There are hundreds of things to see and do in Japan – try some real sushi, climb Mount Fuji, explore the ancient temples of Kyoto or watch the monkeys bathe in the hot springs of Nagano. But if, like me, you’ve seen way too many gangster movies, you might also have a morbid curiosity about another side of the country – the Yakuza.
The word yakuza comes from ya-ku-sa (8-9-3), the worst possible hand in a game of cards. It means that the yakuza are born losers and indeed many of them come from the outcasts of Japanese society: the burakumin, the lowest social class in Japan, as well as ethnic Chinese and Koreans. They are the Japanese version of the Mafia, and you might know them from the PlayStation series that shares their name or any cyberpunk movie ever.
Starting out as groups of wandering bands of hustlers, gamblers and outlaws in the feudal era, the gangs rose to prominence after World War II when they took control of the black market and teamed up with far-right groups and the CIA to bash the commies. Then in the 1980s during the Bubble economy they started making inroads into the corporate world through dodgy loans and real estate deals where yakuza thugs would chase out tenants for unscrupulous landlords. As the profits got higher so did the stakes, and a series of bloody gang wars erupted including a violent split in the country’s biggest crime syndicate, the Yamaguchi-gumi, which left 25 mobsters dead between 1985 and 1989.
Banzai and Tattoos
Yakuza run drugs, guns, prostitutes, protection rackets and loan-sharking. During the Bubble economy of the 1980s, they’d also practice a particular (and very Japanese) kind of shakedown called sōkaiya, where they’d buy up enough shares in a company to be allowed to attend the annual stockholders meeting. Once they got there, they’d act like dicks by shouting obnoxiously over everyone else, not letting them get a word in and making accusations about the company directors until they‘re quietly paid to go away. Others disrupt meetings with loud cries of “Banzai!” and “Praise the Emperor!”, making it the most awkward blackmail racket ever.
For a group of so-called ‘losers’ the yakuza sure keep up a fearsome appearance. Unlike your crude Western gangbanger with ‘Thug Life’ written across his forehead, the yakuza’s bodies are beautifully adorned with traditional full-body tattoos, or irezumi, showing off mythical creatures like demons or dragons. Some of them are also missing fingers as a way of apology, because in the Japanese underworld just getting on your knees and groveling like a naughty child before Santa for rigging the wrong pachinko machine simply won’t do.
Meeting the Yakuza
For those of you who still have a macabre interest in meeting these fellas there’s several ways to bump into the yakuza, most of which are pretty stupid. One is to visit one of the ‘establishments’ they control, and refuse to pay. Near where I was staying in Osaka, Nishinari (the ‘hood in Japan… well, as hood as Japan gets), there was an Amsterdam-style red light district where all these cute kawaii Japanese girls dressed as Pikachu sat by the door next to their mama-san soliciting customers. Because it’s not an officially licensed prostitution area (prostitution is de-facto legal in Japan) it’s listed on the map as the “Tobita Shinchi restaurants association”, meaning they don’t actually charge you for sex, but the mama-san brings up a plate of VERY expensive ramen noodles and a glass of sake. There’s also a few gentlemen standing around in gaudy suits – if you suddenly decide you’re not hungry you’ll quickly find out who they work for.
Another way is at an onsen or a sentō, a public bathhouse. Many places ban people with tattoos for precisely this reason but if you go to one in the seedy side of town, you might just catch a glimpse of some mobsters unwinding after a hard day beating the chump change out of a deadbeat. But mostly you’ll just end up staring at other dudes’ junk (this approach also won’t work if you are a girl).
Sanja Matsuri is a traditional Shinto festival that takes place in Tokyo in the middle of May at the Sensō-ji temple in the Asakusa district, and is one of the country’s biggest as millions take to the streets to celebrate the three men who founded the temple, Tokyo’s oldest. It’s also when the Japanese underworld comes out on parade.
As I approached the temple on a scorching hot Saturday afternoon, the crowds grew larger and larger: old people, young people, all wearing kimonos; giggling schoolgirls slurping smoothies out of lightbulb-shaped cups; and a few gaijin tourists looking lost and slightly intimidated, perhaps because they saw a few of the men were rocking fundoshi, thong-like undies that showed a lot of derrière (as I later found out at the sentō, the Japanese are pretty chill with letting it all hang).
Market stalls lined the temple grounds selling BBQ’d food in-between statues of the Buddha, and there was also some kind of weird game for the kids where they can catch their own goldfish.
I slithered my way to the front of the crowd to get a better peek at what was going on.
Moving the Shrine
A team of fundoshi-clad men – and a few women – were hoisting what looked like a miniature version of the temple on their shoulders, pausing only to clap their hands and chant something I didn’t understand, but it was something in Japanese and it sounded bad-ass. These were the mikoshi, portable shrines that are home to deities or the spirits of the ancestors.
“Oh man, I remember I carried one a couple years ago,” I remembered my friend Tokyo telling me (although over here, presumably, he’s not called Tokyo). “Those things are heavy as shit. You need at least 30 guys to lift one up.”
