TOKYO'S GINZA DISTRICT REMAINS THE SAME GLITZY ENTER-tainment area it has been since the end of World War ii, a Japanese blend of New York's Broadway and London's Soho, with a dash of Las Vegas. One recent night on a main Ginza thoroughfare, several dozen Japanese businessmen sat mesmerized in front of pinball-like machines, watching small shiny balls meander their way down through a maze of metal pins. This is pachinko, a national craze among Japanese men, its name derived from the sound of the chrome balls as they bounce among the pins, over and over.
The atmosphere in a private men's club located directly above the parlor was very different. Here the lights were dimmed, the furniture was plush, and soft music, played on traditional Japanese instruments, floated through the smoky air. In a far corner, a man in his 60s sat in front of a low table, flanked by two young women who giggled at the orders he gave in a harsh and guttural manner to several young men hovering nearby. The men approached at his command, nodded at his instructions, then bowed and withdrew, sent on errands elsewhere in the club or onto the busy street below. A simple nod from the older man brought a drink or a serving of tempura from an attentive waitress; a similar gesture silenced one of the younger men in mid-sentence. From time to time, the older man smiled at the young women, one in a short cocktail dress, the other in a schoolgirl's pleated plaid skirt and starched white blouse. When he slipped his hand up the leg of the woman in the cocktail dress or stroked the blouse of the woman in the schoolgirl uniform, they laughed nervously and covered their mouths.
To a Westerner, the scene appeared to be a Japanese version of a Mafia godfather dispensing orders, retribution and rewards to his underlings. In some ways, it was. In other ways, it differed, especially when a young man appeared at the entrance to the club and stood waiting for his presence to be acknowledged. Dressed in the same slim-fitting suits as the other men his age, his hair shiny and his white shirt perfectly starched, he lingered nervously shifting his weight from one foot to the other, his face pale. His left hand was bandaged. His right hand held a small, carefully wrapped object.
Finally, responding to a curt nod from the older man and keeping his head down and his eyes lowered, the young man approached the older man in the corner. The girls ceased their giggles. The other young men stepped aside, permitting him to pass. The room grew silent.
Standing in front of the older man, the newcomer, his eyes and head still lowered, set the small parcel, using both hands in a gesture of solemn ceremony, onto the table. The older man looked at the young man's bandaged hand, nodded, and waved his own hand over the package in a signal to remove it. One of the other young men approached and whisked it away.
Inside the package was the severed last joint of the newly arrived man's pinkie finger, removed and submitted as an act of contrition and a plea for forgiveness. Something the younger man had done offended the older man, his boss. Apparently, other men in the room had offended him in a similar fashion, for many of them were also lacking a portion of their smallest finger. Some had no small finger on one hand at all, suggesting multiple affronts committed in the past. This was the Japanese Yakuza, a secret crime society tracing its origins back to the days of samurai warriors, and enforcing discipline in the same traditional and terrible manner.
Like chivalrous knights defending a lady's honor and flint-eyed sheriffs of the American Wild West, samurai warriors are viewed by many as guardians of medieval Japanese moral standards. Once again, the reality falls far short of the legend.
The samurai may be hailed as great and noble warriors, but their exploits belie their reputation. They also inspired the Yakuza.
The samurai rose out of coalitions of warrior-chiefs in twelfth-century Japan, which was evolving into a feudal society much like the one already established in Europe. As with European feudalism, weaker leaders and groups pledged allegiance to larger and more powerful forces in return for protection. These groups, bonded by personal and family loyalties, began selecting the best fighters among them to serve as “gentlemen warriors,” men skilled in combat and prepared at any moment to defend their personal chiefs. (Samurai is translated as “one who serves.”)
Along with their fighting ability, the samurai were marked by a fanatical dedication to loyalty. Over time, this loyalty aspect grew to override other aspects of the warrior's life. Love of wife and children, duty to one's parents and fear of death were all secondary to the samurai's obligation of absolute loyalty and ferocity when encountering an adversary. Battles between warring factions became chilling events marked by samurai fighters boasting of their prowess and the exploits of their illustrious ancestors as they swung their swords at the bodies of their enemies.
Such ferocity and dedication set the samurai apart from the rest of Japanese society and earned them special privileges. Only recognized samurai, for example, were permitted to own katana, the long two-handed swords that the samurai revered like sacred objects. If a samurai believed he had been insulted by someone of a lower birth status, he could cut the offender in two with his sword and suffer no punishment. Samurai weapons evolved into the central object of an elaborate code of honor. Swords used to slay many opponents in battle were believed to possess spiritual powers, and new swords were tested on human bodies, usually the corpses of beheaded criminals.
