The yakuza of Japan are often compared to other underground organizations like the Mafia or a Mexican drug cartel. With numerous organizations, syndicates, and participants, the yakuza are much more than that, with a history that goes back for centuries and extends throughout Japanese cultural, political, and economic foundations. Many of the details are relatively unknown to the Western world. Movies and other popular media have portrayed the yakuza as violent and intimidating, but it's the tattoos and the shortened pinky fingers that most people know.
Yakuza history reflects the complexities of the very public, very pervasive network. The syndicate has adapted to its circumstances time and time again, while simultaneously remaining steeped in tradition. Yakuza influence (and membership) has ebbed and flowed, but if history attests to anything, it would be the yakuza's enduring ability to survive.
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Punitive Finger Shortening Is Called 'Yubitsume' - And It's One Joint For Each Offense
As one of the most identifiable practices associated with the yakuza, yubitsume - finger shortening - began as a punishment used by Japanese gamblers, or bakuto. Yubitsume was performed when banishment or execution weren't appropriate, but a serious offense had taken place. It was designed to weaken one's hand, essentially making the offender more dependent upon his boss.
Yubitsume commonly involves the self-amputation of the top joint on one's pinky finger. It's intended to be an apology, sometimes in lieu of the words themselves. Former yakuza member Tadamasa Goto explained:
I couldn’t go apologize and beg forgiveness. I am not cut out that way. I have pride. So instead I chopped off one of my fingers and brought it to Kawauchi.
Evidence suggests the practice of yubitsume is not as common as it once was, but in 1993, data indicated 45% of yakuza members had lost at least one finger joint. Out of those, 15% undertook the ritual two times or more.
The loss of an entire finger, as mentioned by Goto, is a version of yubitsume called shuniyubi, or dead finger. This is done to preempt a more severe punishment.
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Women Can't Join The Yakuza But Are 'Absolutely Part Of The Group'
For six years, French photographer Chloé Jafé documented the lives of women married to members of the yakuza. She had to get permission from a yakuza boss to do so, and, after explaining her intent, "he realized my determination [and] slowly opened his doors."
Jafé soon discovered that while women can't officially become yakuza themselves, "a woman who has married a member of the yakuza is absolutely part of the group." She explains that yakuza wives live like most housewives in Japan, but their specific attachments to their husbands' connections depend on his status in the organization. Leaders' wives serve as consultants and manage finances, although usually through an intermediary.
Women also get tattoos comparable to male yakuza but, according to Jafé, "they are more like armors, omamori in Japanese, they are protections." The women do not show their tattoos, just like male yakuza, and once they are connected with the organization, they find it very difficult to leave.
Shoko Tendo, the daughter of a yakuza member, admitted that, while she "hated the way my father behaved... I became just like him." Violence, drugs, and turmoil defined her early life, but Tendo maintains:
I had a hard time as the daughter of a gangster, but looking back I wouldn't have lived my life any other way. I am proud that my father was a yakuza. I know his is a world that has no proper place for women. But I have his DNA.
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Members May Tattoo Their Genitals - Or Insert Beads Into Them
Members of the yakuza get tattoos to demonstrate their loyalty as well as their ability to withstand pain. Once associated with punishment, the tattoos attest to a tradition dating to the third century that holds "men both great and small tattoo their faces and work designs upon their bodies."
Yakuza tattoos take years to complete, cost thousands of dollars, and are on areas of the body that one wouldn't expose to the public. This means buttocks are tattooed and, in some cases, so are genitals.
Another act of body modification practiced by yakuza members is called pearling, which involves inserting small beads or pearls under a man's genital skin, with each bead or pearl representing a year in prison. Pearling is supposed to heighten pleasure for one's partner as well.
From the perspective of Satoru Takegaki, a former Yamaguchi-gumi boss, the civil war within the organization has fundamentally changed the yakuza:
Five years ago, when the Yamaguchi-gumi split apart, the yakuza world had to reassess the meaning and importance of the bonds cemented by ritual sake drinking...
When you ignore the precepts and rationale of the yakuza world, you call into question the entire structure of the society. This is why no (respectable) yakuza organization bonded with Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi.
If you’ve drunk the sake, and become disenchanted with that oath of loyalty, then you should just leave the group and go straight. If you don’t have the stomach (to honor the pledge) then don’t drink the sake.
When Takegaki talks about the sake ritual, he's referring to a ceremonial exchange between kobun ("child-status" apprentices) and their oyabun ("parent-status" bosses). A full sake ceremony includes a mix of fish, salt, and sake, along with the kobun, oyabun, and intermediaries called azukarinin.
With the kobun and oyabun facing each other while sitting at a Shinto shrine (the exchange carries religious and cultural significance alike), they exchange sake cups and recite their duties to each other in a formal pledge. The sake symbolizes blood and establishes lifelong bonds.
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The Name 'Yakuza' Refers To Gambling, But They See Themselves As Robin Hoods
The origins of the yakuza name tell the story of the foundations of the group itself. Comprising three separate parts - ya, ku, and za - yakuza translates to "good for nothing" or "born to lose." When you split it up, however, it becomes "eight-nine-three" - the name of a losing hand in a popular card game called hanafuda, which is comparable to blackjack.
The yakuza grew out of a gambling and peddling culture in Japan tracing back to the 18th century, but they see themselves as based in a much older tradition. Yakuza members consider themselves to be part of a ninkyo dantai, or "chivalrous organization," with links to the earliest days of the Muromachi and Edo periods.
The Muromachi period (1138-1573 CE) and the Edo or Tokugawa period (1603-1867) featured ronin - wandering samurai without lords. Ronin like Ishikawa Goemon (b. c. 1558) serve as archetypes for outsiders who stole from the rich, gave back to the poor, and avenged wrongdoing in Japan.
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Being A Yakuza Is Both 'A Performance' And Very Private
In the patriarchy of the yakuza, one that mirrors Japanese society as a whole, the oyabun is the boss as well as a parental figure. Under oyabun are the kobun - apprentices who are essentially seen as children.
The oyabun-kobun relationship binds all yakuza members and includes specific responsibilities. The oyabun mentors his kobun, who "will kill others or even kill themselves for the sake of the oyabun."
One former yakuza kobun described some of the advice his oyabun gave him:
[He] told me that when you’re a yakuza people are always watching you... Think of yourself as being onstage all the time. It’s a performance. If you’re bad at playing the role of a yakuza, then you’re a bad yakuza.
The "performance" has rules when it comes to outsiders. One of the most important things for members is keeping their tattoos private. This is out of respect for a Japanese society that frowns on tattooing and, from the perspective of Japanese tattoo artist Horiyoshi III, "the beauty is in what you can't see."