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People often refer to Yakuza as “The Japanese Mafia.” This follows in a long line of things in Japanese culture that people like to simplify. The other most notable example would probably be samurai who are often referred to as “Japanese Knights.” As most people who study Japanese history can tell you, this perception of the Samurai is too simplistic to be accurate, and ignores the context of the culture and society this group developed in. The same can be said for such views regarding Yakuza, a type of organized crime developed (and still most active in) Japan. The Yakuza have evolved since their birth in the Edo period and changed in many ways over time. While the Yakuza fall in to many of the same business models as other organized crime groups, the difference is their relationship with society they are a part of. Recently that relationship has been shifting, pushing the Yakuza to move towards a more discrete style in similar vein to organized crime groups in other countries. By examining laws and shifting public opinions regarding the Yakuza, and how they react to them, we can see how the Yakuza are an element of social change in Japan.
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To understand what the Yakuza have become we must first understand where they came from. While people are aware that Yakuza have been around for a long time, and that they originated as organized groups of gamblers, the details are often unknown to most people. The origins of the traditions and organization of Yakuza groups can be traced back to the Bakuto (Gambler) groups of the Edo period. During the rule of the Tokugawa bakumatsu organized gambling dens began to be assembled. While gambling had been popular well before the Edo period the new government was far more influential and organized than in the past. While the country had been torn apart by warring states and political struggles, the Edo period was a more peaceful time and with the Tokugawa shogunate in control the government was capable of being stricter in regards to its laws. As a result there was more of a need for organization among the gamblers in order to continue their business and avoid being arrested.
The name “Yakuza” actually comes from a popular card game among gamblers of the time. The three characters represented three numbers which made up the worst hand in the game. This is representative of the Yakuza’s close ties to their bakuto progenitors. The early bakuto groups were made up of labor contractors, laborers, and firefighters, the people who most often attended the games. Later on these groups made up the main sources of fodder for various bakuto groups, with the higher ranking and more involved members being full time bakuto. As the groups became more organized they began to call themselves families, and adopted the Oyabun (boss) Kobun (henchman) relationship that is part of the popular image of modern Yakuza.
There were two reasons these bakuto groups were able to so effectively integrate themselves in to Japanese society. The first was their use of violence to legitimate their authority. Between territory wars and other violent disputes between individuals the bakuto developed a fearsome image. Furthermore, they often acted as town-guards and militia, making them invaluable to a town due to their defensive uses. Furthermore, the bakuto also provided a much desired service to the village (gambling). While their actions were illegal, they were desired by everyone in the community, and thus supported and sometimes even protected by village governments.
The use of violence and social influence were not only useful for the communities in which they operated however. The Shogunate also made extensive use of the bakuto despite their illegal nature. Bakuto could be employed as effective spies and informants due to their unique positions in society. A gambling den was often a place where people of different caste and class would meet on equal terms. Furthermore, Daimyo and government officials would often make use of the bakuto as soldiers due to their greater experience in combat compared to many of the younger members of the increasingly stagnant samurai class.
Following WWII, Japan’s economy was in a terrible state mirrored by the horrible conditions in which people were forced to live. Much of Japan, particularly urban areas, had been damaged or destroyed due to bombing, and Japan had lost many of the resources garnered from their earlier expansion into other countries. The Yakuza were able to find new venues in which to extend their influence, particularly by taking part in the black market that developed due to post-war rationing and the dispersal of the Japanese military, as well as involving themselves in the businesses doing construction in order to help rebuild the country. A weakened Japanese government and the influence and control occupying forces had over Japan at this time also likely contributed to various Yakuza organizations’ freedom in action.
As Wolfgang Herbert puts it in his essay The Yakuza and the Law, “In the immediate post-war period the existence of a huge black market and the lack of state control was an ideal breeding ground for organized crime and racketeering.” Yakuza groups took advantage of the nation’s instability and the influx of black market goods to reorganize their business strategies and spread their influence. While the Yakuza were originally merely gamblers, in the immediate post war period their criminal activities and businesses expanded, now more closely resembling the American Mafia in the scope of their activity.
One of the main areas of expansion in the Yakuza world was racketeering. Yakuza have become involved in using the threat of violence as a means of coercion to receive regular payments from local businesses and Japanese citizens. Particularly following the Korean War, there was a jump in the construction industry in Japan and various Yakuza groups got in at the ground floor. In addition to forcing construction companies to turn over a certain percentage of their profits in order to avoid violent action, Yakuza groups also managed to make a profit by controlling the labor force. Yakuza worked as or with labor contractors (much like in the old days) in order to control the source of the cheap unskilled laborers primarily used by the construction companies.
