Yakuza –The winning hand


What do you associate the word, the country to? What is the first word that you instantly thought of, or maybe even mouthed?  Culture? Yes, Japan is very much fond of its quirky (or may I go as far as to say erratic) culture and takes pride in it. Anime? Manga? Oh yes, in fact they form an integral part of Japanese culture.

Let’s probe a little deeper: what themes do their story lines very often revolve around?  Super heroes, detective protagonists with analytical skills ahead of real life ones, teenage romances, space wars, samurais, Yakuzas –just the usuals, right? Well, barring the Yakuzas, yes, probably.

What or who is a Yakuza? The Japanese Mafia –meticulously organized criminal gangs of the country. They’d probably define themselves as citizens of honour and pride with principles which are high, with their heads held even higher; but the police force would say otherwise, something along the lines of menacing gangs of criminals.

The term “Yakuza” draws its roots from Oicho-kabu –a game similar to black jack. Ya-ku-za which means 8-9-3 is considered a losing hand.  But is it really?

The Yakuzas, like any other criminal organization, conduct their illegal activities in a very discreet manner. But here’s the catch: most of their activities today are carried out under a legal banner. Yes, they are a legal and an accepted entity (regulated with increasingly stringent laws, of course). Their level of freedom extends to them carrying out their illegal activities with complete independence, operating in offices in the middle of the town registered under their own name.

The Yakuza, also known as the “Boryokudan,” were influenced by American gangster movies and their mafia –adopting their dress code of black suits and white shirts with cropped hair and dark sunglasses. Their traditional swords were replaced by firearms as well. They thus evolved into their current form sometime in the late 19th century. 

So the Yakuzas are definitely the bad guys, aren’t they? Wouldn’t disagree to that. Then Japan would definitely be better off without them, right? Debatable. The Yakuza’s noble and romanticized views especially regarding honour, loyalty and a meaningful death, has put them in a favourable light in the public’s eyes. This brings us to the main factor which sets them apart from their international competitors –they care about their public image.  To the extent that to this day the country’s mangas and anime series portray them to be admirable heroes, ones to be looked up to. They follow a strict and stringent code of conduct and lead an extremely disciplined life following rituals ranging from body-covering tattoos to chopping off the little finger as sacrifice for disloyalty or dishonestly. Their ethical code of conduct is unparalleled. Being moulded into a Robin-Hood-like character, some major gang leaders are practically given celebrity status in Japanese magazines, besides their glorification in fictional stories. Can this portrayal have some truth to it?

            It may come as a surprise, but the Yakuzas affect the economy in more ways than we know, and not all contribute to cons.

To start off with: the Yakuza is a Mafia at the end of the day; and like any other such band of criminals, would like to monopolize their presence. Criminals, whether big or small are either eventually mobilized into the Yakuza or disposed off, i.e. the possibilities for other criminals are either that of a merger, or dissolution. As such, in essence, the Yakuzas were known to be a major damper on unorganized crime. This practise has drastically reduced petty crime in the country, thus helping law enforcement. Additionally, the Yakuza gangs are known to protect their territory from foreign (to their organisation) bodies. This has further led to Japan being a safe tourist spot. This may be why the tourism industry of Japan has been on the rise with numbers reaching staggering heights and its contribution to the GDP increasing exponentially. Whether their efforts are aimed towards more possession of power or helping the country lower crime rates is irrelevant since results persist.

It may not just be petty crimes that are being kept in check by their presence. Large corporations are hardly off the hook. The practice of corporate extortion or ‘sokaiya’ always has the big brothers on their heels. This practice involves digging up dirt on a particular company, be it sneaking up regarding the director’s mistress, or even illegal means used by the company which went unnoticed by the government. The next step is of course blackmail. The Yakuzas almost always have their way. Upon closer inspection, this isn’t necessarily a bad practice at least from the societal point of view. Companies would prefer to come clean so as to get immunity against such blackmailing. Thus, sokaiya might actually be promoting transparency and reducing corporate malpractices.

A common question righteous men may ask –“Why resort to crime when times are tough?”

Well, sometimes they don’t have a choice.

Members of the Yakuza are usually constituted of either lower-caste members of the society who have been ridiculed throughout their lives or kids who have been abandoned by their parents. This serves as means for inclusion of such members in the society, providing them with a sense of purpose, and they in turn, contribute to certain happenings in the Mafia and on a larger national level too (well, at least in theory).

The Yakuza’s heroic portrayal isn’t for naught. Besides the efforts of the government, the Yakuza has proved time and again their love for their country by indulging in disaster reliefs. During both earthquakes, one in 1993 which levelled the city of Kobe, and the more recent one of 2011, the Japanese Mafia have efficiently aided rescues as well as helped with rebuilding major cities (2011). The latter is suggested to have been an effort towards building their fiscal deposits, but one cannot dismiss its members as barbaric or inhumane after such acts. Besides, the Yakuzas even offered their office as a temporary place for shelter to the victims.

To state the obvious: this organization is very much involved in the business world too. Everything from buying shares to tampering with the market to moving money in and out of the country to making a favoured company rich overnight –the Yakuzas must only pull a few strings to get these done. In 1984, The Japanese Ministry of Finance acknowledged the mafia’s business skills & involvement and in fact asked one Yakuza group for help in chasing away some other gangsters from a chain of Sogo banks. The members were more than delighted to lend a hand since they eventually took over those banks for themselves. In the year 1986, they sold off these banks to the Sumitomo Group, thus being the founders (technically) of one of Japan’s biggest banks to this date. The gangs still hold partial control over it.

            From an ethical, a political and a capitalistic standpoint, the Yakuza is only a cause of harm and threat to Japan. However, it is crucial to estimate and analyze the importance the organization holds from an economic standpoint. Japan is currently deemed the third largest economy in the world. With the Yakuzas being able to influence the economy of their country to such a great extent, it won’t be obnoxious to state that their fall might lead to the country’s economy crashing, which will ultimately affect the global economy drastically too.

The Yakuzas are the heroes of best-selling mangas and might just be the necessary evil of the country.



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