Yakuza is the traditional name of the Japanese organized crime syndicate. They refer to themselves as a ninkyō dantai (“chivalrous organization”). They are known for their strict structure and organization, along with intensely strict rules for their members.

The Yakuza is organized in a fashion similar to a family or a business organization. A gumi (clan) is headed up by an oyabun (foster father). kobun (foster child) owe allegiance to the oyabun. This relationship is demonstrated by sharing sake (rice wine) out of a single cup. Most Yakuza organizations use a strict code of behavior called jingi (justice and duty). Multiple gumis comprise a rengo (association) within a region. Typically a clan is referred to by the family name of the oyabun and the suffix -gumi. A rengo is given the same treatment, but uses -rengo as the suffix. Some yakuza organizations are unfortunate enough to be given the -kai (low rank) suffix. These are generally just thugs and foot soldiers for the gumi.

As a result of the oyabun-kobun relationship, most yakuza sever all ties to their families and transfer loyalty to their new boss. They refer to each other as family members – fathers, elder and younger brothers. The syndicate is predominately male, though the females are often referred to as nee san (older sister).

The overall boss of syndicate family is sometimes called kumicho (family head), and he has two advisers called saiko komon (senior advisor) and so-honbucho (headquarters chief). Beneath the kumicho is the wakagashira (head child), who manages many smaller gangs and often acts as a sort of adviser to the kumicho in day-to-day affairs. In larger yakuza organizations, there is an assistant to the wakagashira called a fuku honbucho (assistant manager), who himself will usually run a number of smaller gangs. Regional gangs are then managed by the shateigashira (head underling).

Yubitsume (finger cutting) is the ritual many people think of when they think of the yakuza. The ritual involves the ceremonial removal of a limb. Upon first offense, the offender removes the tip of their left little finger and offers it to their oyabun for penance. The origin of this ritual dates back to feudal Japan, and attempts to lessen a person’s grip on their sword. Further offenses result in more of the finger being removed, possibly entirely removing a finger. Some yakuza will use a prosthetic to remove the obvious appearance of a missing finger, while others wear their scars as a sign of honor.

Another well-known ritual is called irezumi (tattoo). It involves the yakuza using traditional tattoos to represent rank and influence, and can often tell a person’s whole life to one who is familiar with the tattoos.

Yakuza members will often play a game similar to blackjack or baccarat called Oicho-Kabu. When playing this game, yakuza members will often open their shirts or remove them entirely to display their tattoos to the other players. Interestingly enough, the game Oicho-Kabu is the origin of the yakuza name. The worst hand in the game is an eight, a nine, and a three, which is phonetically expressed as “ya-ku-za.”

Yakuza in Seattle


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