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Japanese Yakuza, History and Cultural Development

Japanese Yakuza
History and Cultural DevelopmentChristopher Altman
School of International Studies
Obirin University, Tokyo, Japan

Original Article from: http://altman.casimirinstitute.net/yakuza.html

Yakuza history traces its origins to the Tokugawa era, the time of the shogunate, when Ieyasu Tokugawa unified the country of Japan. Japan had come a long way from its period of civil war, but was not yet a stable nation. The newfound era of peace left as many as 500,000 samurai left unemployed, and there were not enough jobs to support their number. Many of these samurai joined the merchant class, but those who didn’t – the ronin – had to find other means of support, and many turned to thievery and criminal methods to support themselves.

It is in defense against these wandering samurai that the machi-yokku, or servants of the town, originated. These folk heroes were regular townsfolk who stood up in defense against the destructive ronin to protect the well being of their families and town. Like gangs of today, they were tightly knit and spent their free time gambling. These folk heroes are the predecessors of the modern day yakuza, and while the connection may lie in legend only, the machi-yokku play a large role in the romantic image that the yakuza gangster holds today.

Much like the Italian Mafia, the Yakuza began by arrangement in a familial fashion based not upon bloodline but by adoption. This relationship begins with a godfather at the top, with new members initiated in a pyramid fashion, and the term given to the father-child role is referred to as the oyabunkobun relationship. “The oyabun provides advice, protection, and help, and in return receives the unswerving loyalty and service of his kobun when needed (Kaplan and Dubro 19).” The initiation of the new pledge into the organization is performed in a highly formal fashion, with an exchange of sake cups to symbolize the blood connection between the oyabun and the kobun. This ceremony is typically performed at a Shinto shrine, and as such is designated religious significance.

Yakuza have always prided themselves upon the code of bushido, or way of the samurai. Violent death was traditionally seen as a poetic, tragic, and honorable fate, and the concepts of giri andninjo are central to the relationships among members. Giri, or obligation, refers to the strong sense of duty that is felt between members, and in a sense is the “social cloth” that binds much of Japan together. Ninjo is roughly translatable to emotion, or human compassion, and denotes “generosity or sympathy to toward the weak and disadvantaged, and sympathy towards others (Kaplan and Dubro 28).” This tie to chivalry and patriotism gave the Yakuza a sort of Robin Hoodtype of romantic image when viewed in the public eye.

Perhaps the most legendary of yakuza organizations is the Yamaguchi-gumi, a crime syndicate numbering somewhere near 15,000, which designated as its territory the entire western half of Japan. The Yamuguchi-gumi was driven on this path to success by its late godfather, Kazuo Taoka, who resurrected it from shattered ruins in the years following the World War II to mold it into the most formidable criminal syndicate Japan has witnessed to date. Kazuo utilized a fierce will and brilliant organizational skills to leverage the most powerful alliance between Yakuza factions ever, and solidified an affiliation with the Inagawa-kai, a leading Yakuza group in the Kanto area.

The Yakuza have maintained a very close relationship with Japanese political and corporate entities in their growth through the years, much more so than their counterpart, the mafia, in the United States. Due to the political turmoil that followed in the aftermath of World War II, the Yakuza, in their extremely right-wing conservative stance, were granted the opportunity to obtain a foothold in the political machinery of modern Japanese governing bodies in their struggle against right-wing dissidents. However, this formerly accorded position has degraded in the years following the war as left-wing political entities have lost their influence in the Japanese political system.

Since the aftermath of the Second World War, violence among different Yakuza factions has increased, and the organizations have degraded from their original stature. A prominent rise has been seen in the boryokudan, or violence gangs, and in the bosozoku, the Japanese biker gangs. These minor factions have introduced a considerable degree of discord into the traditional criminal underworld system, and there is a clear trend of declining solidarity and obedience among Yakuza members (Kaplan and Dubro 273).” Older members are dismayed with the decline of moral values and increasing gun use among the up and coming generation of yakuza, which has never been a major problem in Japan. This transformation in conduct among members in the criminal underworld is seen as a major problem not only by the older generation of criminals, but by law enforcement agencies as well.

Recent crackdowns have done well to alleviate the outward symptoms, but as many criminals are subsequently released without prosecution, they in fact have had little impact on the underlying problem. The future of the Yakuza remains uncertain – but Japan is and always has been a country of considerable outward changes – capable of remarkable adaptation to fit with changing times, while maintaining unity at its heart. The Yakuza, as part of this system, will continue to evolve with the changing times, but it is highly unlikely that an organization that traces its roots back over 300 years will disappear any time soon.



Research assistance provided by Special Agent Clark Frogley (Legal Attaché, US Embassy-Tokyo) and Prof. Yutaka Morohoshi (Obirin University) is highly appreciated.


Further reading

Dubro, Alec and Kaplan, David. Yakuza: The Explosive Account of the Japanese Criminal Underworld, Addison-Wesley Publishing Compaany, Inc., 1986.

Rome, Florence. The Tattooed Men, Dellacorte Press, 1975.

Saga, Junichi. Confessions of a Yakuza, Kodansha America, 1991.®

Original Article from : http://altman.casimirinstitute.net/yakuza.html

Tattoos of the floating world, Traditional Japanese Tattoo, Tattoos, Love and the Edo Period

TATTOOS OF THE FLOATING WORLD, by Takahiro Kitamura; foreword by Donald Richie. Hotei Publishing, 2003, 120 pp., 2,600 yen (cloth).

