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Stereotypes and Realities of Japanese Yakuza Research Paper

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Updated: May 12th, 2020

Introduction

Organized crime has been a problem in many countries in the world. Yakuza members in Japan also known as gokudo are a perfect example of organized crime. Police and the media refer to them as the boryokudan meaning a violent group while they call themselves ninkyo dantai or basically chivalrous organization.

Although there is uncertainty concerning their origin, there are two major divisions, Tekiya and Bakuto who are believed to have emerged during the mid-Endo period. Some people maintain that Yakuza are descendants of a group known as Kabuki-mono which existed in the 17th century which was also know as hatamoto-yakko, characterized by weird hairstyles and clothing as well as carrying large swords in their belts.

Currently, Yakuza members believe that they originated from mkachi-yokko also known as servants of the town whose main activity was to protect their community from hatamo-yakko. Whichever the case, there is much concerning the Yakuza that makes them to be a unique group of people[1]. This paper shall focus on the stereotypes and realities of the Japanese Yakuza.

Background Information

History of Organized Crime in Japan

As highlighted earlier in this paper, Yakuza are divided in to different groups. The Tekiya or the peddlers were the lowest socially ranked group in Edo. The group became distinct immediately after starting to take over some administrative roles related to commerce like allocation and protection of stalls. Their role in commerce continued to advance since during Shinto festivals, they opened some stalls and some of the members were hired to become security officers.

The peddlers used to pay rent for the stall and for the security offered. As years progressed, they were recognized by the Edo government and were given permission of carrying a sword which was a major step forward as it was only the Samurai and the noble men who were allowed to do so[2].

The Bakuto was yet another group of Yakuza which was mainly involved in gambling. Socially, they were lower than the Tekiya since gambling was an illegal activity.

Nevertheless, the group established many gambling houses especially in abandoned shrines or temples where they carried out their illegal gambling businesses. The group maintained their own security and such places as well as the Bakuto community were regarded with contempt by the whole society. It is believed that the Bakuto group contributed greatly to the stereotype of the entire Yakuza community[3].

There is yet another group that contributes greatly to the Japanese Yakuza known as the Brakumin. The group is mainly considered as an out cast as it is comprised of the descendants of people who had occupations that were not acceptable in the society such as undertakers, leather workers or executioners. They used to live in seclusion mainly in ghettos and hamlets. The group which is discriminated against even today accounts for more than half of the total Yakuza population[4].

Studies indicate that the Yakuza community is an outcast and does not have any problem with that since they are even proud of it. Although, there are several factors that contributed to the emergence and the predominance of the Yakuza, the economic situation was a major contributory factor since most of the groups comprised people that were involved in extortion and selling fake goods to customers in the local markets.

Some rituals being practiced today in Japan like the initiation ceremony are still similar to some Yakuza rituals. Nevertheless, though some yakuza groups are really diversified, some groups still identify themselves with some original groups like Tekiya and Bakuto. Yakuza, a group influential not only in Japan but also in other parts of the world is currently composed of a hundred and ten thousand active members organized in to two thousand and five hundred families[5].

According to Kaplan, & Dubro, [6]the activity of the Yakuza started in the sixteenth century but became more rampant after the 2nd world war. There is no single origin of Yakuza members since they developed from different elements in the Japanese society.

However, the different groups continued to progress and grow as the years progressed. Though initially their activities were minimal, their activities have currently increased until they have formed quite a large group of organized crime in Japan. It is therefore clear that the group forms the history of organized crime in Japan[7].

Organization and the Structure of Japanese Yakuza

The Yakuza power structure is in form of a pyramid where the most powerful person is usually on top while those less powerful are usually on the bottom. The boss is usually on the top rank and is usually known as the capo. He rules the family and is usually assisted by the consigliere the counselor referred to as the under boss. There are captains who run the crew of soldiers and they are usually associates since they are not officially included in the mafia[8].

The Yakuza are mostly made by men as they do not trust women though there are a few women like the bosses’ wives. Nevertheless, the members come from various backgrounds and various studies indicate that they even accept children abandoned by their parents.

Many members join the group either in high school or in junior high school and since it is a group composed of people from lower social economic group, most members are from Korean background. Each family is headed by a family head known as Kumicho and usually has the responsibility of giving orders to his subordinates usually known as kobun. Members of the Yakuza dissociate themselves from their biological families and pay all respect to the boss of the gang.

They usually refer to another as fathers and older or younger brothers. The organization structure is at times more complex since below the overall boss know as kumicho, there is the senor advisor known as saiko komon and the headquarters chief known as the so-honbucho. Then, there is wakashira who has a responsibility of governing several gangs being aided by fukuhonbucho. The regional gangs are governed by their local boss known as the shateigashira.

