Origins and Traditions
In a private club in Tokyo's neon-lit Ginza entertainment district, men in dark pinstripe suits drink, smoke and play cards. A few of the men are huddled together in a corner, involved in hushed but animated conversation. Others puff their chests out for the accommodating "comfort women" who adorn the smoke-filled room like well-placed flower arrangements.
The club is on the second floor of a small building where the constant whir and clang of a busy pachinko parlor on the ground floor can be heard upstairs. Pachinko is the Japanese national obsession, a slot machine that sends tiny chrome balls through a vertical maze, like a pinball machine set on end but smaller in size. The relentless chatter of hundreds of moving pachinko balls is softened by the club's sound system, which plays the theme from The Godfather, performed on traditional Japanese instruments, koto (Japanese banjo) and wood flute.
A squat older man sits toward the back of the room at a table surrounded by bowing young associates, who respond to every order and request he makes with an unvarying hail of "Hai! Hai!" ("Yes! Yes!"). The older man is flanked by two women—one in a short black cocktail dress, the other in a schoolgirl's pleated plaid skirt and white blouse. Both women cover their mouths and giggle at the man's every gruff word.
A young man in a shiny sharkskin suit enters the room, his head bowed. The other men immediately take notice and stop talking. The young man approaches the older man's table. He does not dare lift his eyes. Without a word he formally presents an artfully wrapped object to the older man. The package is no bigger than a small piece of candy, but the young man sets it down on the table ceremoniously with both hands. His left pinky is heavily bandaged. The old man stares at the offering, then stares at the young man's damaged hand. The moment is tense until the older man nods, his face relaxing a bit, and orders one of his minions to remove the offering without opening it. Everyone in the room knows what it is, the severed last joint of the young man's finger. The gift is an act of appeasement. Several men in the room have also lost parts of their pinkies. It is one of the telltale signs of the Japanese yakuza.
In a society where conformity is highly valued, and outward signs of individuality can arouse suspicion, the yakuza, Japan's native organized crime group, deliberately goes against the grain; or, as they would say in Japan, the yakuza stubbornly refuses to be "hammered down," referring to the often quoted national proverb, "The nail that sticks up must be hammered down."
The origin of the yakuza is a matter of some debate. Some feel that its members are descendents of the 17th-century kabuki-mono (crazy ones), outlandish samurai who reveled in outlandish clothing and hair styles, spoke in elaborate slang, and carried unusually long swords in their belts. The kabuki-mono were also known as hatamoto-yakko (servants of the shogun). During the Tokugawa era, an extended period of peace in Japan, the services of these samurai were no longer needed, and so they became leaderless ronin (wave men). Without the guidance of a strong hand, they eventually shifted their focus from community service to theft and mayhem.
Modern yakuza members refute this theory and instead proclaim themselves to be the descendents of the machi-yokko (servants of the town) who protected their villages from the wayward hatamoto-yakko. The official yakuza history portrays the group's ancestors as underdog folk heroes who stood up for the poor and the defenseless, just as Robin Hood helped the peasants of medieval England.
Current yakuza members fall under three general categories: tekiya (street peddlers), bakuto (gamblers), and gurentai (hoodlums). The peddlers and gamblers trace their roots back to the 18th century while the hoodlums came into existence after World War II when the demand for black market goods created a booming industry. Traditionally the tekiya, medieval Japan's version of snake-oil salesmen, worked the fairs and markets while the bakuto worked the towns and highways. The gurentai, by contrast, modeled themselves on American gangsters of the Al Capone era, using threats and extortion to achieve their ends. After World War II, in the governmental power void caused by the Occupation, the gurentai prospered, and their ranks swelled. They also brought organized crime in Japan to a new level of violence, replacing the traditional sword with modern firearms, even though guns were now officially outlawed in the country as a result of the surrender.
The yakuza are proud to be outcasts, and the word yakuza reflects the group's self-image as society's rejects. In regional dialect ya means 8, ku means 9, and sa means 3, numbers that add up to 20, which is a losing hand in the card game hana-fuda (flower cards). The yakuza are the "bad hands of society," a characterization they embrace in the same way that American bikers prominently tattoo the slogan "Born to Lose" on their biceps.
Yakuza members also favor tattoos, but theirs are elaborate body murals that often cover the entire torso, front and back, as well the arms to below the elbow and the legs to mid-calf. Naked, a fully tattooed yakuza looks like he's wearing long underwear. Dragons, flowers, mountainous landscapes, turbulent seascapes, gang insignias and abstract designs are typical images used for yakuza body art. The application of these extensive tattoos is painful and can take hundreds of hours, but the process is considered a test of a man's mettle.
To a Westerner's eye, the yakuza's 1950s rat-pack style of dress can seem comically retro. Shiny tight-fitting suits, pointy-toed shoes and longish pomaded hair—long out of style in America—are commonplace among the yakuza today. They also favor large flashy American cars, like Cadillacs and Lincolns. Unlike other organized crime groups around the world, the yakuza have no interest in keeping a low profile. In fact, in most Japanese cities, yakuza social clubs and gang headquarters are clearly marked with signs and logos prominently displayed.
But despite their garish style, the yakuza cannot be taken lightly. In Japan there are 110,000 active members divided into 2,500 families. By contrast, the United States has more than double the population of Japan but only 20,000 organized crime members total, and that number includes all criminal organizations, not just the Italian-American Mafia. The yakuza's influence is more pervasive and more accepted within Japanese society than organized crime is in America, and the yakuza have a firm and long-standing political alliance with Japan's right-wing nationalists. In addition to the typical vice crimes associated with organized crime everywhere, the yakuza are well ensconced in the corporate world. Their influence extends beyond Japanese borders and into other Asian countries, and even into the United States.