What is the Yakuza, and why Do they Still Exist?

You’ve probably heard the term Yakuza thrown around in movies, television shows, or video games. 

The Japanese syndicate known as the Yakuza is a criminal organization with a rich history linked to murders, drug trafficking, human trafficking, and more. 

To this day, the Yakuza are still active in Japan, and with their deep ties to Japanese society, it can be hard for tourists and residents alike to avoid coming into contact with them. 

In this brief, we will answer questions about who they are, where they come from, why they still exist when Japan has such strict laws against them, and what you should know if you’re living in Japan or planning on visiting. 

What is the Yakuza, and what does it do?


The Yakuza is a Japanese mafia organization. They’ve been around since the 1800s and have become synonymous with Japan. 

The name Yakuza means “8-9,” which refers to the first two kanji in “Yaya” (which means 8-9). 

This is because the traditional hand gesture for eight and nine is the index finger extended straight up, thumb bent at right angles, and other fingers curled. 

The rest of the fingers curl around each other.

How are they involved in Japanese society today?

It has many roles in society, but its primary purpose is to be a source of protection from street gangs for small business people who cannot pay off local gangsters or Yakuza. 

It also provides money for building funerals and memorials and covering medical expenses for the workers or families of yakuza members.

Also, a significant part of their role is to hold the Japanese police back regarding their investigations into financial crimes that require TLC (touching). 

For example, they will protect RICO laws by reducing the amount of physical violence necessary to do their business and providing a stable tax-free income source. 

More widespread use of handguns by Yakuza has been linked to a greater risk of firefights with police, leading to higher rates of police casualties.

Moreover, the possible existence of two or more rival factions in a syndicate can divide the whole organization into rival factions, possibly breaking down the coalition altogether. 

This also happens because of a succession dispute or when one faction wants to gain more power than its rivals.

Thus there are certain dangers associated with belonging to an organized crime group. 

But why do people risk these dangers? 

It is not because they want to get involved in illegal activities: being an organized crime group gives them specific advantages that ordinary people do not have.

Things are different, though, when one considers the Yakuza in Japan. There are far fewer gang wars and assassinations than there used to be, thanks mainly to the efforts of the National Police Agency. 

Moreover, in recent years, the Yakuza have suffered financial problems due to fierce competition from China and Korea

The big boss of a giant or mid-sized organization is likely to be arrested if he is foolish enough to use violence against his gang members or rival gangs.

Crime groups’ advantages are seen more in their business operations than in their violent activities.

Why do they still exist when Japan has such strict anti-organized crime laws?

japanese mafia vintage poster

The Yakuza no longer exist in Japan to the same extent they once did. It is because of the laws that have been set against them. The rules were created to try and stop the Yakuza, comprised of organized crime and gangs.

Gangs would use the Yakuza because their crimes were not as harsh as when they were in organized crime.

The laws against them help keep them under control and try to erase what they have done. There will always be some corruption; the question is how much.

When Japan created these strict anti-organized crime laws, the Yakuza slowly started to disappear, which is good.

A few people say they are not as evil as they used to be. The Yakuza still exist today, but only in small numbers. They do not own much of anything, hang around and cause some trouble. 

This could change if the police clamp down and arrest the Yakuza thoughtlessly, but the Japanese government has no intention of clamping down. 

Why is this? They fear ten more leaders will emerge once they’ve cut off one head.

This means there’s a genuine chance you’ve met one without even knowing it.  

That’s right; many celebrities and famous companies belong to the Yakuza.

Examples are actor Takeshi Kitano, formerly a member of the Inagawa-kai, and restaurant chain Gyoza No Ohsho, which has strong ties to the Sumiyoshi-kai crime syndicate.

What should you know about them if you plan to visit Japan or work there?

According to the National Police Agency, there were 23,131 officially registered gangsters in Japan in 2012. Their total assets stood at about four trillion yen (US $39 billion) – more than three times greater than what it was ten years earlier.

Yet, most foreign visitors won’t come into contact with gangs during their stay in Japan.

The key to surviving an encounter with the Yakuza lies in understanding how much trouble they will encounter to avoid causing foreign problems. It is when outsiders themselves make matters worse that danger arises.

One reason is that Japanese people generally understand that Yakuza have their own rules and values, acting under notions quite different from those of the wider society.

While most people want to avoid trouble with gangs, they do not necessarily approve of what they do. 

Yet there is a schism between insider and outsider attitudes – Japanese notions of honor mean that anyone who knowingly embarrasses someone in public should expect some punishment. 

This principle ultimately ensures the Yakuza have no genuine interest in interacting with foreigners. At the same time, it is also why they are so often portrayed as heroes of Japanese cinema.

How to avoid being targeted by Yakuza?

There are several ways to avoid being targeted by the Yakuza, such as:

  • Do not deal with money or drugs.
  • Stay away from nightclubs and bars.
  • Exercise caution when texting or talking on the phone if the contents of your conversation are being monitored.
  • Do not bother or make “nuisance” phone calls to people you do not know.
  • Be wary when opening your door to strangers; do not let them into your home.
  • Commute by public transport to avoid being targeted during long waiting periods at bus or train stations.
  • Do not complain about the society around you; carefully consider your words when talking to others.

These are just some examples of things people can do daily.

However, it should also be noted that Yakuza can take advantage of the fact that people tend to follow a routine in their everyday lives and attack them when they least expect it.

What kind of crimes do they commit?


The Yakuza is a criminal organization that exists in Japan. They operate primarily in Japan’s Kanto, Kansai, and Kyushu regions. 

