Known for their suits, pop culture relevance, missing fingers, full-body tattoos, and real-life crimes, the Yakuza are a series of Japanese clans (both large and small) engaged in organized crime throughout the world. While the Yakuza engage in just about anything that’s profitable (as most organized crime does), from loansharking and shakedowns to prostitution, human trafficking, and construction, they have a history of being unofficially tolerated, with cultural relevance that dates back to the feudal days. And while their numbers have drastically fallen, there’s still an endless fascination attached to the Yakuza, especially in Hollywood. But where do they come from, and why do they sport such amazing body art?

The complex history of the Yakuza

For about a century, Japan was deeply divided and drenched in blood. Near-constant conflict plagued the island nation, which had fragmented into single, isolated regions ruled by local warlords, the powerful daimyo. Three central figures unified the country through conquest, warfare, and politics, making way for a long period of peace up until the modern age.

But to enforce this peace, the shogunate (a central government run by a top general, the shogun) strictly instated a policy of national isolation, and a brutal caste system, with each daimyo at the top; followed by their samurai retainers, society’s warrior class; followed by the farmer and the artisans, the peasants; and lastly bookended by the merchants.

However, there was a final, exiled class of people during this era of Japanese history: the burakumin, outcasts of society who endured discrimination up until modernity, composed of those who abandoned their land to follow samurai encampments during the warring period, only to turn to vagrancy and an eclectic mix of professions to survive without land to live on.

Burakumin – The Untouchables

When the Tokugawa shogunate banned Christianity and enforced Chinese Confucianism, concepts of purity and pollution applied to humans and their blood relatives, and the burakumin continued to face ostracization as they often worked in ‘blood-tainted’ industries such as tanning and hunting.

The concept of impurity associated with these professions also stemmed from a centuries-old tradition of Buddhist vegetarianism, stemming from cultural imports out Korea and China during the 6th century, when Japan’s native Shinto beliefs were slowly challenged by the Buddhist concepts of reincarnation in nature (hence, no meat). While the Japanese still enjoyed meat on occasion (wild game and fowl, and sometimes even pig and cow), most of their diet was seafood, rice, and vegetables.

So, how did the burakumin survive? By sticking together. Well into the Edo period, two major groups among the burakumin formed tight-knit organizations as tekiya (festival and market peddlers) and bakuto (gamblers). The tekiya organized first, running protection rackets by collecting from market or festival stalls, and engaging in turf wars. They acted as security during various cultural festivals in exchange for money. Recognizing the problem with ongoing turf wars, the shogunate interfered by appointing a single clan member as oyabun, or boss, giving them the right to carry a weapon like the samurai class.

The bakuto organized later. Because gambling was (and still is) illegal in Japan, they had to work in secret, fleecing the public through rigged dice and card games. Naturally, as they began collecting on debts, this behavior evolved into loansharking.

The tekiya and the bakuto merged into the Yakuza, which is a term believed to originate from a number pun based on a worthless hand in an old card game (yattsu for 8, ku for 9, and san for 3). Because the tekiya and bakuto were still outcasts, or ‘useless people/losers’, they embraced the term with pride.

Why is the full-body tattoo associated with the Yakuza?

It was during the Edo period that the practice of tattooing also originated among the Yakuza. Bestowed with some significant purchasing power as a result of their successful operations, the Yakuza wanted a way to flaunt their wealth without immediately drawing the attention of local authorities.

At the time, the merchant class (which was historically at the bottom of the food chain, but grew massively in power due to fixed taxes and the weaning power of the shogunate) sought status by getting tattoos from famous ukiyo-e woodblock artists, who later formed their own craft in the form of tebori irezumi (tebori refers to the technique, and irezumi means ‘to insert ink’), or traditional Japanese tattooing.

Both irezumi and ukiyo-e grew in popularity due to the import of fictional works from China, the growth of traditional theater (kabuki), and the proliferation of art and artisanship during a long period of peace. The practice of irezumi was not limited to the merchants and the Yakuza, but open to just about anyone who wanted to get a tattoo. It was particularly common among dockworkers, firefighters, construction workers, and other hard professions that sought divine protection at work or simply a way to save their skin from the sun.

However, it was still overall limited in popularity for two reasons:

  • The nature of widespread Confucianism and filial piety, which dictated that one should not damage one’s own body, for it is a gift from one’s ancestors,
  • And the centuries-old practice of branding criminals with facial tattoos, and forearm marks, which first associated tattooing with criminality.

Tattooing was also a common practice among the women of the Ainu, Japan’s northern indigenous people, who were largely shunned or isolated to the north. These factors all served to stem the growth of tattooing in Japan, until it was banned altogether during the Meiji Restoration, at which point the central government cracked down on the Ainu and Kyushu natives, and banned tattoos to project a more ‘sophisticated’ image to foreign would-be invaders. Irezumi went underground but continued to be a practiced artform among the Yakuza and others. However, the fame of Japanese art was not lost to the West. Several figures of Western nobility visited Japan for its tattoos, with some notable members of English and Russian royalty even getting tattoos in Japan during the 19th century.

However, with the legal ban on tattoos, a decline in regular public bath visits (where people would have spotted more body work among normal folks), and the creation of several popular TV and big screen productions showcasing the Yakuza and their various traditions (including irezumi), Japan’s post-WWII generation grew up with the belief that almost only gangsters get tattoos.

In a way, life imitated art, as the fear of the Yakuza and their dreaded tattoos led to a long period where tattooing is considered a cultural taboo, despite a long history of tattoos among non-criminal elements of Japanese society (including workers, merchants, and indigenous people). To this day, this means that many establishments in Japan will discriminate based on visible tattoos, including restaurants, gyms, hot springs, and inns. However, with the recent acquittal of a tattoo artist arrested for tattooing people without a medical license (which is technically illegal, yet usually overlooked), and the upcoming Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games bringing a lot of expected travel traffic to Japan, many feel that there is a need for change.

Why do Yakuza get tattooed?

For several reasons. For one, it was tradition, both among the men and the women who dedicated themselves to their patriarchs. While the Yakuza have always made a point of only tattooing where it could be covered up (hence stopping short of hands, feet, and neck), the complex irezumi of a Yakuza gangster held intense symbolic meaning for each one. Irezumi artists would interview their clients about what it is they wanted, and how it should depict their life and ambitions.

Many motifs in Japanese irezumi culture stem from various legends, historical moments, and Chinese mythology – including the rising dragon, the red koi fish, the legendary swordsman Musashi Miyamoto, and countless gods and heroes. These artworks would not only mark one with a certain level of status, but they could be a way to identify likeminded individuals among other clans or within the same clan when Yakuza would meet at the bath house.

In more recent years, there’s been a lot of moving away from the tattoo among the Yakuza. After all, when it’s something that’s been so intensely associated with your organization in recent decades, it makes sense to stop doing it, especially if you don’t care about tradition quite as much as your elders. But before the practice declined, the Yakuza placed great value on a tattoo for much the same reasons it became a common practice among cultures throughout history: for identification, to assert a macho spirit, and to symbolize the embodiment of a specific concept or ask for the protection of a figure or god.

Ironically, despite it being a cultural taboo over there, many foreigners specifically go to Japan to meet and be tattooed by irezumi masters. Western foreigners have been enamored with Japanese art since the days of first contact between Japan and Portugal, and that’s unlikely to change anytime soon. It’s likely that as times shift, Japanese tattoo artists will continue to largely enjoy the patronage of more and more tourists and eccentric locals, and fewer Yakuza.