Introducing the yakuza

Updated: Apr 10, 2020

'Yakuza' is the collective noun of Japanese criminal syndicates. Japanese media and the police now prefer to call them bōryokudan (violent groups), a name that many yakuza do not like because it puts the stress on their violent features. The most embryonic forms of the yakuza can be said to date back to the 7th century, but it is more common stance to refer to the groups of bakuto (gamblers) and tekiya (peddlers) of the 17th century as the predecessors of modern-day yakuza.

Yakuza groups declare openly the nature of their association, but since the promulgation of the first anti-yakuza law (the Bōtaihō), they are also designated by the Public Safety Commissions, which operate at the prefectural level and are linked to the police. Public Safety Commissions may decide to designate a yakuza group when the group shows a high risk that their members will promote illegal and violent behaviours. At this point, the Public Safety Commission will hold a public hearing in which members of the yakuza group are able to defend their case. If the criteria are satisfied, the decision will have to be ratified by the National Public Safety Commission. At the moment there are 24 designated groups (shitei bōryokudan) active in Japan, and a few more groups which are not designated (hishitei bōryokudan). Here is a list:

Designated bōryokudan (and dates of designation)

1 Roku-daime Yamaguchi-gumi (23/06/1992)

2 Inagawa-kai (23/06/1992)

3 Sumiyoshi-kai (23/06/1992)

4 Go-daime Kudō-kai (26/06/1992)

5 Kyokuryū-kai (26/06/1992)

6 Roku-daime Aizu Kotetsu-kai (27/07/1992)

7 Go-daime Kyōsei-kai (27/07/1992)

8 Shichi-daime Kōda-ikka (27/07/1992)

9 Yon-daime Kozakura-ikka (27/07/1992)

10 Go-daime Asano-gumi (14/12/1992)

11 Dōjin-kai (14/12/1992)

12 Ni-daime Shinwa-kai (16/12/1992)

13 Sōai-kai (24/12/1992)

14 San-daime Kyōdō-kai (04/03/1993)

15 Taishū-kai (04/03/1993)

16 Kyū-daime Sakaume-kai (26/05/1993)

17 Kyokutō-kai (21/07/1993)

18 Ni-daime Azuma-gumi (04/08/1993)

19 Matsuba-kai (10/02/1994)

20 San-daime Fukuhaku-kai (10/02/2000)

21 Namikawa-kai (28/02/2008)

22 Kōbe Yamaguchi-gumi (15/04/2016)

23 Ninkyō Yamaguchi-gumi (22/03/2018)

24 Kantō Sekine-gumi (25/04/2018)

As you can see, most of the groups have been designated immediately after the implementation of the anti-yakuza law. The groups that have recently been designated are the result of internal splits of bigger groups; for instance, the Kōbe Yamaguchi-gumi split from the Rokudaime Yamaguchi-gumi, and two years later the Ninkyō Yamaguchi-gumi split from the newly formed Kōbe Yamaguchi-gumi. Some groups which gain independence or are expelled from a bigger group may remain non-designated if they do not meet the criteria set by the Public Safety Commissions. Their membership is generally low (30 members or less) but they still maintain relationships with other groups. Here is a list of these groups, but there may be a few more.

Non-designated bōryokudan:

  • Ni-daime Tōsei-kai

  • Hachi-daime Nijima-kai

  • Anegasaki-kai

  • Chūkyō Shinnō-kai

  • Chūsei-kai

  • Matsuura-gumi

  • Kumamoto-kai

  • Sanshin-kai

  • Hakoya-ikka

  • Chōjiya-kai

  • Shichi-daime Aizu Kotetsu-kai

  • Go-daime Marutomi Rengō-kai

  • San-daime Chūgoku Takagi-kai

  • Kyūshū Murakami-gumi

Let's make an example to clarify how a yakuza group may become non-designated. The Sanshin-kai was founded in 1954 as Sanya-kai, and in 1992 it became a designated bōryokudan group, in that it was affiliated to the Kumamoto-rengō (which later became Kumamoto-kai). In 2001 the Sanya-kai dissolved due to an internal fight, it reformed with the name Sanshin-kai and lost the status as designated bōryokudan.

Each syndicate is composed of ikka, families, also referred to as kumi (gumi). Relationshps within yakuza groups are based on the vertical bond of 'oyabun-kobun' (father-son), and on the horizontal bond of 'kyōdaibun' (brother-brother), and are fundamental to maintain internal cohesion. The hierarchy of the groups sees the kumichō (boss) at the top, followed by the waka-gashira (lieutenant), saikō-kanbu (senior executives), kanbu (executives), kumi-in or kōsei-in (members) and jun'kōsei-in (part-time members or trainees). The kumichō may also have a small group of advisors (kōmon). High-ranking yakuza can form their own group, which will follow the same structure of the main group.

Even though the hierarchy within yakuza groups is very well defined, not all groups adopt the same structure. Some large groups, such as the Roku-daime Yamaguchi-gumi, feature a multi-layered pyramidal organisation, in which executives hold a double role: that of executive in the main group, and that of oyabun of their smaller group. The executives of this smaller group may also have their own groups and so on. Alternatively, a large group may be the result of a federations of group that came together as equals: in this case, the bosses of these groups become kyōdaibun and elect a president; this is a primus inter pares who is responsible for the confederation and the judge if disputes arise amongst the smaller groups. The Sumiyoshi-kai adopted this type of structure.

This was just a brief overview of the structure of yakuza groups for those who have just started exploring the Japanese underworld of organised cime. In the next posts I will go more in detail with yakuza's addresses, affairs, turfs, and much more.

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