by Victoria Chemko







            The Japanese yakuza is a criminal network that can be compared to many others; yet it involves a number of unique customs that set it aside from the rest. The yakuza take on family-like roles, similar to other criminal syndicates throughout the world, but they do have some unique distinctions that set them apart.  They were once known to be gamblers, peddlers, warriors gone wrong, and bandits among many other things, and have been alleged to be in existence for over three hundred years.  Legend has it that the original yakuza had Robin Hood-like qualities and served both shoguns and municipalities.  The Japanese gangsters are present in numerous places, and have been said to be weaker and stronger at different points in history.  Estimates are probably low, but some say that from the period between 1945 and 1996, cycles have occurred where fluctuation has ranged within 80,000 to up to 110,000 members.[1]

            The organization became as it is today approximately during the late 1800s under Toyama Mitsuru, the son of a Samurai.  He was the founder of the Genyosha Society (Dark Ocean), and shortly thereafter, his top aide, Ryohei Uchida, founded the Amur River Society (Black Dragons).  These groups began to take over enterprises in prostitution, gambling, liquor distribution, entertainment, and also moved to the less traditional areas for gangs, such as to construction and dockside labour.  In the 1960s and 1970s, a significant move was made to the drug trade, and more recently, firearms and other contraband trade has taken off. 

            The Japanese yakuza have been known to be connected with Chinese Triads, both the Sicilian and American Mafia, Colombian drug cartels, Jamaican Posses, and various other crime syndicates around the globe.  These organizations retain a significant role in the popular culture and history of Japan, and have been found useful in many ways to a variety of citizens, being associated to many politicians, bureaucrats, and corporate elite.  As a result, they seem to be somewhat accepted as a part of everyday life there.  Importantly, they are active on the international scene, and not just where Japanese people are present.  They are beginning to infiltrate various other regions of the world, becoming more and more sophisticated in the process.  As the world is undergoing the process of globalization, the yakuza have managed to adjust to the changes that are continually occurring and even overcome them to a certain degree.  While many of their activities are known, there are certainly many more that have been kept below the surface under the eyes of law enforcement officials.  Also, their deep connections with elite businesspeople and politicians throughout the world makes it even more difficult to reduce their presence and authority over daily life in various sectors.  They must be dealt with sufficiently to help reduce their influence over aspects of everyday life in various regions of the world – specifically, where they have strong linkages with the rest of East Asia and in Latin America.



A Historical Background


            The word yakuza is derived from numerals in the Japanese language – ya represents eight, ku means 9, and za is three.  When added together, eight, nine, and three equals twenty, which is a number that represents an instantaneous loss in the traditional Japanese card game called oicho-kabu.  Oicho-kabu is similar to the American version of Black Jack, but a player is hoping for a score of 19, not the more familiar 21.  Therefore, if a gambler is dealt a hand that equals 20, they are automatically out because they have gone over the desired hand.[2]  That is where the name becomes symbolic, since when broken down into its parts, the word represents someone who is an outsider, or nobody, or a person that just does not belong.  Thus, the yakuza includes anyone who is a part of some type of Japanese organized crime, usually known to be an outcast of society.  They are generally from poor and/or criminal backgrounds without any strong base of familial stability.

            The yakuza have been rumoured to be in existence since before even the Sicilian Mafia came to be.  Hearsay of the origin of these Japanese gangsters dates all the way back to 1612, with the Kabuki-mono, or ‘crazy ones.’  An individual of this nature usually wore clothing that stood out from the average attire of citizens in Japan at the time, and they also had hair cut in a long, unruly fashion, that complemented their poor behaviour.  Kabuki-mono carried long swords that legend has it were tested for sharpness when new by killing an innocent victim without so much as a backward glance.  After becoming masterless samurai – better known as ronin – the warriors began to group together and work in unison to perform various robberies and pilfer various villages and towns throughout the country.  Because of extended times of peace, the number of kabuki-mono increased when shoguns and samurai underwent massive unemployment as a result.  These small, organized groups were also known for their vulgar slang and their groups also had highly unusual names, such as Taisho Jingi-gumi, which is translated as the All-Gods Gang.[3]

            However, the yakuza claim to have their origins in a different group of outsiders – the machi-yakko, or city servant.  In comparison to the kabuki-mono, these individuals were less trained, not as well equipped, and weaker, but would help to protect the common people from the earlier gangsters.  As a result of their enterprises, they considered themselves as a Robin Hood of traditional Japan, which was just exacerbated by legends passed along throughout the nation.  Recently, an event that exemplified their Robin Hood qualities was during the Kobe earthquake on January 17, 1995 – the worst one to hit Japan in over 70 years.[4]  The Yamaguchi-gumi clan was witnessed acting to help out victims before the Japanese government was even able.

            Since the majority of men-turned-yakuza are initially from unstable, poor, criminal backgrounds, obtaining membership into a criminal organization in Japan, which is structured like many other underworld syndicates, such as the Italian Mafia, may be believed as greatly beneficial to the individual.  Entering into such an organization allows for an elevated sense of belonging and stability, where disturbed persons are able to access help with their problems and gain safety and protection.  The only condition for becoming an official yakuza clan member is to promise deep loyalty to the head of the organization.

