15 Things You Didn't Know About The Yakuza

The Yakuza is one of the largest and most powerful criminal organizations in the world. Much like the country in which it operates, it is shrouded in mystery. It is shielded and concealed behind layers and layers of semi-legitimate businesses and fronts. Although they are viewed with contempt by the general Japanese public, their presence is accepted as a inescapable part of life in Japan. The history of the Yakuza is long and rich with tradition, spanning many centuries. In typical Japanese fashion, these traditions are incredibly important to the Yakuza, and they are followed with strict adherence. Also typical of Japanese culture, the gang is run with incredible sophistication, organized much like an normal corporation or agency. Because they control multiple industries and massive companies within Japan, it is almost impossible to conduct legitimate business without encountering the Yakuza in some way or another.

Although the average Japanese citizen views this gang as outcasts, the rest of the world looks at them with certain fascinated romanticism. It is because of this interest from the outside world that more and more interesting secrets about the Yakuza are spilling out. As we delve deeper into the inner workings of this notorious gang, you will see that it is an incredibly complex organization. Certain facts may make you feel sick, such is the level of their evil empire. But other facts may make you view the Yakuza in a positive light, a force for good and the common folk, not unlike Robin Hood and his merry men. What's obvious is that there is much more than meets the eye when it comes to this strange and formidable criminal empire.


15 Technically The Yakuza Is Legal

The Yakuza operates out in the open for everyone to see. It's all part of their elaborate disguise. Their headquarters are on the street with metal plaques identifying them and everything. When you go inside there is a secretary dressed in business clothes waiting to help you. That's because the Yakuza operates several legitimate businesses, ranging from building construction to adult films. This is incredibly clever. Everything is plain for police officers to see, and the actual muscle work is typically carried out by people who are unaffiliated with the Yakuza, and thereby the actual gang members keep their hands clean. The police actually refer to the illegal part of the gang as "boryokudan" (roughly translated as violent group), whereas the legal part of the gang is operated by the real Yakuza members who call the shots from the shadows. These high level bosses are safe from prosecution because Japan does not have a Witness Protection Program or Plea Bargaining.

14 Their Tattoos Are Done By Hand

Yakuza members are immediately recognizable by their full body tattoos, although Yakuza members wear long sleeve shirts and high collars to hide these ornate designs unless they're alone with fellow gang members. Their entire body is covered except for a narrow strip down the middle of their chest and stomach to prevent liver failure. This strip also allows them to wear traditional Japanese robes without arousing suspicion. These tattoos can take years to complete, and the process is far from easy. They use an extremely traditional tattooing technique that goes back centuries, and it is done with no electrical components whatsoever. A narrow, sharpened needle made from Bamboo is inserted again and again until the process is complete. Because this process is incredibly painful, it not only marks the Yakuza as criminals, it is also seen as a rite of passage and a mark of great respect within the gang.

13 Their Wives Get Tattooed Too

The wives of Yakuza members play a minor role in the day to day affairs of the business. Not unlike the rest of Japanese culture, their role in the family is to bear and take care of the children, cook, and obey her husband. But the wives of the Yakuza go one step further when it comes to devotion to their husbands. They also receive the same full body tattoos as their criminal spouses. This shows devotion not only to their husbands, but to the Yakuza gang itself. These girls and women often show off these beautiful tattoos at festivals and pose for the camera. For the rest of the Japanese population, tattoos are heavily stigmatized, as pretty much the only people who get them are Yakuza. For this reason, these girls can no longer attend swimming pools or public baths, as that would be the same as announcing to the world that they're affiliated with criminals.

12 They Actually Help Their Country

Believe it or not, the Yakuza have come to the aid of their country multiple times. The Yakuza themselves refer to their groups as "ninkyō dantai," which means something along the lines of "chivalrous groups." And they have lived up to that moniker many times. During the Kobe earthquake, the city of Kobe was hit hard. This happened to be the location of the largest Yakuza syndicate's headquarters. This syndicate is known as the Yamaguchi-gumi. They had been running a protection racket on the citizens of the city for years, and now they finally had a chance to deliver on their promise. Not only did they let refugees seek shelter in their headquarters, but they responded faster than the government did. In 2011, another earthquake and tsunami struck the island and again the syndicate came to the aid of the people before the government could arrive, sending trucks with supplies out to the victims. This is evidence that the Yakuza operates by some kind of code of honor, at least sometimes.

11 They Are All Outcasts

The Yakuza are complete outcasts from the rest of Japanese society. This started centuries ago in Feudal Japan, with the "Barakumin." The Barakumin are a group of people in Japan that date back to the 11th century, and they make up 60% of Yakuza members. From the very beginning the Barakumin were complete outcasts from the rest of Japan. Basically, these people were extremely poor peasants, exiled to small villages, and their name translates roughly to "village people." They were preyed upon by the "noble" Samurai, not allowed to touch people who were higher class, and were completely downtrodden by the rest of society. These people often took up professions that were not respected by the rest of society, like being a butcher or a leather worker. Many of them were criminals and vagrants. Even though the government eventually started to treat them better, culturally they are still treated as lower class. Because of this, it's no surprise that so many of them become members of the Yakuza. Additionally, 30% of Yakuza members are Japanese born Koreans. These people are also seen as outcasts, because foreigners are never fully welcomed into Japanese societies, even if their families have lived their for years.

