I saw that the U.S. had taken action to freeze the assets of a major yakuza group in the U.S., so I thought I’d write about what it’s like to live in a country alongside such a flamboyant class of criminals. The yakuza, of course, are a group of highly organized criminal gangs with roots going back to the Edo Period, who profit from protection schemes, illegal gambling, high-interest loans to people who can’t qualify for bank loans, and so on. The name “yakuza” comes from the numbers 893, which add up to the worst possible hand possible in the traditional Japanese card game Hanafuda, making the name similar to the Internet meme “orz” (showing a man bowing in disgrace) in meaning. While violence between yakuza gangs sometimes flares up, they’re extremely careful never to harm civilians, both out of Japanese-style politeness and to maintain the truce they have with police. While groups such as the Yamaguchi-gumi and Sumiyoshi-kai do engage in many kinds of illegal activities, they view themselves as a chivalrous organizations, and they were among the first groups to organize shipments of blankets, food and water to the thousands of people affected by the March 11 earthquakes and tsunamis last year.Being a fan of Japanese sento (public baths) and onsen (volcanically heated hot springs), I’ve encountered many colorful yakuza over the years, as it’s quite common to see them bathing with their full-body dragon tattoos. They’re very polite, of course, and always interested to meet a foreigner who can speak Japanese with them. One even asked if I could tutor his daughter in English, although that was a little more weirdness than I could stand at the time, and I turned him down politely. It’s generally considered a smart idea for businessmen to cultivate good relations with the local yakuza bosses, and we’ve got a friend who owns a small factory near our house who has a lot of these connections. He tells us, “If you ever get into any kind of trouble, just let me know and I’ll have it seen to by some friends of mine.” Yakuza are related to the bosozoku (lit. “violent running tribe”), those annoying motorcycle gangs that drive through Japanese cities making as much noise as they can, who run various errands for the larger groups.
Observing the “real” yakuza in Japan.