The Yakuza: Origins

Yakuza: A term in a Japanese gambling card game that refers to the worst possible hand in the game. Ya ‘eight’ + ku ‘nine’ + za ‘three’.

This term, however, more commonly speaks for the Japanese underworld crime syndicate, that boasts an impressive and terrifying 102,000 members.


Yakuza often wear black suits, which are normally reserved for funerals.
Yakuza often wear black suits, which are normally reserved for funerals. | Source

The Yakuza are called ‘boryokudan’ by the Japanese police, which literally translates to “violence group”. However they refer to themselves as ‘ninkyo dantai’, which translates to “chivalrous organizations”.


In this exploration of the Yakuza, I will determine and discuss their history and origin.

The origin of the Yakuza dates back to the mid-Edo period. The tekiya and bakuto, (peddlers and gamblers) held the lowest social standards in Edo. The bakuto were lower than the tekiya, the peddlers, however, because gambling was illegal. The term yakuza originates from bakuto, from a card game called Oicho-Kabu, which is a form of blackjack, where instead of 21, the winning hand is 19, where 8+9+3=20, resulting in the players score being ultimately zero.


The main origin of the Yakuza comes from descendants of the burakumin, which was a social class of discriminated groups that held undesirable or lowly and looked-down-upon jobs in the 11th century Heian Period, like executioners, butchers, or leatherworkers.


At least 60 percent of the entire Yakuza syndicate are burakumin, or descendants of.

Not literal translations.
Not literal translations.

The Yakuza have a very organized structure. Their hierarchal structure is that of Oyabun-Kobun, which is foster parent and foster child. The Kobun owe their allegiance to the Oyabun, or Kumicho. This is a traditional senior-junior/father-son model for Japanese organizations. The structure is deeper and more complex than just this however, as their are several senior officers and chiefs below the kumicho yet above the kobun.


The Yakuza have another tie to pre-Edo period Japan, which is their punishment system. As penance or apology, the member must cut off the tip of his left little finger. This is only the first offense however, and more fingers are lost as more offenses are committed.


This system is due to the traditional way a Japanese samurai sword was held. Only the bottom three fingers of both hands were used to actually grip the hilt, while the thumb and index fingers remained slightly loose. Thus, cutting off a tip or whole bottom finger would result in a weaker grip, and therefore the swordsmen would rely less on his skills and more on the group, making him a weaker individual.


Tattoos, which are ‘Irezumi’ in the Yakuza and Japan, which means “the insertion of ink”, also play an important role in the Yakuza, as they represent criminal affiliation. During card games or gambling they remove their dress to reveal and show off their tattoos to each other, as this is one of the few times they can show tattoos, due to the fact that in the eye of the public, they are a symbol of the Yakuza.

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