Japan, is one of the safest places in the world, there is almost no crime but it is the place where one of the hugest criminal gangs operates, they are the Yakuza. Yazuka is almost a synonym of “organized crime”, it could be translated also as “the Japanese mafia”.
The Yakuza beginnings were during the Edo period (300-400 years ago) when many samurai where not really needed by their daimyo(lord) and were ignored by their people. Those samurai without home, where known as ronin. Some ronin started doing some dirty jobs for high class people, and other where just plain criminals. After some time they started organizing ronin gangs, and offering their services as protectors of little villages. In exchange for the protection they asked for food and a roof, but after some time some groups started asking for money and more things. Other problems were fights between ronin bands trying to “protect” the same village or city area. That’s how the first organized criminal organizations operating in a similar way to nowadays Yakuza appeared in Japan.
The term “Yakuza” appeared at the beginning of the XIX century, when some “bakuto” who liked dirty illegal game businesses were playing a card game where the worst cards you can get are 8, 9 and 3. If you read 8, 9 and 3 using traditional Japanese it’s YA, KU, ZA. The people who managed to win a game having a YA-KU-ZA were considered the best players. Those “bakuto” people had a pretty bad reputation, and who knows how YAKUZA end up being the name for organized Japanese criminals.
During many years gangs trying to make money appeared, but Yakuzas as we know them today started after the WWII when they managed to control prostitution, illegal game business, drugs, illegal commerce etc. Furthermore, some of them started to operate inside political circles.
Picture from Okinawan-shorinryu
Yakuzas are organized in a very strict way, their gangs seem like a company, where everyone belongs to the same “family”. They follow the traditional samurai honor code, if someone fails he would cut his little finger. If you see a Japanese guy without a finger, maybe he is or he was a Yakuza.
The biggest Yakuza gang is called Yamaguchi-gumi, it has 40.000 active members. They have the “honor” of being the biggest criminal band in the world not only because of the number of member but also because of their economical power. They are like a big corporation, they control pachinko companies, restaurants everywhere in the country, pornography production companies, drugs and prostitution.
Yakuza are a big problem in Japan, they keep police and politicians away using their power so they have “space” to do their dirty businesses. This freedom, allows them to act as companies, for example in wikipedia you can read how the Yamaguchi are expanding their business in the Tokyo area and they just absorbed the clan Kokusui-kai last year. It seems like a big company buying a little company, they make it public and everyone knows!
Yamaguchi-gumi logo, it seems they are not into the 2.0 trend yet.
By the way, the Yamaguchi’s boss is a guy called Shinoda and he is now in prison but still controlling the biggest criminal band in the world, he will be free in 2010. Shinoda controls more criminals than Bin Laden but he will be free! And it seems nobody cares.
A “good” thing about Yakuza is that they don’t usually bother “normal” people, they just do their dirty businesses among them and many times they bother companies menacing them. That’s why they don’t have a very bad reputation, I have the impression that Japanese people don’t really care, they know there are Yakuza and that’s all. Not many complains here in Japan; I come from Spain where everyone complains A LOT, and I think it’s one of the keys that allowed us to reduce the power of terrorist groups in Spain.