The nations’ law enforcement formally recognizes Mafia-like criminal organizations in Japan as bōryokudan or violent groups.

Members of such organizations are known as the Yakuza. Anywhere in the world, more specifically in the West, the term “yakuza” itself is often used to refer to both individual gangsters and the Japanese organized crime groups in general.

They engage in various criminal activities, including but not limited to drug trafficking, loan sharking, gambling, extortion, blackmail, prostitution, smuggling, and other illegal enterprises; they also control numerous businesses such as restaurants, taxi fleets, factories, bars, trucking companies, and even talent agencies.

Yakuza are involved in criminal activities not only in major cities in Japan but also worldwide.

Hierarchy in the Yakuza is established in the way reminiscent of a family, similar to that of the Italian mafia. The gang leader – also known as a conglomerate of Yakuza – is called oyabun (parent status or boss).

In contrast, the members or followers are known as kobun, meaning child status or apprentices. The Yakuza themselves think of their nature as chivalrous organizations.

Despite the questionable methods, they have been known to engage in charitable acts, for example making donations and delivering supplies to victims of the 2011 tsunami and earthquake.

So what you see in gangster movies about the Yakuza is not always true. Now here are some things you probably didn’t know about the organized crime groups.

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10 Good For Nothing

The term yakuza translates to English as “good for nothing,” derived from the traditional Japanese form of counting comprised of yattsu-Ku-san, which refers to the number eight-nine-three.

In the card game oichu-kabu, the sum of those three numbers is 20, giving the worst possible total.

The goal of the card game is to draw three cards adding up to a score of 9. In case the sum exceeds 10, the second digit is used as the score. Either 10 or 20 gives players a losing hand, hence suitable for nothing.


9 Descendants Of Samurai

The origin of Yakuza remains unclear, but general belief dictates that they are descendants of either gang of samurai without masters (ronin) who turned to street crimes and banditry or bands of do-gooders who defended villages from ronin during the early 17th century.

Their lineage may also be traced to gamblers in feudal Japan, possibly due to the association between yakuza and card games.

Most modern Yakuza come from two social classifications which initially emerged during the mid-Edo period (1603–1868): bakuto, people involved or participated in gambling, and tekiya, those who peddled illicit goods.



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8 Shimizu Jirocho

The most famous Yakuza of them all and a praised folk hero of Japan was Jirohachi Yamamoto, more commonly known as Shimizu Jirocho.

He was an adopted son of his uncle, whose occupation was rice wholesaler. Following the death of the uncle, Jirocho took over the business but soon turned into a gambler.

He spent most of his adult life as a crime boss and a violent one at that. Jirocho built up his reputation and extended his influence by fighting over territories relating to the local maritime transport routes, including the Fuji River.

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7 Members Count

Yakuza membership reached its highest level in the 1960s with some 180,000 known members.

The number has since been declining to about 80,000 in the 21st century, equally divided between regular active members and associates.

Those members are further organized into hundreds of different gangs, but most are affiliated under roughly 21 significant groups.

The largest conglomerate gang is Yamaguchi-Gumi, founded by Yamaguchi Harukichi in 1915. The group became fully developed and aggrandized after World War II by Taoka Kazuo, leader of Yamaguchi-gumi until his death in 1981.

6 Complicated Relationship With The Police

Engaging in two contrasting activities, criminal and charitable, makes Yakuza’s relationship with the authorities pretty complicated.

Being a member or associate is not illegal, and many business establishments owned by Yakuza and gang headquarters are marked. The Japanese police are aware of Yakuza’s whereabouts and activities.

In some cases, the authorities would call upon gang members to perform public services, such as when Yakuza were assembled to aid with security function during a visit by U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower in 1960 Japan ultimately canceled the visit.

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5 Necessary Evil

A good portion of the Japanese people sees the Yakuza as an effective deterrent to individual street crime.

The organizational nature of their activities and chivalrous façade were somewhat viewed as helpful to maintain some degree of safety in Japan’s streets.

Some say Yakuza are a necessary evil because of the organization’s dual characteristics: criminal and humanitarians.

In Japanese popular media, there has been an idolization of criminal groups too. One primary reason that Yakuza had so many members in the 1960s was that the Japanese society viewed gangsters as honorable outlaws.

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4 Major Split

In August 2015, Yamaguchi-gumi split into two major factions, potentially inciting a massive gang war that may involve all 21 designated crime groups in Japan.

In September that same year, the new group came to the surface and is now known as Kobe Yamaguchi-Gumi.

Each faction has set up alliances with other small groups. After the split, the Japan police agency held an emergency meeting to discuss how to handle the potentially violent outcome.

In five years since the fragment, there have been 127 incidents (as of August 2020) of armed conflicts between the factions.

3 Post War Emergence

According to author Kazuhiko Murakami, the oldest continuous Japanese organized crime group is likely the Aizukotetsu-kai, based in Kyoto and founded in the 1870s.

In the beginning, Yakuza were traditional federations of street merchants and gamblers; then, things started to change after World War II.

In the post-war economy, the Yakuza were involved in black markets and acting like talent agencies that provided entertainment, such as singers.

Next, they ventured into more complex business operations such as construction and real estate. At the same time, Yakuza were also beginning to assert influence into the political climate of Japan.

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2 Not Outlawed

Among the 21 recognized major crime groups in Japan, there are at least 53,000 members in total.

Members of Yamaguchi-gumi account for nearly 45% of those; two other large groups, Inagawa-kai and Sumiyoshi-kai, make up about 30%. The remaining 25% are spread unevenly across 18 different groups.

Modern-day Yakuza have shifted from street violence to white-collar crimes. Yakuza is not outlawed but constantly monitored and regulated.

They also have legitimate businesses with clearly marked office buildings and business cards.

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1 Dead Finger

In many movies, some members have their fingers chopped off as a form of punishment. Real-life Yakuza do not engage in such practice.

There are only two circumstances in which chopping off a digit is required: payment for a debt or atone one’s wrongdoing, usually following a mistake.

Some members sacrifice their pinkies to vouch for their subordinates; this is called “living finger.”

While the older generation of Yakuza often has tattoos, younger gangsters tend to stay away from it because tattoos can make them challenging to get a job. More importantly, tattoos are used as identifiers by the authorities.

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