History & Culture

Japanese underworld: from Samurai to Yakuza

The Japanese underworld resembles one of the most interesting philosophies on earth. The ideas behind the samurai concept date back to at least 1000 years in Japan and are based on Confucian ethics, adapted to a world dominated by war. The law that the samurai obeyed and followed until his death was Bushido—the way of the warrior. The Samurai had been an influential and prestigious part of Japanese society for centuries. However, since the 1600s, the Tokugawa shogunate (one-man rule) reduced the opportunities of war. Peace and prosperity led to the rise of the merchant classes, and the warriors were largely isolated from society.

The 1868 Meiji reforms ravaged the feudal world. Many samurai were deeply injured by these reforms, which they saw them as a betrayal of their lifestyle and the true nature of Japan. Nevertheless, the samurai exemplified several recent Japanese organizations and establishments, one of which was the infamous Yakuza.

Japanese underworld

Mon crests

From the 12th century in Feudal Japan, decisive badges – mon or kamon – were used on the battlefields, armor, banners, and almost any personal objects. Unlike the complicated tradition of western armament, each mon generally consisted of a single flamboyant symbol in a circle; the color was insignificant. The coat of arms could be a military motive like an arrow, or an animal symbol like the butterfly of the Taira clan. However, the most common were plant motives.

The eldest son of the family usually inherited his father's arms, and younger sons used a slightly different kind of motive. As a result, there are 10,000 patterns registered today. The only arm that was absolutely inviolable was the coat of arms of the Emperor and his chief advisor. After the Muromachi period (1336-1753) the social use of the mon became more common. The new merchant class has adapted them to their advertising logos that have survived to the present day.

The seven virtues of Bushido

These virtues were the cornerstones of the samurai warrior principles (they are also almost identical to the "Core Army Values" adopted by the US army in the mid-1990s). Among the many books written on the subject, the best known in the west is Bushido Shoshinshu – the Code of the Samurai. The work was written by the samurai and military strategist of the early 18th century, Taira Shigesuke. The book is still important to reflect the mentality of modern and especially institutional Japan.

Rectitude 義, Courage 勇, Benevolence 仁, Respect 礼(禮), Honor 名誉, Honesty 誠, and Loyalty 忠実.

Seven virtues of the Bushido code.

The legacy of the Samurai: Japanese underworld

The reforms carried out on the road to modernization in the 1860s stimulated the samurai idea in various organizations. Gen'yōsha, the Black Ocean Society, was one of them. Founded in 1881, the association aimed to unite hundreds of secret groups with their own unique codes. This highly successful and aggressive association turned Japan's first elections of 1892 into a bloodbath and triggered the 50-year-long Japanese invasion by assassinating the Korean queen in 1895.

Kokuryu-kai, namely the Black Dragon Society, was founded in 1901. In addition to supporting Japan's policy of spreading to Asia, the association also carried out various acts of violence against student and worker associations; politicians who were perceived as the left-wing, and those who were against the democratization process in general.

The Black Dragon Society collaborated with the gamblers and gangsters of yakuza for the influence which turned into one of the world's leading crime cartels. Yakuza did not have its own traditional policy, so they romanticized the samurai of the past; Thus, a mask of grandeur was put on the actions of crime such as extortion, fraud, prostitution, and human trafficking.


Yakuza people claim that they have invariable moral rules (just like the Italian Mafia) originating from the Bushido. Loyalty in every gumi or gang is extremely important. The hierarchy is strict – as in other parts of Japanese society – and feudal rituals are still performed. However, yakuza is not a secret community; they are part of Japanese politics and business.

So much so that some community headquarters use a nameplate at their doors, just like in companies. Yakuza can be easily recognized even when they do not wear the mon collar pins that reveal their clans. Gaudy clothes, good cars with dark glass, and snippy movements… All of these are qualities that define gangsters all over the world, but it can be said that they are especially descriptive in a country where even the company heads put themselves back.

A photo from September 1993. Making a mistake, Yakuza cuts a joint of his finger and shows it to his oyabun (father-like patron).

Yakuza traditions

Yakuza is also famous for its eye-catching tattoos that cover all their bodies, namely horimono. Such tattoos have always been associated with "wind-driven groups" and have identified those who live on the edge of society. Making tattoos is a sign of group solidarity and physical courage, the declaration of choosing the dark side. When a samurai disappoints his lord, he pays the price by harakiri (seppuku). This was a traditional form of suicide, and today's yakuza pays the cost of the error with yubitsume instead, that is, by cutting a part of the finger.

Organization admission ceremonies and ceremonies that seal the agreements made are of great importance. In these ceremonies, a few glasses of sake are offered in a presentation to the Shinto gods respected by the yakuza. The blood brotherhood ceremonies based on blood exchange are not so popular today due to the risk of HIV.