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

Published November 8, 2018
Updated April 30, 2019
Published November 8, 2018
Updated April 30, 2019

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.

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.