What are the Yakuza?

By Derrick Jean-Baptiste

The “Yakuza,” game series known in Japan as “Ryu ga Gotoku” is an action adventure beat em up game from Sega and game developer Toshihiro Nagoshi. Nagoshi created the game with the desire to create a game that would tell the way of life of the Yakuza.

But what exactly are the Yakuza?

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To call them a criminal gang or mafia is an oversimplification. They are a lot of things at the same time. They are (were) a cross between a criminal gang, political party, guild, social club, labor union, the second arm of law enforcement, a shelter for the persecuted and alienated, a business and more.

They are commonly believed to have two roots, one is the administrators of gambling dens, the other is the organizer of local festivities. They formed from the rapid urbanization happening in Edo, which was one of the biggest cities of the late middle ages around the world. As the "nonproductive" caste, they were the lowest of the low in terms of social class. They were discriminated by profession, and also became magnets for the socially displaced.

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They also had a lot of overlap with civil defense such as law enforcement and fire services in the city of Edo. They even were entrusted with some duties by the government that can be described as the civil courts and arbitrator of disputes. The samurai class has the brute strength to enforce order, but for the more subtler governance requiring some connection with the populace, they needed agents that can be effective among them.

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The city of Edo became Tokyo in the Meiji restoration when Japan was reformed into a semi-modern state. behind the rapid economic rise and expansion of the empire through Japan, poverty and social division was a pervasive theme. Slums formed in large cities, and the need for people "regulating" things were needed. State police were still too blunt an instrument to be effective, so the old Yakuza continue to thrive as the representatives and arbitrators among the poor masses. Many of them became elected politicians as a natural evolution of their roles. Being effectively unchecked powers, some of them did become nexus of criminal activity, but others took their role as the representatives of the masses seriously.

Many of the organizations known as the Yakuza of today were officially formed around this time. Yamaguchi-gumi formed from a de-facto dock worker's union. Sumiyoshi-kai has also formed as a union of gambling dens at the beginning of the Meiji period.

In the pre-war period, you see many organization also becoming politically charged with nationalist ideologies.

As the war ended, a few things happened.

First, the supply chain supporting daily needed goods collapsed, particularly around foods. Yakuza quickly moved to capture this opportunity and became organizers of black markets. Ethnic Koreans were also active in this area, and hereafter Yakuza started to include a large number of Koreans and ethnic minorities. Being the employer of last resort for the socially alienated, Yakuza was often the destination for these discriminated population.

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Secondly, they adopted large numbers of war returnees. Often scarred with mental trauma from being in a brutal war, many of these people were simply unemployable and were often violent criminals. Again, being the employer of last resort, they would take in these veterans. These new members would often commit violent crimes, and result in Yakuza being increasingly recognized as criminal gangs as opposed to the necessary evil of poor communities.

Through these two changes, their image became inseparable from crime. After decades of this, they became increasingly isolated within Japan. They tried to evolve into a white collar modern mafia using money in the place of guns and knives, but their activities were still largely criminal.

A law called the Yakuza-exclusion ordinances was passed in 2012, severely restricting the activity and rights of the organization and its members. Members regularly are denied service from anything from shops to services, kicked out of hospitals and their children out of educational programs.

This is of course not the full history of the Yakuza. But delving into this full history gives you a glimpse of the history of Japan. Want to learn more about Japan and this history of this amazing place? Check out many documentaries on the history of Japan on CuriosityStream.