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A man with yakuza-style tattoos at a festival |
A man with yakuza-style tattoos at a festival | | © Ari Helminen/Flickr
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A Brief History Of The Yakuza Organization

Picture of Alicia Joy
Tokyo Writer
Updated: 31 October 2016
While the yakuza would describe themselves as honorable citizens, the Japanese police call them a menace. From the full-body tattoos to their strict codes of honor and morals that juxtapose their extreme acts of violence, the yakuza continue to provoke our imaginations. Learn about the history behind Japan’s largest organized crime syndicate.

The yakuza are thought to be descended from the kabukimono, who first appeared in Japan just before the Edo Period. The name means crazy ones or ones who deviate (from the norm). The kabukimono and the men who worked for them were rogue samurai (ronin), warriors without a cause. During times of peace, these men sought to keep busy in other ways, by forming gangs. The kabukimono’s outlandish clothing, hairstyles and behaviors inspired the kabuki dance-drama art form. The kabukimono were known for more than just flamboyant attire. They brought violence and petty crime with them wherever they went.

Others believe the yakuza were born from the enemies of the kabukimono, the machi-yakko. Machi-yakko were special police forces who opposed the kabukimono. To this, many yakuza members consider themselves to be civil servants who keep order in the underbelly of Japan, and above.

A tattooed man in 1875 | © Kusakabe Kimbei/WikiCommons / Kabukimono | © WikiCommons / Yakuza operate thousands of legitimate businesses | © Alicia Joy

A tattooed man in 1875 | © Kusakabe Kimbei/WikiCommons / Kabukimono | © WikiCommons / The Yakuza operate thousands of legitimate businesses | © Alicia Joy

There are two groups that are thought to have influenced the modern yakuza. During the mid-Edo Period, the merchant class known as tekiya became prominent. This low class of peddlers would sell their often stolen, shoddy or low-quality goods at temporary market stalls. Their main selling tactic was deception, and they were very good at it.

The other group of social misfits were known as the bakuto. These were gamblers and card dealers who made their living by winning against laborers, merchants and other civilians eager for a quick buck. It may have been the bakuto who inspired the yakuza’s full-body tattoos. Bakuto were known for their ink since, as the dealers of their games, they were traditionally shirtless to avoid accusations of cheating.