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  • Juju Kurihara

History of Yakuza

Updated: May 9, 2023

Yakuza has now become an international word and is quite well known even outside of Japan. Italian Mafia is also famous and Yakuza can be understood as Japanese mafia. As well as the mafia, Yakuza also values the family and there are several different yakuza families in Japan.

In the daily life, non-yakuza people rarely have a direct contact with yakuza at least in Tokyo. Perhaps in Osaka where yakuza is more visible on the street but even so, yakuza doesn´t involve non-yakuza people into their problem unless by accident or you are in the places where are controlled by yakuza.

But how did Yakuza started? Is it new or do they have a long history? I´m curious about the History of Yakuza. So here is a little story about Japanese mafia.

The origin of yakuza was bakuto (博徒) and tekiya (的屋).

Bakuto are the people who play gambling frequently or who earn money from gambling. The person who runs a casino is also bakuto. These people already existed in Heian period (平安時代/ 794-1192) in Japan.

In Muromachi period (室町時代/ 1336-1573), kyougi (侠客) appeared. They were the people who were involved in crime such as gambling, blackmailing or manslaughter. They were short fused and had a sharp tongue but they were often described as Robin Hood-like character in Kabuki. It´s not sure if it was a absolute fantasy of the Kabuki script writers or a truth up to the certain point.

Umeno Yoshibei (梅の由兵衛) is one of the famous kyogi in Edo period (江戸時代/ 1600-1868).

In Edo period, gambling was was considered as a serious crime but after the mid Edo period, groups of people who played illegal gamble frequently and that continues until now.

Tekiya (的屋), also known as kougushi (香具師) were the people who came to the fairs and festivals to set the stalls of foods or games. The word tekiya is used still now. You may have seen these stalls in the summer festivals. But kougushi was originally the people who were selling medicines.

Have you seen a Japanese TV series, “Tora san (寅さん)”? He was a vendor who travel around Japan. These type of people were also called Tanka shi (啖呵師) because of their dashing dialogues when they sell the products.

Kabuki (歌舞伎) is a Japanese traditional theatre and the word kabuki originally means someone itanji (異端児/ maverick) who was beyond the common sense and does radical things, which called kabuki mono (傾奇者).

Kabukimono used the letter katamuku (傾く), means tilt and ayashii (奇しい), means strange. They were not normal in a sense of “like others” so they were tilted.

Keiji Maeda was one of the famous kabuki mono.

They might have been unusual but they would never leave you once they felt bonded regardless the amount of money or the status. They were actually cool people. (

If you have seen kabuki, its exaggerated clothing and makeup may have caught your attention. They would go around the city by horses with outrageous outfits.

I think they still exist but when I was small, there were groups of bikers who dressed strange and ran the city with as much noise as they possibly could make. They are Boso zoku (暴走族) and very similar to kabuki mono.

The conflict between the Mafia families are quite common and of course there were similar situations in the early Edo period. As well as those bakuto, kougushi, tekiya and kabuki mono, two groups of men were formed, Machi yakko (町奴) and Hatamoto yakko (旗本奴).

After the Age of Cilil Wars, Sengoku period (戦国時代/ the end of 15th century to the end of 16th century), lower samurai who were unhappy with the peaceful society ruled by the Shogunate Tokugawa (徳川幕府) formed a gang group. This is Hatamoto yakko.

Contrary to Hatamoto yakko, there were commoners who acted like knights of the town. They also formed a group, Machi yakko and this was the beginning of the conflict between them.

They had a common aspect in terms of the clothing. Outrageous kimono, sharp tongue, call themselves with strange nick names and always went with a group. Only the difference was, Machi yakko could´t have swords since they were common people unlike Hatamoto yakko who were samurai. Common people were allowed to carry a smaller sword called wakisashi (脇差し). Machi yakko carried this wakisashi instead, which they enlarged to the limit. This is dosu (ドス) you see in yakuza films.

Depends how you see, but Machi yakko seemed to be a little more heroic figure than Hatamoto yakko. After a while, both of them were oppressed by the shogunate and disappeared eventually. However, their spirit was certainly carried on the firemen and yakuza.

There were also people who were called Kaoyaku (顔役), literally means the role of face. They had wider and more legal functions in the society. They give people authority as “the man” and often received a lot of respect. These men had many followers who were not scared of losing their life for Kaoyaku. They are the modern yakuza.

Since they have a strong power over the local society, some even became councils or politicians. Isokichi Yoshida was one of them. He was one of the most powerful bosses of yakuza and later became a council, which is his official profession.

Unfortunately, these yakuza have changed their orientation and some have became very violent. They are called boryoku dan (暴力団/ gangstars) instead of Yakuza and are considered as criminals.

But at the same time, there are still traditional yakuza who respect jingi (仁義), morality based on the Confucianism and the strict rules among them. It´s true they were the one of them who ran to the devastated places after the earthquakes to give the people foods or supplies.

Whenever there are local festivals, they build stalls and organizse mikoshi (みこし/portable shrine) to entertain people. OK, they have scary tattoos and live in a limited society but yet, they take part in the Japanese society.

Some say that the reason why Yakuza still exists in Japan is because Japanese society needs them. Why? Because the police once (maybe more) asked for a protection to them.

After the WWII, the Japanese society was in chaos. There were lots of black markets and violent on the streets. The police back them didn´t have enough power or authority and were unable to help people. The police needed a stronger people. Back them, yakuza were fighting against the violence individually and the police seemed to have asked to take the role of security. And since yakuza respect jingi, they accomplished the promise. This seemed to happen especially in Kansai area (Osaka and surroundings). This is one theory. (

At the end, do you know why they are called Yakuza? They are actually numbers, ya (eight), ku (nine) and za (three). This comes from a Japanese card game, oichokabu (おいちょかぶ) similar to hanafuda (花札) if you are familiar with.

The game is similar to Black Jack and in oichokabu, whoever has 19 wins but if you have 20, your cardsare wasted. 8 + 9 + 3 are 20 and you don´t want it. Just like 20 in the game, yakuza has been outside of the society and been discriminated in a way.



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