history Reasons the Yakuza Is More Than Just a Japanese Mafia

Christopher Myers
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The yakuza are Japanese organized crime syndicates. They have existed in some form for more than 400 years, making them older than America, let alone the American Mafia. Yakuza history is extensive, and the yakuza have come a long way from their days as outcast bands of street peddlers and gamblers. At one point, their members numbered more than 180,000, dwarfing the Mafia. Yakuza organizations are structured as families, with various clans organizing into a corporate-like structure under larger ones. Though the word family is often used to describe yakuza organizations, they are not families in the biological sense, but rather tightly-knit groups. 
The yakuza are very different from other criminal organizations. They are deeply ingrained in Japanese culture, and not always in nefarious ways. For centuries, they have tried to create an image of honor and, in a sense, nobility. Yakuza portray themselves as protectors of outcasts, and keepers of order, as can be seen in the name they chose for themselves - ninkyo dantai, or "chivalrous organizations." This name clashes significantly with what the Japanese police call yakuza families - bōryokudan, or "violent groups."

Some yakuza facts help explain their trademark tattoos, or why some yakuza members are missing bits of their pinky fingers. Less well known is that they often carry business cards, and operate openly; it is legal in Japan to be affiliated with yakuza organizations. After reading these facts about the yakuza, you will understand how little the yakuza have in common with other criminal organizations around the world, despite some superficial similarities.


The Inauspicious Origins of the Modern Yakuza

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The yakuza trace their lineage to two groups of outcasts that emerged during the Edo period (1603 - 1868). The first, the tekiya, were peddlers who went from village to village. Many tekiya were considered burakumin, a class of outcasts similar to untouchables in India; those who exist below the accepted tiers of a caste system. The second group from which the yakuza originated, the bakuto, were gamblers. These two classes eventually organized, and moved into criminal activities like loan sharking, racketeering, and extortion. The tekiya would, in some cases, provide protection for illegal gambling operations run by the bakuto, creating a criminal network that interlaced the groups. 


The Yakuza Operate More or Less in the Open

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Unlike the Mafia, the yakuza make little effort to hide their identities and affairs from authorities, with whom they often work in various capacities. Because belonging to a yakuza organization is not a crime, they can openly conduct legal business, and often do illegal business in cooperation with banks, corporations, and officials behind closed doors. Yakuza members have been known to grant interviews to journalists, and some carry business cards with the name of their crime syndicate. 


Yakuza Membership Is Legal

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In most countries, crime syndication is illegal. In the United States, for instance, RICO laws against racketeering can be used to prosecute Mafia members. Japan, however, recognizes yakuza membership as a legitimate right to assembly.


The Yakuza Reduce Petty Crime and Keep Order

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The yakuza police themselves, and follow a strict code of behavior. When a member gets out of hand, the yakuza discipline them. They also help reduce petty crime in areas in which they collect revenue. In Kabukichō, a teeming nightlife district of Tokyo with several yakuza businesses, members of the organizations patrol the streets and watch over arcades, restaurants, bars, and more. The yakuza have such a strong presence in this area, there are very few police booths (which are ubiquitous in every major neighborhood in Tokyo), not because the police are afraid of the yakuza, but because they aren't needed.


Yakuza Are Involved in Politics

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Yakuza involvement in politics is longstanding. In many cases, knowledge of a political figure's ties to the yakuza isn't even particularly scandalous, and endorsement by yakuza organizations can be politically beneficial. In 2007, the Yamaguchi-gumi and Inagawa-kai endorsed the Democratic Party of Japan.


Yakuza Manage Hedge Funds

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During the 1980s and 1990s, many yakuza groups adopted corporate structures and chased big money by moving into legitimate business ventures. Inagawa-kai, one of the largest yakuza families in Japan, set up its offices in midtown Tokyo, its name boldly emblazoned on the building directory. Yakuza organizations also began managing multiple hedge funds and investing in speculative real estate and other lucrative ventures, which meant involving highly educated and skilled white collar workers in their affairs, either as associates or members of the organizations. 


Yakuza Membership Dwarfs Other Organized Crime Syndicates

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At their peak in the 1960s, yakuza organizations had about 184,000 members. Between 1992 and 2010, there were around 80,000. Numbers hit a low of 53,500 in 2014. For comparison's sake, the US Mafia, in its heyday of the 1960s, had about 5,000 full-fledged members. Bratva, the Russian mob, boasted around 100,000 members in 1993, as organized crime exploded with the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, unlike the yakuza, which requires membership in one of the centralized families, the Russian mob is an extremely loose conglomeration of more than 5,000 criminal groups from all over the Second World. 


The Yakuza Keep It Local

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Unlike other criminal organizations, the yakuza have very little international presence. They operate almost entirely in Japan. Yakuza families occasionally partner with criminal organizations in other countries, in order to import products that are difficult to get in Japan, including weapons and drugs. However, outside of such partnerships, yakuza have little interest in the world beyond Japan.