Yakuza, also known as gokudo, are members of transnational organized crime syndicates in Japan.

The Japanese police and media (by request of the police) call them boryokudan, while the yakuza call themselves “ninkyo dantai” (or “chivalrous organizations”).

The yakuza are notorious for their strict codes of conduct and highly organized nature.

They operate internationally with an estimated 80,900 members in 2009, the last year for which an estimate is available.

The yakuza feature prominently (no surprise, really) in the 1974 thriller “The Yakuza”.

Video comes courtesy of YouTube:

That’s how Hollywood saw it.

Here’s what history has to tell us:


Most modern yakuza derive from two classifications which emerged in the mid-Edo Period (1603–1868):

1. tekiya, those who primarily peddled illicit, stolen or shoddy goods, and

2. bakuto, who were involved in or participated in gambling.

Tekiya (peddlers) were considered one of the lowest social groups in Edo. As they began to form organizations of their own, they took over some administrative duties relating to commerce, such as stall allocation and protection of their commercial activities.

During Shinto festivals, these peddlers opened stalls, and some members were hired to act as security. Each peddler paid rent in exchange for a stall assignment and protection during the fair.

The Edo government eventually recognized such tekiya organizations and granted the oyabun (leaders) of tekiya a surname, as well as permission to carry a sword – the wakizashi, or short samurai sword. The right to carry the katana, or full-sized samurai swords, remained the exclusive right of the nobility and samurai (warrior) castes.

Bakuto (gamblers) had a much lower social standing even than traders, as gambling was illegal.

Many small gambling houses cropped up in abandoned temples or shrines at the edge of towns and villages all over Japan. Most of these houses ran loan sharking businesses for clients, and usually maintained their own security personnel.

The places themselves – as well as the bakuto – were regarded with disdain by society at large, and much of the undesirable image of the yakuza originates from bakuto. This includes the name yakuza itself; ya-ku-za, or 8-9-3, is a losing hand in Oicho-Kabu, a form of blackjack.

Due to the economic situation during the mid-period, and the predominance of the merchant class, developing yakuza groups were composed of misfits and delinquents who had joined or formed associations to extort customers in local markets by selling fake or shoddy goods.

The roots of the yakuza can be seen today in initiation ceremonies, which incorporate tekiya or bakuto rituals.

Although the modern yakuza has diversified, some gangs still identify with one group or the other; for example, a gang whose primary source of income is illegal gambling may refer to themselves as bakuto.

Yakuza Hierarchy

During the formation of the yakuza, they adopted the traditional Japanese hierarchical structure of oyabun-kobun, where kobun (lit. foster child) owe their allegiance to the oyabun (lit. foster parent).

In a much later period, the code of jingi (justice and duty) was developed, where loyalty and respect are a way of life.

The oyabun-kobun relationship is formalized by a ceremonial sharing of sake (rice wine) from a single cup. This ritual is not exclusive to the yakuza; it is also commonly performed in traditional Japanese Shinto weddings, and may have been a part of sworn brotherhood relationships.

Prospective yakuza come from all walks of life. The most romantic tales tell of how yakuza accept sons who have been abandoned or exiled by their parents.

Many yakuza start out in junior high or high school as common street thugs or members of gangs. Perhaps because of their lower socio-economic status, numerous yakuza members come from Burakumin and ethnic Korean backgrounds.

Yakuza groups are headed by an oyabun or kumicho (family head) who gives orders to his subordinates, the kobun. In this respect, the organization is a variation of the traditional Japanese senpai-kohai (senior-junior) model.

Members of yakuza gangs cut their family ties and transfer their loyalty to the gang boss. They refer to each other as family members – fathers and elder and younger brothers.

The yakuza is populated almost entirely by men; there are a very few women involved who are called “nee-san” (older sister).

When Kazuo Taoka, the 3rd boss of the Yamaguchi-gumi clan (historically, the most powerful) died in the early 1980s, his wife (Fumiko) took over as boss of Yamaguchi-gumi, albeit for a short time.

Organizational Structure

The yakuza have a very complex organizational structure.

There is an overall boss of the syndicate, the kumicho, and directly beneath him are the saiko komon (senior advisor) and so-honbucho (headquarters chief). They each have their own underlings, including other underbosses, advisors, accountants and enforcers.

Second in the chain of command is the wakagashira, who governs several gangs in a region with the help of a fuku-honbucho – who is himself responsible for several gangs.

The regional gangs themselves are governed by their local boss, the shateigashira.

Those who have received sake from oyabun are part of the immediate family, and ranked in terms of elder or younger brothers.

However, each kobun, in turn, can offer sakazuki as oyabun to his underling to form an affiliated organization, which might in turn form lower ranked organizations. In the Yamaguchi-gumi (which controls some 2,500 businesses and 500 yakuza groups), there are even 5th rank subsidiary organizations.