            The current yakuza organization did not form until the middle of the 1600s.  They were either gamblers (bakuto), or street venders (tekiya).  Members protected one another no matter what the circumstances.  In fact, they would do whatever necessary and asked for by their superiors even if it would be an action taken directly against their own blood-related families. 

When industrialization commenced in Japan, the yakuza followed along with the trend and recruited extensively from sectors that were in line with industry, such as from construction, dockside labourers, and rickshaw workers.  At that point in time, gambling was on the decrease, so there was not much of a presence of bakuto.  However, the tekiya thrived, since most of their activity was seen to be perfectly legitimate, even though most of the workings were occurring beneath the surface.  Slowly, a strong interest in policy followed, and as a result, various associations were formed with politicians and bureaucrats.  In addition, cooperation started between the yakuza and law enforcement officers in the hopes of having the increased ability to get away with more illegal activities with a reduced watch on any activities.

By 1925, a more democratic system was adopted in Japan, which was a drastic change from the Emperor-ruled history within the country.  At this time, men were given the right to vote and parties began to quickly spring up.  Ultra-nationalism resulted to counter the more liberal democratic tendencies infiltrating the island nation originating from the Western world.  Some Japanese citizens faulted these Western ideas for the persistent economic depression that lasted from the late 1800s until the 1930s.  To protest the modern notions, various organizations were created where members were trained in warfare, languages, assassination, blackmail, and other such activities that were considered to possibly be advantageous to revert the situation to the way it was in the past.  After this period, a number of prime ministers and finance ministers were killed, and various politicians and industrialists were attacked.  The yakuza were responsible for providing some of its members in order to help the organizations train and undertake their activities.  This type of organization was called the unyoke, which means the political right.[5]

During the US occupation of Japan following the Second World War, American troops felt the yakuza were their greatest threatening force.  Food rations were handed out to soldiers, and this action resulted in the growth of the black market and increased resources and power for the criminal organizations.  At that point, another type of yakuza called gurentai, or street hustlers, began to flourish.  They were known to perform robberies within the black market that had emerged at the time. 

Shortly thereafter, foreign influence from American movies and other such outside sources had a hand in causing the yakuza to begin wearing black suits, white shirts, black sunglasses, and have their hair cut short.  Instead of swords, they started to carry firearms and became more violent and stronger.  More and more innocent civilians were becoming unfortunate victims of their activities.

It has been estimated that around 5,200 gangs were in existence in Japan during those years.[6] Infighting amongst gangs over struggles for power and territory ensued, but they are rumoured to have ended by the hand of a man named Yoshio Kodama – likely the most powerful crime boss of Japan, who has been compared to Al Capone of the United States.  He was hoping to unite all of the Japanese gangs that were in existence into one organization that finally became known as the Yakuza.[7]


                The organization of the yakuza is fairly simplistic.  Anyone in the world is eligible to become a member, where access to websites for online ‘application’ is currently becoming increasingly easy with the advent of the Internet.  The boss normally becomes the ‘father’ of the group, and his fellow members become brothers.  Membership not only provides a feeling of belonging, but also provides money, power, and status.  No prerequisites are required – a yakuza must solely be loyal and strictly abide by the men in positions of senior authority. 

            Yakuza have traditionally viewed themselves as helpers, as mentioned earlier with the allusion to Robin Hood of England.  Before the court system even existed in Japan, people were known to go to the local yakuza to have disputes resolved as long as they provided money for the services.  However, the resolution was usually much harsher than if one were to approach legal authorities instead.

There are two types of yakuza – the free individuals and the clan members.  The so-called free yakuza are individuals that are just outcasts in society and are not a part of any sort of group or tied to any organizations.  They do not usually commit any serious criminal acts, but are instead just common thugs.  Free yakuza are not offered any sort of protection and cannot safely operate within clan territory.  The clan members, however, are those men who have chosen to become a part of one of the most sinister and successful criminal organizations in the world, second only to the likes of the Italian Mafiosa according to some.  Clan yakuza are known to get rid of freelance individuals if they are suspicious or understood to be causing somewhat of a threat.  At times, if the clan does not want to take on a criminal activity itself, it will hire freelancers to do the dirty work instead.  Sometimes, they are also used as scapegoats.  Some free yakuza can become part of the clan organization later if not killed first.  The best freelance gangsters will form their own clans, but seeing the strength of the opposition, this does not happen often, if at all.

