A Look Inside The Japanese Mafia: The Yakuza

Being a part of the yakuza in and of itself isn’t a crime, even with criminal ties there remains buildings and companies that are known to be run by the yakuza.

“Good For Nothing”

Most of us have heard of Al Capone, the Italian mob boss whose tendency towards violence resulted in the public execution of his rivals in what would become known as the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929. The bloody slaughter earned Capone the title of “Public Enemy No. 1.” His escapades continued to strike fear into the citizens of New York up until his death in 1947.


The infamous crimes of the Italian mafia have fascinated us for decades, we see the influence of the mob in our favorite action films and video games, however, one specific mob organization manages to remain under the radar a little bit better than the rest.

During my research on South Korea’s illegal tattoo scene, I noticed that a lot of the disdain and rejection of tattoos in Korean society is from the correlation between tattoos and gang violence, more specifically the yakuza.

Yakuza or bōryokudan (“violent group”) is an umbrella term for Japanese organized crime, a.k.a the country’s mob. Instead of being one large collective, the yakuza are split into 21 designated crime groups, each with its own code and agenda. It isn’t uncommon for the factions to engage in gang warfare.

They have been known to have ties to smuggling, drug trafficking, prostitution, gambling and day-labor contracting.

yakuza tattoos
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The word yakuza (“good for nothing”) is allegedly derived from a useless hand in the Japanese card game, Oicho-Kabu, similar to the card game: Blackjack.

You could argue yakuza like to think of themselves as the worst possible combination.

Yakuza practice samurai-like rituals and often bear intricately colored tattoos, having a tattoo is considered a symbol of wealth among the yakuza, they also signify the man’s toughness because the traditional tattooing practice can be excruciating and last hours.

The yakuza’s hierarchical structure also mimics that of the samurai, they both value obedience and “honor,” and use violence to accomplish their goals. Their social order is organized into a pyramid, the kumicho, is at the top of the family (Godfather figure.) Below this patriarch is his lieutenants and underbosses. The bottom of the pyramid consists of gang members. The yakuza are bound to one another through the sacred oyabun-kobun relationship, like that of a master-apprentice relationship or even a father-son relationship. The oyabun provides guidance and safeguard, in return the kobun offers his undying loyalty and obedience. Any member of the yakuza can be both oyabun or kobun, they are subordinate to those ranked above them and they are master to those ranked below.

The Modern Samurai

modern samurai
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Many yakuza claim that their history goes back centuries and that they are descendants of rogue rōnin (masterless samurai) gangs, this has not been proven, however, the oldest surviving yakuza gang, Aizukotetsu-kai in Kyoto, was founded sometime in the 1870s.

In Feudal Japan (1185-1603 CE) the samurai were elite military warriors who were the bulk of Japanese armies in the medieval period. The legend of the ancient samurai has found their place in entertainment throughout the world, they are admired for their honor and loyalty.

The criminal organization is also known to use the traditional sword of the Samurai, the Katana. When the yakuza want to perform a rather flashy or high-profile murder, the Katana is often used as the weapon of execution. A famous yakuza assassination that used the Katana was Juntaro Suzuki, the vice president of Fujifilm, who was murdered in 1994 for refusing to accept a yakuza bribe.

In the beginning, the yakuza were considered small time criminals whose most severe crime was running gambling dens. Everything changed once World War I ended. The yakuza fed off the upheaval that the war had left in its wake. Their rise started slowly, first operating black markets and entertainment (they managed some of Japan’s most popular post-WWI stars) and leveled up to real estate and construction, using extortion and blackmail to achieve their goals. Finally, the yakuza found their way into politics.

The yakuza tend to favor Japan’s Right Wing Liberal Democratic party (LDP), the group has held power in Japan almost since its inception in 1955, thanks to the yakuza.

During WWI human trafficking became a sanctioned operation creating a huge problem in Japan. The country’s human trafficking industry grows and persists to this day, and most are operated by the Japanese mafia.

As of today, the yakuza are still active although preferring to remain under the radar, don’t mistake it for hiding. Being a part of the yakuza in and of itself isn’t a crime and even with their criminal ties they still have buildings and companies that are known to be run by the yakuza. Their massive empire has dwindled in the past years but their power and influence over Japan hasn’t shrunk in the slightest. If you’re planning a trip to Japan, the likelihood of you ending up in a sticky situation with a Japanese gangster is low but that doesn’t mean they aren’t out there.

Now they just prefer to don business suits instead of gang tattoos. 

Allison Hinrichs

Content Editor Associate

Hailing from Minnesota, Allison is a vegetarian, meditating yogi who practices a conscious lifestyle. An adrenaline junkie at heart, she has gone rock climbing in Germany and surfing the waves in Mexico. She is a keen reader who loves to learn, as long as it’s not math. And she has hopes of discovering “the secrets of the universe” by exploring the globe, experiencing other cultures, and finding a variety of different perspectives.

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