In addition to this the Yakuza have also evolved their racketeering methods, including unique methods such as SÅkaiya (general meeting specialist). Yakuza will buy a share of stock in a company, and then attend stockholders meetings where they will extort money from the company by threatening to release financial information and information concerning the companies, blackmailing executives, and simply showing up to the meetings. These new methods of extortion have also helped to get Yakuza more involved in legitimate business.
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Another new source of profit was the drug trade. Due to a surplus of military amphetamines following the end of the war, and the general lack of awareness of their dangers, there was a large market in Japan for these drugs. Interestingly, while drug control laws were eventually passed in 1951 as awareness of the dangers of amphetamine abuse grew, it was these drugs that helped to restart Yakuza syndicates following the series of arrests of major group leaders in the 1960’s. When these crime bosses were released from prison they looked for ways to make money quickly and reestablish their groups.
However for all the illegal activity the Yakuza take part in they are more and more becoming involved in legitimate businesses. While one can imagine Yakuza becoming involved and real-estate and construction companies as well as entertainment, due to their involvement in prostitution and gambling, the scope of their legitimate business involvement is even larger than that. Yakuza have also involved themselves in English-language schools, private hospitals, and hotels. As Hill puts it, “In short, anything that will provide a legitimate front whilst earning a good return on their capital.”
This move towards more legitimate business may be in part due to the institution of new laws targeting Yakuza, such as the BÅtaihÅ in 1991, which aimed to control the violent actions of various Yakuza groups. The BÅtaihÅ itself was a reactionary effort on the government’s part to the escalation in gang warfare in recent years. However, because the BÅtaihÅ specifically targeted groups for violent acts, it ignored many of the illegal activities of the Yakuza. Furthermore there was only so much such a law could deal with, as the various forms of racketeering and semi legitimate business practices could be done much more discretely than the many violent confrontation for which they were primarily being targeted. In this way the BÅtaihÅ can be seen more as an attempt to curb Yakuza activities and keep them under control, rather than concentrated effort to eliminate Yakuza groups.
Yakuza groups have held an interesting position in Japanese society which has baffled many outside observers. The openness in which many yakuza groups operate is the primary source of confusion. It is not illegal in Japan to simply be a part of these groups and they often advertise themselves, having their name printed on the side of their local headquarters, and keeping a charter of official gang members. In some ways the yakuza are treated almost like an institution, expected to keep the peace in neighborhoods under their control and maintain a certain level of order.
The yakuza have also been viewed with a mixture of fear and respect, and even some admiration. This is in part due to the negative portrayals of Yakuza in daily papers, heavily influenced by police bias, and also from the image the Yakuza organizations themselves work to project. Yakuza make use of a Robin Hood like image combined with a sense of embodying many pre-war Japanese values to make themselves more appealing to the people they interact with. There is also a large amount of media providing positive portrayals of Yakuza. Many Yakuza films in particular have played up the image of “men of chivalry”, showing the Yakuza to be honorable warrior types. Furthermore, Jitsuwashi (Crime magazines), often contain articles by Gokudo journalists, who focus specifically on Yakuza related stories. These journalists often have insider information and contacts, but also tend to tell only the approved Yakuza side of a story.
Of course, it’s not fair to say that the positive image of Yakuza is all just fabrication on their part. Yakuza often act as mediators in civil disputes that the police won’t touch, allowing them to settle outside of time consuming, expensive, and problematic court sessions. One big example of a Yakuza organization’s positive actions was during the Kobe earthquake when the government was very slow in responding to the disaster while Japan’s largest yakuza group, the Yamaguchi-gumi, responded immediately bringing in much needed supplies and medical relief to victims of the quake. Furthermore, yakuza groups have been known to support local businesses and properties like low rate apartments and housing areas from exploitation from real estate developers.
In response to the growing influence of the yakuza not only through semi-legal construction companies and racketeering, but also in fully legitimate businesses, as well as a growing increase in gang violence and warfare, Japanese law enforcement has been applying increasing amounts of pressure on various groups. In response to recent changes in laws, as well as shifting public opinions, yakuza groups have begun to be more discrete in the operations. Many practices and traditions are being abandoned for practicality’s sake, such as yubitsume (finger shortening), and undisguised offices. A newer practice involves yakuza members paying a percentage of their income to bosses, keeping the leaders insulated from the criminal activities of the rest of the group. These new changes have caused yakuza groups to shift towards more clandestine behavior.
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