            The clan, more specifically, is hierarchically structured, much like that of the traditional Japanese family.  The oyabun, or oyaji, is likened to a father, with the wakashu as his children, and kyodai as his brothers.  All members must give oyabun utmost obedience in return for his protection.  He is considered an all-knowing ruler, like that of a tyrant that has complete control over a society.  The saiko-komon is the advisor of the oyabun, who has a staff of advocates, accountants, secretaries, and advisors.  The boss of the children, or wakashu, is the waka gashira who is sort of a middleman who oversees that all of the orders given by the oyabun are being fulfilled.  In regards to level of authority, he is considered second only to the father.  Within the wakashu, there are sub-groupings of gangs that they lead.  In these sub-groupings, it is possible to move up the ladder, as in comparison to promotion within corporations.    Thus, the clan is like a large organization with several gangs subordinate to it.  The boss of the kyodai, or brothers, is called shatei gashira.  He is of a higher ranking than the waka gashira, however, he does not have the same level of authority.  In turn, the kyodai have their own ‘children’ or younger brothers, known as shatei.  Following that, the shatei also have sub gangs.  Overall, the members of the sub gangs are answerable to their immediate leaders, but the oyabun, of course, has ultimate authority.

            A table has been provided on the following page for quick reference to the actual organizational structure of the Japanese clan yakuza.


Chart 1: An Interpretation of the Organizational Structure of the Clan Yakuza













As mentioned earlier despite the above chart, various sub-groupings can continue on, one underneath another, to an unlimited potential.

            Another classification system has been noted by Harry Johnson.  His interpretation of the organization of the clan yakuza is as follows:

1.      Oyabun/Oyaji – godfather

2.      Anego – wife

3.      Nidaime – heir of oyaji

4.      Kumin – member

5.      Chinpira – hooligan

6.      Teppoudamabullet, or one who risks his life by being in the front lines during a direct battle or fight with the oyabun.  A ‘bullet’ will also be known to incriminate himself at times to take the fall for his leaders.[8]


Thus, it is difficult to say how exactly the Japanese mafia is organized.  However, these roles that Harry Johnson has mentioned could be incorporated into the organizational structure identified previously.

            There are several major syndicates that are currently thought to be in operation.  The largest of these organizations is believed to be the Yamaguchi-gumi.  It was ruled by Kazuo Taoka for 35 years until his death of a heart attack in July 1981.  He was a friend of Yoshio Kodama.  After this occurred, the clan became chaotic because there was no longer any official boss that could be decided upon and there were over 12,000 members to maintain.  After Kazuo’s funeral, his wife, Fumiko, surprisingly took over his role, temporarily, until future agreement on the boss could be reached.  This was quite significant since women were never placed into key roles of the organization, and even if in prominent positions they were kept behind the scenes anyway.  The expected permanent successor, Yamaken, died of cirrhosis of the liver after getting out of prison, so much disarray and confusion followed.  At that point, there were more than 103 Yamaguchi bosses for the more than 500 gangs that existed.  Much infighting continually occurred, and the Japanese police arrested many top leaders as more of their activities were revealed through all of the chaos. 

Masahisa Takenaka was then elected as the new boss in a landslide victory, but his opposition, Hiroshi Yamamoto, would not cede to Fumiko’s request for his leadership to ensue.  Fighting then followed with the Inagawa-kai syndicate, but the Yamaguchi-gumi has still remained the largest in Japan today.  The other main gangs in the country that are currently operating are the Sumiyoshi-rengo, the Motokyokuto Aioh, the Inagawa-kai, the Ichiwa-kai, the Matsuba-kai, the Nippon Kokusai-kai, the Dai Nippon Heiwa-kai, and the Toa Yuai Jigyo Kumiai, among many other less significant groups.[9]


Unique Customs

Tattoos are a customary practice familiar to the yakuza of Japan. They are usually made up of flowers, dragons, samurai warriors, and other such emblems that signify the badge of the clan to which one belongs, and they run from the neck all over the body to the calf.  Tattooing originates from the bakuto, or gamblers, who usually marked a black ring around each arm to represent each crime that that person had committed.  Over time, it began to symbolize strength in that the practice takes a very long time and is very painful in the process.  Previously it was known to be a symbol of rebellion, but currently it has become to just show clan membership.  More recently, the custom has become less popular because of the time spent and pain incurred to obtain them.

Another tradition that makes the yakuza unique with respect to other underworld organizations around the globe is something called yubitsume.  This custom is performed if a yakuza is searching for penance from his oyabun, to apologize for an act of disrespect or disloyalty.  It is also carried out by one who is willing to sacrifice himself and spare one of his children from death or some other type of harsh punishment.  Yubitsume is the act of cutting off the smallest finger to the joint – it is supposed to cause a decreased ability to hold a sword well.  Traditionally, the deed was accomplished with the use of a very sharp sword; however, in more recent times, yakuza in this situation are increasingly beginning to use a hammer and chisel instead to reduce the amount of pain induced.  The finger is then wrapped up in paper and sent to the leader in the hope of receipt of forgiveness.  If disobedient acts continue, the next smallest finger is chopped off and so on.  Over time, if a yakuza carries out too many disloyal deeds, he will likely be killed or taken care of somehow.  Yubitsume originated from the bakuto gamblers who were not able to pay back their debts.  It was also a way for others to visibly be wary of the individual because of any missing digits representing failure to carry out certain duties.  Even today, some men can be found to be missing at least one of their fingers as a result of this process.


