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History and Culture of the Yakuza

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 2134 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Characterized with magnificent, full-color designs of samurai warriors, flowers, and dragons that stretched across the body from neck to calf tattoos, mutilated fingers, yakuza has raises interests of many aspect in the world today. Believe to be the longest background history, yakuza has influenced on social, economy, politic in Japan society. Though through similar practices just like any American mob: prostitution, pornography, drugs, gambling. Yakuza has their own uniqueness, they are accepted into Japanese society, the ritual finger-cutting, the size of the gang, etc…

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History of Yakuza dated back 300 years ago, in Tokugawa era, the time of the shogunate. Centuries of civil war had come to an end when Ieyasu Tokugawa unified the country in 1604, becoming the first great shogun. But Japan was not yet stable. Peace suddenly occurs, result in an unemployment of 500,000 samurais, workers whose skills are best in soldiering and martial arts. Eventually, most samurai joined the merchant class in big villages like Osaka, Tokyo, Nagoya. All left of the samurai with good standing, stuck within a rigid medieval society, with few opportunities beyond those offered by street fighting, robbery and terror.

Ronin, or masterless samurais are not unfamiliar with this new society. In fact, these new group of outlaw samurai began to take on their own life’s journey while traditionally they turned to banditry when their lords were defeated in battle, roaming and looting countryside across Japan. The gangs of roving bandits from old time later on be brought to life in Japanese movie Seven Samurai, which inspired the American Western The Magnificent Seven.

While these criminal servants known as the hatamoto-yakko might appear to be the true ancestor of the Japansese underworld, today’s yakuza indentify not with them but with their historic enemies, the machi-yakko, or servants of the town. These group consist of young townsmen who fear and resentment grew create to defense against the increasing attack of hatamoto-yakko. Like the gangs of today, the machi-yakko were skillfull at gambling and having a close relationship to their leaders that may be a precedent for the tightly organized yakuza.

The townspeople cheered on the machi-yakko as to see fellow commoners stand up to the murderous samurai, they quickly became folk heroes. It is then, that the yakuza who see themselves as honorable outlaws have chosen to look upon the machi-yakko as their spiritual ancestors.

When people think yakuza are people with aura, majesty, romance as in the movie with tattoos, in real life they are very dangerous people with criminal activities and large organizations. In Japan, the Yakuza holds some control over the entertainment industry. Many large companies have relationships and run the company in the Yakuza way. “We will do what is necessary to help the entertainment industry cut off relations with organized crime,” the head of the Japan National Police Agency said on Aug. 31. According to the National Police Agency, the Yakuza are also deeply involved in the fields of construction, real estate, money exchange, labor allocation, information technology and finance. They provide abundant labor resources for the nuclear industry as well as contribute to the recovery after the Fukushima nuclear disaster. In addition, there is a term called ‘’sokaiya’’ which is the name of a large-scale extortionist in the Yakura world. At first, they only buy enough shares of a company enough to be able to attend the shareholder meeting. Then, they will try to find weaknesses as well as collect evidence of the “black spot” of the company leaders. And finally, blackmail them “give the money or we will expose the truth about him.” This strategy is quite effective because the Japanese are afraid of bad face in front of the crowd. In particular, these dishonest acts are politely executed by the Yakuza. They will hold an event such as a golf tournament or a beauty pageant and sell tickets at high prices. In 1982, when the number of ‘’sokaiya’’ spiked, the Japanese government enacted a number of laws banning companies from paying for the men. However, this law does not achieve the desired results. Therefore, the most effective is to arrange shareholder meetings so that the Yakuza cannot attend. Thus, 90% of companies on the Tokyo Stock Exchange hold annual shareholder meetings on the same day. Aside from illegal activities, the Yakuza also spread their arm to politic. Even the Japanese ruling party is not immune to the influence of the Yakuza. Yoshio Kodama provided financial support to the Liberal Democrats in their early years, according to Yakuza: Japan’s Criminal Underworld (Yakuza) by David E. Kaplan and Alee Dubro. Japan’s Minister of Education is also accused of receiving political funding from a Yakuza-based company. Initially he refused to accept the $ 1,500 (180,000 yen) grant and returned the money and denied any wrongdoing. Eriko Yamatani, head of the National Public Safety Committee, is also a member of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet, suspected of having links with the Yakuza-rightist group Zaitokukai. After a photo of Eriko with a member of the group was posted, the government voiced that Eriko did not know the person in the picture related to the Yakuza. As we can see Yakuza not only active in small scale crime but they have evolved and adapt to modern culture with variety of illegal activities in large scale.