Like medieval knights, wealthy samurai fought on horseback clad in helmet and flexible armor while less affluent warriors functioned as foot-soldiers. Unlike their European counterparts, however, samurai were motivated not by religious fervor or motives of chivalry but by simple dedication to the orders of their warlords. In this sense, they resembled mafia capos more than heroic battlers.
Nor, contrary to the aura often associated with the samurai, was there much heroism exhibited during battles. Consider this account of a thirteenth-century raid on an emperor's palace:
The nobles, courtiers and even the ladies in waiting of the women's quarters were slashed to death…. The palace was set ablaze and when the occupants rushed out, so as not to be burned by the fire, they were met by warriors. When they turned back… they were consumed by the flames…. [Some] even jumped into wells in large numbers and of these, too, the bottom ones in a short time had drowned, those in the middle were crushed to death by their fellows, and those on top had been cut to pieces or burned by the flames….
Inevitably, admirable samurai standards grew corrupted with time, and eventually even their noble causes began to crumble. In the seventeenth century the hatamoto-yakko (servants of the shogun), an extravagant branch of independent samurai, found their services unneeded during an extended period of peace. Unable to function in ordinary society, they veered from performing service on behalf of their warlords to creating mayhem among the populace. In some cases, they acted like Robin Hood-inspired folk heroes, defending the poor and defenseless, and sharing stolen booty with starving peasants. In most instances, however, they grew as ruthless and exploitive as any mob of hoodlums, despite their claimed penchant for ceremony and honor.
This evolution of samurai from warrior-heroes to organized thugs generated a response from the victims of their plundering, common folk, who shrugged off their veneration of samurai and responded by forming a citizen militia known as the machiyokko. Within a few years, the tables had turned against the samurai; the machi-yokko were now viewed as protectors of the ordinary Japanese, and they acquired a mantle of respect and reverence while operating beyond the reach of the law, a direct parallel with the rise of the Sicilian Mafia. When the samurai were subdued, the machi-yokko remained as defenders of the common folk, even after modern-day Japanese culture arrived with centralized authority and law enforcement, leaving the machi-yokko outside the law.
By this time the various machi-yokko branches began referring to themselves as yakuza, a name derived from the organizations’ fondness for gambling. One of their favored games, hana-fuda (flower cards), was played with three cards in which the worst possible hand totaled 20 points. “Ya” in spoken Japanese means 8, “ku” means 9, and “sa” means 3, yielding the dreaded 20-point hand and implying that Yakuza members are the “bad hands” of society.
As the Freemasons did with the Templar legend, the Yakuza fostered an association with the more noble aspects of the samurai, and their practice of severing a pinkie finger as punishment relates directly back to the ancient warrior class. When wielding a katana, the swordsman's pinkie finger exerted greater control over the weapon than any other part of his hand. A samurai with an injured or missing pinkie was at a distinct disadvantage in battle and relied heavily on his master for protection. Thus the punishment exerted by Yakuza bosses on errant members.
Removal of a pinkie, known as yubizeum, represents punishment for displeasing or disappointing a Yakuza master and symbolizes both the member's error and courage. The offending Yakuza is alerted to the need for the amputation when his superior hands him two items: a knife, and a length of string to staunch the bleeding. No words are spoken. None is necessary. The offender must have no connection with the group until he carries out his own punishment, confirms its completion, and receives forgiveness from the master.
In addition to incomplete pinkies, Yakuza members may be identified by their extensive tattoos, often applied not as individual symbols like those favored in the West, but as extensive murals depicting dragons, flowers, landscapes and abstract designs applied to parts of their bodies normally covered with everyday clothing. With his face, neck, lower arms, ankles and feet left free of tattoos, a naked Yakuza appears to be wearing long underwear. The meticulous application of the designs takes hundreds of hours and costs thousands of dollars, yet remains hidden from view to all but his most intimate partners. Its purpose is to demonstrate, to those who witness the body art, that its owner has both the wealth and the courage to absorb the cost and pain.
Westerners who encounter a group of Yakuza without knowing their identity may see them as unintentionally comic. The members favor tight-fitting silk suits, pointed-toe shoes, slicked long hair in a pompadour style, and a swagger more reminiscent of the sitcom tv character The Fonz than of butchers like Vito Genovese and Lepke Buchalter. The gangster cliché is strengthened by the preference, among Yakuza members, for American Cadillac and Lincoln automobiles, oversized and ostentatious in the land of Toyotas and Hondas.
Naked Yakuza are obviously a chilling sight. The overall-body tattoos signify wealth and resistance to pain.
