Japan’s violent crime syndicate that operates outside the law. Here are 8 frightening facts about the largest criminal organization in the world.
8. Cutting off pinkies
When entering a terrifying organization like the Yakuza, you should expect to be exposed to a lot of harm, not just from enemy gangs, but from your own members as well. Failure is often not tolerated, and you should expect more than just detention. The Yakuza practice plenty of bizarre rituals, but are most known for Yubisume, or the act of cutting off a section of one’s little finger. This is done as a form of penance, as a means of apology, or punishment. The transgressor will then present their severed pinky to their boss. This also serves as a symbol of pledging one’s loyalty. Sometimes an underboss may even do this in penance to an upper boss to apologize for the mistakes done by his underlings. The origin of this bloody ritual comes from the samurai’s traditional way of holding a katana. The Japanese sword is held tightly by the lower digits, so removal of their little fingers would lead to a much weaker grip. Unable to properly defend themselves, the warriors would then have to rely more on their leaders, thus reducing individual action. It is also for this reason that anime and manga characters in Japan are usually drawn having full digits, compared to many Western cartoons. When Bob the Builder was introduced in Japan, the character’s hands were almost changed to have 5 fingers each instead of 4, in order to not give the idea to children that he’s involved with the Yakuza. Number
7. Full body tattoos
Another bizarre and painful Yakuza ritual is full body tattoos. This practice is known as “Irezumi”, and has a rather long standing in Japan’s history. It evolved from being used for ritual and status purposes, to becoming a form of punishment in order to brand criminals. Tattooing was eventually outlawed in the Meiji period as the Japanese government was trying to protect its image and maintain a good impression on the West. However, the practice continued underground, and although legalized after World War 2, has continued to retain its image of criminality, particularly practiced by members of underground organizations like the Yakuza. Tattooing among Yakuza members usually involves the entire body, including genital regions. Rather than utilizing modern electrical methods, they usually have their tattoos hand poked with needles of sharpened steel or bamboo. This procedure not only takes years to complete in order to cover the whole body, but is also painful and expensive, but serves as a necessary rite of passage in becoming part of the organization. It is also for this reason that most Japanese citizens avoid getting tattoos for fear of being mistaken as Yakuza members. Another gruesome fact is that these heavily tattooed skins are sometimes peeled off the corpses of dead Yakuza members to be displayed in galleries and sold on the black market.
6. Corporate Blackmail
The Yakuza are known for all sorts of crimes ranging from human trafficking, rigging sumo matches, and firearm deals. But one of their biggest fortes is corporate blackmailing. Compared to Italian mafias who usually extort small businesses for “protection money”, the Yakuza practices their own unique extortion method, with a specialized faction known as the sokaiya. The sokaiya would typically blackmail large corporations and conglomerates, usually focusing on stockholder meetings. They would obtain the rights to attend the meetings through stock purchases, and then scare other stockholders with their presence. The sokaiya also dig up all matter of dirt on business leaders; be it secret love affairs, illegal deals, or other scandals. The targets would then have no choice but to pay up in this position. Executives caught in Sokaiya related scandals often have their public images and reputations damaged permanently. One of the biggest sokaiya related scandals ever was the Mitsubishi scandal in the late 90s, where yakuza members gained access to their shareholder meetings through stock acquisition. Under threat of having compromising information being leaked, the corporation was forced to pay the yakuza up to 13 million yen. Refusal to bow down to their demands could lead to death, as what happened to the Vice President of Fujifilm in 1995, who was cut down with a katana for refusal to pay bribes.
5. Heirs to the samurai
Some people actually consider the yakuza as the true heirs to the no longer existing warrior class of feudal Japan known as the samurai. The reason for this theory is due to some obvious similarities between the two groups when compared side by side. Both yakuza and samurai are organized into a strong hierarchical system that is based on honor and subservience. They have a strong sense of tradition and great pride in what they do, and at the same time regard violence and murder as necessary, and an often effective way of getting things done. The yakuza also use a katana – the sword once wielded by the samurai – as their choice of melee weapon.
4. Political involvement
The Yakuza have always been involved in Japanese politics, and the two have a long intertwined history. The Liberal Democratic Party of Japan which has dominated the country’s politics for over 60 years is said to have received ridiculous amounts of donation money from the Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s largest yakuza organization. This is due to the organization’s leaders supporting the nationalist right wing party. It is also said that a number of high profile politicians have been proven to have had links with the yakuza, including ministers and even prime ministers. This actually bodes well for both parties, as the yakuza get to meddle in politics within legal boundaries, while politicians get to employ yakuza members for any shady and illegal activities without getting their hands dirty. In 2012, Japan’s justice minister, Keishu Tanaka, was forced to resign his post when it came to light that he had links to the yakuza. But even without having their people placed in positions of political power, the Yakuza can still directly use extortion techniques as they do with business corporations, in order to get their way, and have a direct influence in the country’s lawmaking. It is also rumored that the yakuza is able to manipulate outcomes of elections by guaranteeing specified amounts of votes for any candidates they prefer to win.
