What is the yakuza doing in Japan

Mafia in Japanese | The uncanny power
the yakuza

Tokyo - Custom-made suits, sunglasses and huge, colorful tattoos on the chest and back: This is how you know the yakuza from documentaries and Hollywood films - gangsters of the Japanese mafia.

Its name comes from the Japanese card game "Oicho-Kabu". There the combination of cards 8 (“ya”), 9 (“ku”) and 3 (“sa” or “za”) counts as a worthless hand.

Even the most mysterious secret society in Asia (100,000 members) uses another name, "ninkyō dantai", which means chivalrous organization.

BILD documents how the Yakuza came into being, explains their code of honor, their sources of money - and examines the role Japanese mafia clans play in Germany.

The making of the yakuza

Its beginnings can be traced back to three groups in the Edo period (1603 to 1868): The first group consisted of the Tekiya. They were primarily peddlers, stolen goods and black market dealers. Some were also used as security guards and were allowed to carry weapons; Previously only the samurai and nobles had this right. The second group consisted of (lucky) gamblers, the Bakuto. Back then, games of chance were mostly held in abandoned temples. The third group were street hooligans, theGurentai.

Most modern yakuza clans still identify with one of these groups today. Yakuza, who still get most of their income from gambling, even continue to call themselves Bakuto.

► The oldest yakuza group is the Aizukotetsu-kai, which is said to have been founded in Kyoto in the 1870s.

For a long time the yakuza acted in secret. They had great influence in the 1920s, but this waned over the next decade, as the political leadership secretly prepared Japan for World War II - so the military gained more and more influence.

In 1937 the Japanese invasion of China began. On December 7, 1941, Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor (US state Hawaii) - this led to the USA entering the war.

During the war, the influence of the yakuza was almost non-existent.

The return

After the Japanese surrender on Sept.In September 1945 the Yakuza quickly adjusted to the new conditions: They built up the black market trade and established new smuggling routes.

In 1951 a peace treaty was signed in San Francisco (US state California). An economic boom in Japan followed - the yakuza benefited significantly from it. They focused on gambling and the fast growing real estate industry. Soon, conflicts of interest led to bloody gang wars between rival yakuza groups.

In the 1970s, yakuza groups became more interested in the financial industry. In addition, the "Sōkaiya", the blackmailing of companies, became popular. According to the news site "QZ", 20 percent of Japanese companies are said to have already paid protection money to the yakuza.

The retreat into the underground

In 1992 the state responded with the Bōryokudan law - people who worked for "violent groups" like the yakuza were punished particularly harshly from then on. The yakuza largely withdrew from the public.

In 2011 the laws were tightened again - this time it affected the financial activities of the yakuza. Since then, Japanese banks have been obliged to obtain detailed information about their customers. Yakuza can only keep their accounts under strict secrecy of their activities.

This is how the yakuza recruit members

Thugs, socially disadvantaged people, losers of life: men who want to join the yakuza, the “knightly organization”, come from all levels of Japanese society, including the lower ones. However, some clans require written entrance tests, including general knowledge.

At the head of every Yakuza group is the boss ("oyabun", means father). Most members cut off all contact with their actual family after joining the yakuza. The other members of the yakuza should be addressed as “father”, “younger brother” or “older brother”.

How are Yakuza clans structured?

Yakuza are actually pure male societies. Exceptions are rare: when Kazuo Taoka, the head of the Yamaguchi-gumi, died in the early 1980s, his wife Fumiko took over the management - but only for a few weeks.

On a structural level, the “oyabun” (father) is also called “kumicho” (boss). The "saiko komon" (German: senior consultants) report directly to him.

The “wakagashira” (German: young support) are on the second command level. These people control multiple gangs in one region. A “shateigashira” eventually heads a local yakuza gang.

The tight system makes it almost impossible for investigators to infiltrate the upper structures of the yakuza.

In addition: Key witnesses have to expect reprisals, because there is no such extensive witness protection program as in the USA or other countries in Japan.

The yakuza's code of honor

Should a member of the yakuza make a mistake or bring shame to the organization, there is a strict code of honor.

The culprit is expected to cut off a phalanx with a knife or small sword - this is called "yubitsume" (shortening of the fingers). The first time it is the tip of the left little finger. Then the separated part is handed over to the superior.

Where exactly this ritual comes from is unclear - there are two theories:

• This ritual goes back to the predecessor organization "bakuto". Back then, when someone was unable to pay their gambling debts, the self-amputation was considered a replacement for the money owed.

