Japanese Mafia – The Crime Library
-oil salesmen, worked the fairs and markets while the
worked the towns and highways.
, by contrast, modeled themselves on American gangsters of the Al Capone era, using
threats and extortion to achieve their ends. After World War II, in the governmental power void caused
by the Occupation, the
prospered, and their ranks swelled. They also brought organized crime
in Japan to a new level of violence, replacing the traditional sword with modern firearms, even though
guns were now officially outlawed in the country as a result of the surrender.
The yakuza are proud to be outcasts, and the word
reflects the group's self-image as society's
rejects. In regional dialect
means 3, numbers that add up to 20, which is
a losing hand in the card game
(flower cards). The yakuza are the "bad hands of society," a
characterization they embrace in the same way that American bikers prominently tattoo the slogan "Born
to Lose" on their biceps.
Japanese tattoo artist with Yakuza gang member (CORBIS)
Yakuza members also favor tattoos, but theirs are elaborate body murals that often cover the entire torso,
front and back, as well the arms to below the elbow and the legs to mid-calf. Naked, a fully tattooed
yakuza looks like he's wearing long underwear. Dragons, flowers, mountainous landscapes, turbulent
seascapes, gang insignias and abstract designs are typical images used for yakuza body art.The
application of these extensive tattoos is painful and can take hundreds of hours, but the process is
considered a test of a man's mettle.
To a Westerner's eye, the yakuza's 1950s rat-pack style of dress can seem comically retro. Shiny tight-
fitting suits, pointy-toed shoes and longish pomaded hair—long out of style in America—are
commonplace among the yakuza today. They also favor large flashy American cars, like Cadillacs and
Lincolns. Unlike other organized crime groups around the world, the yakuza have no interest in keeping
a low profile. In fact, in most Japanese cities, yakuza social clubs and gang headquarters are clearly
marked with signs and logos prominently displayed.
But despite their garish style, the yakuza cannot be taken lightly. In Japan there are 110,000 active
members divided into 2,500 families. By contrast, the United States has more than double the
population of Japan but only 20,000 organized crime members total, and that number includes all
criminal organizations, not just the Italian-American Mafia. The yakuza's influence is more pervasive
and more accepted within Japanese society than organized crime is in America, and the yakuza have a
firm and long-standing political alliance with Japan's right-wing nationalists. In addition to the typical
vice crimes associated with organized crime everywhere, the yakuza are well ensconced in the