The Japanese mob, known internationally as yakuza (it’s both singular and plural), refer to themselves as ninkyō dantai, "chivalrous organizations," a moniker not without merit. They are bound by strict codes of conduct and organized under a feudal-based system.
Although they are notorious for engaging in criminal activity, they have also been known to use their vast organization to quickly assist society at large in times of crisis.
Immediately after the Kobe earthquake, for example, the Yamaguchi-Gumi, whose headquarters are in Kobe, swiftly provided disaster relief services, including the use of a helicopter. This was frequently highlighted by the media and contrasted to the much slower response by the Japanese government.
Again, after the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, the yakuza again provided aid, opening their offices to refugees and sending dozens of trucks with supplies to affected areas. For this reason, many yakuza regard their income and hustle (shinogi) as a collection of a feudal tax.
Besides their criminal activities, which range from racketeering and gambling to prostitution, drugs, illegal weapons sales, financial fraud, protection racketeering and the construction business, they are known for two striking customs.
One custom is to cover much of their bodies with extensive tattoos. Because tattoos are associated with yakuza in Japan, many spas and bathhouses refuse people with tattoos to prevent their patrons from feeling intimidated.
The second is making amends for an offense to a superior by cutting off the tip of the small finger of the left hand at the top knuckle. This custom goes back hundreds of years when swords were the way of settling differences or gaining power. Because the sword is gripped with two hands, the loss of a joint, starting with the tip of the left-hand pinky, weakens the balance and grip strength. A lower boss may also perform this self-mutilation to avoid retribution on his group for some offense.
Although there have been more crackdowns in recent years, the police have mostly left the yakuza alone as long as they stayed on their turf and their common activities. After all, many yakuza organizations have been around since the nineteenth century, mainly fight with each other – not the general public – and are accepted by society to the point where they are one of the mainstay groups in local festival processions.
So what’s happening now? In 2015 the Kobe Yamaguchi group broke off from the main Yamaguchi clan. Still a huge organization, second only to the main Yamaguchi syndicate, it seemed to be thriving and growing.
Recently, however, two members of the Kobe Yamaguchi-Gumi were caught trying to steal groceries at a mall in Nagoya. The men attempted to walk out with a shopping basket stuffed with198 items worth $680. One of the arrested men lamented that they had to steal “so that the group would survive!”
As go the yakuza, so goes Japan? What do you think?