News & opinion on Greater China and the even Greater Beyond: by Biff Cappuccino.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Notes on Yakuza: Japan's Criminal Underworld by David Kaplan (2003)

The yakuza apparently emerged not from the samurai class as one might expect but from the businessmen and townsfolk of villages who fought off obnoxious bum samurai appearing with establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1604.

Half a million samurai became superfluous with the end of an era of insurrections and civil war. They ran out of folks to kill. Unemployed, they were put on the dole and put out to pasture. Many eventually joined the merchant class. Others became welfare bums and took up the murderous habits of modern folk heroes such as the Black Panthers and the Weather Underground. Quite a few, like US soldiers back from the Civil War and the Vietnam War, took to freebooting and became hobos and Hell's Angels. They got into wearing "outlandish costumes and strange their sides hung remarkably long swords that nearly trailed along the ground...outlaws swaggered through the streets of old Japan." The devil plays with idle hands, even the mitts of the oppressed. Bum samurai took it back to the Man, amusing themselves by testing the sharpness of their swords on members of the ungrateful pedestrians and the bourgeoisie (both restricted by law in their bearing of arms.) This practice, or its accompanying urban legend, produced a formal Japanese term for 'waylay(ing) a passerby to test a new blade': tsuji-giri.

The authors say the preceding is the popular, pulp fiction exegesis of the yakuza. However, the early proto-yakuza are apparently derived from a range of 18th century salt of the earth types like volunteer firemen, police detectives, labor gangs, sumo wrestlers, and crime syndicate members. The later proto-yakuza were 19th century gamblers and street peddlers whose entrepreneurial class formed rackets that protected and fed off their own.

Other applicants to crime included the bottom echelon of the national caste system, the burakumin, who handled dead animals disposal, leather tanning, and other work deemed unclean. This caste prejudice retains its popularity and the yakuza remains an employment outlet for members of the institutionalized demimonde. In the old days, members of this caste had to wear yellow collars for identification purposes, like Third Reich Jews. Also interesting is that employers in classical Japan were not satisfied simply paying their employees. So they hired professional gamblers to play card games with their employees and get their wages back into the right hands.

The yakuza were granted official recognition between the years 1735 and 1740. To reduce fraud amongst vendors and prevent turf wars, "the government appointed a number of... supervisors and allowed them to the dignity of 'a surname and two swords,' symbols of near samurai status."

Ironically, the word yakuza apparently comes from the worst possible score in a Japanese card game, zero:
a sequence of 8-9-3, or in Japanese, ya-ku-sa. The losing combination of ya-ku-sa came to be used widely among the early gambling gangs to denote something useless. It was later applied to the gamblers themselves, to mean that they were useless to society, born to lose.... there are still purists today among the Japanese underworld who insist that the only true yakuza are the traditional gamblers.

On finger chopping: "For serious violations not meriting death or expulsion, the bakuto introduced the custom of yubitsume, in which the top joint of the little finger is ceremoniously severed.... finger cutting reportedly began as a means of weakening the hand, which meant that the gamblers all-important sword could not be as firmly grasped. Such an act, whether forced or voluntary, succeeded in making the [underling] more dependent on the protection of his boss.

When amputated in apology, the severed phalange is wrapped in fine cloth and solemnly handed to the [boss].... a 1993 survey by government researchers found that 45% of modern yakuza members had severed finger joints, and that 15% had performed the act at least twice."

On tattoos: The other great trademark of the yakuza, the tattoo, also won widespread acceptance... during Japan's feudal period. ...[It] originally was a mark of punishment, used by authorities to ostracize the outlaws from society; criminals generally would be tattooed with one black ring around an arm for each offense.... as early as the third century, a Chinese account of the Japanese noted: "men both great and small tattoo their faces and work designs upon their bodies." By the late 17th century, intricate, full-body designs became popular with the gamblers and with laborers who worked with much of their bodies exposed... The traditional tattooing process is an agonizing one... such extensive tattooing, then, became a test of strength, and the gamblers eagerly adopted the practice to show the world their courage, toughness and masculinity. It served, at the same time, another more humble purpose - as a self-inflicted wound that would permanently distinguish the outcasts from the rest of the world. The tattoo marks the yakuza as misfits, forever unable or unwilling to adapt themselves to Japanese society

Also fascinating is that FDR's New Dealers wished to introduce their vote-winning socialist agenda into post-war Japan. Having dropped the floor out of the American economy through loony legislation - paying Paul to bake less bread and catch fewer fish, then ponying up to pay Peter to buy it now that he couldn't afford the resulting higher prices on his own - Uncle Sam went into serious hock, capital flight ensued, and the country plunged into a second even worse depression in the latter 1930's. Economically speaking, disaster. Politically speaking, like socialism every time and everywhere, the rhetoric was exceedingly popular with those who couldn't be bothered to spend a weekend reading up on economics. The US Mafia grew by leaps and bounds during Prohibition, taking advantage of the government monopoly on the alcohol trade to get some constructive corruption going. Likewise in Japan, commodity rationing led unsurprisingly to black markets. This inevitably revived the yakuza which had languished during WWII when it had been unceremoniously abandoned by the ultranationalists in government who found the yakuza a rival and a pest. They were tossed in jail or pushed into the war effort. Left-wing economics, as usual, was a medicine than only harmed the afflicted.

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