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