Reflecting the classic pyramid structure of the Mafia/Cosa Nostra, the Yakuza organization is somewhat more complex and multi-layered, based on an oyabun-kobun relationship. Oyabun means “father role,” and kobun means “child role.” Unquestioned loyalty to the boss is demanded of every Yakuza member. A Yakuza doctrine dictates “When your boss says the passing crow is white, you must agree that it is white,” and underlings filling the child role must never differ from the “father's” opinion. The oyabun, in turn, is obligated to offer protection and wise counsel to all of his children.
At the summit of each Yakuza organization is the kumicho, or Supreme Boss. Immediately beneath him are the saiko koman, his senior adviser, and the so-honbucho, or headquarters chief. The wakagashira are regional bosses who manage several gangs, each assisted by a fuku-honbucho, who may have several gangs of his own. Lesser regional bosses are shateigashira, with a shateigashira-hosa assisting them. Within each gang family are several shatei, or younger brothers, and wakashu, junior leaders.
Initiation into a Yakuza gang is filled with symbolism but surprisingly passive in nature. The candidate and his oyabun sit facing each other while cups of sake are prepared for the ceremony by adding salt and fish scales to the heated liquor, which is poured into each man's cup. The cups are identical in size but the oyabun's cup is always filled to the brim while the candidate receives much less. When the oyabun raises his cup to drink from it, the candidate does the same. Then the two men exchange cups, drinking from each other's. This sharing of the drink seals the entry of the young man into the group.
Yakuza existed in Japan for 300 years without making a major impact on society, although its members were major participants in the widespread corruption that marked Japanese society in the 1920s and 1930s. In the years following World War ii, however, greater freedom and prosperity saw Yakuza numbers grow spectacularly. One recent estimate, suggesting that 5200 Yakuza gangs were operating throughout the country, placed the total number of Yakuza members at 184,000, making them larger in numbers than the Japanese army at the time.
Japanese police pressure in recent years has shrunk Yakuza, but they remain a potent force in Japan and, through intermediaries and political connections, in Korea, China and the Philippines as well. They tend to favor sex-related activities, running prostitution rings often consisting of young girls purchased from poor Chinese and Philippine families. Other young women may be attracted to Japan with promises of high-paying jobs as waitresses, receptionists and models. Once in Japan, they are put to work first as strippers and later as prostitutes.
In recent years, the Yakuza have branched into smuggling banned automatic weapons and drugs into the country, although traditional narcotics like heroin and cocaine are less popular these days than methamphetamine. They are also reputed to be deeply involved in casino operations throughout the world, preying on Japanese gamblers who are offered large cash loans in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, Monte Carlo and elsewhere. The wealthy gamblers, assuming the loans will be uncollectible back in Japan, are enticed to borrow substantially. If they lose—and most do, of course—they return to Japan to discover that Yakuza partners of the loan sharks are determined to collect the debt along with a murderous rate of interest.
Perhaps the group's most lucrative and profitable diversification has been in the corporate field, where its leaders have grown adept at a uniquely Japanese form of extortion. After acquiring a few shares in a large publicly traded company, the Yakuza gathers scandalous information about the firm's top executives. Some of the executives’ activities, such as dalliances with prostitutes or drug habits, the Yakuza themselves may have fostered. Evidence of other practices such as tax evasion, maintaining unsafe factory conditions, and ignoring environmental laws are obtained through bribery.
Like the Mafia, the Yakuza has been glamorized in films.
When enough dirt has been accumulated, Yakuza members approach the top members of the corporation's executive committee shortly before the annual shareholders’ meeting and deliver an ultimatum: either the Yakuza are well compensated for destroying the evidence or the group's sokaiya (meeting men) will disclose the information at the annual shareholders’ meeting. The sokaiya are chosen for their vehement style, capable of shouting down anyone who tries to silence them and describing the executives’ misbehavior in colorful, provocative language.
Japanese society is sensitive to revelations causing shame and embarrassment, and corporate ceos and others quickly pay whatever the Yakuza demand. According to Japanese sources, the Yakuza have made millions of dollars from this technique.
Still, the glory days of the Yakuza may be fading. Many Japanese citizens refuse to be cowed by the gangsters, and have driven the organizations from some neighborhoods in spite of threats, beatings and killings. The organizations may also be breaking up from the inside because, unlike the Mafia/Cosa Nostra, Yakuza members do not dedicate their lives to the group. Many Yakuza thugs, having joined while impressionable young men, choose to leave in their mid-30s, having perhaps salted away their earnings or being attracted to the less strenuous corporate life. In some instances, these Yakuza drop-outs have discovered that the managerial skills acquired during their years as Yakuza members are highly valued in the corporate world, and many apparently occupy executive suites in corporations they may have targeted at one time for attack by sokaiya.
How they manage to explain a missing pinkie or their elaborate body tattoo art remains a mystery.