Japanese Yakuza Part One

In the West we tend not to look too critically at some of the organisations in what we would call the Far East.  We’ve generally heard of these groups, the Chinese Tong, the Hong Kong Triads and of course the Japanese Yakuza, but mostly with reference to Jackie Chan movies.   In this group of articles we’re going to be taking a good luck at the last of three – the Japanese Yakuza.

The Yakuza are one of the oldest continually active groups in the world, more than 300 years by some estimates and they are huge, alos possibly the largest in the world with more than 100,000 members.

In fact some authorities will argue that the forerunners of the Yakuza can be traced back more than 400 years to bands of roaming Ronin – the master-less Samurai warriors who at that time had become unemployed peace broke out between warring regions.  A more likely forerunner is the machi-yokko (town servants) who protected the local areas from the Ronin.

The organisation which is most recognisable as the Yakuza grew up in the early 1700s and derived from two separate groups.  This was the Edo period when Japan was ruled by the Tokugawa family.  The first group was the Tekiya and these were mostly small-time crooks who peddled contraband.  The second group was the Bakuto, composed mostly of gamblers when gambling was an illegal activity.

Both groups were looked down upon by the society of the day but particularly the Bakuto.  The Tekiya organised themselves into legitimate groups to run their various stall holding enterprises and were officially recognised by the government at the time.  Although not similarly recognised, the Bakuto were still an influential force through the provision of gambling and money lending that took place in these venues.  The name Yakuza derives from this gambling origin – Ya-Ku-Za means 8-9-3 and is a losing hand in a type of Japanese Blackjack.

Initiation into these organisation was and is highly ritualised and in the next article we’ll have a look at the various ceremonies involved for those willing to join.

Part Two follows….

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