Yakuza: The Dark Mirror
Alejandro Gonzalez Lazaro
Carnegie Mellon University – Japanese Studies
This paper dives into the culture of the Japanese organized crime groups known as the yakuza. Parallels with aspects of Japanese culture studied in the course, Introduction to Japanese Language and Culture, are also made to understand how various characteristically Japanese values and customs permeate into the Japanese underworld. For this analysis, various video interviews with current and former yakuza members from different backgrounds were analyzed to search for common themes and these are broken down in three sections. These sections cover how the yakuza’s values are depicted in their language, how group consciousness affects a yakuza’s behavior, the factors that contribute to the development of a yakuza, and the yakuza code of honor. Many parallels with the values and themes covered in the course where found, making the yakuza behave like the “dark mirror” of Japan.
In this project, I would like to explore the underground culture of the yakuza. From the different media and personal research that I have conducted in the past, I have found many parallels to themes of Japanese culture that we have studied in class. These organizations are fascinating because of their intricate structure, rituals, codes of behavior and other characteristics that are reminiscent of those exerted by the rest of the Japanese population. For instance, their code of honor, the ninkyodo, was derived from bushido, or the way of the samurai (Stein 2013), which also plays an essential part of the Japanese identity. Studying these aspects of yakuza culture could help further the understanding and the measurement of how deeply these characteristics are ingrained in the overall Japanese identity. To conduct this study, I decided to focus on the following questions:
- How are yakuza’s values depicted in their language?
- How does group consciousness affect a yakuza’s behavior?
- What cultural and contextual factors (including oyabun-kobun structure) play an important role in the development of a yakuza?
- What does the yakuza’s code of honor entail?
For the purpose of this research my main hypothesis is that the cultural values that are seen in the structure and practices of the yakuza mirror those of the overall Japanese population. My expectation was that even though they engage in criminal activities, they hold the same intrinsically Japanese values as the rest of the population and show how cultural values studied in class have helped shape these organizations.
For some background, the yakuza are organizations that operate in the Japanese criminal underworld where the criminal lineage of current clan-heads is said to be traced back to the mid-1700’s (Kaplan 2012, 50). Throughout time, the yakuza have played a bun or role in Japanese society that some have considered to be necessary for society to function even if they are not completely liked (Stein 2013). Surprisingly, they have been involved in establishing the relatively low crime rate in Japan as they have worked with “formal social control agencies”, deter small-scale theft, and have tight control in fields such as the illegal drug market in Japan (Kersten 1993, 292). Some call them a “necessary evil” (Stein 2013, 1:22-1:23). However, pushback against these groups started since the end of the Bubble economy. As Kaplan and Dubro mentioned, “the key to reviving Japan’s economy lay in clearing away the mountain of bad loans - and the key to that lay in dealing with the yakuza” (2012, 229). Today, there are around 22 syndicates, and in recent years, their power has been decreasing because of the anti-yakuza laws passed since 1992 that have severely sanctioned many of the usual yakuza activities such as racketeering, loan sharking, blackmail, money laundering, etc. (Stein 2013 6:03-6:36).
Being part of these organizations brings along with it a deep set of values, customs, rules, etc., that make up the yakuza culture. First of all, these organizations resemble the Japanese traditional structure of the ie, originally a hierarchical family structure whose principles have formed the basis for many Japanese organizations and companies. Stark claims that “the claim of being rooted in hundreds of years of Japanese history is a source of legitimacy which translates into power and prestige in Japanese society” (Stark 1981, 52). Furthermore, there is a great emphasis on oyabun/kobun (father and son) relationships and kyoudai relationships. Members can be symbolically added to this family through the “rite of exchanging cups” in which the oyabun and the new kobun drink sake from the same cup (Johnson 1990, 114).
Moreover, the yakuza structure can also be perceived as reminiscent of Japanese conglomerates called keiretsu. Allowing for a great amount of vertical control, and self-sufficiency within the group. According to Stark, the group he studied, the Araki-gumi, has three main internal structure types: rank and duty hierarchy, hierarchical linkage of individuals, and hierarchy of internal groups (64).
Regarding the individuals who enter these groups, most young members come from backgrounds of “socioeconomic deprivation” (Johnson 1990, 116). They generally start as parts of youth gangs that serve as a period of apprenticeship (Kersten 1993, 288). Once they are recruited by yakuza groups, they learn “basic criminal techniques” and are screened through testing before they are accepted as full members (Johnson 1990, 114) where they can start from the bottom doing the “dirty work” (Kersten 1993, 288).
