The yakuza is arguably one of the most famous and largest mafias in the world. As this Japanese underworld is also surrounded by a number of myths and legends, we decided to compile a list of odd and probably unknown facts about the yakuza.
1. The yakuza originated with two separate groups of outcasts
The first of those groups were the tekiya, wandering peddlers who traveled from village to village, selling low-quality goods at festivals and markets.The second group that gave rise to the yakuza was the bakuto, or gamblers.
2. The Godfather
The man who brought peace to the warring factions and unified the yakuza was the group’s first 20th-century godfather, Yoshio Kodama. After his involvement in a number of scandals including the Lockheed Scandal, Kodama was the target of an assassination attempt by film actor Mitsuyasu Maeno, who tried to fly a plane into Kodama’s house kamikaze style but the attempt failed.
3. Political activists
After the Great Depression took hold globally in 1930, Japanese militarists that opposed democracy and Western liberalism created secret organizations that trained its members in warfare, languages, assassinations, blackmail. The ultranationalism terror that resulted, murdered two prime ministers and two finance ministers and attacked several politicians and industrialists. The Yakuza supplied these groups with muscle and manpower and training. This type of yakuza became known as unyoke (political right).
4. Hundreds of thousands
After World War II, the number of yakuza members increased to about 184,000 (the highest number ever recorded). American troops who occupied Japan after the war saw the yakuza as the biggest threat against their forces.
Katana, the traditional Japanese sword originally used by samurais, still plays an important role in yakuza. A number of people including some prominent politicians and businessmen have been killed with the sword by yakuza. In 1994, for example, Fujifilm vice president Juntaro Suzuki was murdered with katana after he refused to pay bribes.
Yakuza members are notorious for their full-body tattoos. These tattoos, known as ”Irezumi” in Japan, are still often “hand-poked”, that is, the ink is inserted beneath the skin using non-electrical, hand-made and handheld tools with needles of sharpened bamboo or steel. The procedure is very expensive, painful, and can take years to complete.
7. Cutting fingers as an apology
Under yakuza tradition yubitsume is when you cut off a joint of one of your fingers and send it to the Kumicho. This is done as an apology for disobedience. It can be done to atone for a wrongdoing but can also be done to spare one of your “children”. When you have done something that your Kumicho dislikes you take a sharp item, cut off a fingertip, wrap it in paper and send it to the Kumicho and beg for his forgiveness.
8. Few women
The yakuza is populated almost entirely by men, and there are very few women involved who are called “nee-san” (older sister). When the 3rd Yamaguchi-Gumi boss (Kazuo Taoka) died in the early 1980s, his wife (Fumiko) took over as boss of Yamaguchi-gumi, albeit for a short time.
9. Civic duty
When the Japanese tsunami hit in 2011, the yakuza were among the first to head to the affected areas with aid. This is not without precedent, in 1995 when an earthquake hit Kobe, Japan’s fifth-largest city, the yakuza used scooters, boats, and a helicopter to deliver supplies around the clogged streets.