Yakuza, the Japanese mafia


Emblematic figures of terror and nightlife, these dangerous members of the Japanese mafia are known as yakuza.

The word Yakuza originated more than 400 years ago under the Tokugawa shogunate. "Ya" means eight, "ku" means nine and "za" is the equivalent of three. What does this sequence of numbers have to do with organized crime? Well, the term yakuza comes from a Japanese card game that was very famous at that time. The ya-ku-za was actually a losing combination. This is why, by extension, this word designates the outcasts of society.

Discover the history, organization and activities of the richest mafia in the world.

Origins and history of yakuza

The origin of yakuzas dates back to the Edo Era. According to a first theory, yakuzas are the heirs of bakuto and tekiya. The first ones ruled the gambling and animated the fairs and the second ones were itinerant merchants of junk. These two families brought together all the dregs of society. From their ancestors, the members of the Japanese mafia have kept some rituals such as the practice of tattooing and cutting off fingers.

yakuza and gambling

Another hypothesis, supported by the crime syndicate, is that the yakuza are the noble descendants of the machi yakko (city servants). Around 1603, many masterless samurai or ronins became bandits. They were called kabuki mono, which means "fools" because of their random violence towards the people and their extravagant style. The machi-yakko were the opponents of the kabuki mono. In order to improve their image, yakuzas like to pretend to be children of machi-yakko, fervent defenders of the weakest. However, according to scholars, yakuzas are rather descendants of kabuki mono.

Clan organization and rituals

The Japanese mafia resembles the Sicilian mafia in terms of its organization. It is a large family composed of clans and controlled by a pyramidal and patriarchal hierarchy with filial bonds. The great chief, known as the oya, is the protective father of the whole family. The new members represent the "children".

Yakuza clan

© Jiangang (Getty Images)

Heirs of the bushido, the code of conduct of the samurai, yakuzas have kept certain rituals such as the traditional Irezumi tattoos. Seppuku or hara-kiri, commonly practiced by samurais in the past, also extends to yakuzas in case of very serious offences. The practice of yubitsume, which consists in cutting off one's little finger in case of failure to perform one's duty, is not unusual and explains why many yakuzas no longer have all their fingers. Originally, this self-mutilation made it more difficult to carry a sword and thus weakened the yakuza.

The new yakuza members participate in an integration ceremony called Sakazuki. During this ritual, the participants are dressed in a kimono. The Oya and the new yakuza exchange a sake cup. This cup will become symbolic of the family bond. When a yakuza gives back his sake cup, this means that he is definitively excluded from the clan.

The tattoos of the yakuza

The very colorful patterns cover an important part of the body, generally the back, the buttocks, the thighs, the torso and the arms. However, some parts are left naked, because the Irezumi needs to be able to be completely hidden by clothes. Thus, the face, hands, feet and a vertical line in the middle of the torso remain uncovered.

Tattooed yakuzas

© Fred Dufour (Getty Images)

Originally, tattooing among the yakuza was an initiation rite for new members who proved, through this ritual, their courage and loyalty. Like nobles who carried coats of arms, yakuzas tattooed themselves as a sign of clan membership. The motifs represented the strengths of the yakuza such as the determination (Koi carp), the courage (tiger), the power (dragon) or the symbol of a fleeting life (cherry blossom).

The activities of the Japanese mafia

Intimidation and blackmail are common means of pressure used by the yakuza in order to achieve their goals.

Racketeering and financial speculation

Did you know that one of the yakuza's favorite activities is racketeering? Members of the Japanese mafia particularly target large corporations. They demand monthly taxes of feudal origin called tithes, in exchange for their protection. Some even take shares to exert their influence on the company's board of directors. The proportion of Japanese companies affected by this racket is huge, as it is estimated that about half are victims.

Mafia members are also involved in real estate and stock market speculation. It is not for nothing that they are suspected of being responsible for the economic crisis of 1990...


© Lorenzo Moscia

Drug and arms trafficking

Drug trafficking is undoubtedly the most lucrative activity of the yakuza. Even though the law is very strict when it comes to drugs in the Land of the Rising Sun, these networks remain extremely powerful.

Arms trafficking is also a frequently practiced activity among the yakuza. Members buy weapons in neighboring countries and sell them for much more money in Japan.


Gambling has been part of the Japanese yakuza's business for centuries. It dates back to their ancestors (the bakutos) who already were brilliant in this field. Pachinko, a sort of pinball machine combined with a slot machine, is a particularly popular game in Japan. So much so, that it represents the 3rd national leisure resource after restaurants and tourism.

yakuza and Japanese society


The yakuza also control a part of the illegal immigration by feeding prostitution networks and by taking advantage of the labor force of illegal workers. They are also very involved in the sex industry...


The influence of the crime syndicate is such that the mafia has seized political power ever since the end of the Second World War.

Yakuza in fiction

The yakuza is a powerful and fearsome character who is widely represented in Japanese cinema. Japanese mafia movies even became a genre of their own, called " yakuza eiga ". Similarly, video games and manga did not wait to enter the dark world of organized crime as well.

movies about yakuza

The Japanese mafia is undoubtedly the largest criminal organization in the world. As dangerous as cunning, it has terrorized the Japanese population for centuries. However, the yakuzas tend to disappear since their number is estimated at 50,000 today whereas they were 180,000 in the 1960s.

Cover image: Kenichi Shinoda, leader of the largest yakuza gang, the Yamaguchi-gumi, in Tokyo, April 9, 2011. JIJI PRESS/AF

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