Rituals of the Yakuza

There are many rituals practiced by the yakuza and all have got different meanings. For instance, there is Yubitusme which involve cutting of someone’s finger. It is a form of an apology for an offence committed by the gang member.

The main idea behind cutting someone’s small finger is to increase the person’s reliance to the group or the gang members since the ritual loosens a person’s grip of the sword. Body tattoos are common in most Yakuza members. The process of tattooing is not only long, but also painful because the ink to make the tattoos is inserted beneath the skin using sharp objects such as needles.

However, although the tattoos are usually hidden from the general public, it is a common ritual for member to remove their shirts and tie them around their waist while playing Oicho-Kabu cards with an aim of revealing their tattoos. Similarly, new members are supposed to remove their pants once they join the group with an aim of revealing the tattoos on the lower part of their body[9].

Major Activities of Yakuza in Japan

Unlike other organized crime gangs like the American Mafia, Yakuza is not a secret society since they even hold offices having the name of the group on the entrance. They are involved with a very wide range of activities. Their main activities are inclusive but not limited to controlling gambling parlors, prostitution rings, hotels linked with prostitution, pachinko and pornography shops in Japan. In addition, they are also involved in activities like gun smuggling debt collection, smuggling and loan sharking.

Such and many more activities are considered as consumer protection methods and that’s why the group qualifies to be a Mafia as indicated in the studies of Kaplan, & Dubro[10]. In addition, as the studies of Hill[11] suggest a mafia is firm or a group of firms that provides extra protection to both the illegal and legal business people.

Money extortion

Extortion is a major activity of the Yakuza since studies indicate that in a place like Shinjuku, the members visit businesses such as the bars and restaurants demanding that the members pay unreasonable amounts of money for items like door mats and air fresheners. They also force the construction contractors to give them contracts by force.

In addition, they also demand money from the contactors as a payment of the noise that is usually produced during construction activities. Top government officials are also targeted since studies indicate that most of them have even died in the hands of the Yakuza extortionist[12].

Dispute Settlers and Loan Collectors

There are some Yakuza members known as the jike-ya who specialize in settling disputes and the same group act as lawyers. Though they usually perform their duty without any violence, they use it if one party fails to comply.

Since hiring police and lawyers is quite expensive in Japan, people usually make great use of the services of Yakuza. Businesses also use their services extensively especially to intimidate their debtors. Such activities are on the increase in Japan since studies Hays [13] of indicate that in 1990s, over fifty Yakuza attacks were reported.

Yakuza political and Government Activities

Politicians usually seek financial help from the Yakuza especially while conducting campaigns. Once a politician wins, he pays twice the amount of money usually given to him. In addition, they also use political connections to intimidate the contactors to give them contracts and to avoid paying taxes. Many politicians have been threatened or suffered in hands of the Yakuza members especially after failing to comply with their rules.

Yakuza Business Activities

Many members of the Yakuza are involved in baking, large corporations and are also stock traders. Studies of Hays [14] indicate that almost half of the Yakuza members are involved in either legitimate or illegitimate business activities. They make considerable large amounts of money from such large business corporations. For instance, in the year 1999, the members owned over a million shares of the Japanese air lines[15].

Yakuza Welfare Scams

The main aim of most of the Yakuza involvement in welfare scams is to collect social benefits from the government and other organizations. They go to an extent of giving false information about their income in order to collect handouts from the government. Yakuza gang members do all that is in their power to acquire money and even though the government bans such payments, studies indicate that their activities are still rampant especially in big cities like Tokyo (Siniawer, 2008)[16].

What Defines a Yakuza Member

Studies have indicated that a Yakuza member is usually different from the other members of the society in various and distinct ways. Some rituals like tattooing are most common among the Yakuza members.

Studies indicate that their body is usually covered by different types of tattoos, both on the front and on the back taking the form of a ring[17]. Studies of Levenstein [18] indicate that the police use the tattoo to differentiate between the Yakuza members and the general Japanese population. Their language is also different from the language of other Japanese.

According to Introduction to Yakuza Japanese[19], the vocabulary of Yakuza members is characterized by words with no clear meaning or words of Korean or Chinese origin which prevents other Japanese and the police from understanding them. The activities that Yakuza members get involved in are mostly illegal and majority mainly focus in obtaining money at whichever cost. At times, they wear in such a way that they can be recognized by the general public.

Yakuza Popular Images

Figure 1 Yakuza members participating in a Local Festival

Yakuza members participating in a Local Festival.

Figure 2 Shoko Tendo

Shoko Tendo is a popular prominent woman with Yakuza tie and is also the author of “Yakuza Moon: Memoirs of a Gangster’s Daughter”

Shoko Tendo is a popular prominent woman with Yakuza tie.