In an age excessively concerned with outward appearances, official disapproval of tattoos in Japan is perhaps understandable. The Japanese are less seriously spooked by the sight of peonies blossoming on shoulder blades, or of giant carps tumbling down chests and spines, than by the thought that someone could have willingly gone through this transforming process.

Regarded in today’s Japan as a kind of obscenity, something to be hidden away like the marks of leprosy, groups of tattooed friends hoping to enjoy a Japanese hot spring are required to book the premises for their exclusive use, while a symbolic cordon sanitaire is placed around the inn. Reversing this prejudice will be difficult. Despite this prejudice, as writer and tattooist Takahiro Kitamura demonstrates in his recently published “Tattoos of the Floating World,” even today small, marginalized groups of Japanese doggedly continue to paint their skin in the indelibly lurid colors of Edo period Kabuki actors and rickshaw pullers.

Love and religion seem to have been the main inspiration for tattoos during this period. Lovers, courtesans and lowly prostitutes would often have the name of a loved one written in Chinese ideograms along the inner portion of the arm. The ideograph for inochi (life), symbolizing a pledge of eternal love, was also added. There are many allusions in Edo period literature to these pledge tattoos, or irebokuro, as they were known, particularly in the works of the satirist Ihara Saikaku.

Tattoos to deify or immortalize an amorous experience or affair are rarer in the 20th century. A notable exception comes to mind — that great chronicler of the Tokyo demimonde, the novelist Nagai Kafu, who is said to have had a tattoo done in the likeness of a geisha named Tomimatsu, with whom he had been infatuated for a short time until he lost her to a wealthier, more determined patron. Whether in the spirit of Byronic romanticism or because of the stubbornness of the inks used in the process, he is said to have carried the image to his grave.

Kitamura, though touching inevitably upon the iconography of religion and passion, is more interested in the links between tattoo art and woodblock printing, and the manner in which the Edo period tattoo reflected popular tastes, the arts and Buddhist-inspired concepts like ukiyo (a notion that yoked beauty with impermanence). Flesh — matter that blossoms and then decays — is arguably the perfect canvas on which to represent the idea of ukiyo, the transience of things. There is nothing, after all, more perishable than flesh. Dulled, wrinkled and smudged, a skin-print that endures for half a century or more begins to look like the wall of an ancient tomb; traces of figures and outlines become increasingly less visible with the passage of time.

The popularity of artists who depicted the figures of tattooed actors, courtesans and gods, and whose work had enormous appeal at all social levels, coincided with the dissemination of tattoo art among the plebeian masses.

As the woodblock print gradually acquired more color and complexity of design, so the motifs and pigments used in tattooing grew more ambitious and subtle. Kitamura explores the close relationship between these two popular arts. The text is complemented by lush illustrations from ukiyo-e (woodblock print) artists such as Kunisada Utagawa, Tsukioka Yoshitoshi and Toyahara Kunichika, all tellingly juxtaposed with contemporary tattoo images.

Despite the state-of-the-art electric equipment used by all but a few traditionalists and fees that would scandalize the plebeian masses of Edo, tattoos continue to remain living documents, transmitting and codifying colorful elements from the popular culture of the past. It would be a great pity to see them vanish under the pressure of conformity. The only way to avoid that perhaps is by conferring, as this creditable book attempts to do, a little more respectability on the art. The fact remains, though, that you would be more welcome in a Japanese public bathhouse wearing a necklace of shrunken skulls than a tattoo.

:: Buy Tattoos of the Floating World on Amazon
:: Article from Japan Times


Japanese Tattoo Books and Japanese Art, traditional and contemporary Japanese Tattoo Flash

:: See the List of Book here,
I also especially recommend “The Japanese Tattoo” as cheap and of good quality.

Koi Carp Tattoo Flash, Japanese Tattoo Flash
Tattoo Flash in Progress as part of a series, not ready to be released yet

Hello Everyone :)

Still in Japan, continuing my tattoo research. Jumping between Kyoto and SOuth. The Tattoo Journey is a long one.
I am currently considering starting selling some of the books I find here, covering Tattoo Design and some Japanese Art. Basically Tools and resources for Tattoo artists and people who are into Japanese Traditions.
Including Mythology, and Art work

I realised being here that a lot of those book are not easily accessible from Around the world.
And I am very aware that Tattoo artists Love their resources :) I haven’t had any choice than coming over here to Find Out more about their culture and ways of working.

I am also considering selling some of the tatoo flashes I am making over here.

Drop me some feedback if you think this is something I should start.

Love and Peace


:: See the List of Book here,
I also especially recommend “The Japanese Tattoo” as cheap and of good quality.




More from Horysohi! I think 3. nice close up pics! haven’t found that many close up pics from his work online. Really have to buy the book :)


Most Tattooed man, ‘Lucky Diamond Rich’

Most Tattooed man, ‘Lucky Diamond Rich’

One day you start tattoing your self, and you wonder where its going? You just know it feels right.
Opening the mind to let the answers come…

I was happy to find ‘Lucky Diamond Rich’, I would love to hear this guy, so that he could share his experience. If you are fully or mostly covered, get in touch to tell your story.

Found this a little but later. Sounds like a wise man! Read interview