“Basically each neighbourhood has one, and there’s about a hundred of them. My mate organized one a couple years back, and it was insane. Hella heavy, but definitely an experience.”
Carrying the Mikoshi
A team of mikoshi led by a geisha went past as they shook the palanquin left and right to the sound of whistles and drumbeats. I guess the gods like a bit of rodeo while they’re as they’re being venerated by the mortals.
A woman reached out and grabbed my hand as they went past. She looked exhausted – as you would be if you had to carry a chest full of deities under this blistering sun – but she also beamed with a smile that would cheer up Ebenezer Scrooge. Having the chance to carry a mikoshi is a huge honour.
There were a few mini-mikoshi too, for the kids. They were smaller than the normal ones so the children could pick them up without being crushed like a hamster under an anvil.
Just then, I spotted a dude standing at one of the stalls. He was short, with a moustache, talking on the phone and waving a fat wad of cash as he treated three screaming kids to an ice cream. His robes were slightly undone at the front and you could just about see a yellow dragon peering out on his chest. Was this guy yakuza? It seemed rude to ask in front of his kids, but it couldn’t hurt to ask for a picture, right? It felt a little odd pulling aside a fully-grown man to ask him to drop his shirt in public but I assure you, it was done with the noblest intentions.
One after another, the processions spilled out of the temple grounds and into the streets, where they followed a pre-arranged route to their final resting place. There, the carriers could look forward to being treated to some snacks and a nice cold beer after a day spent appeasing the gods.
By five o’clock, most of the bells and whistles on the street had died down. It was time to make my way back home. As I made my way around the corner of the temple district I saw another guy wearing the exact same robes and flashing some more ink. I came up for a closer look and that’s when I saw them. The whole crew.
Meeting the Yakuza
I wasn’t 100% sure that first guy was a gangster – maybe he was just someone who liked traditional tattoos.
Then I met his boss.
A massive, sumo-looking bodyguard stood watch as a group of middle-aged men, one of them wearing an eyepatch, sat around some tables in the alley while their underlings scurried to bring over ice buckets and booze from the white van that just pulled up. Helping unload the boxes was our moustached friend from earlier, who acknowledged me with a nod.
A group of children played with toy guns as if imitating their fathers, while more people started to arrive including some women who also seemed to have the tattoos. I came up to one of the men, who seemed to be the ringleader, and asked for a photo. He smiled, got up, and promptly dropped his top.
The Real Deal
Holy shit. I mean I’d seen that kind of stuff in the movies, but never in real life. His tattoos covered his body like a shirt as dragons and beasts fought it out amongst the clouds before he turned around, showing his entire back painted with the image of a samurai. It was like a scene straight out of the Godfather, if the Godfather ate noodles instead of spaghetti and ran a tattoo parlour instead of terrorizing young boys with orange peels.
“So, you’re all yakuza?” I asked, just to check I hadn’t accidentally stumbled into a Kill Bill cosplay event.
“Yes,” he replied with a grin. “We are yakuza.”
They were members of the Sumiyoshi-kai, the second-biggest crime family in Japan. Still, for a group of people whose signature move is slicing off each other’s fingers they were pretty friendly. The yakuza can afford to be out in the open like this because they’ve got nothing to hide. You see, unlike their counterparts around the world, in Japan it’s actually legal to be a gangster. They’re tolerated as a necessary evil to keep the other criminals in line and as kind of an archaic throwback to Japan’s feudal past. If you want to find out where they’re at, all you have to do is run their office through Google Maps.
The Yakuza Code
“We yakuza have our ninkyo, our code of honour,” the boss said. “We cannot harm civilians.”
And for their part, the yakuza do sometimes seem to have sense of civic responsibility. For example, after a particularly nasty war in the south of Japan involving hand grenades (“pineapples” in yakuza slang) which claimed 14 lives, both factions held a press conference at a local police station where they apologised for all the trouble they had caused. And after earthquakes struck Tohoku in northern Japan in 2011 the Inagawa-kai, under sanction by the US government for drug trafficking, was the first to arrive at the scene.
I wanted to stick around and mingle but this looked like an invite-only party. Later at a bar back in Osaka, a friend told me I’d been very lucky. Year-by-year the number of active yakuza has been falling, dropping to 40,000 in 2017, the lowest figure ever recorded.
“You saw an endangered species,” he said, taking a sip of his beer. “There used to be many yakuza around here, but they are all retired.”
I can’t say with a straight face that the disappearance of a bunch of pimps, killers and extortionists is a bad thing, but like it or not they’re a part of Japanese culture. And if you want to experience a part of that culture without having your feet encased in cement, you’re always welcome to Sanja Matsuri.
Written by: Niko Vorobyov
Niko Vorobyov was born in Leningrad in the dying days of the Soviet Union. His family emigrated to Italy and the United States before settling in Great Britain. There, he served a prison sentence for selling drugs at university where he was studying for a degree in history and, ironically, criminology. Writing letters to the outside inspired him; he now works as a freelance writer. His writing has appeared in publications including Salon and Gorilla Convict.