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Yakuza, the Japanese Mafia

By Miyuki I. Sundara Anthropology 200, Instructor: Carl Hefner, Ph.D.

About a month ago, a Japanese tourist was in the custody of the Immigration Bureau at Honolulu International Airport. He did not do anything wrong or carry any drugs. However, the little finger of his left hand was missing. He was a former member of the y akuza, the Japanese mafia.

The Bureau contacted the Japanese police to check the man's record. You can enter America even if you have a criminal record provided you notify the American embassy in Japan of the fact. Because he didn't want to tell anybody a bout his past, he came to Hawai`i without a visa, like a regular Japanese tourist. However, the Bureau didn't permit him to enter the country because he had hidden his criminal record. They sent him back to Japan the next day. Why is the yakuza so famous?

Several years ago in Japan, a woman who passed by one of the main offices of the yakuza on her way to the shopping mall was accidentally shot and killed by one of their members. This kind of incident happens all over Japan. The yakuza's battles have killed many innocent people who are completely unrelated to the yakuza. Most Japanese hate the existence of the yakuza, and the government there has been trying to eliminate them. Thus far, it has proved impossible because their power is very strong and far reaching, and the yakuza society itself continues to grow. They make money from unlawful trade and business, and use the money to collect weapons to protect themselves from their enemies.

Most of the information obtained for this article comes fr om a former member of the yakuza. He was eighteen years old when he entered one of the biggest yakuza societies in Kobe. He retired fifteen years later, when he was thirty three years old, because he realized how much his occupation was hurting his chil dren. One day, his daughter was given an assignment to write about her father's occupation. When she asked him, he could not tell her that he was the member of the yakuza, so he lied to her. He felt much shame about what he was doing. Finally, he decide d to retire from the yakuza. Most of the stories in this article are from his experiences during those fifteen years.

When I first tried to interview this former yakuza member, he was unwilling. His boss had allowed him to retire on the condition that he not talk to anyone about the group. When he asked about the actual purpose of this paper, I explained that the yakuza had interesting customs which other organized crime syndicates don't have. Also, I explained that it would be interesting to tell Ame rican people about the yakuza from the Japanese point of view. He understood, and agreed to be my informant. It took about ten days to finish the interview. He also wrote a letter which gave the reasons behind the current battle between two famous groups. Fictitious names have been used to keep the real identities secret.

The yakuza is an all men's society. They do not trust women. The only visible woman in the group is the boss' wife, called ane-san. Ane-san means "older sister." All members g ive her the same respect as the boss because she is his wife. However, she does not get involved in the business. Her position in the group is the boss' wife, and not a member of a group.

The yakuza do not trust women because they believe that women ar e weak. They believe that women cannot fight like men, that women are not born to fight. To a yakuza member, the most important thing is courage. If there is a battle, you must be ready to fight to the death, rather than lose the battle. Yakuza members must be willing to die for their boss.

They feel women are born to be mothers and to take care of their husbands. This may sound old-fashioned, but all yakuza members believe that women should stay home and take care of the children and not meddle in men's business.

Another reason the yakuza do not allow women in their organization is that no one can talk about the group to outsiders. The yakuza do not believe that women are strong enough to keep silent if interrogated by the police or their ene mies. If anyone speak out, that will be the end of the group. For all of these reasons, the yakuza are a man's society.

The yakuza have their own unique way of apologizing when they make a mistake, or do something wrong. It is called "Yubizume. " Yubizume is the act of cutting off their little finger and giving it to the person they are apologizing to. This happened to one of the informant's younger members in the group. He fell in love with the daughter of his boss, which is forbidden withou t the boss' permission. They secretly met each other without anyone knowing. They wanted to get married, but they knew that the boss would be against their marriage. Moreover, the boy knew that the boss might kill him because he had broken one of the ya kuza's rules. Eventually they decided to run away, but they were found by one of the members and brought back to the base after two days. The daughter was just scolded by her father, but the young man was commanded to apologize to the boss the yakuza way.

The informant, who was the senior in the group, brought a knife and white string and put them in front of the young man. The young man knew what was expected of him; he did not waver at all. He picked up the knife, held one end of the string between his teeth while holding the other end with his right hand, and tied it around the little finger of his left hand. He took a deep breath, and chopped off the tip of his little finger with the knife. Then, he wrapped the finger tip in a towel and gave it to his boss. The boss did not say anything to the young man, which meant that the boss accepted the his apology. However, the young man was forced to leave the group. Whoever betrays the boss has to leave the yakuza society.

In the yakuza society, if a m ember is jailed for any reason, he gains prestige when he is released from police custody. The informant joined the yakuza right after he graduated from high school. He did not have any power, as he was just a kid. When he was twenty years old, he was wo rking at the bar which the group owned. There was a small room for gambling in the back. Somehow the police found out and raided the bar. The police arrested two customers who were gambling and also two waitresses. The informant and a senior member, who w as the manager of the bar and gambling room, escaped. The police knew the yakuza owned the bar, and went to that group's base to see the boss. They told him that they had raided the bar, but some of his members had escaped, and the police wanted them. T he boss contacted the senior member and the informant to the base. He told them that the police had commanded him to send the man who was in charge of the gambling to the station. He added that he could not send the senior man to the police because nobody else could run the gambling. The informant understood what the boss wanted, and so turned himself in to the police. He was jailed for two years, but he became one of the seniors when he came out.

