Many people are probably intrigued by the idea of the Yakuza, also known as the Japanese mafia. In a country where rules are golden, subservience is rewarded, and violence is highly censored, it’s hard to imagine that its underground (and even above ground!) scenes are rife with gangster activity.
But it seems that it’s because of these social customs that the Yakuza are thriving and are as populated as ever. It’s relatively known that the Yakuza value obedience and control their organisation through strict ordinance.
Whilst the Japanese mafia have a bad social reputation in Japan and people often go out of their way to dissociate with them, they’re actually a lot more active in society than most people know.
We’ve collated some of the most interesting facts about the Yakuza that you will be gobsmacked to know!
1. There is an entrance exam to join the Yamaguchi-Gumi
We’re starting off this list with the most unbelievable fact: there is actually a 12-page exam to join the Yamaguchi-gumi, the largest Yakuza syndicate across Japan!
As of the time of writing, there are more than 100,000 members within the Yakuza. This includes Japanese as well as international members who are split up across many Yakuza organizations.
The Yamaguchi-gumi are amongst the most well-known organisations in Japan. When the government introduced laws to counter organised gangster activity, the Yamaguchi-gumi then responded by creating a 12-page exam that candidates needed to pass to join.
Yes, this is a written test that people actually need to study for!
The purpose of the exam is to ensure that all future members are aware of the current laws, and thus will be knowledgeable on how to make it work in their favour. It’s also to filter out members who may cause trouble for them.
2. Tattoos are the Yakuza mafia’s best friend
Tattoos are a popular method of self-expression and are generally enjoyed by people of all ages across the globe. However, in Japan, they are distinctly frowned upon as they are heavily associated with the Yakuza. Many public facilities such as onsen bathhouses, pools, and leisure centres have rules around people with tattoos entering and using their facilities.
For the Yakuza members, however, full-body tattoos are a symbol of success and commitment.
The traditional roots of Yakuza tattoos stem from the process of ‘irezumi’, where the ink is inserted into the skin by hand using handmade needle instruments. This is a two-step painful process, where the needle causes pain upon entering the skin, but the person will also feel pain from the pigment being injected into the wounds. It’s also quite costly, as it is both time-consuming and tedious.
Through the cost and the time dedicated to getting a tattoo, those with these tattoo arts often proudly show them off, as they believe it symbolises a commitment to the Yakuza lifestyle.
3. Yakuza Facts – A mafia not illegal in Japan
Contrary to popular belief often highlighted by criminal gang activity from around the world and in movies, the Yakuza are actually not illegal in Japan.
In fact, they operate as a proper organisation, complete with offices, business cards, and even magazines!
This stems from a long history of smart and covert operations, law enforcement’s fear of inciting irreparable violence and damage, and the fact that the Yakuza have contributed far more to Japanese society than people actually believe.
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4. Yakuza are heavily involved in corporate blackmail
You may think that Yakuza activity consists entirely of underground black markets and crime, and you’d be wrong. In actual fact, one of the biggest activities they’re involved in, and one that brings in lucrative amounts of money to the organizations, is actually corporate blackmail.
‘Sokaiya’ is the Japanese terminology for corporate blackmail, and it is essentially the act of becoming a main shareholder of a publicly-listed company through buying a large portion of shares. Through this, they are allowed to attend the annual shareholders meetings where sensitive information about the company will be released.
Unlike many other countries where information at these annual meetings is generally released to the public shortly afterwards, this is not the case in Japan. Thus, any information that is provided to the shareholders at this meeting is considered exclusive.
With that in mind, the Yakuza will then use the unreleased information to blackmail the company. Sounds a little far-fetched, but it is an actual practice!
Many Japanese companies have fallen victim to this ‘sokaiya’, however some of the bigger names who have unfortunately experienced it include Mitsubishi and Japan Airlines.
5. Yubitsume, the act of self-amputation
With the Yakuza, pride and commitment to the organization are amongst the biggest values you can uphold.
Thus, if you bring shame onto the organisation through any serious offenses, there will be consequences.
Namely, you will need to self-amputate!
What you will notice with Yakuza members is that many will be missing their pinkie finger(s). If they are to be punished, they will need to slice off their pinkie finger themselves and send it in a small bottle to their superior as an apology.
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6. Sakazukigoto, the initiation process
The Japanese mafia is one of the most hierarchical organisations in the world, with complex layers of superiority involved.
When you first enter the organisation, you will become a ‘konbun’, a subservient member who will answer to their ‘oyabun’, the higher-ranked members.
During the initiation process, there is a ritual called ‘sakazukigoto’, where the recruit will essentially have their first drink with their oyabun.
The recruit will sit opposite his oyabun whilst a drink is prepared for both by other members. The recruit will get a small amount, whilst the oyabun will have his cup filled to the top. Once they both finish their drinks, they will swap and take another drink together, and the ceremony will finish.
7. Disaster response efforts by the Yakuza
Did you know that the disaster response from the Yakuza during the 2011 Tohoku tsunami was even quicker than dedicated relief organizations?
They were some of the first responders to the majorly affected areas, providing aid through food, water, blankets and toiletries to the injured as well as evacuation centres.
That is no small feat!
8. Why the name ‘Yakuza’?
Another interesting Yakuza fact is the origin of the name of this mafia. The name Yakuza is believed to have stemmed from the popular Japanese game Oichi-Kabu. The game is similar to blackjack except the aim is to reach the number 19 without passing it. One of the worst combinations you can get is 8-9-3; ‘ya-ku-za’ means eight-nine-three.
Thus, the word Yakuza epitomizes the ‘good-for-nothing’ reputation that the Japanese mafias have.
9. Yakuza Facts – Female Members
Unlike other gangs around the world, the Yakuza are made up of men. The Japanese mafia follow the social norms of patriarchy, with men dominating the streets and being the main decision-makers, and women taking care of them from behind the scenes.
If you were to witness a woman with the Yakuza, chances are, they’re either married to the mafia or they are related somehow.
10. 1985, the biggest Yakuza war to date
In 1985, the oyabun of the Yamaguchi-gumi passed away from natural causes. The second-in-command was in prison, but it was agreed that upon release, he would take over. However, he also passed away in prison.
Without a clear ascendent, the higher-ups decided Masahisa Takenaka would take over. However, this unprecedented turn of events caused internal unrest, and an individual named Hiroshi Yamamoto planned a coup with his own group, Ichiwa-Kai, to take over.
This internal war did not end well, with Takenaka being shot dead alongside two other members. The Yamaguchi-gumi eventually won out, but not before many others died from the violence of the war.
We hope you enjoyed learning about these super interesting Yakuza facts ! Let us know how many did you know already in the comments.