What is Yakuza?

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(Gokusen - this manga turned TV show is about a woman from a family of yakuzas who becomes a teacher for a school known for their delinquent students, and helps them turn their lives around. “Gokudo”, literally translated as “the way of the extreme”, is the “way” or “dou” the yakuzas follow, and “Gokusen” is a mixture of “Gokudo” and “Sensei”)

Yakuza is the term used for those in Japanese criminal organizations. Though they are known as 暴力団 (Boryokudan) by the police and the public, which literally translates to violent organization, the yakuzas like to refer themselves as 任侠団体 (ninkyou dantai), which means chivalrous organization.

Yakuzas are notorious for the strict code of conduct, ethics, and their highly organized behavior, which sets them apart from other national crime organizations, like the Italian mafias for example. While the yakuza do pride themselves for their chivalrous ways, and at times they have proved that, they are still criminals engaging in criminal activities, such as drug and human trafficking, prostitution, scamming, slavery, and more. However, just like the mafias, they are glamorized through the media, such as in TV shows, movies, and games.

Yakuza the Game

(This video game is called Ryu Ga Gotoku, also known simply as “Yakuza” in the English version. It’s one of the most popular PlayStation games in Japan, with over 6 sequels. It’s style is somewhat similar to Grand Theft Auto, but more… chivalrous.)

The above are just two of many examples of yakuzas seen in pop culture, but if you’ve seen any Yakuza movies or TV shows, you may notice that yakuzas speak a bit differently. Stereotypical yakuzas, since they are delinquents, speak in a very rude, forceful manner, heavy in slang, and may roll their “r’s” more so than others.

However, just because someone talks in this manner, that may not necessarily mean that someone is a yakuza, it perhaps just means that the person is very rude and unprofessional. And realistically, actual, modern yakuzas probably don’t talk the way they do in these movies, since that would only bring them attention and get themselves into more trouble with the police. But let’s look at some Yakuza lingo, just in case you may run into one in the streets. (Yakuza membership has been declining, thanks to stricter laws being enforced against them.

親分 (oyabun) - Father, or the head of the yakuza; just as the senpai-kohai relationship is an important aspect of Japanese society, it can be seen within the yakuzas as well, but instead senpai-kohai, they are in a oyabun-kobun (child) relationship. Once a person becomes a yakuza, they must pledge their loyalty and obedience to their oyabun, and the oyabun must in return provide protection and good counsel, like a father does to his children. The “children” may also call their oyabun おやっさん (oyassan), which is a bit more endearing.

兄貴 (aniki) - Older brother; what a yakuza may call another member who is in a higher rank than them, but not necessarily the head.

兄弟 (kyoudai) - Brothers; being a yakuza means that you are a part of a family, therefore you have kyoudais.

もんもん (monmon) - A slang for 刺青 (irezumi), or tattoos; one noticeable physical characteristic of a yakuza is their tattoos, which may cover their whole back, forearm, chest, and thighs. Their designs are unique, incorporating designs including mythical creatures like dragons, their family crest, flowers and such. It’s very popular within the western tattoo culture as well. However, because tattoos are a trait of a yakuza, tattoos are considered taboo in Japanese culture.

Yakuza tatoos are taboo

Many hot springs and ryokans may deny service to those with tattoos, and though they are generally more lenient with Westerners/foreigners with tattoos, they may ask you to cover it up.

指詰め (yubizume) - The act of cutting off a part of your pinky; more prevalent in the older days of the yakuzas, but is done when a yakuza may have offended or disrespected their oyabun, and is asking for forgiveness. The origin of this goes back to days of the samurais when swords were used, since cutting off their pinky would make it harder for them hold a sword.

Yubizume cartoon

Yubizume is the at of cutting a finger. This can be done when leaving the clan, asking for forgiveness, or re-entry.

シャブ (shabu) - A slang for 覚せい剤 (kakuseizai); a type of methamphetamine which is one of the most popular illegal drugs in Japan that yakuzas are known to deal. It's a form of crystal meth and is created to be highly addictive. It can also be found in other countries such as Hong Kong and Philippines. Don’t get this mixed up with しゃぶしゃぶ (shabu shabu), which is a delicious pork hot pot dish, quite the opposite of the drug.

Shabu shabu foodThis is the hot pot dish and is extremely popular in the wintertime because it's great for warming the body.

水商売 (mizushoubai) - literally translated as water business; an euphemism for the nighttime entertainment business such as bars, clubs, prostitution, etc. Many yakuzas step foot into this type of business.

Girls from hostess club game

Girls in the nightlife industry include many foreigners in Japan. If and when they are found to be working in this industry, they will become permanently deported from Japan.

ポリ公 (pori kou) - Slang for police, the “kou” originally comes from, 公爵 (koushaku), which is used to describe a prince or a duke, but is now used as an insult for a group of people, for example アメ公 (amekou) for Americans, and イタ公 (itakou) for Italians.

殴り込み (nagurikomi) - to invade; 殴る means to punch, so literally it means to go punch. A family of yakuza may say this when they want to go fight a rival family.

足を洗う (ashi wo arau) - to leave the yakuza family/business, to get clean; literally translates to “wash your feet”

Hopefully, you won’t run into any yakuzas, and you won’t have to use these type of vocab in your everyday Japanese, but nonetheless, now you can go watch some more amazing yakuza movies and TV shows!

Japanese Yakuza are nice and aren't as scary as cockroaches!