Group consciousness is also crucial in these gangs. Protecting the image of their groups rests upon every member and it is why, as Stark claims, it has been difficult for scholars to ascertain getting reliable information when interviewing members of these groups since “answers were channeled when talking to outsiders to project a favorable image” (Stark 1981, 21), and “an outsider could not be allowed into the inner circle because inclusion would be a symbolic threat to the code of secrecy and impermeability of the group” (Stark 1981, 24), which resembles the concept of uchi and soto, or inside and outside, and keeping a pristine image of the group in the eyes of the public. Keeping the integrity of the group is of such high importance that the practice of yubitsume or finger chopping is commonplace punishment after misconduct, and is used as an act of repentance, sincerity, and a way to solve personal conflicts (Stark 1981, 103 & 123). Interestingly, if members are expelled, they lose their badges, name cards, ability to gain income from illegal activity, and are even forced to stop using any mannerisms or styles of a gangster (Stark 1981, 109). As seen in class, displaying one’s status is an important part of one’s identity in Japanese culture, and this status is directly linked to one’s group. By forcing ex-members to stop behaving and displaying symbols of the yakuza, ex-members are stripped of this gangster identity and symbolically cut ties with these individuals completely. This might be why yubitsume is seen as a less severe punishment than membership loss amongst the yakuza (Stark 1981, 110).
Research Design and Methods
This research will address the questions posed in the introduction through the compilation of recorded interviews and analysis of the themes of group consciousness, development, family and moral codes. A linguistic analysis was also conducted with respect to key terms and how they are found within the verbal context. Online dictionary, jisho.org, and the captions provided in the videos were also used to support my analysis when terms that I did not know came up in the testimonies.
Data Collection Procedures
In order to gain a better understanding of these questions, my main goal was to listen and analyze testimonies of different yakuza and ex-yakuza members. For this primary data collection, I decided to search the internet for recorded interviews and documentaries that incorporated these individuals’ verbal testimonies. The films I decided to analyze are the following:
Confessions of Ex-yakuza Leader: This is a video interview conducted by the Nobita from Japan Youtube channel. Here Yuyama, an ex-yakuza leader for 10 years, talks about his life as a yakuza and his reentry into society as an architect. His interview is of interest because he discusses his upbringing into the underworld and its culture and values through personal experiences.
How Ex-yakuza Turned Into Pastor: Also from the Nobita from Japan Youtube channel, this interview with former-yakuza turned priest, Tatsuya Shindo, discusses his personal struggles when joining and leaving this world. Shindo became a Christian pastor and makes it his goal to help ex-criminals find their way in their new life. This interview offers a glimpse into the internal motivations and challenges that may lead individuals to not only join such groups, but also struggle to leave them behind.
I Spent a Day with a REAL Ex-yakuza Member in Japan: In this video from The Anime Man Youtube Channel, Tyson from the disbanded Takakuragumi clan discusses the different practices of yakuza members. His perspective was of interest since his clan showed some differences to the structure described in other videos (less hierarchical), and his tone and mannerisms seemed different and more aggressive than some of the other individuals I came across.
30 Years With the Yakuza | Bad Blood: This short Vice documentary stars former Korean-yakuza member Yang Seung-woo who took interest in photography depicting the Japanese criminal lifestyle. Of interest in this documentary is his conversation with former yakuza boss Hurusu, which deals with the roles of upper and lower ranking members in these organizations and covers important aspects of group consciousness.
The Downfall of the Yakuza: Another Vice documentary featuring various individuals from different backgrounds. First is former yakuza boss Satoru Takegaki who shows his disappointment in the loss of values in yakuza organizations. Then, a lower ranking ex-yakuza who became a nurse describes his struggles and what the yakuza meant to him. Further, a small and active Osakan yakuza group, still showing some of the traditional values, provides another perspective on the lives of current members.
Twilight Of The yakuza: Lastly Sebastien Stein’s documentary details many aspects of the yakuza lifestyle, values, structure, etc. I used parts of this documentary for my initial background research, but I intend to center on the dialogues provided by the ex-members and current members. Here, Matsuba-kai’s 8th Daimyo Tanaka and his subordinates provide extensive information in all aspects that were studied in this research. Familial bonds and values are very clear in their scenes and responses and were critical for my analysis. This documentary also features Yoichi Nakamura, who was part of the Sumiyoshi-kai for 37 years, he gives his perspective on the values and practices of the yakuza and his struggle to become a member of the economy after he was excommunicated from his group.
