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

A Criminal Family

Yakuza Ceremony

Schreibwerkzeug/Wikimedia CommonsA traditional Yakuza initiation ceremony.

It didn’t take long before the Yakuza was a full-blown group of criminal organizations, complete with their own customs and codes. Members are meant to observe strict codes of loyalty, silence, obedience, and the like.

With these codes in place, the Yakuza were like family. It was more than just a gang. When a new member came in, he accepted his boss as his new father. Over a ceremonial glass of sake, he would formally accept the Yakuza as his new home.

Yakuza Back Tattoos

FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty ImagesYakuza tattoos on display during the 2017 Sanja Matsuri festival in Tokyo.

Loyalty to the Yakuza had to be complete. In some gangs, a new recruit would even be expected to completely cut ties with his biological family.

To the men who joined these gangs, though, this was part of the appeal. They were social outcasts, people who had no connection in any part of society. The Yakuza, to them, meant finding a family in the world, finding people you could call your brothers.

Tattoos And Rituals

Yakuza With Missing Finger

Armapedia/YouTubeThe hands of a Yakuza with the left pinky sliced off.

Part of what signifies a Yakuza member’s loyalty is the way in which he’ll change his very appearance. A new Yakuza member would cover himself from head-to-toe in elaborate, complex tattoos (in the traditional Japanese style known as irezumi), slowly and painfully etched onto his body with a sharpened piece of bamboo. Every part of his body would be marked.

Eventually, it would become forbidden for a Yakuza to show off his tattoo-covered skin. Even then, though, it wasn’t hard to spot a member of the gang. There was another way to tell: the missing finger on their left hands.

Irezumi

BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty ImagesYakuza participate in the 2018 Sanja Matsuri festival in Tokyo.

It was the standard punishment for disloyalty. Any Yakuza who disgraced the gang’s name would be forced to cut off the tip of his left pinky and hand it over to his boss.

In the early days of the Yakuza, it had a practical purpose. Every cut to a finger would weaken a man’s sword grip. With every offense, the man’s abilities as a warrior would diminish, pushing him to be more and more reliant on the protection of the group.

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.