The Yakuza, or Japanese mafia, can trace their roots back to the early 1600’s when villages were terrorized by grumpy samurais made unemployed by the ravages of peace. Gamblers and merchants in the towns came together to fight for the people and enjoyed a popular folk-lore respect for their courage.
They Yakuza existed in various splintered groups but really fell upon power when they were used to promote nationalism in Japan in the early 20th century as the Empire began to grow. During the American occupation after the war they consolidated their affairs and got on with the important work or protection rackets, gambling, prostitution and corruption of politicians and police.
The Yakuza were influenced by the stylish Italian mafia in the US and also organized themselves into families. Many of the street merchants, gamblers and hoodlums who work for the mafia come from poor, abandoned backgrounds and the Yakuza becomes their first real family.
In the ancient samurai style loyalty to one’s boss or ‘father’ is absolute and mistakes are paid for in a truly medieval fashion; each time a Yakuza fucks up he must cut off a segment of one of his fingers to atone. This stems from the days of swords when losing a finger weakened your grip and hence increased dependence upon the master. Thus if you find yourself in an argument with a man missing a few fingers the best option would be to apologize profusely and leave, bowing as you go.
The Yakuza actually are of no danger to the traveller in Japan. They have their own business affairs to take care of and the passing Gaijin is of no concern. You might occasionally have trouble with some young punk who wants to show what a big shot he is but as long as you don’t rise to the occasion you’ll have no problem.
The Yakuza are easily recognized as they stroll around as if they owned the city with their head high and often sporting a crew cut and stylish clothes. People step out of their way and you will see none of the meek desperation that characterizes the average salary man. Yakuza often drive expensive black cars and are tattooed.
Japan respects tradition and the Yakuza have been around for so long that they form an organic part of society. Whilst they may not have popular support they are respected and the police don’t generally dare mess with them too much. Whilst they conduct their narcotics, prostitution and gambling rackets, the cops concern themselves with jumping out on passing cyclists and demanding to see their ownership papers. Seriously.