Yamaguchi-gumi is a name that might not activate any immediate sense of recognition in western readers. But the name holds a lot of sway in Japan where it is instantly known as the title of the country's largest yakuza organization.
Yakuza in Japan
What is a yakuza? Well, the fact that the English equivalent of the term is gangster should give interested people an idea of what it means. Basically it is a catch-all term used to describe members of organized crime syndicates in Japan. These people are part of large transnational movements that deal with illicit activity to turn a massive profit. The Japanese police and media refer to these groups as bōryokudan, meaning violent groups, while the yakuza title themselves as ninkyō dantai, meaning chivalrous organizations.
The yakuza in Japan are infamous for their high standards of conduct, their organized and structured nature as well as for several odd ritual practices they undergo like Yubitsume, which refers to to the amputation of one's little finger as a means of punishment and atonement within the criminal system. This is why missing pinkies are often associated with yakuza in Japan. The full image of a yakuza member is typically a man with a lot of tattoos and slicked-back hair. But despite this casual image, the criminal groups that they are categorized with are seen as some of the wealthiest and most sophisticated illegal organizations.
Largest Yakuza Organization
On top of this massive network of corrupt activity is the Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan's single biggest yakuza organization, named after its first founder Harukichi Yamaguchi. In terms of size, according to the National Police Agency, the group had 20,400 active members and 18,600 associated members in 2007, with this massive number of people comprising roughly 45% off the thousands of yakuza in the Japanese underworld at that time. The group is tightly structured with 102 leading members, including one kumichō, or boss, fifteen shatei, or younger brothers, and 86 wakachū, or children, as of November 2005. Members of this syndicate are in a good place, as they are considered to be some of the world's richest gangsters. The money they generate comes from a vast array of illegal activities. These include extortion, gambling, operations in the sex industry, arms trafficking, drug trafficking, real estate, construction kick schemes, stock market manipulation, and even Internet pornography. It is important to note, however, that in recent years, yakuza numbers have precipitously declined, even in the Yamaguchi-gumi group.
Headquartered in Kobe
Though they are headquartered in the Japanese city of Kobe, their operations span overseas into the rest of Asia as well as the United States. In fact, the group's current boss, Shinobu Tsukasa, has announced a focus on expanding, including into Toyko, which has historically not been part of their territory.
The origins of this group are traceable back to a loose dockworker labor union in Kobe. Though it was founded in 1915, the group didn't truly come into its full terrifying power until the third organization boss Kazuo Taoka took it from a few dozen members to the large powerhouse it is today.
So, if you're walking down a street in Japan and you notice someone covered in tattoos and missing a pinky finger, maybe give them some space, because you never know if they're part of the Yamaguchi-gumi.