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The Yakusa: Japan's Gangsters

By Lamont-Brown, Raymond | Contemporary Review, August 1992 | Go to article overview

The Yakusa: Japan's Gangsters

Lamont-Brown, Raymond, Contemporary Review

TODAY yakusa mobsters, Japan's equivalent of the Mafia, are more likely to resemble pinstriped sararimen (office workers) than the traditional missing fingered -- punishment signs for promises broken and mistakes made-tattooed gangsters of yesteryear. The yakusa have evolved a new breed of hoodlum who is forging a fresh philosophy of personal aggrandisment and private fortune amassing than their forerunners who bent their wills to the whim of gangland bosses.

As an example of this |go-it-alone' trend, the Tokyo police have quoted the recent attack outside his home of film director Juzo Itami. The director's caustic films include his Minbo no Onna, which offers a disrespectful picture of the Japanese underworld and encourages ordinary people to resist and report increasing yakusa extortion and harassment. Up to now the strutting, proud yakusa have become used to being glamorised on television and at the cinema. Thus Itami's attack is deemed a non-maverick |punishment' by two or three of the young yakusa.

The core of yakusa business still remains the traditional crime outlets. For instance, nearly all of Japan's modern |sex-scene' is yakusa controlled either directly or by inference. Their fiefdom stretches from the alleys to the highest corridors of power. The yakusa are said to be Japan's largest employers, finding work (much of it legitimate piece-work) for drop-outs and criminals. For those willing to co-operate the yakusa operate workers' lodging houses as part of the work package. They are behind much of the smalltime gambling at which the police connive, and run protection rackets, supply heavies for loan-sharks and when they know they can get away with it, dabble in drug-dealing. At the other end of the social scale, it has become a commonplace comment in the Japanese press to link the names of prominent politicians with yakusa operations.

Usually the police know who yakusa members are, where they are and what they are doing. The authorities do not interfere unless the yakusa cadres leave their known territories, jealousy and greed sometimes leading to inter-gang warfare.

The yakusa have a very deep and well-established historical background. As early as the fourteenth century Japan's gangsters have had flourishing cadres, flouting the authority of the feudal administration. A civil protection group grew up in the 1850s and 1860s (late Edo period in Japan's history) which constituted the roots of the modem yakusa. It was largely self-defensive against outside influences.

In current Japanese the word yakusa is interpreted as gambler, gangster or just good-for-nothing. They are readily recognised as social parasites who have evolved for themselves a patina of honourable behaviour. The word yakusa itself comes from the gambling game sammai karuta (|three card') wherein the player has to draw cards to amass a winning total of 19 points; if the player draws, say a ya (8), a ku (9) and a sa (3) they were |bust' or |good for nothing'. Thus the merit of the game was being brave, and the use of the word for hoodlums infers that they are brave to face authority.

The structure of the yakusa hierarchy is based on the medieval system of responsibility within an accepted code of behaviour. They still adhere to an oyabun-kobun (or oyakata-kokata) relationship of oyabun (parent. .. leader) and kobun (child ... follower) with the leader as father. Their philosophy is an amalgam of Neo-Confusian ethics which evolved during the Tokugawa Era (1603-1867) based on the codes of the complicated systems of giri (rectitude/propriety), jingi (benevolence/faith) and ninjo (humanity) within a family group. All this is mixed with the spirit of the samurai.

Until 1868 Japan was ruled by a Shogun (generalissimo) on behalf of an often weak Emperor. A whole assembly of daimyo (feudal lords) administered their own estates, with the say-so of the Shogun, and organised the police.

If the police were corrupt, negligent, or the daimyo failed to provide simple policing duties, the peasants would enlist at their own expense the wandering soldiers known as samurai.

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