The Yakuza: Japanese organized crime

The Japanese gangster – clad in vibrant full body tattoos and occasionally missing a finger or two from the ritual of Yubitsume – is a common image in Japanese culture and society. Referred to as the Yakuza, and by the government as boryokudan or ‘violent groups’, the criminal organization has been prominent in Japanese society for nearly 100 years. The group, which originated as a local gang of Kobe Fishermen in 1915 and expanding into a multinational business with annual profits of $460 million in the 1980s, now faces limitations by the Japanese government. The distinguishing factor between Yakuza and other criminal organizations is the extent to which the Yakuza managed to establish a positive public image in Japan and essentially become a ‘legal’ mafia. The rise of ‘morally’ driven crime syndicates and the eventual shift towards a more profit based corporate structure instead of a quasi-feudal base will be contrasted to the current status of the Yakuza and the limiting future they face.

Image courtesy of Nothing to hide, 2007. Public Domain.

Image courtesy of Nothing to hide, 2007. Public Domain.

Although established in 1915, the Yamaguchi-gumi – the the largest gang of Yakuza – draws  inspiration from traditions dating back to the feudal shogunate of the 18th century. The main social structure of the group, known as oyabun-kobun, is literally translated as ‘father role-child role’ and plays an important part in structuring legitimacy. Derived from feudal traditions of apprenticeship, the Yamaguchi-gumi structure takes a pyramid shape with one supreme godfather and various lower level bosses and gangsters.[1] This system privileges the importance of loyalty, obedience, and a dominant executive position.

A unique moral code also developed out of older traditions from the Tokugawa feudal era.  Many syndicates trace their origins to the machi-yakko, or servants of the town. When Ieyasu Tokugawa unified the embattled kingdoms of Japan in 1604, an unusual level of peace was introduced. As a result, the marginalized group of highly skilled samurai known as kabuki-mono were left without occupation and resorted to roving the countryside in derelict bands of raiders and looters. The machi-yakko were seen as the common village people who resisted the kabuki-mono and fought for noble ideals of chivalry.

These two principals, a feudal structure and chivalrous morality, however were slowly deteriorated over the course of the 20th century. In 1978, the 3rd boss of the Yamaguchi-gumi Kazuo Taoka was nearly assassinated in a nightclub by a rival gang. The events that transpired over the next decade would fissure the Yamaguchi-gumi and other Yakuza syndicates and shift the common principals away from a feudal structure and chivalrous morality towards streamlined corporate management and a spike in violence.

From the 1950s to the 1990s, the Yamaguchi-gumi expanded into vast areas of Japan as well as various international locations. The leader behind this rise, Taoka, ruled with a charismatic magnetism that unified and sustained the syndicate until his death in 1981.[3] After his death, the Yamaguchi-gumi splintered into two distinct factions led by Hiroshi Yamamoto and Masahisa Takenaka. In 1985, Takenaka was brutally murdered along with three of his bodyguards by an assassin under the control of Yamamoto. A bloody conflict emerged that lasted the entirety of two years. On both side, Yakuza members were engaging in open, public combat which resulting in many deaths on both sides.

This devolution into full out war had two serious impacts on the Yakuza. Firstly, it shattered the fragile public image that the Yakuza had maintained of ‘chivalry’. Instead of protecting the weak and indefensible, gang members put ordinary citizens in harms way with wanton acts of violence. This would go on to provoke the government to tighten down on Yakuza behavior in the following years. Secondly, the lack of leadership shifted the syndicates towards a more aggressive and un-traditional ethos because of the generational gap. More young, aspiring Yakuza favoured the violent approach to expansion and inter-gang dispute resolution. When Taoka died, the charismatic glue that held together younger generation and the older generation dried up and both sides drifted further apart. One key aspect of this drift was the focus on profitability and a more corporate structure from the younger generation. Not only did they turn their backs on the traditional ‘morality’ of the machi-yakko, but also this shift towards a more western corporate structure and rejected some of the traditional oyabun-kobun relationships. A Kyoto boss, Tokutaro Takayama said ‘Today, they don’t care anymore about obligations, tradition, respect and dignity. There are no rules anymore.’[4] While the 1980s were financially successful for the Yakuza, they saw a shift in the core principles that had previously guided behaviour and discipline for decades. The next decades would result in a severe clamp down on illicit activity through policy from the government and foreign intervention namely from the U.S.

Two contemporary events are highlighted by this shift in the Yakuza. In September of 2015, the Yamaguchi-gumi experienced a similar splitting to the one in the 1980s. Thirteen out of the 72 main gang factions were excommunicated and went on to form the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi.[5] Fortunately, the Yamaguchi-gumi leadership is offering clemency for lower level members in the gang in order to gain back the numbers. This levelheaded approach to group dissonance clearly draws on lessons learned after the tumultuous break-up after Taoka’s death. Secondly, the Japanese government is under greater pressure to pacify any Yakuza based conflict in order to prepare for the 2020 Olympic games.[6] In order to look presentable, the Japanese government will likely tighten down on the Yakuza even further and attempt to prevent any major breakouts of violence.

The Yakuza have changed significantly over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries. Moving past their feudal and moral base, they have become more western in their approach either though creating broad corporate structures that streamline profit margins or by resorting to more violent methods of extortion and dispute resolution. Their position in the coming decade is looking relatively stable. While the government will attempt to limit any violence, the Yakuza will continue to operate throughout Japan and the wider world.

[1] Kaplan, David E, and Alec Dubro. Yakuza. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. Print. Pp.116

[2] Ibid. pp. 5

[3] Ibid. pp. 114

[4] Ibid. pp. 325