They were very similar to England's Robin Hood. Some of the machi-yakko were even subjects of stories and plays. (Kaplan, p14-16)

The early yakuza did not surface until the middle to late 1700's. These members include the bakuto (traditional gamblers) and the tekiya (street peddlers). These terms are still used today to describe yakuza members today, although a third group, gurentai (hoodlums) has been added in the post World War II era. Everyone in those groups came from the same background: poor, landless, delinquents and misfits. The groups stuck closely in the same small areas without problems, as the bakuto remained mostly along the higways and towns, and the tekiya operated in the markets and fairs of Japan.

The yakuza began organizing into families, adopting a relationship known as oyabun-kobun (father-role/chiled-role). The oyabun was the "father," providing advice, protection and help; the kobun acted as the "child," swearing unswerving loyalty and service whenever the oyabun needed it.

The initiation ceremony for the yakuza also developed in this period of time. Instead of the actual bloodletting that was practiced by the Mafia and the Triads, the yakuza exchanged sake cups to symbolize the entrance into the yakuza and the oyabun-kobun relationship. The amounts of sake poured into each cup depended upon one's status, whether the participants were father-son, brother-brother, elder-younger, etc. The ceremony was usually performed in front if a Shinto altar, giving it religious significance. (Kaplan, p18-20)


The tekiya's history is still widely debated. The most widely accepted theory was that the tekiya came from yashi, an earlier word meaning peddler. The yashi were travelling merchants of medicine, much similar to the American West's snake oil merchants. Over time, yashi became a catch-all for all merchants and peddlers.

They tekiya united with each other for protection and mutual interest from the Tokugawa regime. They began to control the booths at fairs and markets. Their reputation for shoddy merchandise was well known and well-deserved. Their salesmanship was deceptive. They lied about origins and quality of products. The would act drunk and make a show of selling their wares cheaply, so it would appear that they were unaware of what they were doing. They would delude the customer.

The tekiya followed the usual yakuza organization: oyabun, underboss, officers, enlisted and apprentices. The oyabun controlled the kobun and the allocation of stalls along with the availability of the goods. He also collected rents and protection money, and would pocket the difference between the two. Everything they did was legal work. In the middle 1700's, the feudal authorities recognised and therefore increased the power of the tekiya. Oyabun were given the authority of supervisor, now being able to have a surname and carry two swords similar to samurai, in order to reduce the threat of turf wars due to widespread fraud. However, the tekiya still embraced some criminal traits, such as protection rackets, the harboring of fugitives and known criminals, and brawling with other tekiya and gangs. (Kaplan, p20-22)

Bakuto the Gamblers

The bakuto were first recognized during the Tokugawa era, when the goverment hired them to gamble with contruction and irrigation workers in order to regain a portion of the substantial wages the workers received.

The bakuto contributed to Japan's tradition for gambling, as well as the yakuza's traditional "finger-cutting," and the origin of the word "yakuza."

The word comes from a hand in a card game called hanafuda (flower cards), similar to blackjack. Three cards are dealt per player, and the last digit of the total counts as the number of the hand. A hand of 20, the worst score, gives the score of zero. One such losing combination is 8-9-3, or ya-ku-sa, which began to be widely used to denote something useless. This term began to be used about bakuto, as they were, on the whole, useless to society.

Yubitsume, the custom of finger-cutting, was introduced by the bakuto. The top joint of the little finger is ceremoniously severed, signifying a weakening of the hand, which meant that the gambler could not hold his sword as firmly. Yubitsume was performed was usually performed as an act of apology to the oyabun. Further infractions would either mean the severing of the next joint or the top section of another finger. It is also used as a lasting punishment just before expulsion.

The use of tattoos also came from the criminal aspect of the bakuto. Criminals were usually tattooed with a black ring around an arm for each offense he had committed. However, the tattoos soon became a test of strength, as they were applied by undergoing 100 hours for a complete back tattoo. The tattoo also marked a misfit, always unwilling to adapt themselves to society.

Modernization of the Yakuza

Restoration Years

The Meiji Restoration, starting in 1867, gave Japan a rebirth and its first of many transformations into an industrial nation. Political parties and a parliament were created, as well as a powerful military.

