The yakuza is the Japanese mafia and their name essentially means “good for nothing.” The name is believed to be drawn from the lowest hand in the Japanese card game baccara, which is similar to Blackjack. In the game, getting the cards ya-ku-sa (“eight-nine-three”) is the worst possible hand you can get.
Yakuza can refer to the crime syndicates as a whole, or to an individual gang member, who are also called gyangu (“gangster”). These are 10 of the most terrifying facts about these notorious gangsters…
One of the most noticeable ways members of the yakuza can stick out are their extensive tattoos, called irezumi. Most of the time it covers their entire torso, except for a stripe down the middle of the chest. Sometimes, it can even cover most of their bodies. The tattoos are designed to be hidden under the clothes, and the stripe down their chest allows them to open their shirt collar or wear a robe without revealing them.
The tattoo process is expensive, time consuming, and utterly painful. They aren’t done with electric needles; instead, it’s performed by hand with a needle made from steel or bamboo. The artist dips the needle in some ink and then repeatedly punctures the skin. The tattoos can sometimes take years to be completed.
There are several reasons why the yakuza embraced irezumi. First, it’s expensive, so it shows that they have money. Secondly, since it’s so painful, it shows the man is tough for sitting through hours upon hours of the process.
In recent years, the yakuza has moved away from getting tattoos because of public backlash. The yakuza also generally try to make an effort to blend in. Also, since the tattoos have gone out of favor, there are not many tattoo artists who can do the technique.
9. Huge Membership
It’s tough to determine what exactly is the foundation of the yakuza, but some experts think that their lineage can be traced back to gangs of ronin, which were samurai without masters. Others think that they came from a group of grifters and gamblers dating back to Japan’s feudal era.
The yakuza is also not one big group, either. It’s comprised of several gangs called boryokudan, which means “violence groups.” As of early 2017, there were 22 recognized groups, divided into separate clans. The largest of these groups is Yamaguchi-gumi, who account for about a quarter of all yakuza members.
Yakuza membership exploded after World War II. By the early 1960s, there were 184,100 yakuza members, but that number dropped to around 60,000 for several decades. In the 1990s, they saw a resurgence and there were about 80,000 members until 2011, when their numbers started to dramatically drop. That’s when the Japanese government enacted some new laws to combat the yakuza by restricting their revenue. In late 2016, their numbers were the lowest since the National Police Agency started keeping records, at about 39,100 members.
However, this low membership number isn’t necessarily a good thing. Jake Adelstein, who is a reporter working in Japan and an expert on the yakuza, told the South China Morning Press that the drop in numbers is probably only temporary.
In December 2016, Japan legalized gambling and in about five years, casinos are expected to start opening. That’s about how long it will take former yakuza members to get a clean record. Adelstein thinks that this will create a lot of opportunities for the yakuza. They will be able to get “reformed” gang members into the casino, where they will be able to skim profits or blackmail people who lose big, which will generate huge revenue streams that will, in turn, allow the yakuza to employ more members.
8. The Godfather of Godfathers
The most infamous yakuza oyabun (chairman/boss) was Kazuo Taoka, who was the head of the Yamaguchi-gumi.
Taoka was born in a small village on the island of Shikoku. He was orphaned at a young age and sent to Kobe, where he worked in shipyards. In 1929, he started to hang out with members of the Yamaguchi-gumi and became a blood member in 1936. During this time, he got the nickname that he’d keep for the rest of his life: Kubo, which means bear. He got the nickname because he had a tendency to claw and gouge out his opponents’ eyes.
In 1936, Taoka went to jail for slashing a rival gang member to death. He was released in 1943, and found Yamaguchi-gumi in shambles because of World War II. After the war, in 1946, Taoka (then 33-years-old) became the leader of Yamaguchi-gumi after the previous oyabun died from natural causes. Taoka had an amazing gift for organization and he grew Yamaguchi-gumi to be the most dominant boryokudan in Japan.
The godfather of godfathers, as Taoka was called, died in July 1981, at the age of 68.
Yubitsume, which translates to finger-shortening, is the act where a yakuza amputates a piece of his little finger as a way to atone for a mistake or misdeed. This act can be done either voluntarily or involuntarily. Often they volunteer as a way to avoid a larger punishment, like being kicked out or being killed (possibly by being forced to commit suicide).
It stems from a punishment that was inflicted on gamblers who didn’t pay their debts in feudal Japan. Besides causing a lot of pain, without their whole pinky, it made it difficult for the person to handle a sword. If they couldn’t handle a sword, they couldn’t defend themselves, and it would make them more vulnerable.
It was adopted by the yakuza because it might affect them in hand-to-hand combat and while handling guns, so it would discourage members from doing something wrong. There was also a benefit to the yakuza if their members are weaker, because they would need to depend on their boryokudan even more.
