Yakuza are often compared to Mexican drug cartels or dark organizations of the underworld. But beyond appearances, the Yakuza are much more than that. We see that the Yakuza theme is frequently handled in popular culture. In these media, the Yakuza are portrayed as a ruthless, powerful, and fearsome group. The scariest details most people know about this community are the quirky tattoos and shortened little fingers. So what is the Yakuza known as the “Japanese Mafia”? What is the dark community Yakuza serving? What are their blood-curdling traditions? We look at the details together.
1. The ritual of shortening the fingers, which is punitive, is called ‘Yubitsume’
One of the most prominent practices associated with the Yakuza is a form of punishment called ‘yubitsume’. This tradition, meaning finger shortening, began as a punishment idea used by Japanese gamblers or bakuto. Yubitsume; carried out when the offender is ineligible for exile or execution, but when the person has committed a serious crime. In other words, it is possible to say that this practice is designed to weaken the perpetrator and make the criminal more dependent on his boss. Yubitsume usually refers to the self-cutting of the upper joint in one’s pinky finger. In some cases, criminals apply this future on their own without leaving it to the members of the organization, and they believe that this is a method of apology. Tadamasa Goto, a former Yakuza member, summarizes this situation as follows: “I couldn’t go and apologize. I have a pride. Instead, I cut off one of my fingers and brought it to Kawauchi as an apology.”
According to the data reached, the yubitsume application is no longer as common as it used to be. But data from 1993 show that 45% of Yakuza members do not have at least one knuckle. On the other hand, 15% of these people state that they have experienced the ritual two or more times. As noted by Goto, the loss of an entire finger, shuniyubi or a yubitsume called dead finger.
2. Women cannot join the Yakuza
Another interesting anecdote about the organization is that Japanese women are not allowed to join the Yakuza. French photographer Chloé Jafé expresses her desire to photograph and document the lives of women married to Yakuza members. To do so, however, he needed permission from a Yakuza boss. After Jafe announced his intentions to someone in the organization, he “recognized my determination and gradually opened the doors to the secret world of the organization.” uses the expression. According to Jafe’s observations, women could not officially become Yakuza, but it was clear that a woman who married a Yakuza member was definitely part of the group.
So what kind of life do Yakuza wives lead? She explains that Yakuza wives live like most housewives in Japan, but that their special devotion to their husband’s connections depends on their status in the organization. The leaders’ wives serve as advisors to the organization and manage finances, although they often act as an intermediary. Women also get tattoos similar to male Yakuza tattoos, but according to Jafé, “they are more like armor and protect them.
On the other hand, women do not show their tattoos like the male Yakuza and when they join the organization it is very difficult to leave. The statements of Shoko Tendo, the daughter of a yakuza member, sums up the situation: “While I hated my father’s behavior… I became like him”. Expressing that she has adapted to her life of violence, drugs and turmoil, Tendo adds: I had a hard time as a gangster girl, but when I looked back, I realized that I couldn’t live my life any other way. I am proud that my father is a Yakuza. I know that the Yakuza is a world that is not suitable for women. But I must remind you that I have my father’s DNA.”
3. Members can tattoo their genitals
One of the interesting rituals of the Yakuza is the strange tattoos that the members of the organization have on different parts of their bodies. Members can wear beads and get tattoos on their genitals. It is believed that this tradition demonstrates their loyalty to the organization and their ability to endure pain. Tattoos once associated with punishment confirm a tradition dating back to the third century. Yakuza tattoos often take years to complete and are costly, i.e. thousands of dollars. Members’ tattoos are located on non-public parts of their bodies. He should tattoo the hips and, in some cases, the genitals. Another body modification act practiced by Yakuza members is the placement of small beads and pearls under the skin of a man’s genital area. Each bead or pearl has a meaning. Each of these pearls represents a one-year prison sentence.
4. The ‘Sake ceremony’ means a lifetime commitment to the Yakuza for members
Sake is a drink made from rice and grain powder. If you have broken your oath of allegiance after drinking sake, then you should quietly leave the group and go straight on. The Sake ritual is actually a Yakuza-specific devotion ritual. Sake symbolizes blood, and the drinker and other members of the group form a bond that will last a lifetime. This ceremony has a great importance in terms of religion and culture.
5. In their popular era, the Yakuza had over 180,000 members
In 1963, the Yakuza are known to have roughly 183,000 members. The data before this census remains a mystery, as data on criminal organizations in Japan were not available before 1958. However, what is known is that membership has been on the decline since the early 2000s. For example, the organization had around 25,900 members at the end of 2019. However, as Yakuza expert and journalist Jake Adelstein noted in 2017, the Yakuza are actually “not disappearing – they are transforming”.
