Japanese Gang War Isn’t The First: The Strange History Of The Yakuza

Annie Keller - Author

May 24 2017, Updated 5:17 a.m. ET

While images of organized crime in the U.S. call to mind the Mafia, and the phrase “gang war” call to mind the Crips and the Bloods, there’s far more groups than that out there; the Japanese Yakuza are one making news from the potential gang war Japanese police are preparing for. The largest gang, the Yamaguchi-gumi, are apparently about to split. The gang, led by Shinobu Tsukasa, employs one half of all Japanese gangsters, so any split would make any gang war big. If the Mafia are the only gang that come to mind when thinking of organized crime, then it’s likely that person doesn’t know about the history of any other gangs at all, Japanese or otherwise. So, who are the Yakuza?

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First of all, they’re not a new gang by any means. The first recorded mention of the yakuza in Japanese writing dates back to the Edo Period from 1603 to 1628. The gangs were a combination of tekiya, illegal peddlers, and gamblers, bakuto. The initiation rituals the gangs still use today date from that era, and some gangs still refer to themselves as bakuto or tekiya. Like gangs in the United States, Japanese gangs also recruit members while they are still in middle school and high school. Many are ethnically Korean or belong to the Japanese caste of the Burakumin. The Yamaguchi-gumi gang that is potentially at war has existed since 1915. Their name is so well known across Asia that even Chinese or Korean people who have not heard the word yakuza would know who they were, mostly because they are used as common villains in films.

Various rituals are typical in the yakuza, some bordering on the bizzare. Members who are looking to repent for some action cut off their little finger as a symbol, yubitsume. It is based on Japanese swordsmanship, where removing this finger would weaken the traditional sword grip. (There’s even a prosthetic fingertip business today.) Many members have full body tattoos, usually done in a lengthy and painful way. When gang members play a Japanese card game, Oicho-Kabu, they remove their shirts to show the tattoos, which are normally concealed by clothing. The tattoos date back to the Edo period when the yakuza gangs began.

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Far from being a small group, the yakuza are believed to be the largest organized crime group in the world. They’re estimated to have 58 thousand members. Besides the gang that is splitting and creating fears of war, the Yamaguchi-gumi, there are two other large groups: Sumiyoshi-rengo and Inagawa-kaï. Twenty-two gangs are registered with the Japanese government as being a potential threat. The gangs vary tremendously in what criminal activity they’ve become involved with: some traffic drugs and others forbid members to do so. Some run real estate or construction businesses, others own gambling parlors and theaters that show adult films.

The three largest gangs have been at war before as well. The last war was in 1984 leading to 25 deaths and 70 injuries, but outbreaks of violence between them are common; they were responsible for at least 18 shooting incidents in the Kyushu area in 2011.

Those numbers might be small to Americans, but in Japan, where only 939 murders were reported in 2014, they have the potential to have a huge impact, gang war or no gang war. Will this alter Japanese crime rates this year? Only time can tell.

(Image via Wikipedia/apes_abroad)


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