Effects on Domestic and International Relations


            The Yakuza is a large criminal organization that is well known for its links to both Japanese and international business, as well as to influential politicians within the domestic sphere.  Yakuza are known for their ties to many other organizations throughout the world – both legal and illegal in nature.  There has been increasing evidence that the underground syndicate originating in Japan has been spreading its influence in various sectors of the economy to supplement the organization’s income and adapt to the globalizing world.

Domestic Relations

            A large scandal that occurred in Japan that revealed the potential for connections between the Japanese mafia and influential politicians of the island nation involved former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita.  Takeshita passed away from respirator failure on June 19, 2000, at the age of 76. Afterwards, his aide Shin Kanemaru admitted that the yakuza were sought after for help in keeping quiet an ultra-rightist group that was responsible for harassment of Takeshita in 1987 during the election campaign.  Takeshita resigned his position in June of 1989 when scandals of corruption involving various businessmen and politicians were brought to light.[10]

            The yakuza have been hit hard by the recession that has fallen on Japan, as well as by a law regarding tougher gangster control measures that was passed in 1992.  The law resulted in making it more difficult for gambling and corporate extortion practices – the organization’s traditional sources of income – to occur.[11]  However, ironically, they have been a part of the intricate web of the problems of the serious bank bad-debt crisis that is currently contributing to the continuation of the recession that has persisted since the end of the 1970s.

            Last April, in 2001, during the annual Cherry Blossom Festival in Japan, a meeting took place in Tokyo in the presence of an American economist and an American investment banker.  The economist was speaking with utmost urgency, in that in the year 2000, a group of former FBI and other US law enforcement agents uncovered a pattern of yakuza and bank and corporate cooperation of domination over the Japanese economy.  The topic at hand during the meeting was that of the yakuza as constituting one of the most significant obstacles to the resolution of the debt crisis, above and beyond their roles in various other illegal activities that occur daily in the country.  In fact, retired police chief and a former head of the National Police Agency Raisuke Miyawaki coined the term ‘yakuza recession’ in 1992 to describe the situation. Japan has been undergoing economic stagnation for over a decade. While other factors that would normally be assumed to have a role in the creation of the problem have definitely contributed to the debt crisis, Miyawaki has said that approximately “half of the bad debts held by banks in Japan may not be recoverable because of involvement of yakuza and political corruption.”[12]  It may be questionable whether or not these allegations are credible because of the overwhelming nature that they portray.  However, there seems to be quite a lot of evidence that supports that these statements actually retain some value and are not just useless statistics.

            Former American lawmen that are currently working at US financial institutions located in Japan are concerned that the yakuza might cross over into the global arena with their dealings.  Some say that even now, around US$50 billion may have been pushed into the financial markets of the United States alone. 

Over the past couple of years, over six hundred investigations have been performed by investigators for US investment banks in Japan that found the yakuza in nearly every sector of the country, including in the construction, entertainment, and trucking industries, even to operations involving anything from chemicals to hospitals.  There have been indications that almost 50 percent of companies in Japan are somehow either correlated to, working with, or even fully controlled by the Japanese mafia.  These corporations are believed to have possibly been borrowing from banks and then funneling the funds to the gangsters in amounts equivalent to an astounding $300 to $400 billion US dollars.[13]

            There were previously held assumptions that the yakuza were the ones to approach the bankers, but it really turned out that events happened the other way around.  After WWII, enormous amounts of borrowing occurred so that industries could become competitive with the West.  However, by the 1980s, the financial banking rates were poor, so banks were beginning to look elsewhere, namely to international capital markets.  There was such a significant loss in loans, that banks were pursuing new borrowers, and in particular, they went to the yakuza to increase their portfolios.  The son of a gangster boss and author on various books on the subject, Manabu Miyazaki, said that as activity spread through the grapevine, many illegitimate organizations joined in so that they would be able to gain access to legal businesses.  It became too late for the banks to reverse this problem by the time they realized what was actually happening.[14]

              Often, the banks lent to front companies of the yakuza, which are also known as kigyo shatei.  Sometimes, they even lent directly to crime bosses – for around 10 years, until his death in 1991, Susumu Ishii, head of Inagawa-kai, was able to borrow a lot of funding from financial institutions in Japan.  The money was funneled into twelve different companies, making up a total of 38.4 billion yen, or US$300 million.[15]  From there, it is possible that some of the funds went to crime-free sectors, such as health care and hospitals; however, the majority was likely invested in stocks and property.  Miyazaki said that banks encouraged the buying of stocks and property by yakuza at inflated prices by paying out commissions and promising to find buyers who were willing to purchase some goods at an even higher rate.  As he stated, “normal people wouldn’t get involved in such schemes, so the banks grew reliant on the yakuza.”[16]  Overall, the lenders were happy, and the gangsters were increasing their profits as a result of the schemes.

