6 interesting facts about the Yakuza you probably didn’t know

The Japanese mafia, most commonly referred to as the Yakuza, is one of the most powerful mafias in the world.

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Image by: Flickr / elmimmo

Unlike other mafias such as the Bratva, Camorra, or Los Zetas, Yakuza members — of which there are about 50,000 — are not fugitives from justice. Although laws have been passed to limit their reach, Yakuza members still have clearly labeled offices, business cards, and even fan magazines. While the Japanese National Police Agency (NPA) has recently been more stringent regulating the Yakuza, they have no intention of criminalizing them as that would only drive them further underground. Besides, taking these measures would also disrupt their national dominance, inciting more violent neighboring mafias such as the Russian Bratva or the Chinese Triad into Japanese society.

While tattoos are widespread across the globe, they are frowned upon in Japan due to their associations with the Yakuza. This is to the extent that public facilities such as gyms, pools and, onsens (bathhouses) have banned anyone with tattoos to keep them out of these places.

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For the Yakuza, tattoos are used to recognize members, demonstrate commitment, and boast about their wealth. They are designed using an extremely painful process called irezumi, in which the tattoos are hand-poked. The process not only hurts from the traditional needle, but also from the pigment injected into the wounds, which often causes fevers and liver problems later on. Through this “art” — often lasting several days — Yakuza members send a strong message of commitment to the lifestyle and a permanent rejection of mainstream society.

Given the considerable costs of irezumi (hand-poked tattoos), members boasting full-body tattoos indicate they’re successful in their business practices, and therefore contributing to the syndicate’s profitability. Unfortunately, in modern society, the rise of machine tattooing has undermined both their pain tolerance and flamboyance.

The tattoo designs themselves are based on Japanese mythology. Typical features include dragons, Samurais, and Koi fish, as they represent wealth, honor, and prosperity, respectively.

The term Ya-Ku-Za — meaning eight-nine-three — is the worst possible combination in a Japanese card game called Oicho-Kabu, suggesting the mafia was originally formed by gamblers. Similar to blackjack, the goal of this game is to reach the number 19 without surpassing it, hence why the sum of 8–9–3 makes up the worst possible hand in the game.

Up until the end of WWII, the Yakuza remained a relatively small and informal mafia operating in the black markets. However, in the post-war era, Japan was devastated: major cities were in ruins, mass unemployment was leading to starvation, and the local police were disarmed. Given this set of circumstances, the black markets began to proliferate, and with them the Yakuza found a huge supply of desperate war veterans trained to use violence — creating a perfect storm. In light of these advances, the disarmed police were forced to accept this new reality.

By the time Japan’s economy started to resurface in the 50s and 60s, the Yakuza was already well-positioned to profit from the economic boom, cementing its position as one of the most powerful organized crime groups in the world.

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Image by: AP Photo

While many of the Yakuza’s sources of income are from conventional mafia practices such as drug trafficking, prostitution, and racketeering, an unconventional, yet highly effective source of income for them is corporate blackmail.

Sokaiya, as it’s named in Japanese, consists of becoming a shareholder of a publicly-traded company by buying shares, which then gives you the right to attend the annual shareholders meeting. Using this right, the Yakuza then threatens to reveal sensitive information about the company’s practices, employees, or finances. Although most publicly-traded overseas companies are obliged to release annual reports, Japanese law doesn’t require companies to issue such reports, as that’s considered exclusive information reserved for majority shareholders.

This gives the Yakuza a golden opportunity to find out any sort of irregular practices by the company, and threaten to reveal this information unless they’re paid off. In a country where public perception is just about more important than anything else, this strategy has yielded surprisingly high dividends for them. Among the largest companies that have been embroiled in the Yakuza’s corporate blackmail practices are Nomura, MUFG, and Japan Airlines.

The Yamaguchi-Gumi — which is the largest Yakuza syndicate in Japan with about 10,000 members — has an entrance exam to test the knowledge of candidates about the current organized crime regulations. Yes, it’s a pen and paper test. So if you’re a youngster tired of school and wanting to join the Yakuza, this is probably disappointing news for you. This notorious 12-page entrance exam is used to filter out candidates that could potentially be detrimental to the organization. Come to think of it, this is not too dissimilar to multinational corporations who use integrity tests to filter a pool of candidates when recruiting.

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Photo by: twphoto/corbis

The punishment for serious offenses in the Yakuza is the notorious Yubitsume (amputation of a part of the little finger). This is done by the offender himself — without any assistance — through the use of a sharp knife and cloth. The amputated finger is then sent in a small bottle with alcohol to the superior as a sign of apology. Further offenses result in the amputation of an additional section of the finger, or the other little finger.

Aside from the acute pain of the act, in ancient times, the shortened little finger prevented swordsmen from gripping the katana (Japanese Sword) properly, creating a handicap in sword fights. In turn, this increased their dependence on the Yakuza for protection in future battles.

I hope you found these interesting!

If you want to learn more about the Yakuza, take a look at my previous post where I talk about them in more detail.

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Cornell University

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