What do you think of when you hear the word Yakuza? Many people on this side of the Pacific kind of get a blank look—the concept goes right over their heads until you say, “You know, the Japanese Mafia…” and then suddenly: recognition! Explaining the Yakuza as the “Japanese Mafia” is also apparently an acceptable way of describing the crime syndicate in the American press; I don’t know why. It could just as easily be argued that the Italian crime syndicate (most commonly associated with the word mafia) is the “Italian Yakuza,” except the Italians “were here [in the USA] first” (or whatever); but, I digress.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Yakuza than GTO, Gungrave, Gokusen, Texhnolyze, and Black Lagoon can give you, or if you’ve played Yakuza and are curious about the tendency toward full-body tattoos, I suggest starting with Wikipedia and working your way up from there. (The Yakuza 3 game trailer is here, by the way.)
Two good introductory books are Confessions of a Yakuza, which is a book by Japanese doctor and author Junichi Saga that recounts a series of stories from the life of Eiji Ijichi, a former Yakuza boss, as told to his doctor in the last months of his life, and Yakuza Moon (also here), which is a memoir about a woman born to a man who was the leader of a gang linked to the Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s largest Yakuza syndicate. (The picture of Shoko Tendo, Yakuza Moon‘s author, is shamelessly stolen from beconfused.com with my thanks.)
The Yakuza tattoo—the tell-tale sign of a member—are so detailed and extensive that they often take years and multiple sessions to complete. According to IllegalEconomy.com,
There’s no room for individuality in traditional Japanese society. In a country where uniformity is valued above all else, you have to keep the rules—or keep out.
The tattoo was and is a way for syndicate members to show their individuality—at least to other members. The picture at the top of this page, for example, shows the tattoos of six Yakuza members. As you’ll notice, none of their faces are marked, and the tattoos stop at the neck and wrist. Since conformity is so highly prized in Japan, syndicate members must give at least the appearance of compliance. Yakuza gangs were first formed in late 1600s, when Japanese men still wore kimonos regularly. Since the kimono opened down the front, members would also leave the middle of their chests bare so that no part of their tattoo(s) could be seen unless they allowed it.
In February 2007, Japan Visitor Blog reported:
Yakuza (organized crime) membership was estimated at 84,700. Full-time members, 41,500; part-time members, 43,200. The first time ever part-timers have outnumbered full-timers since records began in 1958.
The top 3 Yakuza crime syndicates are:
Yamaguchi-gumi (Kobe-based) approx 21,000 members
Sumiyoshi-kai (Tokyo-based) approx 8,000 members
Inagawa-kai (Tokyo-based) approx 5,000 members
Yakuza, the word itself, literally means “no points” or “useless” and comes from a card game called oichokabu. In this short Q&A, we learn that Yakuza is a bastardization of “893” in Japanese (‘yattsu‘, ‘ku‘, and ‘san‘):
The name `Yakuza’ meaning Japanese gangsters comes from “893” (`yattsu’, `ku’, `san’). This name originates from a card game called `oichokabu’, which is usually played with a deck of `hanafuda’… (A normal deck of cards can also be used if the Kings, Queens, and Jacks are removed and the Aces are regarded as 1). A player’s score in this game is decided by adding the scores on several cards and using only the smallest digit. So because 8 + 9 + 3 = 20 = 0 points, “8-9-3” means “no points”. So the original meaning of `yakuza’ was “no points” or “useless”. Later, this meaning changed to “useless people” or “gambling people”.
Yakuza-Mafia at Blogspot also has some interesting information, including rituals and more history. If you know how to speak Japanese (or just want to curse at your unnecessarily loud neighbor, Yakuza style), you can learn more about gang dialect here.