A former Yakuza boss explains: “Yakuza is a franchise. You pay your association dues on time to borrow the strength and threat of the group. Fear is making people pay you. But if you can’t use the name or symbol, why should the fear remain? It’s like running a McDonald’s without using the gold belts. It’s much better to cut expenses and leave. So at the end of the day, we don’t disappear, we just restructure.”
6. Being a Yakuza is defined as ‘a performance’ and is considered special
In Yakuza patriarchy, which reflects Japanese society as a whole, the “oyabun” (leader) acts as a patron as well as a parent figure. Under Oyabun, kobun actually seen as a child ie apprentices. The Oyabun-kobun relationship binds all Yakuza members and includes certain responsibilities. One former Yakuza kobu describes some of the advice the oyabu gave him: “He told me that when you became a Yakuza, people were always watching you. Imagine yourself on stage all the time. It’s a performance. If you’re bad at the Yakuza role, you’re a bad Yakuza. “Performance” has some rules when it comes to foreigners. If you ask what is one of the most important things for the members, I would say to keep their tattoos secret. This is disrespectful to a Japanese society that frowns on getting a tattoo. Japanese tattoo artist Horiyoshi III’s point of view describes this particular performance as: “Beauty is in what you cannot see and is kept hidden.”
7. Although the Yakuza word means “loser”, the members see themselves as Robin Hood
The origins of the Yakuza name reflect the story of the group’s foundation. Consisting of three separate parts, “ya, ku and za” means useless” or “born to lose”. However, when you break it down into words, it becomes “eight-nine and three”, so named for a losing hand in a popular card game called hanafuda, which is comparable to blackjack. Yakuza grew out of a gambling and peddling culture in Japan that dates back to the 18th century. However, members see themselves as rooted in a much older tradition. Yakuza members find themselves connected to the early days of the Muromachi and Edo periods. They advertise it as part of the ninkyo dantai or “Knight organization”.
8. The initial split between the organization led to a fierce civil war
The largest Yakuza subset is the Yamaguchi-gumi. Nearly 100 years after the Yakuza’s founding, the Yamaguchi-gumi organization split into two separate factions in 2015. Although the organization would later split into three smaller groups, Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi founded his own organization. The main result of the first partition was a fierce civil war that lasted more than five years. Authorities in Japan formed an extensive agency to suppress the violence that erupted during the Yamaguchi-gumi war. Officers patrolled near schools, collectively arrested members of both groups and watched over the “Rebellion” faction’s headquarters in Kobe. However, despite everything, they could not prevent assassinations and violence.
9. Yamaguchigumi, the largest organization within the Yakuza
The organization launched its own website in 2014. The purpose of this website was explained as helping to purify the nation. When the website was first launched, it ran anti-drug messages.
10. Yakuza launched its first magazine in 2013, called ‘Yamaguchi-gumi Shinpo’
A special 8-page magazine was published to “communicate goals and policies” for the approximately 27,000 members of the Yamaguchi-gumi group. The published magazine also featured poetry and plays, an article by Yamaguchi-gumi boss Takayama, and a story about fishing. According to journalist and Yakuza expert Jake Adelstein, the magazine aimed to show the public that Yamaguchi-gumi is an ancient organization that preserves traditional Japanese values.
11. Kodama raised the power of the Yakuza after WWII
Yoshio Kodama, II. He was a political revolutionary before World War II and spied for Japan on the Chinese borders throughout the conflict. In addition to collecting information for Japan, Kodama has amassed a fortune through back-channel operations, acts of violence, and connections to the Japanese underworld. According to a CIA report, Kodama was known as the blood brother of a number of Yakuza. But in the late 1940s, the CIA commissioned Kodama to track a person in Asia. Thus, Kodama, with the CIA and Yakuza by his side, became a “highly influential, secretive man in conservative and financial circles” in the 1960s. Acting as an intermediary between the Japanese underworld and the legitimate authorities, Kodama gained a reputation as a popular mobster.
12. California and Hawaii have the strongest Yakuza populations in the US
Yakuza similarly arrived on the islands in the late 20th century, with Japanese tourists flocking to Hawaii at an increasing rate. The first members to reach the islands set up massage parlors and bookstores, as well as restaurants and shops. In the early 1990s, it was estimated that more than 30,000 people in Hawaii had ties to the Yakuza. Yakuza were particularly active in California compared to other parts of the USA. In 2018, the federal government took action against Yakuza organizations for their involvement in money laundering and drug trafficking. Let us remind you that Yakuza still maintains its traditions today, although it does not have as large a crowd as it used to be.
What do sex cults serve with their blood-curdling worship? If you are curious about the details, you can take a look at our content of 8 Sex Cults With Thousands of Followers Despite Their Extraordinary Belief Systems.