            Next, though, came the burst of the bubble economy.  There is an old underworld saying: okane wa nai, kubi wa nai, meaning you have no money, you have no neck.  As a consequence, there were many suicides that followed.  Also, several incidents have mysteriously occurred following the trying times of bad-debt repayments.  The Vice- President of bad-loan collection at the Hanwa Bank in Wakayama Prefecture east of Osaka was shot by a gunman in 1993.  Then, in 1994, the Vice-President at Sumitom Bank in Nagoya was also shot and killed.  Since 1997, seven Japanese men investigating the problem and some who were near to testifying also died under illegitimate circumstances.  Next, in September 2000, Tadao Honma, the former director of the Bank of Japan, was found dead in an Osaka hotel room.  Two weeks previous, he had become the president of Nippon Credit Bank, which became bankrupt and had lent to the Japanese mafia.  Police called it a suicide and no autopsy was ordered ultimately, even though suspicious circumstances were noted, along with a witness to the incident.  Bankers do not know whom to turn to for protection anymore. It has also been alleged that the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is heavily involved in the situation. 

Besides its usual underworld activity, there is also much corruption within the political sphere.  However, there are conflicts of interest of politicians, bureaucrats, and other ruling elite that has made the problem even more difficult to resolve.  Many are hesitant to confront yakuza involvement because of heavy reliance on them for campaign funding and for getting rid of rivals.  For example, in 1999, Eichi Nakao of the LDP was arrested for accepting bribes from Wakachiku Construction in Tokyo in order to receive public-works contracts for the company in return.  During questioning, he admitted to accepting the money.  This is not unusual, and charges have been laid against many politicians during recent years.

Conflicts of interest also occur within individuals of the bureaucracy.  They are poorly paid in comparison to those in the private sector, and when promoted to top positions, will take over the jobs from their seniors, causing many of them to be unemployed and searching for work in their early 50s.  Usually they end up working for companies they oversaw previously, which is known as amakuduri, or descent from heaven.  This ends up contributing to problems of corruption in Japan.  Retired police officers are also poorly compensated, so they will take work at companies that they had previously investigated.  Since this is a strong possibility, these enforcement agents may not be as hard on organized crime and have been involved in many bribery schemes.  This has also been seen among many prosecutors and judges.  The Japanese media as well fear mentioning yakuza connections because of bribery and protection for the establishments they represent.

In addition to all of their other illegal activities, the import of foreign women into Japan has been occurring since the beginning of the 1970s, in what is known as ‘white slavery.’  The prostitutes are acknowledged by the Japanese as Japayuki-san, and are brought in from countries throughout Southeast Asia, and also allegedly from various other regions of the world, including Western Europe and South America. The yakuza do not mind being involved in such activities because the money is said to be quite good, and if they are caught, the penalties are not nearly as bad as if for gun or drug-related crimes.  However, the problem had gotten so bad in Japan that the police started a specialized organization to deal with the Japayuki-san workers at the beginning of the 1980s.[17]


International Relations

            By the late 1960s and early 1970s, the yakuza expanded en masse beyond Japan.  They started by going into the Pacific Rim to extend their daily operations that resulted in fulfillment of extravagant incomes.  Even in the 1920s and 1930s, during the intense period of ultra-nationalism, this trend was arising.  At this point in time, the yakuza joined with rightist groups such as the Black Dragon Society, which cause many problems throughout mainland Asia.  Also, during the Second World War, they went into China and “helped pillage the continent, paying special attention to the opium trade.”[18]  In the early 1960s, the yakuza had not moved into the international scene in the proportions that other underworld organizations seemed to be doing at the time.  They chose instead to remain mostly within Japan, which was then undergoing its major period of economic growth.  As a result, the Japanese economy was seen as sufficient for yakuza activities and moneymaking processes to occur.  By the early 1970s, however, this all changed, when the gangsters made their first external move into South Korea.

            The Japanese invaded and occupied Korea for 40 years until they were defeated by allied forces in 1945.  However, by that time, hundreds of thousands of Koreans had already been transported into Japan to do forced labour.  After the war, a large number of these Koreans became members of their own organized gangs that later got absorbed into the larger yakuza syndicates.  Unlike the majority of Japanese institutions, the yakuza have accepted Koreans into their ranks, acting in line with their traditional practices of incorporating outsiders of society.  The great amount of alienation that has occurred over the years has created favourable conditions for many Koreans to turn to the yakuza.

            Later on, Hisayuki Machii, alleged to be the most powerful Korean yakuza in Japan, played a significant role in bringing the Japanese organization into South Korea.  It was apparently difficult to establish the connection between the gangsters in the regions because of the lack of any prominent crime syndicates there that were in any way comparable to the Japanese counterparts.  The state has been said to be too secure and has not allowed for such organizations to evolve, so small crime rings have arisen instead.  South Korea, considered an economic leader in the Asian region, has been a prime location for yakuza connections to be formed.  Also, Korea is the center of their drug trafficking activities, especially in methamphetamine, or what is known to the Japanese as shabu or white diamonds.  Much of the drug manufacturing occurs in shops set up there.  There are many amphetamine abusers in Japan, which is probably partly a byproduct of the fast-paced lifestyle in Tokyo, and some citizens feel that it is necessary at times in order to help them keep up with the pace and to prevent from any lagging behind in the competitive city.[19]