Figure 3 Tattoo photo by Yakuza members

Tattoo photo by Yakuza members.

Conclusion

Yakuza phenomenon is real in Japan and studies which have been conducted indicate that the members make a very large group[20]. They can be identified easily due to their style, rituals and basically their way of life. According to Hays,[21] Yakuza members are six times more compared to the Italian Mafia and the group is even larger than the United States Mafia.

In addition, the activities of the Yakuza gang members are evident in the whole Japanese society and affect almost every person in the society[22]. However, contrary to what majority believe, most of the Japanese do not have a major problem with Yakuza members. The group forms the history of the organized crime in Japan and is different from other organized crime groups because it is not a secret society[23].

Bibliography

Bruno, A. (2010). Oyabun-Kobun, Father-Child. Web.

DeMello, M. ( 2007). Encyclopedia of body adornment. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group.

Hays, J. (2009 ). . Web.

Hays, J. (2009 ). . Web.

Hill, P. B. (2006). The Japanese Mafia: Yakuza, Law, and the State. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Introduction to Yakuza Japanese. Web.

Johnson, A. (n.d.). Yakuza: Past and Present. Web.

Kaplan, D. E. & Dubro, A. ( 2003). Yakuza: Japan’s criminal underworld. Berkeley : University of California Press.

Kaplan, D. E., & Dubro, A. (1987). Yakuza: the explosive account of Japan’s criminal underworld. New York: Collier Books.

Kattoulas, V. (2002, January 17 ). The Yakuza recession. Far Eastern Economic Review.

Lasrever (Director). (2007). Japan – “Mafia: Yakuza” [Motion Picture].

Ko Shikata. (2006). Yakuza – organized crime in Japan. Journal of Money Laundering Control , 9 ( 4), 416 – 421

Levenstein, S. (2006). . Web.

Siniawer, E. M. (2008). Ruffians, yakuza, nationalists: the violent politics of modern Japan. London: Cornell University Press.

West, M. D. (2004). Yakuza: Japan’s Criminal Underworld (review). The Journal of Japanese Studies , 30 (2), 577-580.

Footnotes

  1. Kaplan, D. E. & Dubro, A. ( 2003 pp. 5). Yakuza: Japan’s criminal underworld. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  2. Lasrever (Director). (2007). Japan – “Mafia: Yakuza” [Motion Picture].
  3. Johnson, A. (n.d.). Yakuza: Past and Present.
  4. Hays, J. (2009 ). Yakuza Activities and Violence.
  5. West, M. D. (2004). Yakuza: Japan’s Criminal Underworld (review). The Journal of Japanese Studies , 30 (2), 577-580.
  6. Kaplan, D. E., & Dubro, A. (1987pp. 120). Yakuza: the explosive account of Japan’s criminal underworld. New York: Collier Books
  7. Johnson, A. (n.d.). Yakuza: Past and Present.
  8. Bruno, A. (2010). Oyabun-Kobun, Father-Child.
  9. Levenstein, S. (2006). Art of the Yakuza: Japan’s Tattooed Men & Women.
  10. Kaplan, D. E. & Dubro, A. ( 2003 pp. XVII). Yakuza: Japan’s criminal underworld. Berkeley : University of California Press.
  11. Hill, P. B. (2006 p. 10). The Japanese Mafia: Yakuza, Law, and the State. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  12. Hays, J. (2009 ). Yakuza Activities and Violence.
  13. Hays, J. (2009 ). Yakuza Activities and Violence.
  14. Ibid
  15. Kattoulas, V. (2002, January 17 ). The Yakuza recession. Far Eastern Economic Review.
  16. Siniawer, E. M. (2008 ). Ruffians, yakuza, nationalists: the violent politics of modern Japan. London: Cornell University Press.
  17. DeMello, M. ( 2007 p. 295). Encyclopedia of body adornment. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group.
  18. Levenstein, S. (2006). Art of the Yakuza: Japan’s Tattooed Men & Women.
  19. Introduction to Yakuza Japanese. (n.d.).
  20. Kaplan, D. E. & Dubro, A. ( 2003 pp. 5). Yakuza: Japan’s criminal underworld. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  21. Hays, J. (2009 ). Yakuza and Organized Crime In Japan.
  22. Ko Shikata. (2006 P. 418). Yakuza – organized crime in Japan. Journal of Money Laundering Control , 9 ( 4), 416 – 421.
  23. Kaplan, D. E. & Dubro, A. ( 2003 pp. xvii). Yakuza: Japan’s criminal underworld. Berkeley: University of California Press.
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