Data Analysis Procedures
From this diversity of testimonies, I took note of the different themes found in my initial secondary research and my research questions. Especially, I focused on how the topics of group consciousness, family, and moral codes were brought up in their conversations. Moreover, I intended to develop an understanding on the yakuza’s development. I found common themes across all individuals which I used to develop a possible timeline of the yakuza life cycle. Moreover, I looked for recurring terms used in their speech and how these were used. I used some of my knowledge of the Japanese language to analyze how these words were used, and their surrounding context such as: grammatical structures, tones, or word choice. These terms are essential to understand their values and views of the world and include familial terms, symbolic terms, and terms to refer to the inside and outside of the group.
In this section I will break down the data from the analyzed testimonials while responding to the four research questions posed at the beginning.
How are yakuza’s values depicted in their language?
For this linguistic analysis my main goal is to cover some of the recurring vernacular used by the different interviewees, and the terms will be divided into three categories: inside and outside terms, familial terms, and symbolic terms.
Inside and outside
First there are the inside and outside or uchi and soto terms. These terms place a barrier between the speaker’s inner group and the outside world. For the “inside” terms the most important is uchi. This word is commonly used to refer to one’s close group. This term recurringly appeared when the yakuza were referring to their clans. For example “uchi no kaicho” (Confessions of Ex.Yakuza Leader 2020, 5:30-5:33) was to refer to the group's head member. The yakuza code of conduct was called “uchi no kihan” (Stein 2013, 37:45-37:50) or the model of the group (Jisho). Moreover, when explaining that they only want members who do whatever it takes for their clan, one of the current members explained “so iu ningen janai to uchi ni ha iran wa ne” (Fazal 2021, 24:05-24:35), or equivalently “if they are not that kind of person, we do not want them inside” (Jisho). This last example clearly shows how this barrier is established with pure language, only those who are deemed worthy can take part in the uchi.
Next there is the outside term katagi, this word effectively translates to “honest” (Jisho), and it is used to describe the people outside of the group or the common civilians. For instance, when referring to a civilian, a current yakuza boss used the term “katagi-san”, roughly translated to Mr/Mrs Honest, which is an example of the Japanese tendency to call and associate someone by their role or bun in society (Stein 2013, 35:10-35:15). Moreover, this term is used in connotation with leaving the yakuza and taking upon the role of a civilian. For example, when discussing the hardships of returning to a normal life, ex-boss Yuyama claimed that “isshoukenmei katagi ni natte” (Confessions 2020, 12:05-12:10) or “I worked hard in becoming honest”. For the yakuza, the term katagi seems to have a meaning of “otherness” or “outsider”, and ex-members adopt this label when they themselves become outsiders as they transition into their new lives.
Familial terms are some of the most used terms by the yakuza as family-like relations play a central role in their group structure. Ex-yakuza turned pastor Tatsuya Shido references the importance of what he calls “oyako kankei”, father and son relations, and “kyoudai kankei”, brother relations (How Ex-Yakuza Turned Into Pastor 2018, 5:18-5:23) Throughout the testimonies oyabun was commonly used to refer to the group’s boss as a father figure, and kobun was used by the boss to refer to his subordinates as children. Interestingly, Yuyama (Confessions 2020, 3:12-3:16) referred to his previous boss as “oyaji” which could indicate some closeness or affection towards him (Jisho).
Some symbolic terms that are commonly used in the yakuza vernacular are daimon and kanban. Daimon refers to the coat of arms of a clan (Jisho). This term is used in different contexts, for instance “daimon wo motte” or holding the daimon is used to call enlisted members (Stein 2013, 22:23-22:34). A member is also supposed to work within the context of the daimon (Jisho) as in the quote “daimon wo haikei ni jibun no shigoto wo ikanai to ikenai” (Confessions 2020, 8:02-8:10). In a similar fashion, kanban refers to the name of the clan (Jisho). One ex-member used the word “shotte” when referring to the kanban. This can translate to carrying the name of the group on one’s back (Jisho). Moreover, if one loses, “kanban wo yogosu ni naru” (Fazal 2021, 15:20-15:30), or contaminate and dishonor the name of their clan (Jisho). These symbols bear a great weight on yakuza members. Holding these representative symbols shows a strong consciousness about their role in the group, which plays a key role in defining their behavior.
How does group consciousness affect a yakuza’s behavior?
