Tokyo Vice: Is The Yakuza Japan’s Mafia?

Yakuza operate almost entirely in Japan, as opposed to the mafia or Russian mob, which have an international presence. Yakuza families occasionally partner with outside organizations to import weapons, drugs and other products otherwise difficult to get in their country. Lile the mafia, yakuza’s criminal activities include illegal gambling, loan sharking, extortion, prostitution, smuggling, and drug trafficking.

Like the mafia, yakuza organizations are structured as families, and organized like corporations. Each clan is run by a patriarch, called a kumicho. Lieutenants, under-bosses and minor gang leaders answer to him. The key to the hierarchy is a father-son relationship, called oyabun-kobun. While in mafia families omerta goes without saying, yakuza membership is promoted openly

Crime syndication is illegal in America, and organized mobsters conceal their activities to fly under the radar of RICO laws. Japan recognizes yakuza membership as a legitimate right to assembly. The groups work with banks, corporations, and authorities. Yakuza openly participate in politics, endorsing candidates, and enjoying ties without scandal. They do it legally in public, and less so behind closed doors. Yakuza members carry business cards with the name of their crime syndicate. They also grant interviews to women.

Yakuza Roots and Origins

The yakuza are deeply ingrained in Japanese culture, tracing their roots to 17th century Samurai warriors. While specific origins are vague, the yakuza could have begun as groups of rōnin, or “masterless samurai.” Outlaw gangs, called the hatamoto-yakko, or servants of the shogun, broke bad and started pillaging villages. Other parties formed vigilante groups who defended those villages from the rogue samurai, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Their lineage may also be traced to two roving gangs which emerged during the prosperous and peaceful Edo period (1603–1868). The bakuto, who were gamblers, and the tekiya, who were a class of outcasts living below the caste system. The word yakuza means “good for nothing,” and the organization’s association is believed to have come from a worthless hand in a card game. But members never fold. The two groups organized and expanded into extortion, loan sharking, and other criminal operations.

Also called bōryokudan or gokudō, Japanese police officially classify these organizations as bōryokudan, or “violence groups,” like gangsters. The gangs, however, cast themselves as protectors of outcasts, and call themselves ninkyō dantai, or “chivalrous organizations.”

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