• The procedure could also originate from the history of Japan: If someone lost part of his finger, it became increasingly difficult to wield the sword - and was dependent on the help of his colleagues.

Although the practice is still being practiced, there is increasing resistance among younger yakuza. Because without finger joints, police officers can easily identify them as yakuza followers. After all, good finger prostheses are now also being offered ...

Another yakuza custom are (full-body) tattoos called "irezumi". The genitals are not spared either.

The motifs often show scenes from the samurai era or nationalist symbols.

These tattoos are done by hand - without any electrical aids. With large motifs, this can take years to complete.

The yakuza do not show their tattoos in public. They wear long-sleeved and high-necked shirts - even in summer. However, if yakuza sit together to play cards with each other, for example, they pull naked to show off their tattoos. Only a few TV documentaries have been allowed to film and show this so far.

Yakuza strips are very popular in the Japanese film industry. Because there the criminals are (often) portrayed as honorable men who (also) help the weak and the community.

In 2006, the software company Sega released a computer game called "Yakuza". In 2017 the newest part came with the name "Yakuza 0" for the Playstation4. The two main characters run business, do additional jobs and fight; it's about honor and advancement in the criminal family.

The main Yakuza criminal syndicates

The headquarters of the Yakuza are not in any backyards or basements - but modern office complexes in the megacities of Japan. Estimates of the number of yakuza members vary widely. Often 100,000 members are mentioned, the British newspaper "Metro" only assumes 60,000.

According to a report by the Japanese Police Department Keisatsu-chō, there were only 39 left in 2016100 Yakuza, reported "New Europe".

In 1991, the Public Security Commissions of the Japanese Prefectures determined that all Bōryokudan groups must register. Three of them:


Harukichi Yamaguchi founded this group in Kobe in 1915 and gave it his name. According to the latest figures, this group can reach 13000 full members and 15000 associate members in hundreds of sub-organizations.

The management level should include around 100 people. According to "Business Insider", the Yamaguchi-gumi are one of the richest criminal syndicates in the world.

Allegedly, the organization makes its profits from blackmail, gambling dens, arms trafficking, (illegal) organ trafficking and forced prostitution.

On April 17, 2007, the yakuza Tetsuya Shiroo killed the then mayor of Nagasaki, Itchou Itou. It was said that Shiroo was annoyed that his car was damaged by city construction workers. Shiroo was sentenced to death in 2008, but his sentence was commuted to life on September 29, 2009.

Since August 2005 the boss of the syndicate Shinobu Tsukasa is.

As early as December 2005, he was imprisoned for illegally possessing weapons. He was released from jail in April 2011.

But the members also break away the Yamaguchi-gumi. From 1991 to 2012, the number of their yakuza decreased by 14 percent to 79,000 members. In 2014 there were only 23,400 members. On August 27, 2015, the Yamaken-gumi from Kobe, Takumi-gumi from Osaka and Kyoyu-kai split from the Yamaguchi-gumi.


The second largest yakuza syndicate is said to be the Sumiyoshi-kai group. A forerunner was founded in 1958 and dissolved again in 1965.

But in 1969 the group re-launched as a union and soon became a yakuza group. Today it is said to have more than 20,000 members. The current head of this group is said to be Shigeo Nishiguchi.

The territory lies in the Tokyo districts of Kabukichō and Ginza - many shops in these areas are supposed to pay protection money to the group.


The Inagawa-kai are considered the third largest yakuza group at 15000 members, divided into 313 subgroups. It is active throughout the Tokyo-Yokohama region.

In 1949, Kakuji Inagawa founded the group in Atami called Inagawa-gumi; In 1972 she changed the name to Inagawa-kai.

She was one of the first groups to be associated with drug trafficking and forced prostitution. It is not known who currently heads the group. The last known boss, Yoshio Tsunoda, died in February 2010.

Kazuo Uchibori is repeatedly mentioned as his successor, but he is said to have close ties to the Yamaguchi-gumi group - and is therefore considered "problematic".

Are the yakuza also modern “Robin Hoods”?

Definitely not. But the fact is: After the Kobe earthquake in 1995 (more than 6,000 dead), the yakuza group Yamaguchi-gumi immediately helped those in need. State aid deliveries came much later.

Even after the tsunami disaster of March 11, 2011 (15,893 dead), it was the yakuza who helped immediately: for example, the Inagawa-kai clan opened its offices and warehouses to many homeless citizens - and sent dozens of trucks with relief supplies to them affected areas. Partly because of this, there was almost no looting there.