As seen by the emphasis on honoring the daimon and the kanban, group consciousness is central to the yakuza mindset. Phrases like “ikka no tame” or “kumi no tame” (Stein 2013, 48:08-48:10), “for the family” or “for the group” (Jisho) emphasize this. For a yakuza it is critical to be able and willing to do anything for their group like going to jail or dying for their clan (I Spent a Day with a REAL Ex-Yakuza Member in Japan 2021, 8:00-8:13). For instance, a yakuza in training said “jibun no oyabun no tame ni wa shinu made […]”, or “For my oyabun until death …” (Stein 2013, 47:50-47:58). Being part of the clan also involves being conscious of how one’s actions may affect the rest of the group. Lower ranking members are expected to constantly report to their superiors before acting (I Spent a Day 2021, 22:30-22:50) and if they get into a fight, these problems can escalate to the upper ranks as “for big organizations, these problems are not just one person’s problems” (30 Years With the Yakuza 2022, 13:54-14:40).
When problems do occur, yubitsume is commonly used as a sign of remorse and of taking responsibility. As Yuyama mentioned, when he made a mistake, he decided to take “jibun no shimeikan” or his personal sense of duty (Jisho) and sever his finger to apologize (Confessions 2020, 4:45-4:55). Ex-boss Hurusu said that he had to solve a quarrel between lower ranking members by using yubitsume (30 Years 2022, 15:45-15:55). Yuyama said that if one commits to yubitsume by one’s own decision, it does not hurt as much as if one is forced to do so (Confessions 2020, 4:45-5:00).
As part of the group, one is also expected to show one’s status, for example ex-member Tyson talked about how yakuza tend to pay large amount at a cabaret to bring fame to their family’s name (I Spent a Day 2021, 20:10-20:50), and another talked about how the yakuza walk the city, as translated in the video, “like they own it” (Fazal 2021, 11:14-11:18). Furthermore, symbols such as the daimon are also passed down through generations and the members are expected to bear them. This all shows the importance individuals proudly showing their bun.
What factors (including the oyabun-kobun structure) play an important role in the development of a yakuza?
For this section, I would like to develop a timeline of the lifecycle of the yakuza based on the experiences the different individuals discussed. As mentioned in the literature review, yakuza generally come from troubled backgrounds that can push them into getting involved in antisocial activities. When discussing his background, Tatsuya Shindo mentioned that he came from a background with “no love”. He said that “I was not loved, I did not have values, values cannot just come out from oneself, values are not just born for children” (Turned Into Pastor 2018, 2:13-2:35). Because of this, some may look for youth gangs as a place of belonging. Many of the testimonies I watched talked about their prior involvement with the bosozoku youth gangs.
At this point, some may encounter the yakuza. For example, the ex-member who became a nurse talked about how he was saved by some yakuza during a fight and then decided to join them (Fazal 2021, 12:28-12:57). Another said that he met a “sutekina oyabun”, or a splendid oyabun, and became inspired (Stein 2013, 3:19-3:30).
After being recruited, the yakuza begin a very important and lengthy apprenticeship process. Central to this process is kouhai-senpai relationships in which newer members learn from their seniors. This training includes many years of cleaning, learning manners, perfecting etiquette, and it is similar to what many other Japanese groups such as monks, sumo and other sports groups submit their new members to (Stein 2013, 46:37-47:05). This period in a yakuza’s life is part of a screening process. It can be used to determine how committed recruits are, and if they cannot endure it, they leave the organizations (Stein 2013, 50:13-50:20). As a side note, etiquette and cleanliness is seen as essential by the yakuza because, as explained by Yuyama, one can tell how well orders are given in an organization by looking at this cleanliness and order (Confessions 2020, 1:39-2:08).
Once they are part of the group, members start to form very tight family-like relationships with other members and their bosses. The Japanese oyabun-kobun patronage relationship is very apparent in these organizations. Daimyo Tanaka was explaining how he expects his kobun to work hard and if they do, he will provide anything they may need for them (Stein 2013, 47:06-47:13). He also talked about how he sometimes sees his symbolic family as more important than his own blood-related family (Stein 2013, 1:44:34-1:45:20). Another current member highlighted how, when joining the yakuza, one can “oya wo erande, kodomo ni nareru” (Fazal 2021, 20:30-20:34) “choose one’s father and become a child”.
