In the global underworld, from Colombian drug barons to the New York mafia, no name has quite the exotic thrill or the sheer danger of the Yakuza, the feared organised crime syndicates of Japan. In Japanese society where conformity is highly valued and individuality viewed with suspicion, the Yakuza conspicuously stick out like sore thumbs, with their distinctive dress and language. Much of the Tokyo street life is controlled by the Yakuza, from innocent street performers to prostitution, corporate extortion, and murder.
We delve into the murky underworld of Tokyo. We learn about the Yakuza initiation ceremony, involving sake mixed with salt and fish scales poured into cups, which the newbie and the leader swap. The initiate seals his bond to the gang, and from that moment loyalty to the gang must take precedence even over his family concerns.
We find out – first-hand – of the history of the dramatic tattoos that cover the yakuza body, symbolizing both their isolation from mainstream society and their identification with their group. For the world of Yakuza is a world of hierarchy, loyalty, with a strict and unforgiving code of conduct. It hearkens back to the world of the samurai and their bushido code.
We meet those who have had run-ins with the Yakuza – from businesses to street performers. What is it like when a gangster pulls up in a huge black car and starts yelling at you? And we meet former Yakuza who have left the gangs – for in many areas their power is waning. Why did they leave, and what was their life like in the gang?
And we find out what is happening for the Yakuza now. Not many people have been able to get up close to the Yakuza, and survived to tell the tale. In another recent research trip, I interviewed Yakuza for the very prestigious Financial Times. The Waseda-educated mafia interviewee – one of the up and coming of a major Tokyo gang – gives his views on the economy and the recession – with a few hints of what happens behind the scenes. Perhaps as Japan’s economy tightens, the Yakuza have had to shape up and get smart. So what does the future hold for a Yakuza with a BA in Finance and a lust for cash?