The yakuza also began to modernize, keeping in pace with a rapidly changing Japan. They recruited members from construction jobs and dockworkings. They even began to control the rickshaw business. Gambling, however, had to be even more covert, as police were cracking down on bakuto gangs. The tekiya, unlike the bakuto, thrived and expanded, as their activites were not illegal, at least not on the surface.

The yakuza began to dabble in politics, taking sides with certain politicians and officials. They cooperated with the goverment so they could get official sanction, or at least some freedom from harassment.

The government did find a use for the yakuza as aid to ultranationalists, who took a militaristic role in Japan's adaption into democracy. Various secret societies were created and trained militarily, trained in languages, assassination, blackmail, etc. The ultranationalist reign of terror lasted into the 1930's, consisting of several coups d'etat, the assassination of two prime ministers and two finance ministers, and repeated attacks on politicians and industrialists. The yakuza provided muscle and men to the cause and participated in "land development" programs in occupied Manchuria or China.

Things changed, however, when Pearl Harbor was bombed. The government no longer needed the ultranationalists or the yakuza. Members of these groups either worked with the goverment, put on a uniform, or were put into jail. (Kaplan, p31-40)

Occupation Years

The American occupation forces in post-war Japan saw the yakuza as a primary threat to their work. They began investigations into yakuza activities. In 1948, their work stopped, as the forces thought their investigation was over and the threat was at an end, or at least diminished.

However, the forces had rationed food, thereby giving the black market business to keep the gangs in wealth and power. The gangs were able to act unhindered since the civil police was unarmed. Some occupation officials even aided the yakuza.

The gurentai began to form during the occupation, as there was a power vacuum in the government, as the occupation swept away the topmost layer of control in government and business.

The gurentai could be seen upon as Japan's version of the Mob, its leader similar to what Al Capone was to the Mob. They dealt in black marketeering, for the most part, but also they went so far as to use threat, extortion and violence in their activities. Their members were the unemployed and the repatriated. The goverment used one gurentai as a controller of Korean labor, even though he was apprehended with criminal items.

The occupation forces soon saw that the yakuza was well organized and continuing to operate under two oyabun supported by unidentified high-level goverment officials. They admitted defeat in 1950, as they realized that they could not protect the Japanese people from the yakuza. (Kaplan, p43-52)

In the post-war years, the yakuza became more violent, both on the individual and collective scales. Swords had become a thing of the past, and guns were now becoming the new weapon of choice. They chose ordinary citizens, not just the other vendors or gamblers or specific group targets anymore, as their targets for shakedowns and robberies.

Their appearances also changed, taking American movie gangsters (a la Guys and Dolls) as their influence. They started wearing sunglasses, dark suits and ties with white shirts, and began to sport crewcuts.

Between the years of 1958 and 1963, the number of yakuza members rose by over 150%, to 184,000 members, more than the Japanese Army. There were some 5200 gangs operating throughout Japan. Yakuza gangs began to stake out their territories, and bloody and violent wars began to break out between them. (Kaplan, p89-99)


The man who brought peace between many of the yakuza factions was named Yoshio Kodama.

Kodama was in jail for the early part of the occupation, placed in the same section as cabinet officers, military, and ultranationalists. He himself was part of the ultranationalist group Kenkoku-kai (Association of the Founding of the Nation). In the late 1930's and early 1940's he worked as an espionage agent for the Japanese government, touring East Asia. He worked on a major operation to obtain strategic materiel needed for the Japanese war effort.

By the end of the war, he had obtained the rank of rear admiral (an impressive feat at the age of thirty-four), and was advisor to the prime minister. He was rounded up with other government officials in 1946 and placed in Sugamo Prison to await trial. The occupation forces saw Kodama as a high security risk, should he ever be released, due to his fanatacism with the ultranationalists.

Kodama had made a deal with the occupation forces G-2 section, and upon his release, was working for the intelligence branch of G-2. He was the principal go-between for G-2 and the yakuza by 1950. (Kaplan, p63-9)

In the early 60's, Kodama wanted the yakuza gangs, who were now fighting one another, to join together into one giant coalition. He deplored the warfare, seeing it as a threat to anticommunist unity. He used many of his connections to secure a truce between the gangs. He made a fast alliance between Kazuo Taoka, oyabun of the Yamaguchi-gumi faction, and Hisayuki Machii, a Korean crimeboss in charge of Tosei-kai. The alliance broke the Kanto-kai faction for good. Kodama continued to use his influence to mediate the alliance between the Inagawa-kai and its Kanto allies and Yamaguchi-gumi. The truce that Kodama had envisioned was now at hand.

