The Yakuza

This Japanese crime organization, known in Japan as boryokudan, is one of the oldest crime organizations in the world. The name derives from a Japanese card game called Oicho-Kabu; the worst hand in the game is 8-9-3, “ya-ku-sa.” The yakuza are regarded as losers in the austere and rigid Japanese culture. For losers, they have enjoyed great success in the underworld of crime. In addition to the homeland, the yakuza have spread across the world from Hawaii to Western Europe. The tattooed gangsters are among the most adept at exploiting new and profitable rackets.

From 1958 to 1963, membership in the yakuza grew an astonishing 150 percent, to more than 184,000 members. The average membership of a Mafia crime family during the Mafia's glory days was never more than a few hundred per family. The largest yakuza gang is the Yamaguchi-gumi, based out of Kobe.

The yakuza tradition maintains that they were once proud citizens of medieval times who defended their cities and towns against marauding bandits that were terrorizing the countryside. The tradition paints them as heroic Robin Hood types. This is not entirely accurate. The modern yakuza really originated in the seventeenth century, when professional gamblers and other miscreants joined forces.

When Japan began to interact and trade with Western culture, it began to experience its version of the Industrial Revolution. Like its American criminal counterpart, the yakuza began to worm its way into the docks. They also began the age-old practice of bribing politicians.

While Al Capone was in effect the mayor of Chicago, halfway around the world the yakuza were terrorizing Japan. Yakuza hit men assassinated numerous politicians who refused to play ball, including two prime ministers.

The Modern Yakuza

After World War II the American forces occupied Japan and established a military government led by General Douglas MacArthur. The lower classes of the defeated nation were living in poverty, and a black market developed for the necessities and amenities that people had come to expect. Just as people in America had to pay through the nose for a shot of booze during Prohibition, the Japanese had to pay inflated prices to the yakuza. The yakuza fared well under the American occupation. The American military disarmed the citizenry but weren't able to disarm the criminal underworld. As a result the yakuza ran roughshod over the law-abiding populace. While the Americans jailed some crime figures, one man was actually working with the intelligence community to combat Communism. His name was Yoshio Kodama and he is recognized as the liaison between the gangsters, spies, and politicians.

Who was the longest serving yakuza boss?

Kazuo Taoka was the boss of the Yamaguchi-gumi from 1946 until his death in 1981 from a heart attack. Following his demise, the streets of Kobe were filled with bodies as different factions fought for control.

As the American influence began to rise in postwar Japan, the yakuza became influenced by gangster movies and turned in their swords for guns and began to wear dark suits and sunglasses. The simple extortion rackets that were prevalent during the black market days gave way to a wide variety of moneymaking schemes from the usual — drugs and prostitution — to the unusual — corporate shakedowns.

Going Straight

Japan began to crack down on the yakuza in the early 1990s with surprising success. A series of laws were passed (and actually enforced) that diminished the yakuza's ability to conduct business. In addition there was a change in the public's attitude. Rather than viewed as benevolent neighborhood protectors, yakuza were being viewed as the criminals they were, bringing out more public scrutiny. Yakuza members began calling the authorities and inquiring about how they could get real jobs. Japanese companies even began to hire reformed yakuza in an effort to encourage more and more of them to go straight.

Like many other groups and individuals before it, the yakuza looks to the “decadent” West as a source of income and base of operations. But their operations here are not as widespread as other Asian criminals. The yakuza are feeling pressure from another Asian powerhouse of crime, the Chinese triads.

One of the major sources of money for the yakuza is the trafficking and distribution of ice, known in America as methamphetamine. The Japanese thugs who deal in this illicit narcotic have turned some section of Japanese cities into slums filled with addicts. The ice merchants have also spread their operations to other parts of Southeast Asia.

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