            The sex slave trade was another industry that began to flourish during the sixties and seventies.  There was so much extra cash left in people’s pockets from the economic boom that many Japanese men would go to large prostitution centers “on prearranged three-day junkets whose sole purpose was an orgy of drinking and whoring.”[20]  That is when the days of the sex tours really began.  The gangs soon became involved in the sex slave trade that expanded quickly throughout the Pacific region.  The yakuza have played a role in “sex tourism, prostitution around military bases, traffic in women and children, ‘mail-order’ marriages, and pornography” and have been aided by local crime syndicates in the affected regions of the poorer countries of East Asia.[21]  The problem was first seen in Taiwan and then followed in Korea in what is known as Kisaeng houses.  Also, the industry has increasingly expanded into Thailand, the Philippines, and Western Europe.

            After South Korea, the Philippines has also become a home for the yakuza.  Ties began as a result of the sex trade industry, and then connections expanded into other areas over time.  With a poor economy and an agreeable climate, it makes for an ideal haven for younger gangsters.  As in Japan, links have been formed with the political and bureaucratic elite in the Philippines where the yakuza have been able to take advantage of the widespread corruption of the country.  The Yamaguchi-gumi, Inagawa-kai, and Sumiyoshi-rengo have opened up offices in Makati, or what is known as the Wall Street of the Philippines.  In addition, various restaurants and businesses in the red-light district of Emrita, to serve as fronts for various criminal activities, have taken root.  By the early 1980s, the knowledge of yakuza residents became more commonplace.  They began working together with Filipino gangs and were able to broaden their reach into the areas of gambling, fraud, and money laundering.  But to the yakuza, more importantly, the thousands of islands making up the Philippines provide an ideal place for smuggling and gun manufacturing operations.  Many law enforcement officials have attempted to crack down on the yakuza, dampening their activities by a small degree.  However, with so many deep ties at present in the country, it will take a lot more to uproot the Japanese criminal web there.[22]

            By the mid-1970s, reports of yakuza presence had been made from Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.  Similar activities have been known to take place in those countries as in South Korea and Japan itself.  In Thailand, yakuza have also maintained various operations with the sex trade, gambling, prostitution, guns, and opium trade sectors.[23]  But in addition to those operations, the yakuza had been given the opportunity to become linked with their rivals in the Chinese Triads.  The Triads are the central organization that retains linkages transnationally throughout the world, and they are deeply involved in the heroin trade.  Although this connection could create large problems, with such different traditional practices within, a full merger is highly unlikely.  Cooperation probably still occurs just as often as fighting amongst the two Asian underworld associations.[24]  Police in Japan do not think that the yakuza will become too entrenched in the heroin business anytime soon because of image considerations – they do not want to be associated with such activities, especially being from a country that is so concerned with how they are viewed by foreigners.  However, noting the various changes that the yakuza have made in their activities over the past century, their characteristic of adaptability may lead them into a variety of new businesses to ensure that their lucrative organization remains prosperous.  It is likely that there will be somewhat increased collaboration amongst the various Asian gangs in the future.

            Activities have not just remained within Asia, nonetheless.  Yakuza have moved on to various other regions of the world, including Western Europe, South America, and the Mid-Pacific.  They have attempted to move into as many non-Communist countries as possible, but have especially pushed for linkages to areas where large ethnic Japanese populations are present.  Such is the case with the nation of Brazil.  Many Japanese left their homeland for South America beginning in the 1930s, with a large mass movement following the Second World War, where people were hoping to find a better life overseas.  In South America alone, there are around one million ethnic Japanese, and approximately 75 percent of those are in Brazil.  About 80,000 are in Peru, 30,000 in Argentina, and 10,000 in Bolivia.[25]

            As a result of the large Japanese population in Brazil, it is one of Japan’s top three centers of foreign investment.  Specifically, the yakuza are centrally located in the capital of São Paulo.  At the end of the 1970s, awareness was made of yakuza operating in Brazil as the result of a large clash between them and Korean gangs in the capital city.  Operations in Brazil have been similar to those elsewhere – businesses have been set up as fronts, and smuggling, gambling, drugs, and prostitution rings are popular activities.  Also, they have been alleged to have moved into the construction industry.[26]  Again, in 1979, the yakuza in Brazil were brought up in the media over a scheme involving two gangsters and insurance companies.  The police were informed about the murder-for-insurance operations and after various meetings with Chen Quan, assumed Triad member, in Taiwan and Paraguay over the situation, they managed passage back into São Paulo.  In a shoot-out with federal agents outside the city, the two involved yakuza were killed.