The yakuza mainly make their living through unlawful b usinesses, such as gambling, drugs, prostitution and loan-sharking. Most of the money comes from gambling, most often from dice games. Each group has its own gambling room, which is usually behind a bar or restaurant. Food and drinks are served, but th e main purpose is gambling. The gamblers are chosen by the group. If they do not know them, they cannot gamble. The yakuza do not want the police to know about their business.

There are several kinds of dice games. The most popular game is cho ka han ka which means odds or evens. The game is very simple, two dice are jiggled in a black bamboo cup and put on a tatami (Japanese mat). Next, all the gamblers bet on either odds or evens, and put the stakes on the tatami at the same time. Th e die thrower then says, "That's all, gentlemen," and everybody has to take their hands away from the cash. Then he says "Play," in a low voice. At that time, he opens the bamboo cup and announces either "chou" or "han." The stakes in this game are very h igh. If the gamblers are all yakuza, they can bet at least ten thousand dollars for one play. Sometimes they make more than a million dollars a day. In a traditional dice game, all gamblers are expected to be professional. When the gamblers come into a room, they do not speak. The only thing that is heard is the sound of money being put down. Even though this is an old style of gambling, many groups still play this game because all the yakuza like to follow the traditional way.

The yakuza also make money from prostitution. They hire young girls whose are younger than eighteen years old. There are many ways to make a profit from this business, but the most popular one is the "date club." Some groups make more than a million dollars a month from this business. The date club is a men's club. There is a membership fee of at least one thousand dollars to join. Most of the customers are the rich middle-aged men, such as doctors, lawyers, and company presidents. Club members are shown young girls' pictu res to choose from, and a date with the chosen girl is arranged. The men then have to pay a fee of about two hundred dollars for the date, and all expenses. After the date, the customer calls the club and tells them whether they liked the girl, and wheth er or not they would like another date. To have sex with the girl can cost at least one thousand dollars. The hiring of high school students as prostitutes is against the law. However, some high school students are willing to work as prostitutes as they can earn much more money than from any other part-time job.

Most of the money that the yakuza make is spent on the purchase of weapons. Each group has its own territory. The territory is very important to the yakuza. When they do business, they cannot break into each other group's territory. If one group tries to break into another's territory it must be protected, usually through violence.

In Japan, the general public cannot have a weapon without a permit, but the yakuza do not respect the law. Many citizens become victims of the yakuza's battles. When they are fighting, each group tries to kill the boss of the other group, because a group without a boss is weak and has no power to fight. For all members, the boss is God. Without him, they cann ot do anything. Whoever wins the battle takes over the group that lost and their territory.

From these battles, one group named Yamada gumi became the biggest yakuza group in Japan. About fifty years ago, this group was small with only eighty members. Now they number over ten thousand. It was very hard for the third boss to control an organization that big, but he was a very strong man, and all the members respected him. Under the boss were eight seniors who had their own groups, which were part of Yamada gumi. Although the seniors respected the boss, the relationship between each other was not good. They were all ambitious men who wanted to become the fourth Yamada gumi boss.

The third boss knew that the seniors would fight after his death if he did not decide who would be the fourth boss. The boss picked a man named Shindo. Compared to the other seniors, Shindo was older and able to control the other members. All the seniors agreed with the third boss's decision. At that time, Shindo was se rving a two-year sentence for gambling.

One year after the boss announced his decision, he died of heart disease. Shindo was still in prison. The other seniors and ane-san (the boss' wife), had a meeting about who would substitute for Shindo until he was released. Ane-san decided to be the substitute until Shindo was released. As mentioned, women are not allowed to be members of the yakuza, but this was an emergency, and her decision was respected by all the members as she was the wife of the former boss.

None of the seniors were against ane-san's idea. However, she did not know how to manage a group of that size, so she picked a senior, Kondo, to be her assistant. This was a mistake. The other seniors did not like her decision because Kondo beca me the nearest man to the next boss. Ane-san had the authority to decide everything about the group, but the assistant was the one who made all the proposals to the management. In their minds, the assistant was more important than ane-san because he could make any proposal he wanted. Kondo was an aggressive and smart man, so he called two seniors and persuaded them into helping him. The two were Yoshida and Kawasaki. Although both of them wanted to be the next boss, they did not have the power to fight fo r that. They decided to take the side of Kondo and help him.

Unexpectedly, Shindo died in jail. Ane-san strongly recommended Kondo, her assistant, but four seniors did not agree with her. Tada, the oldest senior, said that he would fight if he could not be the next boss. The other three seniors backed him up. Tada formed a new group with other three seniors. He named the group Eishin kai, Yamada gumi was now divided.

Kondo finally became the fourth boss of Yamada gumi. He wanted to get all Eishi n kai's members back to Yamada gumi. Tada however, wanted to make Eishin kai the biggest yakuza group in Japan. Both of them wanted to be the boss of the biggest yakuza group. This started a bloody battle.

Both groups had many subsidiary groups. These subsidiary groups started to fight all over Japan. At least ten members were killed. Ane-san tried to stop both Kondo and Tada from fighting, but it did not help. She did not have power anymore.

One of the Eishin kai subsidiary bosses was ordered to k ill Kondo, which they did outside his condominium. Yoshida who was the senior of Yamada gumi took Kondo's place and became the fifth boss of the group. However, the battle between Yamadagumi and Eishin kai was not over. The informant told me that it was impossible for them to settle their disputes because neither of them wanted to compromise. In this particular battle, at least three citizens were killed by the yakuza.

It is easy to see why the yakuza are so famous in many countries, and feared and ha ted by many people. The yakuza do not follow the law. They also have illegal businesses, and have had many battles which have killed innocent citizens. This continues to be one of the biggest social problems in Japan.

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