10 The Origin Of The Name "Yakuza"

Many people have heard the word "Yakuza," but not many of them actually know what it means. The original gang that would eventually evolve into the Yakuza engaged heavily in gambling, and one of the most popular card games was a game called "oicho-kabu." Essentially, it's Japanese blackjack. It works by adding the value of three cards together, and then using the last digit of the resulting number as your score. Sounds complicated, but it's actually very simple. For example, 8+9+3=20. The last digit is zero, so the score would be zero, making it the worst hand possible. Each card is known by a syllable, and in this case 8 is "Ya," 9 is "Ku," and 3 is "Za." When we put them all together, we get "Ya-Ku-Za." So "Yakuza" is the worst hand possible in Japanese blackjack. This word is also slang for "good for nothing." This is the word the public uses when referring to this gang, reflecting their utter contempt for them.

9 Members Are Forced To Cut Off Their Own Fingers

One way to spot a Yakuza member is to look for tattoos, but if his clothes cover his body, there is another way. Just look at his hands. Many Yakuza members have large sections of their fingers missing. This is because Yakuza members willingly cut off their own fingers when they have made a mistake. This is known as "yubitsume," roughly translated as "finger shortening." The ritual begins when the offending member puts a white table cloth down on the table. Then, he places his finger on it and slices the finger off above the first knuckle. The offending members then wraps the finger up neatly and presents it to his boss as a gift. Once the boss accepts this gift, the apology is accepted. The first finger to be cut is the pinky finger. If further "apologies" are needed, the member continues to cut off pieces of his finger, a knuckle at a time, until the finger is gone. Then they move on to the pinky on the other hand, and then after that they move on to the next lower finger. The reason for this dates back to the feudal era when people still carried swords. It is extremely hard to grip a sword properly without your pinky finger, and so when a member lost it, he would become more dependent on the rest of the gang for protection.


8 They Are The Biggest Gang In The World

The Yakuza are widely considered the largest gang in the world. At the last count, they had over 100,000 members. And that's not even counting all of their employees who are affiliated with the gang, but not considered full members. Their influence is enormous, not just in Japan but across the globe. They have presences in North America, as well as across Asia. 100,000 may seem like a large number, but the late 50s to early 60s there was an estimated 185,000 Yakuza members. They outnumbered the police and the Japanese army only outnumbered them 2 to 1. In the 80's the Yamaguchi-gumi syndicate alone controlled more that 2,5000 companies and was grossing over $460 million per year. Today, the Yamaguchi-gumi syndicate is worth about $6.5 billion, more than twice that of the Mexican Sinaloa Cartel. It all started back when the U.S. occupied Japan at the end of World War 2. Since the Yakuza controlled the black market, and rations were desperately needed, membership began to grow.

7 They Are Expanding Into America

If you think the Yakuza are limiting their operations to within Japan, think again. They are expanding quickly, not just into neighboring Asian countries but into the United States. Their largest presence in Hawaii. The man who was instrumental in bringing the Yakuza to Hawaii was a member of the Sumiyoshi-kai syndicate, and he was able to engage in drug-smuggling operations with other Hawaiian-based gangs, as well as organize the large scale smuggling of American guns back to Japan. He was eventually shot and killed by rival gangs. Back in 1991, Prescott Bush (George Bush Sr.'s older brother) unwittingly helped the Yakuza buy two American companies, Quantum Access and Asset Management International Financing & Settlement. Prescott Bush was approached by a company called West Tsusho, who wanted to buy these two companies. At that time West Tsusho was a shell corporation for none other than Ishi Susumu, boss of the Inagawa-kai Yakuza syndicate. Prescott Bush was paid a $250,000 finder's fee and promised another quarter million every year for three years after the deal was made. But the Americans are beginning to catch on. Recently, Obama froze the assets of two of the biggest Yakuza syndicates operating in the US.

6 They Are Going To Profit Off The 2020 Olympics

If you haven't heard already, the 2020 Olympics will be held in Tokyo. This is good news for the Yakuza, since they control most of the construction business in Japan and a lot of new buildings will need to be built in order to prepare for the coming Summer Games. Evidence of the Yakuza's involvement was made painfully obvious in 2015 when a number of photos began to circulate that showed  Japan Olympic Committee Vice Chairman Hidetoshi Tanaka hanging out and smiling with various Yakuza bosses. The above picture shows Hidetoshi Tanaka to the right of the Shinobu Tsukasa, boss of the Yamaguchi-gumi syndicate, one of the largest Yakuza organizations. He denies ever meeting the Yakuza members he was photographed with. Supposedly, the reason these photos were released to the public was because Tanaka himself was showing them to people in order to intimidate them into doing whatever he wanted. Those close to Tanaka say his ties to the Yakuza are well-known. The cost for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics is an estimated $50 billion. With the Yakuza poised to collect an approximate 5% of all construction revenue, they are going to profit massively off the Olympics.