Their existence has been going on for centuries up to this day. The Yakuza have a rich history with their code of conduct and traditions. 

One of their practices is emphasizing secrecy, which they expect from every organization member. 

The Yakuza maintain some credibility even though they don’t follow any laws or moral order since they usually do not kill or rob ordinary law-abiding citizens. 

Yakuza Rules and Regulations.

The Yakuza are a secret society. They have their own rules, traditions, and rituals.

The following is an overview of what those rules might be:

  1. Treat your ‘oyabun’ with respect at all times. 
  2. Don’t steal from the everyday man.
  3. Don’t disrupt the gang’s harmony or touch a fellow member’s partner.
  4. Never involve yourself with drugs.
  5. Always act chivalrously.

Source: In-depth external article about Yakuza Rules and Regulations.

The only way to get into the Yakuza is by starting at the bottom. The leader of the group is usually in charge of their training.

According to what I’ve read, it seems as if they’re not allowed to drink or disobey the rules – and thus, have a lot of carefree time.

The new member greets everyone in the group with “Hajimemashite” (はじめまして) and is then greeted back, followed by a reward for welcoming him into the group.

The new member gives each other member an envelope called o-settai (お支度いただきます) and thanks them for welcoming him.

Old members give some money to the new, as a kind of ‘payment’ for being accepted into the group. Then it’s dinner time.

After dinner (if there is any), they will pray in their room (or go on a trip, if possible). 

They drink sake and say a prayer in their room. It is called negawari (ねがわり), which is written on the o-settai envelopes. The significance is to be grateful for all that you have received.

The next day, they will resume work as usual. 

However, when their boss calls them, they are not allowed to say anything in return – but otherwise, they are let off with a warning. 

The boss will explain what he will do with the gang, sometimes deciding who gets a promotion. They also may be given a job at this time. 

The boss will explain the rules of the Yakuza, the history, and what is expected from their gang members.


Why do Yakuza have tattoos?

Tattoos on the Yakuza’s backs and arms serve as a form of branding to show other gangs that they are loyal. It also identifies the unit that they belong to.

Do Yakuza choose their tattoos?

Yakuza usually have to get permission from their boss to get a tattoo, or else the gang will shun them.

What are the different types of Yakuza?

There are two major yakuza groups. They are the Sumiyoshi-kai and Yamaguchi-Gumi. The other groups include Inagawa-kai, Tokai-Mura, Ninkyo (Ninkyodo), Kai, and Kyokuryu-kai.

How many Yakuza family members are there?

There is no fixed set of numbers, so it varies based on the specific groups.

For example, the Sumiyoshi-kai has approximately 51 groups with around 9,000 and some 10,000 affiliate members.

The Yamaguchi-Gumi has approximately 47 groups with around 23,000 members and affiliates of about half that number.

How many Yakuza members are there in Japan?

According to the National Police Agency’s White Paper on Organized Crime (page 37), in 2007, there were 84,200 registered yakuza gangsters in Japan.

Why are Yakuza considered so powerful?

Yakuza groups have several sources of revenue. They engage in traditional organized crime activities such as extortion, loan sharking, and gambling.

Pachinko (Japanese pinball) parlors are one of their significant moneymakers. There is also the illegal trade in firearms, drugs, and the sex industry.

Why do people join the Yakuza?

There is a high unemployment rate among youth; young male adults are especially at risk of being left without jobs. This contributes to why so many join gangs for financial reasons.

Are all Yakuza considered criminals?

There are different types of yakuza groups in Japan, which operate differently.

Given their nature, some types of yakuza groups are considered organizations with criminal members, while others may not have any members who have committed crimes.

Whether a group is recognized as a legal organization or not depends on has committed any crimes.

Are there women in the Yakuza?

It is becoming more common for women to join yakuza groups, but measuring how many have joined isn’t easy. There are also some female yakuza bosses, although they may not have as high of a profile as their male counterparts.

What does “Yakuza” actually mean?

While the literal translation of Yakuza is “8-9-3,” this is a generally accepted term given to such groups during the Edo period, when they were referred to in this manner because of an incident on August 26, 1756.

Two people with the surnames Ito and Inoue were stabbed in Edo (now Tokyo).

This incident was especially shocking because of the belief that swords should not be used against other Japanese people. 

The government then investigated who these men were and any organized crime they might belong to.

Are Yakuza the same as other gangs?

A lot of people think that Yakuza is part of Asian gangs. However, they do not consider themselves part of any organized crime group besides their own.

They are loyal only to their fellow gang members and would start fights with rival gangs without hesitation.

Is it disrespectful to get a yakuza tattoo?

The tattoos on yakuza members are often a dragon, a demon’s head, or a Japanese character meaning death.

They’re also quite large – the biggest are three-tattoo dragons covering an entire back (or more, depending on the body part).

These tattoos aren’t just tattoos; they’re a symbol of belonging to a specific group, of trust – whichever you view it as.

How much does a yakuza tattoo cost?

On average, a minor character tattoo can cost about ¥20,000. A full-body dragon tattoo could be as much as ¥1,000,000!

How long does a yakuza tattoo take?

It depends on the size of the tattoo. A typical one could take up to 40 hours, while a standard character tattoo would only take about 1 hour.

Why are tattoos banned in Japan?

In the Meiji Era, tattoos were banned from becoming a more progressive country. They feared tattoos would harm Japanese society and culture.

Tattoos are seen as a symbol of Japan’s history. It was a time when people with tattoos were seen as criminals and discriminated against – that is why they’re banned today.

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