Yubitsume, or the cutting of one’s finger, is a form of penance or apology. Upon a first offence, the transgressor must cut off the tip of his left little finger and give the severed portion to his boss. Sometimes an underboss may do this in penance to the oyabun if he wants to spare a member of his own gang from further retaliation.

Its origin stems from the traditional way of holding a Japanese sword. The bottom three fingers of each hand are used to grip the sword tightly, with the thumb and index fingers slightly loose. The removal of digits starting with the little finger moving up the hand to the index finger progressively weakens a person’s sword grip.

The idea is that a person with a weak sword grip then has to rely more on the group for protection, thus reducing individual action.

In recent years, prosthetic fingertips have been developed to disguise this distinctive appearance.

Many yakuza have full-body tattoos.

These tattoos – known as irezumi in Japan – are still often “hand-poked”, that is, the ink is inserted beneath the skin using non-electrical, hand-made and hand held tools with needles of sharpened bamboo or steel. The procedure is expensive and painful and can take years to complete.

Yakuza members normally keep them concealed in public with long-sleeved and high-necked shirts.


Although yakuza membership has declined following an anti-gang law aimed specifically at yakuza and passed by the Japanese government in 1992, there are thought to be more than 103,000 active yakuza members in Japan today.

Principal families form three of the largest syndicates.


Created in 1915, the Yamaguchi-gumi is the biggest yakuza family, accounting for 50% of all yakuza in Japan, with more than 55,000 members divided into 850 clans.

From its headquarters in Kobe, it directs criminal activities throughout Japan. It is also involved in operations in Asia and the United States.

Shinobu Tsukasa, also known as Kenichi Shinoda, is the Yamaguchi-gumi’s current oyabun. He has increased operations in Tokyo (which has not traditionally been the territory of the Yamaguchi-gumi.)

The Yamaguchi family is successful to the point where its name has become synonymous with Japanese organized crime in many parts of Asia outside of Japan. Many Chinese or Korean persons who do not know the name “Yakuza” would know the name “Yamaguchi-gumi”, which is frequently portrayed in gangster films.


The Sumiyoshi-rengo is the second largest yakuza family, with 20,000 members divided into 277 clans.

The Sumiyoshi-kai, as it is sometimes called, is a confederation of smaller yakuza groups. Its current oyabun is Shigeo Nishiguchi.

Structurally, Sumiyoshi-kai differs from its principal rival, the Yamaguchi-gumi, in that it functions like a federation. The chain of command is more lax, and although Shigeo Nishiguchi is always the supreme oyabun, its leadership is distributed among several other people.


The Inagawa-kaï is the third largest yakuza family in Japan, with roughly 15,000 members divided into 313 clans. It is based in the Tokyo-Yokohama area and was one of the first yakuza families to expand its operations outside of Japan.

Its current oyabun is Yoshio Tsunoda.

Designated Boryokudan

A designated boryokudan (Shitei Boryokudan) is a “particularly harmful” yakuza group, registered by the Prefectural Public Safety Commissions under the Organized Crime Countermeasures Law (Boryokudan Taisaku Ho) enacted in 1991.

Under the Organized Crime Countermeasures Law, the Prefectural Public Safety Commissions have registered 22 syndicates as designated boryokudan groups.

Fukuoka Prefecture has the largest number of designated boryokudan groups, at 5; the Kudo-kai, the Taishu-kai, the Fukuhaku-kai, the Dojin-kai, and the Kyushu Seido-kai.

Designated boryokudan groups are usually large, well-established organizations (mostly formed before World War II; some even formed before the Meiji Revolution of the 19th century), however there are some exceptions, like the Kyushu Seido-kai which, with its blatant armed conflicts with the Dojin-kai, was registered only two years after its formation.

Current Activities

Yakuza are regarded as semi-legitimate organizations.

For example, immediately after the Kobe earthquake, the Yamaguchi-gumi, whose headquarters are in Kobe, mobilized itself to provide disaster relief services (including the use of a helicopter), and this was widely reported by the media as a contrast to the much slower response by the Japanese government.

The yakuza repeated their aid after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, with groups opening their offices to refugees and sending dozens of trucks with supplies to affected areas.

For this reason, many yakuza regard their income and extortion (shinogi) as the collection of a feudal tax.

Many yakuza syndicates – notably the Yamaguchi-gumi – officially forbid their members from engaging in drug trafficking, while some (notably the Dojin-kai) are heavily involved in the trade.

Some yakuza groups are heavily involved in sex-related industries, and human trafficking. The Philippines, for example, is used as a source of young women. Yakuza trick girls from impoverished villages into coming to Japan, where they are promised respectable jobs with good wages. Instead, they are forced into becoming prostitutes and strippers.

