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Yakuza: Japan's Rotary Clubs

Page history last edited by Karim Gilbert 13 years ago

Karim Gilbert




Yakuza is an umbrella term referring to Japan's many organized crime syndicates. They are a ubiquitous part of the way many westerners perceive Japan thanks in no small part to media. Film, manga, and television, and Quentin Tarantino have done for the yakuza what Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola did for La Cosa Nostra. See below:

                                                YouTube plugin error

                                                   This is art imitating real life.                   

                                                                      Apparently beheading is one of the leading causes of death among yakuza.

                                                                                                                             Ask Jake Adelstien.

                                                                                                         He wrote the book on yakuza.



If it doesn't suprise you that something out of a Tarantino movie is a normal thing in Japan, then it shouldn't surprise you that yakuza are quasai legal organizations in Japan.


Yakuza's Surreal Presence in Japan: There but not there the 


As Adelstein says in his interview, the various yakuza organizations exist as so called "fraternal organizations [dedicated to the preservation of traditional values]..." They have offices and headquarters that are out in the open. The Yamaguchi Gumi syndicate's offices in the city of Kobe apparently take up a whole city block. What's more surprising is that aside from the traditional media usually associated with gang activity, yakuza fan magazines exist. Adelstein says these magazines quite often focus on one particular syndicate, often this helps them garner relationships with members who allow them frequent interviews. (Jake Adelstien, The Strange World of Yakuza Fan Magazines) Adelstein even interviewed some gangsters about a recently released video game about the yakuza. Highlights of the interview include one yakuza member chiding another for referring to foreigners in a game level as 'gaijin' insisting: "Don't say gaijin. Say Gaikokujin. It's more polite. Jake's a gaijin." (Adelstein, Katayama; Yakuza 3: Played, Reviewed and Fact Checked by the Yakuza


Image source: publishingperspectives.com

A sampling of various yakuza fan magazines. 

Popular ones include: Jitsuwa Document,

Jitsuwa Jidai, Asahi Geino. 


Yakuza members make no secret of the fact they are yakuza. Members, often wearing suits to distinguish themselves, and on special occasions bearing their full body tattoos can be seen in their communities during local festivals



                                                                                          image credit: wikipedia.org/wiki/Yakuza                                                                                                            

                                                                             Yakuza members here hold up a shrine at a Shinto                                                                                     

Sanja Matsuri Festival in Tokyo. Apparently this one of the 

few times police look away and allow yakuza to 

display their tattoos in public. (asiarooms.com)



They're probably not supposed to be on that shrine,
but seriously, who is going to stop them?

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Obviously this isn't to say that the yakuza are universally thought to be good guys in Japan. (more on this below) Again, Adelstein reports for the Washington Post that yakuza activities such as racketeering, money laundering, human trafficking, child pornography, drug trading, etc. are well known to the Japanese, in no small part thanks to Jake Adelstein for his reporting. (Adelstien, This Mob is Big in Japan) So why then has the Japanese Government only very recently started trying to curb yakuza activity? And why have they mainly focused on eradicating yakuza investments from Japanese companies and not ending their human trafficking business? Moreover, why are yakuza syndicates legal and in a way accepted? And why do they seem, at least from an outsider perspective to be 'just another part' of Japanese society? 


The Yakuza: 'Classical Gangster' meets 'Robin Hood' meets 'Samurai'?





The easiest question to answer is why the Japanese Government is mostly targeting yakuza finances. Money. Adelstein in his Washington Post article says that American companies have billions of dollars invested in Japanese firms, and they are not keen on funding the mafia. Thus out of fear of losing precious capital, the Japanese are cleaning house. (Adelstein, Big)

As for why much of Japan is not really willing to part ways with the yakuza, the answer spans several centuries of half truth and folklore.


Origin of the yakuza: The Great Robin Hood Fairytale

The yakuza like to think of themselves as being descended from a noble group of people. David Kaplan and Alec Dubro write in their book Yakuza: Japan's Criminal Underworld yakuza syndicates claim to have origins in feudal groups formed during the Tokugawa Shogunate known as machi yakko or servants of the town. After the unification of Japan, many samurai had no use for their skills and no way to make a living, so they formed gangs to raid villages for what they needed. The machi yakko formed to stave off the wandering samurai.  (Kaplan and Dubro, Yakuza, 4-5) During the 18th century, many Robin Hood style stories were fashioned into plays about these machi yakko. Kaplan however has doubts as to the yakuza's claim. He claims the real origins of the yakuza originated from petty gambling groups. (K&B pp. 7-8) However legend has more of an appeal to most of us than history does. 




Established history is on the yakuza's side regarding post World War II events. Kaplan and Dubro write that U.S. military forces in japan would often patronize black market organizations belonging to Koreans and other foreigners that had been shipped to Japan, thus those foreigners were able to wield a lot of power. The Japanese were starving and abused. The yakuza established themselves as protectors of the Japanses people against abuses of the foreign black markets. Along the way they worked with nationalist conservative Japanese politicians in part to legitimize themselves and in part to get the U.S. out of Japan. Further elevating their status as Robin Hood heroes. (K&D 47-48)


Yakuza and Katagi (Civilians) 

The Robin Hood image is alive today thanks in no small part due to the Kobe earthquake of the late '90's.

For the fourth straight day, the Yamaguchi-gumi, a feared group of gangsters based in Kobe, handed out food, water and diapers today to people in its devastated neighborhood. In Japan, organized crime groups operate largely in the open, and the operation, which is said to be more efficient than the Government's, has been a source of pride for the gangsters...Toshio Masaki [boss]... 


--James Sterngold New York Times Article


Robin Hood aside, the Japanese are in love with the very idea of the yakuza. All syndicates follow a very bushido principle of ninjo and giri, honor and duty. Resonates with Japanese society. (K&D, 17) That's why yakuza entertainment permeates Japanese society according to Adelstein:


Many Japanese people, including some police officers, have great awe and admiration for these tattooed gangsters. They are seen by some as lovable outlaws, a necessary evil (必要悪) keeping the streets safe from “evil foreign criminals.” And in the eyes of the middle-aged salaryman, the yakuza are real men living the ideal life, one filled with an excess of money, booze, excitement, and beautiful women (as well as retirement packages that are better than those of Japan’s leading automakers).  It is little wonder, then, that the beaten down office worker turns to the yakuza fan magazines as a way to escape and fantasize about a better, more glamorous life. (Adelstein, Magazine)








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