Inside The Yakuza, The 400-Year-Old Japanese Criminal Syndicate

Published November 8, 2018
Updated July 16, 2020

The Yakuza aren't just the "Japanese Mafia." They're something entirely different — an organization tied to 400 years of Japanese history.

Yakuza With Back Tattoos

Kan Phongjaroenwit/FlickrThree members of the Yakuza show off their full-body tattoos in Tokyo. 2016.

In the spring of 2011, Japan was devastated by one of the most brutal tsunamis and earthquakes in the country’s history. The people of the Tōhoku region saw their homes torn to shreds, their neighborhoods shattered, and everything they knew lost.

But then help arrived. A fleet of more than 70 trucks poured into the towns and cities of Tōhoku, filled with food, water, blankets, and everything they could possibly hope to stitch their lives back together.

But those first trucks didn’t come from their government. The first relief teams to arrive, in many parts of Tōhoku, came from another group that most people don’t exactly associate with good deeds.

They were members of the Yakuza – Japan’s most powerful, and misunderstood, criminal gangs.

The Yakuza: The Japanese Mafia

2011 Earthquake Damage

Wikimedia CommonsThe damage after the Tohoku Earthquake. The Yakuza were among the first to organize relief efforts for the survivors. March 15, 2011.

This wasn’t the only time that the Yakuza had come to the rescue. After 1995’s Kobe earthquake, the Yakuza had again been the first on the scene. And not long after their 2011 Tōhoku relief effort started winding down, the Yakuza sent men into the deadly Fukushima nuclear reactor to help ameliorate the situation resulting from the meltdown that had been caused there by the tsunami as well.

The news caused a minor sensation in the West. To those on the other side of the world, it didn’t make sense. The Yakuza were the bad guys, so many of us thought. Surely they wouldn’t be helping people.

They were the group we called the “Japanese Mafia” – and that was how we pictured them. They were like Al Capone or John Gotti, we figured, just a few thousand miles removed.

Yakuza Member With Tattoos

FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty ImagesA member displays his traditional Yakuza tattoos during the 2017 Sanja Matsuri festival in Tokyo.

But that notion of the Yakuza gets it all wrong. The Yakuza were never just some Japanese version of the Mafia. They were something else altogether – a complex group of organizations, inexorably tied to 400 years of Japanese history.

The Yakuza, as it turns out, aren’t what you think.

The Ninkyo Code

Yakuza At Sanja Matsuri Festival

Colin and Sarah Northway/FlickrYakuza during the Sanja Matsuri festival, the only time of the year that they are allowed to show their tattoos.

The Yakuza — a term that refers to both the various gangs and the members of those gangs — help out in times of crisis because of something called the “Ninkyo Code.” It’s a principle every Yakuza claims to live by, one that forbids them to allow anyone else to suffer.

At least, that’s what Manabu Miyazaki, an author who has written more than 100 books about the Yakuza and minority groups, believes. The charitable arm of organized crime, he believes, is rooted in their history. As he puts it:

“Yakuza are dropouts from society. They’ve suffered, and they’re just trying to help other people who are in trouble.”

The secret to understanding the Yakuza, Miyazaki believes, lies in their past — one that stretches all the way back to the 17th century.

The Burakumin: Japan’s Social Outcasts

Gangster Cleaning Blood Off His Body

Yoshitoshi/Wikimedia CommonsAn early gangster cleans the blood off of his body.

The first Yakuza were members of a social caste called the Burakumin. They were the lowest wretches of humanity; a social group so far below the rest of society that they weren’t even allowed to touch other human beings.

The Burakumin were the executioners, the butchers, the undertakers, and the leather workers. They were those who worked with death – men who, in Buddhist and Shinto society, were considered unclean.

The forced isolation of the Burakumin had started in the 11th century, but it got far worse in the year 1603. That year, formal laws were written to cast the Burakumin out of society. Their children were denied an education, and many of them were sent out of the cities, forced to live in secluded towns of their own.

Today, things aren’t as different as we’d like to think. There are still lists passed around Japan that name every descendant of a Burakumin and are used to bar them from certain jobs.

And to this day, the names on those lists reportedly still make up more than half of the Yakuza.

The Burakumin Become The Yakuza

Painting Of Yakuza Battle

Utagawa Kunisada/Wikimedia CommonsBanzuiin Chōbei, an early gang leader who lived in 17th-century Japan, under attack.

The sons of the Burakumin had to find a way to survive despite the few options available to them. They could carry on their parents’ trades, working with the dead and ostracizing themselves further and further from society — or they could turn to crime.

Thus, crime flourished after 1603. Stalls peddling stolen goods started cropping up around Japan, most run by sons of Burakumin, desperate to earn enough income to eat. Meanwhile, others set up illegal gambling houses in abandoned temples and shrines.

Yakuza In Toba Casino

Wikimedia CommonsA member of the Yakuza inside of an illegal Toba casino. 1949.

Soon – nobody’s exactly sure when – the peddlers and gamblers started setting up their own organized gangs. The gangs would then guard other peddlers’ shops, keeping them safe in exchange for protection money. And in those groups, the first Yakuza were born.

It was more than just profitable. It won them respect. The leaders of those gangs were officially recognized by Japan’s rulers, given the honor of having surnames, and allowed to carry swords.

At this point in Japanese history, this was deeply significant. It meant that these men were being granted the same honors as nobility. Ironically, turning to crime had given the Burakumin their first taste of respect.

They weren’t going to let that go.

Mark Oliver
Mark Oliver is a writer, teacher, and father whose work has appeared on The Onion's StarWipe, Yahoo, and Cracked, and can be found on his website.