There are different accounts of how the ritual is done, but what stays the same is the yakuza has to do it to himself. One account of the ritual is that it’s done while their oyabun supervises. There is a cloth laid flat and the offender places his left hand on the cloth, palm up. Then, using a sharp knife, called a tanto, they cut the pinky at the distal interphalangeal joint, which is the top knuckle. Once that is done, they wrap it up and hand it to the oyabun.
Another version, which was pulled from court testimony, made the act sound a lot less ritualistic. The witness said that the boss wasn’t at the amputation and testified: “The actual procedure is to take… a little silver knife – on a table – and you pull it towards you and bend over and your body weight will snap your finger off…The finger that is severed is put in a small bottle with alcohol and your name is written on it and it is sent to whoever you’re repenting to as a sign that you are sorry.”
In 1993, a government survey found that 45 percent of yakuza members were missing part of their little finger and 15 percent had to perform the act more than once.
Yubitsume doesn’t happen as often anymore because the yakuza has been trying to blend into society, and missing pieces of your finger is a good way to stick out.
6. Tadamasa Goto’s Liver
Tadamasa Goto is the founder of the Goto-gumi, which is a large Yamaguchi-gumi affiliated gang. When he was in power, he was one of the most dominant and successful yakuza bosses in the country, which is why he was called “The John Gotti of Japan.”
Since Goto was a notorious gangster, he wasn’t allowed to enter the United States. This presented a problem for Goto in 2001 because the 59-year-old gangster needed a liver transplant. Liver problems are pretty common among the yakuza because gangsters who run red light districts aren’t exactly known for their clean living. Also, their tattoos are so dense that it blocks sweat from exiting their body, meaning fewer toxins leave their body, taking a toll on the liver. Supposedly, liver damage is a sign of pride among the yakuza. For example, they will say things like “I drank enough to destroy three livers.”
However, due to restrictive organ transplant laws, transplants are hard to get in Japan. This led to Goto striking a secret deal where he gave the FBI information on the yakuza and he donated money to the UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles in exchange for a liver transplant for himself and three of his underlings. The transplant stayed a secret until Jake Adelstein published a story about it in 2008. UCLA claimed that the men each paid $400,000 in cash for their livers and Goto donated $100,000. However, Adelstein uncovered that Goto and one of the other yakuza gangsters each paid $1 million for their livers. Also, Goto would have been number 80 on the wait list for a liver, but he managed to get a transplant in six weeks. Two other people, including the second person on the wait list, died in area hospitals around the time that Goto got his transplant.
When the UCLA Medical Center was asked about the transplants on men who were tattooed and missing pieces of their pinkies, they declined to comment.
After getting the transplant, Goto went back to Japan and he remained the leader of Goto-gumi until 2008. In retirement, he joined the Buddhist priesthood and published an autobiography called Habakarinagara (“Pardon Me, But… “). It was a bestseller and he said his royalties were donated to charity.
5. The Yakuza are Heavily Involved in Japanese Politics and the Japanese Elite
The yakuza plays an interesting role in Japanese society. For many years, the people of Japan begrudgingly accepted that the yakuza were part of the culture, so the yakuza worked out in the open. They are also long time donors and supporters of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which is a right wing party that has been in power in Japan since 1955, with the exception of five years – between 1993 and 1994 and 2009 to 2012.
Every so often, a scandal erupts when it’s exposed that a politician received money from the yakuza or one of their business-fronts. Many times, it’s not enough to ruin a career, and the politician usually doesn’t resign.
One of the biggest political scandals happened during one of the few years when the LDP was not in power. Instead, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) was in power and they ran on a platform of cleaning up the government and cracking down on the yakuza. But then in October 2012, the DPJ appointed a man named Keishu Tanaka as the Minister of Justice. It turned out that he was heavily connected to the yakuza and the fact that the head of their justice system was mobbed-up shocked Japan. Tanaka resigned a few weeks later.
Besides money, another way that the yakuza help the LDP is by whipping up support in rural areas. In these areas, the campaign chiefs are yakuza who are also the head of the agricultural cooperative, called nokyo, and the nokyo are connected to yakuza-run construction companies. Many of the rice growers who are part of the nokyo also work construction jobs because they don’t make enough from growing rice. Obviously, since people in the area are depending on the yakuza to work, the yakuza can be very influential when it comes to drumming up votes for the LDP… who, again, have been in power for 57 of the last 62 years.
4. Human Trafficking
According to the International Monetary Fund and the United Nations, Japan has the fourth biggest GDP just behind the United States, China, and the European Union. They are one of the most technologically advanced societies and they have some of the lowest crime rates in the world. Their murder rate is only 0.3 per 100,000 people. Despite how advanced and prosperous the country is, Japan has a horrifying human trafficking problem.
Since 2001, the U.S. Department of State has released the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report measuring countries on their human trafficking problems and what steps their governments are taking to combat the problem. There are four levels: tier 1, tier 2, tier 2 watch list, and tier 3, and then there is a category for special cases. Tier 1 countries are the best at handling human trafficking. This includes countries like the United States, Australia, Canada, and many countries in Europe. Japan, on the other hand, has never been ranked higher than a tier 2 country and has dipped to tier 2 watch list in the past.
