Good Morning Speakeasy Readers!
Today we are going to dive into the history of the Yakuza and their infamous tattoos that have become iconic to modern society today. The Yakuza are a collection of feared Japanese mafia groups who sometimes have elaborate tattoos and severed pinky fingers!
The Yakuza have been in existence for more than 300 years. Their exact origination is unknown, and in my search I found that you’ll find many different tellings on how this group began. Some believe the Yakuza originated from groups of kabukimono who were wandering samurais that formed street gangs during times of peace. The kabukimono were known to act oddly and outrageously, dress in showy clothing, and wear strange haircuts. Kabukimono were violent and had unsociable behavior such as not paying at restaurants or robbing townsfolk. There were even cases where they would cut someone down just to test a new sword.
Another idea is that the Yakuza originated from bands of villagers who gathered to fight their abusers. These people were known as machi-yakko (“servants of the town”). The machi-yakko consisted of people like clerks, shopkeepers, innkeepers, laborers, homeless warriors and other ronin. Everyone who was a part of the machi-yakko was an adept gambler. Despite this being an illegal group, the townspeople deeply respected them for taking a stand to protect the town from violent gangs. They were the power of the people and became Robin Hood-esque folk heroes. There are many other origin stories of how the Yakuza began, but these two were my favorite.
In the 1700’s the yakuza began organizing into families, and united with each other for mutual protection. The group began to control booths at fairs and markets and developed a reputation for shoddy merchandise and deceptive salesmanship. They also played a big role in gambling in Japan.
In the 1800’s, the yakuza grew and started recruiting members from construction and dock jobs, and even began to control the rickshaw business. At this time some group members even became involved in politics. They cooperated with the government in exchange for official sanction and some freedom from the government.
In the 1900’s approximately 5,200 yazuka gangs were operating throughout Japan and the number of group members between all the gangs were about 184,000 members. From 1912-1926 the yakuza adopted tattoos as a form of identification and loyalty. The yakuza began marking themselves with tattoos as a way to show their allegiance to a particular gang or family, and to indicate their rank within the organization. They were a well-organized group and operated with support from some government officials. These gangs controlled many businesses, engaged in sophisticated gambling and loan sharking activities, and invested heavily in sports and other entertainment. They also became involved in drugs, money lending, smuggling, and pornography.
In modern-day Japan, the Yakuza extort, smuggle, blackmail, run prostitution rings, engage in drug trafficking, run restaurants and bars, and many other businesses in Japan. They are seen as running their gangs for protection and survival, by legal and illegal means, rather than having the exclusive purpose to go out and hurt people. They are often glorified with dignity and, in a sense, justice. For example, the leader of the Yamaguchi Gumi (one of the most powerful Yazuka groups today) spoke to a newspaper and described his sect of the Yakuza as a charitable entity that exists to help Japanese citizens when they are in trouble. One example of this is in 2011 when Japan was devastated by one of the most brutal earthquakes and tsunamis it had ever had. Homes were torn to shreds, but the Yakuza came with a fleet of at least 70 trucks full of food, water, blankets, and more.
As you can see this is a very complicated group to understand. On one hand they live a life of crime that can harm others, and on the other hand throughout history and today they help in times of crisis because of something called the “Ninkyo Code.” It’s a principle every Yakuza claims to live by, one that forbids them to allow anyone else to suffer. There is so much more that could be said about the Yakuza gangs and I highly recommend looking into it, they are a very complex and fascinating group/gang/mafia.
Now let’s move on and take a look into the beautiful Yakuza tattoos.
In Japan, tattoos have been taboo for a really long time, but finally they are slowly moving in a direction of being normalized especially amongst the younger generation. While the younger generations are starting to get tattoos and feel they should become more normalized there are a lot of people in Japan who associate tattoos with criminals largely due to the Yakuza gangs. If you have a tattoo in Japan this could prevent you from getting a job or even bathing in certain spas.
Yakuza tattoos are often elaborate and intricate, covering a large portion of the body. They are typically depicted in a traditional Japanese style, using images of dragons, tigers, samurai warriors, and geisha. Each of these images holds its own symbolism and meaning within yakuza culture. One of the most common yakuza tattoos is the full body suit, called irezumi. This tattoo covers the entire body, with the exception of the hands, feet, and face. The irezumi is thought to represent the yakuza's commitment to their gang, and their willingness to endure pain and hardship for their organization. Another popular yakuza tattoo is the koi fish, which is known for its resilience and strength. It is believed that having a koi fish tattoo grants the wearer the strength and determination to overcome adversity and hardship.
Receiving a yakuza tattoo is a very long process, often taking years to complete. The tattoo artist, called a horishi, will use traditional Japanese methods, called tebori which means to hand carve. This process is a dying art form that few still practice today. It consists of hand tattooing using a slender bamboo or metal tool with a group of needles attached to the tip. The artwork is made by repeatedly and rhythmically working the ink into the skin by using a poking technique. Receiving a tattoo through the tebori method can take several sessions, with each session lasting several hours. For the full body-suits that the yakuza receive, it can take up to a year to complete with weekly secessions.
For the Yakuza, they believe tattoos are private and while they commit to full body-suits of tattoos, they keep their tattoo covered away most of the time. “I never tattoo above the neck or on hands. I believe the beauty is in what you can’t see.” says tattoo artist Horiyoshi III. Horiyoshi III is one of the most legendary tattoo artists in Japan and he's also the favored tattooist of the Yakuza.
The history of yakuza tattoos is complex and fascinating, and deeply rooted in Japanese culture and history. While these tattoos have become a popular symbol for the yakuza, they hold a deeper meaning for those who wear them. The yakuza tattoo tradition is a reflection of the yakuza's commitment to their organization, their heritage, and their values. I personally think these tattoos are beautiful as do many others. Many people who have no affiliation with the yakuza get tattoos done in this style. While they may not realize it all began with a gang that is still active today, many people will get tattoos in this style for their love and appreciation of Japanese legends, symbolism, and art.
I hope you enjoyed learning about this as much as I did. Have a wonderful weekend.
Until next time my fellow apes,