Yoshio Kodama was then referred to as the Japanese underworld's visionary godfather. (Kaplan, p93-99)

Modern Yakuza


The oyabun to the Yamaguchi-gumi from the mid 1940's until his death in 1981 was Kazuo Taoka. He was the third oyabun of the faction.

Taoka had survived many assassination attempts, including one in 1978, when he was shot in the neck by a member of the Matsuda (a rival yakuza clan who had sworn vengeance on the Yamaguchi-gumi for the death of their oyabun) during a limbo dance exhibition at the Yamaguchi-gumi household. (Kaplan, p127-9)

The Yamaguchi-gumi is Japan's most powerful syndicate. Their symbol is a rhombus-shaped pin worn on the lapel of their suits. The combination of the pin plus the showing of their tattoos could get them anything they wanted.

However, the pin was not always as powerful as they seemed. In 1980, when the Yamaguchi-gumi attempted to expand their territory into Hokkaido, they were met at the Sapporo airport by 800 members of local gangs who united to keep the Yamaguchi-gumi out of their area. Nearly 2000 anti-riot-equipped police kept the two groups apart. The Yamaguchi-gumi were prevented from opening their headquarters in Sapporo. (Kaplan, 129-30)

In July 1981, Taoka suffered and died from a heart attack, ending his 35-year rule as oyabun. His death was celebrated by his yakuza underlings in the finest yakuza style. Police raided Yamaguchi-gumi homes and offices across Japan, arresting 900 members, and taking such contraband as firearms, swords, and amphetamines.

The funeral was grand indeed, bringing in members from nearly 200 gangs, singers, actors, musicians, and even the police (who attended dressed in riot gear). (Kaplan, p130)

Taoka's successor was to be his number-two man, Yakamen. However, he was in prison and was not due to be released until late 1982. During the absence of Yakamen, everyone (including the police) was surprised to see that the new temporary leader was Taoka's widow, Fumiko. However, Yakamen did not succeed Taoka, for he died of cirrhosis of the liver. The entire structure of Yamaguchi-gumi was now in chaos.

The Yamaguchi-gumi controlled over 2500 businesses, sophisticated gambling and loan-sharking, and invested heavily in sports and other entertainment under Taoka's 35-year rule as oyabun. They operated under the same patterns that had existed for the yakuza for over 300 years, basically depending upon the oyabun-kobun relationship that controlled the day-to-day management of the syndicate. The syndicate was grossing well over {\$460} million per year. Their management style was envied by such organizations as the Mafia and General Motors.

The Yamaguchi-gumi had 103 bosses or various rank from well over 500 gangs. Each of these bosses fared well, making over {\$130,000} annually. A syndicate head would make {\$43,000} per month ({\$360,000} annually after deducting \$13,000 per month for entertainment and office expenses). Of course, this would depend upon the number of soldiers the boss had under him. (Kaplan, p131-2)

The Yamaguchi-gumi began to deal in narcotics now, primarily amphetamines. Other fields of choice brought in a high capital: moneylending, smuggling, and pornography (hard pornography is illegal in Japan). Rigging baseball games, horse races, and public property auctions were commonplace for yakuza. Seizing real estate, entertainment halls, hospitals, and English schools were also done by the yakuza. (Kaplan, p133-4)

During Fumiko Taoka's rule, the membership of Yamaguchi-gumi rose to 13,346 members from 587 gangs by the end of 1983. Their control stretched to 36 of Japan's 47 prefectures. A council of eight high-ranking bosses took control, under the guidance of Fumiko Taoka, in 1983. However, the syndicate had to select a new godfather. Masahisa Takenaka became the new oyabun, as everyone preferred his militant style over Hiroshi Yamamoto's (his opponent) interi (intellectual) yakuza.