Tier 2 are “Countries whose governments do not fully meet the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s minimum standards, but are making significant efforts to meet those standards.” Other Tier 2 countries include Iraq, and the Northern triangle countries, which are El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. The Northern Triangle is the most violent area of the world that isn’t at war, and it’s on par with Japan in terms of human trafficking.
Much of the human trafficking in Japan is handled by the yakuza. The yakuza got their start in human trafficking during World War II, when they worked with the Japanese empire to provide “comfort women” to soldiers. The women were often from South Korea and other countries that were invaded by Japan in World War II.
After the war, the yakuza set up brothels, which were frequented by American servicemen. They also set up sex-tourism destinations in East Asia for Japanese men who were earning better incomes after the war and could travel abroad inexpensively based on the strength of the yen.
However, in the 1980s, women’s groups started to protest sex tourism, so the yakuza made a change. Instead of men traveling to have sex with prostitutes, they simply brought foreign women to Japan and set up brothels in red light districts. These brothels are still in business and found throughout Japan.
It should also be noted that sex tourism didn’t end, it just changed. The yakuza now send men out of the country to have sex with children.
As for why Japan hasn’t cracked down on the yakuza’s human trafficking activities, it probably doesn’t hurt that the government that they financially support and campaign for has been in near-constant power for the past 60 years.
3. Host and Hostess Clubs
In Japan, there are bars called hostess and host clubs, where patrons can come and meet a woman, who is called a hostess, or a man, who is a host, and they have drinks and converse. However, the host and hostess clubs have a rather sinister side, as they are either owned by the yakuza or yakuza associated.
According to Jake Adelstein, what happens is that a woman visits a host club to have a “boyfriend experience” with one of the hosts. As they drink, the host encourages the woman to keep buying expensive drinks, for which they get a commission. Sometimes the women rack up huge bills and when they can’t pay, the yakuza may force them to work off their debt, which can be done through prostitution. This can even happen to girls under the age of 18, who are blackmailed or forced into prostitution to pay what they owe.
If forcing women, especially teenagers, into prostitution to pay off a bar debt wasn’t bad enough, the yakuza have a system in place that the women will never work off the debt. For example, they’ll only be able pay off the interest, or they’ll be “invited” to host birthday parties, and then they are charged money to attend the party, which creates more debt.
Essentially, the yakuza makes these women sex slaves because of a night out where they spent a bit too much money.
2. They Are One of the Wealthiest Organized Criminal Syndicates in the World
Besides the sex trade, another major source of income for the yakuza is drugs – especially methamphetamine. The yakuza reportedly account for one-third of the multi-billion dollar East Asian meth trade.
As for how much money the entire yakuza organization makes as a whole, that’s tough to say because there are so many boryokudan, and they are comprised of hundreds of clans. The last figure was from 1989, and it was estimated that they were making about Y1.3 trillion, which is worth about $10 billion today.
There are more recent estimates about how much revenue the biggest boryokudan, Yamaguchi-gumi, generates and it’s believed to be in the neighborhood of $6.6 billion. This makes Yamaguchi-gumi one of the richest gangs in the world.
1. Their Bloodiest War
There have been several yakuza wars over the past several decades, but the bloodiest started in 1985. The roots of the war date back to July 23, 1981, when Kazuo Taoka, who you’ll remember from entry #8, died of natural causes.
The person who would have assumed the position as oyabun was Kenichi Yamamoto, who was the second-in-command. However, when Taoka died, Yamamoto was in prison. So the lieutenants decided to wait until he got out of prison, and then he would lead the gang. But then Yamamoto died from liver failure in prison on February 4, 1982.
With the two heads of the gang dead, the lieutenants voted on who would take on the leadership and elected Masahisa Takenaka. However, like many elections not everyone was happy with the results. In this case, it was a man named Hiroshi Yamamoto.
Hiroshi Yamamoto broke away from the Yamaguchi-gumi and formed his own group, Ichiwa-kai. They kickstarted the war by shooting to death Takenaka and two prominent members of the Yamaguchi-gumi while they were in an elevator. The war led to more shootings, which are incredibly rare in Japan because of strict gun laws, and bombings over the next four years. Things got so bad that Japanese newspapers kept a scorecard of the dead and injured.
The war was eventually won by Yamaguchi-gumi, who had many more soldiers. By the time the war was over, 36 people were dead and scores more were injured. Once the war came to an end, the members of Yamaguchi-gumi elected Yoshinori Watanabe, aka Mr. Gorilla, to be their leader in 1989. Watanabe was considered a strong and intelligent leader, growing membership and profits, but he resigned (or was forced to resign) in 2005 as public heat increased on the yakuza. The current oyabun of Yamaguchi-gumi is Kenichi Shinoda.