There’s no room for individuality in traditional Japanese society. In a country where uniformity is valued above all else, you have to keep the rules – or keep out. An inability to conform, to fall in with the customs and mores of the times, thus, has spawned sub-societies of `outsiders’ at every turn of Japanese history. While some have expressed their differences in harmless ways, the frustrations of others have come out as violent rebellion.
The Yakuza – with 300 years of violence to their credit – is the oldest and most frightening of them all. Between 1958 and 1963, the number of Yakuza members rose to 184,000, more than the Japanese army, with over 5,000 separate gangs staking their claim over large pockets of the country. The figure plummeted to half in later years, but with bloody gang wars and new areas of illegal operations, the Yakuza is as much a blight to modern society as it was in its high-expansion years.
A section of Yakuza experts trace their origins to a group of trouble-mongers known as kabuki-mono, who raised hell in the early-1600s with their brawls and bad language. Masterless samurais, who were out of jobs during these times of peace, they roamed the countryside in search of booty, hustling passersby, terrorizing and often killing them with the long samurai swords they wore on their belts.
The Yakuza, however, prefer to claim the idealist class of machi-yakko as their ancestors. With `kyoki wo kujiki yowaki wo tasukeru’ (`help the weak and oppose the strong’) as their clarion call, this group was at loggerheads with the rogue elements of society – the lawless gang of hatamoto-yakko in particular.
They helped the poor, safeguarded the honor of women and kept peace in the neighborhood by raising their swords against thieves, dishonest businessmen and corrupt samurais. Their success at keeping the local bullies in check elevated their position in public mind, and the machi-yakko class was revered and venerated until the samurais cut down their powers in the early 18th century, in an effort to control their popularity.
The Yakuza, in its early avatar at least, had a lot in common with the machi-yakko. People spurned by society – jailbirds, criminals, black sheep, orphans, bastards – all found a home here. The Yakuza name in fact resolves into ya-ku-za (8-9-3), the worst losing hand in the Japanese game of oicho-kabu. The combination of the numbers symbolized the losers and castoffs who banded together to comfort one another and create for themselves a sense of group identity.
In the absence of correct figures, it is difficult to ascertain the extent of Yakuza power in Japan today. Maybe, as the police would have us believe, they are on their way out. Maybe, with their growing alliances with the South East Asian Triads and billions of dollars worth of business spreading over Europe and America, their focus has shifted elsewhere. Or maybe, they are just being more careful.