The Yakuza Sources of Money

The respective yakuza syndicates have different sources of income.

Some groups specialize in people smuggling. For example, these yakuza lure young women from Eastern Europe, South America or the Philippines to Japan with great promises - and force them there into prostitution or to work in strip clubs.

Others specialize in "sōkaiya" - the blackmailing of public companies:Yakuza gain access to general meetings and threaten to disrupt them or publish explosive internal information. Or they threaten to distribute very well prepared fake news that is difficult to check at the event. Among other things, Yakuza blackmailed the Mitsubishi group in this way, reports "CNN". Four employees were sent to jail because the company paid a ransom. There are also yakuza groups today that have focused on the real estate market.

And there are Yakuza who initially invest legally in “normal” companies. Susumu Ishii, the boss of the Yakuza group Inagawa-kai, is said to have bought shares in a railroad company worth several hundred million dollars in 1989, reports the New York Times. Dozens of Japanese companies are said to have Yakuza as shareholders to this day.

Their code actually forbids the yakuza to get into the drug trade. Some are said to have dared anyway - like the Dojin-kai Syndicate, who mainly operate in the Chikugo region of Fukuoka Prefecture.

No matter what kind of illegal income the yakuza groups have, Japanese authorities pursue all evidence of organized crime. The Japanese embassy in Berlin to BILD: "The Japanese police authorities are doing all they can to remove these violent groups."

Does the yakuza only exist in Japan?

No! According to the US authorities, the yakuza have a large presence in Hawaii, among other places. From there, the mafia is supposed to smuggle drugs to the USA and weapons to Japan, for example.

In California, Yakuza are said to be cooperating with Vietnamese, Chinese and Korean gangs. There is evidence that yakuza are also active in the US states of Nevada, Arizona, Virginia, Illinois, and New York. In New York there is talk of cooperation with the Russian, Irish and Italian mafia.

But the US Federal Police FBI sometimes works with the Yakuza:According to the Washington Post, Tadamasa Goto, the boss of Goto-gumi, was allowed to travel to the USA in 2001 for a liver transplant - in return he was asked to disclose information about actions of the Yamaguchi-gumi in the USA. In 2008 he had to leave the yakuza.

Apparently the yakuza are also active in North Korea. Because in 2003 a yakuza member was arrested there. He had tried to smuggle drugs, as the "Japan Times" reports.

The yakuza are believed to have received large amounts of heroin and meth from Chinese mafia groups in China and Hong Kong. The Yakuza get their weapons mainly from Taiwan and Russia, reports the Global Security site.

But since 2015 the mafia clans have also been experimenting with weapons from 3D printers, according to the magazine “Vice”.

At times there even seems to be cooperation between international mafia gangs: in 1992 the head of the Yamaguchi-gumi is said to have announced closer relations with Russian mafia groups.

► According to "Global Security", all yakuza groups together have an annual turnover of 13 billion dollars.

The political weight of the yakuza

In addition to the criminal activities of the yakuza, there has been tacit cooperation with the “Uyoku dantai” (German: right-wing groups), the right-wing extremists in Japan, for decades.

According to "Vice" there are a thousand of these groups who want to intimidate their political opponents with symbols of the Japanese Empire and loud (marching) music and deny Japanese war crimes.

Forbes magazine reports that some members of the Japanese Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) were former Uyoku sympathizers.

► Amazing detail: In the Amazon series “The Man in the High Castle”, money is more important to the Yakuza than patriotism. In the series they work as spies for the Nazis - against the Japanese Empire.

The yakuza in Germany

So far nothing is known about possible activities of the yakuza in Germany. Carsten Müller, spokesman for the Berlin police, on BILD: "The Berlin police currently have no knowledge of the Japanese Mafia Yakuza."

Similar news is also coming from the south of the republic: Ludwig Waldinger from the Bavarian State Criminal Police Office to BILD: “We have no knowledge that the Yakuza are active in Bavaria. But that doesn't mean that there aren't any yakuza here at all - but they don't become noticeable. "

Perhaps Germany is actually not interesting for the yakuza.

Some Yakuza clans are also changing: Apparently they want to leave the underworld, because according to the "South China Morning Post" a Yakuza boss is considering setting up a private army - and taking on orders for the authorities, preferably in the previous one "Core business" as security guards or bodyguards.

Perhaps these are future quests that other yakuza syndicates could use to say goodbye to the underworld and its illegal activities.

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