            Various other countries in South America have also been affected by the yakuza.  In Colombia, as well as Brazil, many women were recruited into the sex industry in Japan.  Also, gun smuggling activities have been linked to Argentina.  Apparently, there is also cocaine trafficking occurring from Peru to Japan.  As well, money laundering probably is in occurrence throughout the entire continent.[27]

            Yakuza have also been known to be stationed in Hawaii after spending over 250 years in the Far East.  It is a place with good conditions for crime syndicates, with a penchant for prostitution, gambling, and drugs, as well as the presence of a labour movement and strong party politics.  The massive tourist industry and its ideal geographic positioning mid-Pacific as a stopping point between East Asia and North America also make it very favourable.  Some Japanese gangsters have been seen by police in Honolulu, participating in such activities as pornography, prostitution, extortion, and gunrunning.  In one particular case, a man named Wataru “Jackson” Inada was found in his Honolulu apartment. He was believed to come from one of Japan’s largest groups – the 6,000 member Sumiyoshi.  The police believed that he was murdered as a result of a heroin deal that had gone wrong with the West Coast Mafiosi.  Inada was responsible for making many connections to the United States.  He was believed to have brought in the yakuza to the area and was still able to stay connected to the operation in Japan.[28]  By 1979, the yakuza became more widely known for operating in Hawaii. 

            While domestic politics is definitely affected in Japan, dangers to politicians from other areas of the world are also possible with the existence of the yakuza.  Ever since WWII, there have been numerous Koreans in the crime organization.  Kim Dae Jung, the South Korean President, was touring to speak out for human rights and democracy for Korea throughout the United States and Japan.  Along the way, an attack took place that resulted in three deaths and a serious hip injury for Kim.  It is alleged that this was an act of revenge for Kim challenging Park Chung Hee in a 1971 presidential election that was later found to be highly manipulated.  It was later discovered that the KCIA, or Korean Central Intelligence Agency, was at fault for the assault.  The KCIA basically was known to act to prevent any opposition to the authoritarian rule of Park.  Later on, Kim heard from some friends that Korean yakuza members were out to hurt him.  The yakuza had strong connections to Mindan, the South Korean Resident’s Association, and with the KCIA.  KCIA officials then kidnapped Kim while in Japan.  There has not been any information released about exactly how the yakuza were involved, if it is even known, because of the possibility of disclosure causing too many problems.  Hisayuki Machii, who is believed to be the most powerful Korean yakuza in Japan, was under the most suspicion.  It turned out that he was likely mainly responsible for the kidnapping of Kim Dae Jung.[29]

            There are rumours that a banking crisis is on its way in Japan, as discussed earlier, which may cause problems for the rest of the globe.  In a recent US International Crime Threat Assessment, it was stated that the yakuza is one of “the world’s largest and most powerful criminal syndicates,” and it found that the Inagawa-kai was responsible for money laundering that was occurring in the United States.[30]  There are worries that since there is so much yakuza investment in the US, if it is withdrawn, it will create much larger problems.  The yakuza are always looking for other ways to gather funding, as they are also being hit by the Japanese recession.  The financial global markets give them more and more options that could create greater global dilemmas in the future if something is not done as soon as possible.      

            The yakuza have been caught in illegal activities in other nations of East Asia besides just Japan, which may not have been a result of individual ties back to the homeland gang.  In Cambodia, a man suspected of being part of the yakuza was charged and arrested for possession of child pornography in Phnom Penh on June 14, 2000, under a newer Japanese law that allows for overseas convictions for child pornography.  The incident occurred after a photography store worker disclosed to police that the man had been dropping off several inappropriate rolls of film there for processing.[31]

            Another issue that the Southeast Asian region has been faced with that has been a partial result of yakuza involvement has been the increase of small arms and weapons trade and trafficking.  It is leading to the heightened evolution of transnational organized crime that has, in turn, resulted in the proliferation of friction within the area.  The countries involved have been working on a way in which to join together to slow down the problem.  Various organizations and governments that have been directly working on finding some resolution on the issue have included Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the United Nations Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Indonesian government, the Japanese government, and the UN Regional Center for Peace and Disarmament in Asia and Pacific. 

From May 3rd to 4th of 2000, ASEAN held a meeting regarding the problem in Jakarta, where China, India, Japan, the Republic of Korea, and Pakistan were all in attendance as observers.  At the seminar, Lieutenant Colonel Gilberto Abanto from the Phillipines Intelligence Service of the Armed Forces gave a speech, mentioning how the issue has the potential to affect national security and economic development in Southeast Asia.  The yakuza are thought to be involved, and are believed to obtain the majority of their firearms from illegal producers, which are exported from places such as Batangas, Ilocos Sur, and the Northern Philippines.  Abantos also said that the yakuza have been attempting to encourage gun manufacturers from the Philippines to go and make guns directly in Japan.  The meeting did not result in any firm solutions regarding the issue, but agreement was made that member nations would need to fully cooperate in order to improve the situation.[32]


Conclusions and Future Implications


            While the Japanese yakuza criminal network has prospered for so many years, it is hard to say whether or not their influence is on the increase or they are just declining on the international scene.  Since the activities of the organization are so hidden and the crime statistics in Japan are difficult to assess and access, no outside observers can really have the ability to prove that dominion is shifting one way or the other.  However, what can be assumed is the fact that the syndicate is involved in all sorts of illegal activities to source funding of their members and to keep the organization prosperous.  These sectors may include not just the traditional ones, such as gambling, prostitution, and drugs, but have spread to various other more legitimate arenas, including international businesses, political organizations, the construction and shipping industries, and even to such areas as health care and chemical manufacturing institutions.

