The Yakuza, Japan’s most notorious organized crime syndicates, have long been shrouded in mystery and intrigue. Their history, stretching back to the Edo period, their operations, and their current status in Japanese society, offer a fascinating glimpse into the underworld of one of the world’s most advanced countries.
We explore the rise and fall of the Yakuza, tracing their origins in Japanese feudal Samurai culture, examining their activities, and assessing their current existence.
Origins in Japanese Feudal Samurai Culture
The roots of the Yakuza can be traced back to the 17th century during the Edo period. Two main types of groups, the tekiya (peddlers) and bakuto (gamblers), are considered the progenitors of modern Yakuza. These groups provided a form of order in the chaotic times of feudal Japan. The tekiya were itinerant merchants who sold dubious goods, often acting as a marketplace police. The bakuto engaged in gambling, a popular pastime during this era, and were known for their strict codes of conduct and hierarchical structures, which mirrored the Samurai.
The connection between the Yakuza and the Samurai is more than just structural; it is also ideological. Many of the early Yakuza admired the Samurai’s code of honor, bushido, which emphasizes loyalty, courage, and honor until death. These values were integrated into the Yakuza’s own code, influencing their operations and organizational structure. The decline of the Samurai class during the Meiji Restoration led many former Samurai to join the Yakuza, seeking a sense of belonging and a way to utilize their martial skills.
The Rise of the Yakuza
From these humble beginnings, the Yakuza grew in power and influence. By the 20th century, they had expanded their operations beyond gambling and peddling to include loan sharking, drug trafficking, extortion, and even legitimate businesses like construction and entertainment. The post-World War II era saw a significant expansion of the Yakuza as they took advantage of the chaos and economic instability to solidify their grip on Japanese society.
The Yakuza’s structure is reminiscent of traditional Japanese family structures, with a patriarchal system where loyalty and obedience are paramount. This structure allowed them to operate efficiently and maintain a strong sense of unity and identity. The largest and most powerful families, known as “clans,” could have thousands of members and associates across Japan and even overseas.
The Yakuza’s activities are diverse, ranging from criminal endeavors to quasi-legal and legal businesses. On the darker side, they are involved in drug trafficking, human trafficking, extortion, and gambling. They also engage in more socially accepted activities, such as operating pachinko parlors (a type of mechanical game used for gambling in Japan), real estate, and construction companies. The Yakuza have been known to engage in jijik? (resolution of disputes) in the business world, offering their services to mediate conflicts for a fee.
Despite their criminal activities, the Yakuza have also played roles in public life, sometimes seen as protectors of local communities. They have been known to provide disaster relief and aid to those affected by earthquakes, tsunamis, and other calamities, further complicating their image in Japanese society.
The largest Yakuza family historically has been the Yamaguchi-gumi, founded in 1915. With its headquarters in Kobe, the Yamaguchi-gumi has grown to command a significant portion of the Yakuza’s overall membership. The organization has been involved in a range of criminal activities, but under its fifth kumicho (godfather), Yoshinori Watanabe (1989–2005), it tried to steer towards less violent operations and more legitimate business ventures.
Despite these efforts, the family has been embroiled in internal conflicts and government crackdowns, which have weakened its power but not its influence.
The Fall and Current Existence of the Yakuza
The decline of the Yakuza’s power began in the 1990s with the introduction of anti-organized crime laws. The Anti-Boryokudan Act, enacted in 1992, and subsequent legislation have made it more difficult for the Yakuza to operate. These laws allow the police to pursue and arrest members more aggressively, and financial regulations have made it harder for the Yakuza to launder money and engage in business activities.
Do Yakuza still exist? Yes, but their influence has waned. Membership has been declining, and public tolerance for their activities has diminished. The Yakuza’s once semi-tolerated presence in society is increasingly being pushed into the shadows.
However, they remain a part of Japanese culture, with some families adapting to the new legal environment by engaging in more legitimate businesses while still maintaining their traditional codes.