At some point, changes may happen in the development of a yakuza. Similar to the practice of total-commitment in Japanese companies, if one shows long-term commitment for many years, one may rise up in the ranks (Stein 2013 48:06-48:31). However, as seen by many of the ex-members’ testimonies, there are also those who leave the groups because they are excommunicated or because they decide that they do not agree with the lifestyle anymore. For ex-members, it can be very challenging to survive after leaving these groups because they may not have the necessary skills to succeed in the normal economy (Stein 2013, 21:34-21:49). As seen in many of the testimonies, there is also a great amount of prejudice against these people because they are permanently marked by their tattoos or by the fact that they have been in jail (Confessions 2020, 13:47-14:27). However, some do find success through a lot of effort, as exemplified by Yuyama who went back to study and eventually became an architect (Confessions 2020).
What does the yakuza’s code of honor entail?
The yakuza hold the motto “Tsuyoki wo kujiki, yowaki wo tasukeru” (Confessions 2020, 9:35-9:40), or “crush the strong and help the weak” (Litt 2022). This phrase, or some variation of it, appeared in many of the testimonies when the individuals were describing the meaning of being a yakuza. Throughout the times, the yakuza have had the “mondai kaiketsu yaku” or problem-solving role in society (Confessions 2020, 9:22-9:27). They sometimes take requests from civilians, so it is important to them to keep a good relationship with the community and avoid disturbing it (Stein 2013, 34:58-35:18). As Yuyama recounted, some yakuza also became involved with humanitarian aid when the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake hit (Confessions 2020). Because of this, during the times when they had an active role in society they were called “hitsuyou na aku” or necessary evil (Confessions 2020, 12:56-13:08).
According to Yuyama, “yakuza ikouru ninkyodo'' (Confessions 2020, 9:40-9:44) or “yakuza equals the way of chivalry” (Litt 2022), a key concept that we explored in the secondary research portion of this paper. One of Daimyo Tanaka’s subordinates commented that the set of morals that the yakuza hold to very high regard is what differentiates them from other normal criminal organizations and that “even if we are bad, I think that our manners are good” and that he personally used to be worse (Stein 2013, 1:18:48-1:20:10). Because of this, for some traditional groups, there is a feeling of disappointment towards clans that are conducting “Yakuza-rashikunai” activities or “unlike the Yakuza”, such as robbing banks, blackmailing people or trading human organs (Stein 2013, 1:17:33-1:18:23). Even though these codes of honor remain, as I will discuss later, societal changes have had a large impact in how the yakuza conduct themselves in recent years.
Throughout this research I have seen many traditional values closely held by the yakuza. On display are many principles that have all been seen in class, such as that of patronage relationships, continuity through the senpai-kouhai principle, the importance of taking on a role and all the symbolic meaning behind it, uchi and soto, and most importantly the heavy presence of group consciousness and total commitment. Still, social changes in Japan have also been reflected in the underworld. One interesting point was how technology has impacted the yakuza, as Tyson mentions that they are “hayari ni binkan”, translated in the video as “up with the times”, making guns with 3D printers that look like pens (I Spent a Day 2021, 23:29-23:52). On the other hand, as I have mentioned before, laws constraining the yakuza´s activities have been causing shifts in their attitudes. Their once very prevalent role in Japanese society is decreasing, as seen by how they have had to remove their clans’ names outside of their offices (Stein 2013, 1:16:42-1:16:51). Japan seems to be moving forward leaving these groups behind. As Yuyama puts it, they are no longer a “necessary evil” (Confessions 2020, 12:56-13:08). Moreover, as ex-member Tyson said, “The world has created an environment where it is difficult for yakuza to live and in turn yakuza have changed into a bad thing” (I Spent a Day 2021, 26:43-26:51). Some groups have resorted to abandoning their values and engage in activities like drug-trafficking to survive. Ex-boss Takegaki claims that for many modern gangs what is most important is the money and that his boss would have been embarrassed to see the current state of the yakuza world (Fazal 2021). These changes are not new, and they follow from the end of the Bubble economy, as mentioned in the background section, where pushback against these groups began to happen. During those times, some groups began to even harass civilians. This is perfectly summarized by Kaplan and Dubro: “For nearly three centuries, the yakuza have existed in a kind of social contract with the Japanese people - they were allowed to ply their vice crimes and fight their gang wars, as long as the katagi no shu, the common people, were not too deeply affected. But it was clear that the contract had broken down as the gangs had grown in political and economic power” (2012, 236). Still, my findings in this project remain interesting. The fact that I could appreciate the characteristically Japanese attitudes and behaviors covered in this class through the testimonies of these individuals helps us more closely understand how truly deep-rooted they remain in the Japanese identity. Still, societal changes, pressures from the outside world and technology have caused the Japanese to adapt and even sometimes bend their traditional values, a fascinating parallel to what we see with the yakuza today.
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