Yamamoto, in a fit of anger after losing, took 13,000 men from the Yamaguchi-gumi and created the Ichiwa-kai, one of Japan's top three syndicates. In 1985, Ichiwa-kai assassins slaughtered Takenaka, creating a bloody gang war. (Kaplan, 136-7)

Kazuo Nakanishi became the new oyabun for Yamaguchi-gumi and declared war on the Ichiwa-kai. Police interfered and arrested nearly a thousand mobsters and confiscated many weapons. The Yamaguchi-gumi was desperate to win, so they turned to operations in the US to fund their war. They had obtained many highly illegal weaponry, including rocket launchers and machine guns, in exchange for narcotics, however the conspirators were arrested, including Masashi Takenaka, Masahisa's brother, and Hideomi Oda, the syndicate's financial controller. The Yamaguchi-gumi was thrown back into chaos. (Kaplan, p137-8)

Yakuza Structure

The structure of the yakuza is easy to follow, once the oyabun-kobun relationship is understood.

As an example to explain the structure of command of a yakuza clan, the Yamaguchi-gumi (as of November 1991) will be used.

The oyabun, Yoshinori Watanabe, is the head of the clan, residing at the Yamaguchi-gumi headquarters in Kobe. He obtained the position of the fifth oyabun (or kumicho, supreme boss) in 1989. His original gang was the Kobe-based Yamaken-gumi.

Kazuo Nakanishi remains as a saiko komon, or a senior advisor. He resides in Osaka, with 15 sub-gangs under his control, giving him 439 members.

Saizo Kishimoto is the so-honbucho, the headquarters chief, with 6 gangs (108) members under his control in Kobe.

Masaru Takumi is the wakagashira, or number-two man. He controls 941 members in 41 gangs in Osaka.

Testuo Nogami is the fuku-honbucho, an assistant, with 8 gangs (164 members) in Osaka.

Under the kumicho are various komon (advisors), Shingiin (counselors), kumicho hisho (kumicho's secretaries), kaikei (accountants), and wakagashira-hosa (underlings of the second-in-command).

Keisuke Masuda is the number three man (shateigashira), residing in Nagoya with 4 gangs consisting of 111 members under his care. He also has severeal shateigashira-hosa to aid him.

There are 102 senior bosses (shatei, "younger brothers") and numerous junior leaders (wakashu, "young men"), making up then 750 gangs with 31,000 members in the Yamaguchi-gumi. (Delfs, p 30-31)

The Yakuza and Today's Japan

Today's Japan does not appreciate the "noble" workings of the yakuza. In fact, on March 1, 1992, the Japanese goverment passed the Act for Prevention of Unlawful Activities by Boryokudan (yakuza or criminal gangs) Members.

This act designates the term boryokudan as a group with more that a certain precentage of membership having a criminal record. It also identifies organizations with strong violent or criminal tendencies.

The act mainly prohibits the boryokudans from realizing profits made from forms of extortion not covered in previous existing laws, i.e., protection rackets. (Shinnosuke, p353-4)

The yakuza is avoiding being called a boryokudan, mostly by trying to hide behind actual businesses they use as fronts. They have also published a book as of late, entitled "How to Evade the Law," which was distributed among the members of the Yamaguchi-gumi. In fact, 77 gangs affiliated with the Yamaguchi-gumi are registered as businesses or religious organizations. (Ormonde, p48)

In March of 1992, wives and daughters of yakuza members marched in protest of the new laws through the Ginza. The following month, high-ranking yakuza argued that they are not truly evil; their code of chivalry (similar to bushido, the Way of the Warrior) and samurai values calls upon them to defend the interests of society's weaker members, and their conduct expresses their noble values, not violence. (Shinnosuke, p356)

However, these arguments were proven wrong in the public eye, when members of the yakuza ambushed and stabbed filmmaker Itami Juzo over an anti-yakuza movie entitled "Minbo no Onna" (A Woman Yakuza Fighter). A boryokudan defector commented on the attack, and was later found shot in the leg. (Shinnosuke, p356)

Even outsiders of the yakuza have protested the new laws against them. Over 130 lawyers, professors, and Christian ministers proclaimed that the yakuza countermeasures were unconcitutional, basically on the grounds that they infringed basic rights, such as the freedom of assembly, the choice of occupation, and the ownership of property. (Shinnosuke, p358)

In fact, even ordinary citizens are against the yakuza.

