“It seems fairly evident that the selection of such simple terms must to a certain extent depend upon the chief interests of a people; and where it is necessary to distinguish a certain phenomenon in many aspects, which in the life of the people play each an entirely independent role, many independent words may develop, while in other cases modifications of a single term may suffice.”
-Franz Boaz, Introduction to the Handbook on North American Indian Languages (1911)
Franz Boas would understand that there isn’t just one word for “yakuza” in Japan. He was a 19th-century anthropological novice on a frosty escapade—but he didn’t foresee himself kindling a debate hot enough to last a century. Going to study the Inuit language in the 1880s, he traded European gruel for a seal meat diet, turning his Arctic sojourn into a ‘chill’ lifestyle study. His casual mention of the comprehensiveness of Inuit snow lexicon snowballed into years of hyperbole and debate—is it 2 or 200 words for snow?—leaving linguists cold. Boas has since been vindicated of responsibility for this debate, proving his icy insights were not just a flurry of fiction, and leaving behind his main hypothesis—when it’s important enough, it’ll be specific.
When we talk about Japanese organized crime in English, we use the term “yakuza”—that in itself is a misleading term, since there is no monolithic “yakuza”—there are always various large groups, each with its own customs, leaders, specialities and histories. The Yamaguchi-gumi, founded in 1915, aren’t the same as the Inagawa-kai, which came to power after the second world war.
In polite Japanese society, people don’t usually say “yakuza” out loud, instead opting for less loaded synonyms or even a silent knife-slash motion across the face with one finger. There are actually many other words used to refer to these gangs, including the police euphemism “boryokudan” (暴力団)—which means simply ‘violent groups’. Most yakuza hate that term.
Yakuza like to refer to themselves as Ninkyo Dantai (仁侠団体)—chivalrous groups that “fight the strong, and help the weak.” Ninkyo (仁侠) in Japanese is an interesting term combining two characters: “仁” (nin), which means humanity or benevolence, and “侠” (kyo), which refers to chivalry or the alleged code of the samurai. When you put these two together, ninkyo often refers to a kind of noble spirit, something like a code of honor. Think of it as the yakuza’s version of being a “good guy” within their own world, living by a certain moral code despite being involved in the criminal underworld. It’s a complex and nuanced term that taps into deep aspects of Japanese culture and history of crime.
It should be noted that in Western Japan, home to the violent Yamaguchi-gumi, yakuza like to refer to themselves as gokudo: 極 (goku) refers to extremes and 道 (do) is the path or way—thus, the ultimate path. Recently I was having a nice conversation with Yoshitomo Morohashi, a former Inagawa-kai member/ex-yakuza who had turned his life around and become a lawyer. We were outside walking in Asakusa, when I offered him a hot can of coffee–from the ubiquitous vending machines in the area. The canned coffee came with a bold goku (極) printed on the label; he laughed and politely refused. He’s a humble ex-yakuza of the ninkyo variety—not one of those gokudo blowhards from Western Japan.
In fact, until the 1980s there were detailed, semi-formalized codes of conduct that most yakuza followed. They were forbidden from engaging in common theft, armed robbery, sexual assault, and or bothering ordinary citizens. Many yakuza offices even had the code of ethics posted on the wall. Of course, extortion and racketeering were okay. But petty street crime was off-limits. And to some extent, dealing drugs wasn’t acceptable either.
One reason the Japanese police and the general public accepted their existence for many years was this social contract. Yes, they were thugs, but they were disciplined thugs. That’s why up until 2018 there were even two monthly magazines in circulation dedicated to the exploits of the various yakuza groups. They were sold widely in bookstores and convenience stores. Comic books about famous yakuza bosses could be found next to copies of comics about robot cats.
The yakuza are unexpectedly skilled with PR. They’ve done their best to show their principled humanitarian side, fighting the strong and helping the weak. After natural disasters, many yakuza groups did (and still do) deliver aid, food supplies, and shelter to the victims. When writing about their swift response to the March 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami and nuclear meltdown in northern Japan, the people I spoke with were very sincere in their efforts–even brave. Of course, they also took videos of themselves unloading supplies, maybe to prove to skeptical reporters like me that they weren’t all talk and no walk. It goes without saying that not every gang member or boss was acting with pure motives. But that’s another story.
So where did the term “yakuza” come from? And what do they do anyway?
Most of the time in post-war Japan, what they did was run illegal gambling dens, evict people from their homes, exploit labor, and engage in wide-spread racketeering, blackmail, and extortion. There were some crimes they ostensibly avoided: theft, robbery, sexual assault. These days, they are on the decline and increasingly involved in the types of crime “the good old yakuza” would have avoided, especially fraud.
The explanations for the origin of the term are manifold. Most folks lean towards the story about the name coming from a losing hand in a card game, symbolizing bad luck or being worthless. The card game is called “Oicho-Kabu,” which is somewhat similar to blackjack. In Oicho-Kabu, the goal is to get a hand as close to 9 as possible. The worst hand possible is one adding up to 20, they say.This etymological origin story would mean “yakuza” is essentially a self-deprecating word that means “loser.”
Thus, the word “yakuza” is said to come from the pronunciation of the numbers 8-9-3 (ya-ku-sa) in Japanese, which of course, add up to 20.