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Referring to the Yakuza, no one is unaware of the ritual of cutting the finger, in addition to the sense of punishment it also carries the meaning of atonement. In Japan, the ritual of cutting the finger is called Yubitsume, is a ritual to atone for the offense, a self-punishment to express sincere apology. This ritual is said to have originated from gamblers called Bakuto, the precursor of the yakuza, the Japanese mafia, and modern. If a person cannot pay their gambling debts, they can cut their fingers instead. According to CNN, the yakuza had to cut their fingers instead of paying off debt, to atone for mistakes and stay in the organization, or to stay alive. In this case, the finger is cut is called “dead finger”. If a yakuza sacrifices one finger for the benefit of subordinates or comrades it is called “live fingers”. As usual, the person who wants to atone for the error must manually cut his finger. They placed their hands on a small, clean cloth and then used sharp knives to cut a knuckle on the left hand. Then he wrapped the cut off and handed it to the godfather. If they commit multiple crimes, they will move on to the next knuckle of the finger. If the left little finger has been crushed, they will cut the right thumb or the left thumb. However, today, this custom has some variations, the person who wants to atone for the error may not need self-cutting but by others. In an interview with The New Yorker, a yakuza member said he had cut his finger in front of the boss in the gang’s office. “There was a problem and I had to lose my finger,” he said. A doctor stopped him, but did not heal the wound. “The treatment of the fingers will be treated as a retraction of the apology,” he said. Later, he explained that the severed finger was related to the suicide attempt (samurai suicide). A person with 9 fingers can receive special disability benefits from the Japanese government, however, he refuses to accept it because doing so is also considered a retraction of the apology. The yakuza’s finger cutting ritual emerge from how the Japanese holding a sword. When holding the sword, three fingers, the little and middle finger will grip the hilt, while the thumb and forefinger slightly relaxed. Cutting the little finger will weaken forces to hold the sword. The Japanese believe that if a person’s force to hold a sword is weak, they have to rely more on the organization to be protected and to reduce the single act. Today, in order to keep secret and hide their identity, rarely yakuza cut off their finger to atone for a mistake but instead they shaved their heads. The Yakuza mostly involuntarily to cut their fingers. In October 2008, a young gang member in Tokyo was forced to cut his left thumb because he wanted to leave the organization. In December 2010, another member of a gang in Kobe was forced to do so after failing to repay the debt to his superiors. In both cases, the victim reported to the police. Officials arrested a number of people and accused them of intimidation and assault. The main forms of punishment in modern day yakuza are financial fines or getting kick out of the gang. In recent years, manufacturers have also made counterfeit fingers to help the yakuza hide their fingers. Consider it to be brutal or not, we can see that in Japan social even in the underworld have high responsibility toward their action.

 Unlike other organized crime groups in the world, Yakuza does not like to hide. In fact, in most Japanese cities, Yakuza clubs and headquarters are often marked with distinctive signs and symbols. Each clan will have their own crest, business card. They have a rule not to touch civilian and only do business with people who have connections with them. People living in harmony with the Yakuza, the fact that the Yakuza help the rate of small petty crime such as robberies, simple assault, public intoxication fell quite significant, keeping order for the neighborhood. In addition, when Japan encountered the 2011 tsunami, the Yakuza forces were the first to send humanitarian aid to disaster areas. That is not the first time. In 1995, when the major earthquake struck in Kobe, Japan’s fifth-largest city, the Yakuza used motorcycles, ships, and even helicopters to transport relief supplies around the city. Also, they have their own self-published magazine which produces by clan Yamaguchi-gumi – the largest Yakuza organization in Japan. With the name Yamaguchi-gumi Shinpo, the magazine distributed news pages for nearly 28,000 members, including haiku poems and fishing essays. There was also an editorial of the gang leader who shared the difficult time for the organization. With the tightening of the Japanese government’s rules, the number of Yakuza members was reduced, so the magazine was seen as a way to encourage the members. The magazine has not been sold publicly to the market but has been distributed exclusively to the members of the group for fear of information being exposed. From an outside look, Yakuza is a crime organization but there is a subculture in the underworld which we might not now about.

In general, Yakuza can be seen as evidence of a culture that has existed for the time being, samurais with strict discipline and have honor in their work. Is a long-standing phenomenon, knowledge and research need to be deepened to improve our limited understanding toward Yakuza – a complex underworld with tight structure.

Works Cited 

  • Kaplan, David E., and Alec Dubro. Yakuza: Japan’s Criminal Underworld. University of California Press, 2012.
  • Adelstein, Jake. “The Last Yakuza.” World Policy Journal, vol. 27, no. 2, 2010, pp. 63–71., doi:10.1162/wopj.2010.27.2.63.
  • Bosmia, Anand, et al. “Yubitsume: Ritualistic Self-Amputation of Proximal Digits Among the Yakuza.” Journal of Injury and Violence Research, vol. 6, no. 2, 2014, doi:10.5249/jivr.v6i2.489.
  • Young Yakuza. Directed by Jean Pierre Limosin & Christian Baute, performance by Naoki Wanatabe. Documentary, 2008. Amazon, www.amazon.com/Young-Yakuza-Pierre-Limosin-Christian/dp/B0053WPS0C/ref=sr_1_2?s=instant-video&ie=UTF8&qid=1542064963&sr=1-2&keyword=young+yakuza#btf-product.
  • “Yakuza.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 11 Nov. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yakuza.
  • Grabianowski, Ed. “How the Yakuza Works.” HowStuffWorks, HowStuffWorks, 19 July 2007, people.howstuffworks.com/yakuza.htm.
  • Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Yakuza.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 9 Oct. 2018, www.britannica.com/topic/yakuza.


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