Citizens of the neighborhood of Ebitsuka, a neighborhood of Hamamatsu, 130 miles SW of Tokyo, did not want yakuza activity in their backyard. The yakuza were operating out of a green building, that the neighbors quickly termed as burakku biru ("black building"). The citizens videotaped everyone who went in and out of the building, noting specifically the ones wearing flashy suits, dark glasses, short hair and hints of tattoos on their arms. The yakuza retaliated against the citizens, smashing windows of the local garage mechanic, stabbing the town's lawyer in the lung, and slashing another activist in the throat.

However, after police arresting half of the gang, the Ichiri Ikka, led by Tetsuya Aono, abandoned the burakku biru in an out-of-court settlement, as they did not want to stir up trouble for gangsters elsewhere. (Chua-Eoan, p42)

Yakuza in Business and Politics

The yakuza has always been involved in politics and business right from the start. The groups are always hungry for more power and money, wherever they can find it.

In 1987, Noboru Takeshita was elected prime minister in Japan. There were always suspicions of gangster ties in the election. When questioned on the accusations in 1992, Takeshita denied knowing at the time that the yakuza were involved.

What happened was this: during one of his speeches, a group was blaring comments against Takeshita. Some other group of people had silenced the commentators.

The Liberal Democratic Party kingmaker was made to resign from politics in October 1992 when he admitted to receiving Y500m ({\$4}m) from a delivery firm, Sagawa Kyubin. The owner of the firm, Hiroyasu Watanabe, paid the kingmaker for trying to help save his business. Watanabe admitted to asking Ishii Susumu, the late head of the Inagawa-kai, to silence the group. Susumu called in a gang from Kyoto, the Aizu Kotetsu, to do the job. Aizu Kotetsu had a grudge against Takeshita due to a confidence job (paying Y4 billion for a Y500m gold screen). Takeshita denied the screen deal, although money from it was given to his secretary.

Shigeaki Isaka, who was very close to the leader of Aizu Kotetsu, would help Takeshita win the election, in order to have a hold over him, possibly for future blackmail. (Economist, p33)

There is another yakuza incident that hits closer to home. West Tsusho, a Tokyo-based real estate firm, bought two American companies with help from none other than Prescott Bush, Jr, President Bush's elder brother.

What wasn't known at the time was that West Tsusho is an arm of the a company run by the Inagawa-kai's leader, Ishii Susumu.

Tsusho purchased Quantum Access, a Houston-based software firm) and Asset Management International Financing \& Settlement, a New York City-based company.

Bush received a {\$250,000} finder's fee for Asset Manangement, as was promised another {\$250,000} per year for three years in consulting fees. Bush was unaware at the time that he was being a middleman for mob activity. (Time, Jun 24, 1991, p25)

A Bleak Future?

With the anti-yakuza countermeasure act in place, the future for the yakuza seems bleak, at least in Japan. The North American expansion could do very well, as they channel nearly {\$10} billion into legitimate investments not only in the US, but in Europe as well.

The FBI is gearing up to handle the new threat from the yakuza, now that their handling of the Mafia is nearly complete. However, their investigations will be difficult, as they can operate though shell corporations without the close scrutiny that hampers crooks in other companies. Also, money laundering is not a crime in Japan, so the investigations into the money angles of the yakuza will be extremely difficult. (Castro, p21)

However, yakuza in Japan are already seeing their future weaken.

Between April 21 and May 25 of 1992, police stations in many prefectures received nearly 145 calls from gangsters and their families asking advice on how to leave the gangs and go legitimate.

In response to this, over 60 companies in Japan offered to take in reformed yakuza as employees. (Shinnosuke, p358)

The future for the yakuza as of right now is uncertain. Perhaps the gangs will still survive in Japan, moving back into the underground where they hid during the occupation. Perhaps they will just move their operations elsewhere, amongst the Triads of southeast Asia, with whom they have had good relationships and business.

Only time will tell...

Submit to:  Digg  Del.icio.us

Related Links

Copyright © 1998-2006 Phillip Riley

Last Updated Sat Aug 11, 2007