There is much evidence of yakuza involvement in international crime. There are many tattooed yakuza members imprisoned in various Asian prisons for such crimes as drug trafficking and arms smuggling. In 1997, one verified yakuza member was caught smuggling 4 kilograms (8.82 pounds) of heroin into Canada.

Yakuza frequently engage in a uniquely Japanese form of extortion, known as sokaiya. In essence, this is a specialized form of protection racket.

Instead of harassing small businesses, the yakuza harasses a stockholders’ meeting of a larger corporation. They simply scare the ordinary stockholders with the presence of yakuza operatives, who obtain the right to attend the meeting by a small purchase of stock.

Yakuza also have ties to the Japanese realty market and banking, through jiageya.

Jiageya specialize in inducing holders of small real estate to sell their property so that estate companies can carry out much larger development plans.

After the collapse of the Japanese property bubble, a manager at a major bank in Nagoya was assassinated, and much speculation ensued about the banking industry’s indirect connection to the Japanese underworld.

Fitting In…

Yakuza often take part in local festivals such as Sanja Matsuri, where they carry the shrine through the streets proudly showing off their elaborate tattoos.

Yakuza have been known to make large investments in legitimate, mainstream companies. In 1989, Susumu Ishii, the Oyabun of the Inagawa-kai (a well known yakuza group) bought US$255 million worth of Tokyo Kyuko Electric Railway’s stock.

Japan’s Securities and Exchange Surveillance Commission has knowledge of more than 50 listed companies with ties to organized crime, and in March 2008, the Osaka Securities Exchange decided to review all listed companies and expel those with yakuza ties.

As a matter of principle, theft is not recognized as a legitimate activity of yakuza. This is in line with the idea that their activities are semi-open; theft by definition would be a covert activity. More importantly, such an act would be considered a trespass by the community.

Moreover, yakuza usually do not conduct actual business operations by themselves. Core business activities such as merchandising, loan sharking or management of gambling houses are typically managed by non-yakuza members who pay protection fees for their activities.

Because of their history as a legitimate feudal organization, and their connection to the Japanese political system through the uyoku (extreme right-wing political groups), yakuza are essentially a part of the Japanese establishment, with six fan magazines reporting on their activities.

…or Not

One study found that nine in ten adults under the age of 40 believe that the yakuza should not be allowed to exist.

At various times, people in Japanese cities have launched anti-yakuza campaigns with mixed and varied success.

In March 1995, the Japanese government passed the Act for Prevention of Unlawful Activities by Criminal Gang Members which made traditional racketeering much more difficult.

Beginning in 2009, led by agency chief Takaharu Ando, Japanese police began to crack down on the gangs.

Kodo-kai chief Kiyoshi Takayama was arrested in late 2010.

In December 2010, police arrested Yamaguchi-gumi’s alleged number three leader, Tadashi Irie.

According to the media, encouraged by tougher anti-yakuza laws and legislation, local governments and construction companies have begun to shun or ban yakuza activities or involvement in their communities or construction projects.

Laws were enacted in Osaka and Tokyo in 2010 and 2011 to try to combat Yakuza influence, by making it illegal for any company to do business with the Yakuza.

Ironically, Kobe – the home city of the largest yakuza syndicate Yamaguchi-gumi – is one of the safest cities in Japan, because “cheap” criminals such as street gangs and thugs are afraid to attract the yakuza’s attention.

Yakuza USA

Yakuza activity in the United States is mostly confined to Hawaii, but they have made their presence known in other parts of the country, including Fresno, Raleigh, Houston, Oregon, Denver, Chicago, and New York City.

The yakuza are said to use Hawaii as a way station between Japan and mainland America, smuggling methamphetamine into the country and smuggling firearms back to Japan.

They easily fit into the local population, since many tourists from Japan and other Asian countries visit the islands on a regular basis, and there is a large population of residents who are of full or partial Japanese descent. They also work with local gangs, funneling Japanese tourists to gambling parlors and brothels.

In California, the yakuza have made alliances with local Vietnamese and Korean gangs as well as Chinese triads, with Vietnamese as the most common alliance.

The alliances with Vietnamese gangs date back to the late 1980s, when Vietnamese gangsters were used as muscle, as they had the potential to become extremely violent as needed.

In New York City, the yakuza appear to collect finders fees from American Mafiosos and businessmen for guiding Japanese tourists to gambling establishments, both legal and illegal.

Handguns manufactured in the US account for a large share (33%) of handguns seized in Japan, followed by China (16%), and the Philippines (10%).

In 1990, a Smith & Wesson .38 caliber revolver that cost $275 in the US could sell for up to $4,000 in Tokyo. By 1997 it would sell for only $500, due to the proliferation of guns in Japan during the 1990s.

The FBI suspects that the yakuza also use various operations to launder money in the U.S.

And they’re still getting clean away with it.

That’s all, for this one.

See you next time.