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The Yakuza and The Yamaguchi-gumi: Japan’s Organized Crime

“Yakuza” is the blanket name for the organized crime groups in Japan. They developed during the Edo period of Japan, between 1603 and 1868, as a bunch of misfit gamblers and pedalers turned criminals. The term “yakuza” derived from the Japanese words for eight, nine, and three, which is the worst hand in the Japanese card game Oicho-Kabu. This is reflective of their gambling past, and gambling (which is illegal in Japan), along with loan sharking, drug trafficking and prostitution, are still the main ways that the yakuza groups make money. It is said that the oldest continuous yakuza gang, according to author Kazuhiko Murakami, is probably the Aizukotetsu-kai in Kyoto, which was founded around the 1870s.


After WWII, the Yakuza groups got themselves into the black market and started dominating it. Before then, they were “loosely run gambling associations,” until they started doubling down on their business, providing gambling and entertainment, and even managing singers and stars. They then started engaging in extortion, blackmail, and fraud, moving into construction and running real estate, and eventually got into politics. At the current moment, these yakuza groups are not banned, but heavily monitored by Japan due to their presence and the idea that banning them would cause them to go underground, making it harder for them to be monitored.


Yakuza groups, while mostly crime oriented, also run many legitimate businesses, which is one of the reasons the groups themselves aren’t illegal. For instance, they have some control over the entertainment industry and “rule over their empires ruthlessly.” Their influence also is very heavy within “the construction, real estate, currency exchange, labor dispatch, and the IT and financial industries.” Despite their influence in these fields, they also have some political influence, dating back to post-WWII times when “the notorious Yakuza Yoshio Kodama financed the Liberal Democratic Party in its early years.” They are also the last resort in the business world for “crushing labor unions, scandals and finding labor for jobs that no one wants to do.”


Like many gangs, the yakuza groups are mostly composed of marginalized groups of people, such as “the Korean-Japanese whose parents and grandparents were brought into Japan as slave laborers and members from the former outcast class of Japan.” Unlike typical gangs, however, these groups are not so territorial based. They are mostly social based, with a social hierarchy. These gangs do not shy away from publicity and tend to be very public, with “comic books and movies glamoris[ing] them” and “major gang bosses [being] quasi-celebrities.” They have magazines, headquarters, business cards, and even sponsor entertainers. Ironically, these gangs aren’t illegal. They are allowed to exist by law, but their actions aren’t.


Of these Yakuza groups, the largest of them is the Yamaguchi-gumi. This group was founded in Kobe “as a labor dispatch service” in 1915. This quickly changed when Taoka Kazuo joined as a member in the 1930s. During WWII, this organisation quickly fell apart before being brought back to life during the post-war years by Kazuo himself, and then made into a giant cartel that eventually became the powerful group it is known as today. It currently is headed by Kenichi Shinoda.
This group in particular, however, will probably be one of the main players in a possible war of all gangs. During August 2015, the Yamaguchi-gumi split into two groups, with one calling themselves the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi. Other Yakuza groups will have to pledge their loyalties to the new or old group, further dividing gangs and causing conflict. Despite this division, there is hope that the gang warfare won’t spread to the streets, as the yakuza groups value money over bloodshed, thus leading to the possibility of matters being sorted out financially. It isn’t just looking grim for the groups and everyone else there, for Yakuza member numbers are dropping, causing them to hire freelance strongarms. The Yamaguchi-gumi, along with the rest of the Yakuza gangs, have permeated Japanese life to help their membership numbers, but they do not appear to have more than that, never mind acting as institutionally as the Sicilian mafia.