5 They Are Fiercely Right-Wing

The Yakuza are very close to various right-wing, nationalist groups within Japan. Known as the "Uyoku dantai," these right-wing groups are spread across Japan. They have about 100,000 members, a number that is suspiciously close to the number of Yakuza members. However, there is no need for suspicion, because it is well-known in Japan that the Yakuza are very closely linked to these groups. Their views are simple, they don't want foreigners in Japan, they hate communism and Marxism, and they want Japan to go back to what it was like during World War 2. They roll around in vans covered with flags and signs, protesting against the Japanese government. These people cannot be arrested, because just like in America, freedom of ideology is protected under the Japanese constitution. This makes the Uyoku dantai a perfect front for Yakuza activities, and they are often used as muscle by high-level Yakuza bosses.

4 Their Most Famous Godfather Was A Legend

From the 40s to the early 80s, the Yamaguchi-gumi syndicate was led by one of the most legendary bosses in Yakuza history - Kazuo Taoka. He was adopted by the Yakuza after his parents abandoned him, and quickly rose up the ranks due to his ferocious street fighting skills. He went to prison for eight years in 1936 after killing a rival Yakuza member, but when he got out, he was soon made boss of the Yamaguchi-gumi syndicate at the young age of 33. At this time they numbered only 25 members due to arrests, murders, and the military draft. But soon, Taoka would turn this syndicate into the most powerful Yakuza group in Japan. He soon assimilated all of the other syndicates in the area, growing both in size and power. By the time he was 65, he ran everything. But he wasn't completely safe. He was partying in a Kyoto nightclub in 1978 when a Yakuza hitman ran up to him and shot him in the neck. Amazingly, this crime boss actually survived, recovered in hospital, and then hunted down the guy who shot him, dumping his body in the woods. In the end, he died of a heart attack in 1981.

3 They Were Once Run By A Woman

After Kazuo Taoka died, a new boss was supposed to take his place, chosen personally by Taoka himself. The only problem was that he was in prison. As the Yamaguchi-guchi syndicate waited for the release of their new leader, he died in prison from a liver problem. This left only Taoka's wife, Fumiko to take on the role of boss in 1982. This was the first time this had happened. She did very well as their leader, keeping the peace and expanding the gang rapidly. Under Fumiko, membership rose to over 13,000 official members. They also spread across Japan, controlling 36 out of Japan's 47 prefectures. She also led the gang into a new source of income: drugs. The Yamaguchi-gumi syndicate began to invest heavily in the distribution of amphetamines. Eventually, a council of eight high-ranking Yakuza members replaced Fumiko. When they tried to elect a new leader, a huge war kicked off between rivals who wanted power. Maybe they should have stayed with Fumiko...

2 They Control The Adult Film Industry In Japan

It is a widely-known fact that the Yakuza control the adult film industry in Japan. This is one their biggest sources of income. If you didn't already know, hardcore films are illegal in Japan, and most of their content is censored. For this reason, the Yakuza fill a void, distributing illegal films throughout Japan. They also do business with the industry in America, as Japan is known for weird genres that interest many westerners. They also import non-Japanese girls to perform in their videos. But these girls are often mistreated, blackmailed and abused. The Yakuza lures girls to Japan with promises of money and fame in the film industry. Once they arrive, their passports are taken and they are forced to become film stars, strippers, or prostitutes. Some are even sold into slavery. Some Yakuza syndicates focus almost entirely on human-trafficking. Young women from the Philippines are a huge target for some Yakuza syndicates. The darkest secret of the Yakuza is that they make a lot of money from child films, too.

1 There Is A Massive Yakuza War Going On Right Now

Right now, there is a massive Yakuza war raging in the streets of Japan. The biggest Yakuza syndicate, Yamaguchi-gumi, has split into two factions and has entered into a bitter civil war. Thousands of members turned against their leader, Shinobu Tsukasa. These members were unhappy with the bosses policies, as Shinobu Tsukasa is very hard line. He just got out of prison for killing a rival member with a sword. He is also very strict when it comes to punishing members for not paying tribute to him. What probably caused the schism was the fact that Shinobu Tsukasa wanted to expand more and more into Tokyo, and even move the headquarters from its traditional location in Kobe. This new group that split away from Yamaguchi-gumi is known as the "Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi." This new group is now the third biggest Yakuza syndicate, and although the original Yamaguchi-gumi syndicate lost a lot of manpower, they are still the largest Yakuza group. These two factions are fighting each other in the streets, and it has become quite violent. Members continue to fight in the streets to this day, throwing Molotov cocktails at each other and driving trucks into each other's buildings.

Sources: JapanTimes, Vice, BusinessInsider, RT

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