            As a result of the continually globalizing world, the yakuza have increased ability to affect not just domestic Japanese society, but also to make increasing moves into the international scene, possibly taking over even more areas of the global economy that could have an influence on more and more lives.  National and international security, as well as personal security could be affected.  Therefore, actions must be taken both domestically within Japan and through various organizations of transnational influence to allow for the curbing of the yakuza’s activities.  Actions must be pursued as soon as possible to prevent any further infiltration into the world economy before it becomes an even more difficult force to oppose.

However, things are changing within the organization itself. The more traditional elderly members are aging, making it more and more difficult to enforce the long-rooted customs of the yakuza in a modernizing world.  The individuals are beginning to kill more for fun than what they would call for respectful and moral purposes – now it is more for the motivation of pure profit.  There is also perhaps the tendency for less loyalty between members.  As well as these problems, there are increased possibilities for the Japanese mafia connecting with other mob organizations throughout the world that do not follow similar structures and practices.  Thus, while they will still exist, they will be changing into an increasingly different form, becoming less like the legends about them that exist in Japanese popular culture, and more like criminal gangsters of the American and Sicilian Mafia type.  One thing is for certain though – something must still be done to curb the activities and the connections of the yakuza with various other legitimate businesses and people within the world, before they become a part of too many more areas in the world.



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For more Internet links regarding references to the Japanese yakuza, please refer to the website at:













[2] Virtual Ginza, “Okinawa Japan Virtual Ginza Your Door to Okinawa Japan,” 24 November 2001,>> (22 March 2002).

[3] Alec Dubro and David E. Kaplan, “The Early History,” in Yakuza – The Explosive Account of Japan’s Criminal Underworld, New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1986, p. 15.

[4], “Japan History,” n.d. <> (27 March 2002).

[7],  Yakuza,” n.d. <> (28 March 2002).

[8] Harry Johnson’s True Japan, “Yakuza: Gangster,” 1995 <> (22 March 2002).

[9] David E. Kaplan and Alec Dubro, “The Syndicates,” p.129.

[10] John William Tuohy and Ed Becker, “A Round Up of the Usual Suspects,” 3 July 2000, <> (27 March 2002).

[11] John William Tuohy,  Round Up the Usual Suspects,”, September 2000, <> (28 March 2002).

[12] Velisarios Kattoulas,  Yakuza web compounds debt crisis,” World Business, 11 January 2002, <>  (29 March 2002).

[13] John William Tuohy,  Sayonara, Don Corleone,”, April 2000, <> (30 March 2002).

[14] Velisarios Kattoulas,  Yakuza web compounds debt crisis,” <>.

[15] Velisarios Kattoulas, “The Yakuza Recession,” Far East Economic Review, January 17, 2002, p. 32.

[16] Velisarios Kattoulas, “The Yakuza Recession,” p. 35.

[17] David E. Kaplan and Alec Dubro, “East Asia: The Yakuza Expand,” in Yakuza: The Explosive Account of Japan’s Criminal Underworld, New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1986, p.206.

[18] David E. Kaplan and Alec Dubro, “The Syndicates,” in Yakuza: The Explosive Account of Japan’s Criminal Underworld, New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1986, p.192.

[19] David E. Kaplan and Alec Dubro, “East Asia: The Yakuza Expand,” in Yakuza: The Explosive Account of Japan’s Criminal Underworld, New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1986, p.197.

[20] David E. Kaplan and Alec Dubro, “East Asia: The Yakuza Expand,” p.200.

[21] David E. Kaplan and Alec Dubro, “East Asia: The Yakuza Expand,” p.201.

[22] David E. Kaplan and Alec Dubro, “East Asia: The Yakuza Expand,” p.209.

[23] David E. Kaplan and Alec Dubro, “East Asia: The Yakuza Expand,” p.218.

[24] David E. Kaplan and Alec Dubro, “East Asia: The Yakuza Expand,” p. 210.

[25] David E. Kaplan and Alec Dubro, “East Asia: The Yakuza Expand,” p. 219.

[26] David E. Kaplan and Alec Dubro, “East Asia: The Yakuza Expand,” p. 220.

[27] David E. Kaplan and Alec Dubro, “East Asia: The Yakuza Expand,” p. 221.

[28] David E. Kaplan and Alec Dubro, “Prologue: Enter the Yakuza,” p. 7.

[29] David E. Kaplan and Alec Dubro, “East Asia: The Yakuza Expand,” p.189.

[30] Velisarios Kattoulas, “The Yakuza Recession,” p. 37.

[31] John William Tuohy and Ed Becker, <>.

[32] Kanis Dursin, “Worried governments target small arms trade,” Online Asia Times, 12 May 2000, <> (27 March 2002).