3. Their true size
One of the most terrifying things about the Yakuza is their true size and extent of influence. After the second world war, it was reported that the total number of yakuza members had increased exponentially to about 184,000. This equates to about 1 yakuza member for every 2 police officers. This is the most members to have been in the organization at any one point, and was perceived as a threat by the American forces following their occupation of Japan. That number has dwindled down over the years, but their numbers are still reportedly to be over 100,000. Also, the yakuza has grown from a local Japanese organization into an international crime syndicate, as their branches have reached other countries such as China, South Korea, and most notably the United States. They are known to operate mostly in California, Nevada and New York, where they have put down roots and made alliances and partnership deals with the Italian mafia, Korean and Vietnamese gangs, as well as Chinese triads. Their activities here are mainly centered around money laundering, firearm and drug dealings, prostitution, and organized gambling rings. But their criminal activities on American soil is mostly centered on Hawaii, as the islands serve as the perfect midway station between Japan and mainland America. This is helpful for their smuggling operations between the two countries. In 2012, President Obama froze the assets of the Yamaguchi-gumi in America in an attempt to stop the Yakuza group from doing business there.
2. They hate being ridiculed
It is quite a well known fact that the greatest mafia film of all time, the Godfather, never once had the word “mafia” mentioned throughout the entire film. This is mainly as an attempt to not upset the real mafia, who initially opposed the making of the film. At the Japanese side, the Yakuza also doesn’t take things lightly when it comes to being depicted badly on film. In 1992, famous Japanese film maker Juzo Itami released “Minbo”, a satire film which made fun of the yakuza. In it, the gangsters are depicted as dumb bullies who grunt a lot and hang out in large groups, who at the end would eventually be outfoxed by an intelligent female lawyer, played by Itami’s own wife. Dissatisfied with the film, the real yakuza attacked Itami, slashing him on the face and shoulder, leaving the film maker with a large trademark scar on the face. Apparently that wasn’t the end of it. In 1997, the 64 year old Itami jumped eight stories down to his death from the roof of the building he lived in. It was publicly ruled as suicide, but strangely Itami’s wife was put under police protection from the yakuza. An American journalist and crime writer named Jake Adelstein had a different story. According to a source, he said, the yakuza Goto-gumi clan were responsible for both the knife attack and Itami’s jump to death. Under the orders of their leader, Tadamasa Goto, the gangsters had gone to Itami’s house and forced him to the roof at gunpoint. They had then given him a choice between taking a bullet to the head, or jumping off the building, which the latter had a slightly higher chance of survival. So Itami jumped, thus creating the perfect illusion of a suicide.
1. Yakuza wars
The yakuza is known for violent rivalries between different gangs, and these rivalries would sometimes spiral out of control into full-on gang wars. The worst yakuza gang war ever was the Yama-Ichi war that took place in Japan from 1985 to 1989. It stemmed from a succession dispute in the Yamaguchi-gumi, which is Japan’s largest and most dominant yakuza clan. A splinter group named Ichiwa-kai was formed by a disgruntled lieutenant who failed to inherit the Yamaguchi-gumi’s top position. He then ordered the assassination of his former gang’s leading figures, which was carried out through a shooting inside an elevator. The Yamaguchi-gumi vowed revenge, igniting a bloody four year war. Things got so terrible that a daily local newspaper started putting together a score card listing down the deaths and injuries inflicted upon the 2 gangs on their front page. In the end, the Yamaguchi-gumi won a costly victory, since too many of their members ended up in police custody. Another more recent yakuza war was the Dojin-Seido War between 2006 and 2013. This was caused when a group of about 500 men broke off from the Dojin-kai group, forming a new gang called the Seido-kei. The splinter group would then form an alliance with the Yamaguchi-gumi, the main rival of their previous group. This new affiliation led to a bloody 7 year war, which involved the use of military machine guns, hand grenades, bombs, and shots exchanged during high-speed car chases. Both sides suffered heavy casualties, and one innocent civilian died from gunfire. The war officially ended in 2013, with both sides issuing a public apology, and the Seido-kei dissolving itself.
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