This etymological origin story would mean “yakuza” is essentially a self-deprecating word that means “loser.” It gives the term a different tone, like they’re embracing their tough luck, or stoically resigned to their fate, or maybe challenging it.
There’s also a minor but interesting theory about where the word “yakuza” might have come from. It’s linked to a near homophone, yakusha (役者), which means “actor” in Japanese. While this idea isn’t as popular as the one about the unlucky hand in a card game, it’s still pretty fascinating. Let me break it down for you:
The yakuza has always been deeply connected with Japan’s entertainment scene, including the world of theater and kabuki. And historically, they were heavily active in areas where entertainment and theater were big. Back in the Edo period when the yakuza were just starting, theater was a huge moneymaker. And it turns out, the places where theaters and actors were big were also hotbeds of gambling and other profitable industries, even if barely above board. There were general differences between Yakuza of old with different names for them. Those who specialized in gambling were called bakuto. Yakuza who made a living as wandering street merchants were called tekiya. By the 1950s, the distinctions were blurred. The Yamaguchi-gumi, the Wal-Mart of organized crime, set up their own talent agency, Kobe Geinosha, which was an extremely powerful entertainment company until the 1960s, handling some of Japan’s biggest stars. The underworld had a tight hold on Japan’s version of Hollywood even up until 2011.
But on a more symbolic level, the yakuza lifestyle and the rituals they follow are a type of performance. Plus, to blend into society but also fit in among their colleagues of the underworld, they have to play a character for both. So, this theory suggests that “yakuza” might be a bit of wordplay from “yakusha”: a pun recognizing them as the ultimate method actors in the criminal underworld, but also a nod to their longtime proximity to the entertainment industry.
It’s no surprise, then, that this proximity has evolved into an entire genre of yakuza media. Japan has had a great love for more yakuza movies since the end of World War II. And there is at least one former yakuza boss I know who went from being an actor playing a yakuza, to actually being a yakuza.
For over a decade I have known Takegaki Satoru, and he’s led a rather interesting life even years before I met him. He was once the bodyguard for the 4th generation leader of the Yamaguchi-gumi, Takenaka Masahisa. His boss was shot down in a gang war, after leaving the apartment of his mistress. Takegaki was not on duty that day.
He had such a great respect for his boss, Takenaka, that he had the boss’s name and the boss’s posthumous Buddhist name tattooed on his arm. He’s a walking memorial to his godfather (oyabun). But he didn’t start out wanting to be a yakuza. Rather, he was a fan of yakuza films—which boomed in the 1960s—and began playing small parts on set, often shot in Kyoto. Eventually, he was invited to Tokyo where he lived and worked around the studios but never secured a starring role. However, during a trip to Kyoto, a fortuitous encounter with a prominent filmmaker led to an offer to be his assistant, offering him a chance to gain a foothold in the industry.
But he squandered this opportunity. This misstep marked the beginning of his descent into the yakuza. Reflecting on it now, he realized how foolish he had been. He says that even now when he considers the similarities between actors (yakusha) and yakuza, he recognizes it as a significant error in his life. He felt he should have remained committed to acting, but he has some interesting thoughts on his life as both a yakuza and yakusha.
“I realize now that sometimes one might become what they pretend to be. In 1972, I was 21 when I accepted the sake cup from Sakamoto Yoshikazu, chairman of the Sakamoto-kai, a yakuza group under the Takenaka clan. I had met Sakamoto during the filming of yakuza and hung out with him and his crew often. Eventually, he suggested that I really join him, and I was so impressed with his character that I decided to take him at his word. He was a giant of a man as a yakuza. Paternal, disciplined, someone worth dying for.
I was lucky enough to even meet Taoka Kazuo, the third generation leader of the Yamaguchi-gumi, who is called the godfather of godfathers. He led the organization to greatness. I think he also even visited the set of the movie based on his life with Takakura Ken, Yamaguchi-gumi Sandaime. He had the aura of a great actor as well.
“Well, they say that being a successful yakuza is part of ‘the popularity business’. You do have to act the role.”
Nobuyuki Kanazawa, the leader of the Inagawa-kai Yokosuka-ikka, also believed that being a yakuza was like being an actor. He said, “You had to play a part, but you would always be on stage. You had to become your role; stand tall, sit up straight. You walked with your chest forward, your shoulders back, like you were walking against the wind, firmly, head up, looking forward. You had to project strength and appear unbeatable. If you couldn’t intimidate other people, you couldn’t be a yakuza. The best way to win a fight is to not fight and if you came off fierce enough, people would back down.”
In many ways, Takegaki’s brief acting career really did prepare him for the part. However, ‘method acting’ will only get you so far.
After retiring from organized crime, he runs a small non-profit group which helps former yakuza and ex-convicts find gainful employment and contribute to society. If he is now playing the role of the ninkyokyaku (仁侠客) —noble outlaw, another word for yakuza– he should win an Oscar. He has become a role model for many people in Japan.
I asked him, “What is the best word for ‘yakuza’?”
And his reply was, “Once the right word for yakuza was yakuza but it doesn’t mean what it used to mean and very soon it will just mean–criminal (hanzaisha).”