Tokyo Vice: Is The Yakuza Japan’s Mafia?

HBO Max’s Tokyo Vice goes on a ride-along with yakuza, Japan’s biggest mobsters.

anida Ayumi in Tokyo Vice
Photo: HBO Max

Tokyo Vice, which premiered on HBO Max on April 7, is a series adaptation of Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan, the 2009 memoir by Jake Adelstein, played by Ansel Elgort in the series. He was the first non-Japanese reporter ever hired by Yomiuri Shimbun, one of the biggest and most respected newspapers in Japan. 

Adelstein is the only American on the crime beat at the paper, and is given an outsider’s help. In the series, he is taken under the wing by Hiroto Katagiri, played by Ken Watanabe, a detective in the organized crime division. He is investigating his own group of outsiders. Adelstein ultimately fled Japan when an article for The Washington Post got him in trouble with the yakuza mob.

The yakuza are well known in Japan. They inspired fan magazines, manga, and have been the subject of quite a few gangster films. For reference, some of the classics of the genre are  Sympathy For The Underdog (1971), directed by Kinji Fukasaku; Kôsaku Yamashita’s Red Peony Gambler (1968), and Sonatine (1993), written, directed and starring Takeshi Kitano. Hollywood’s best offering is the now-cult-classic The Yakuza (1974) directed by Sydney Pollack, and starring Robert Mitchum. But most of what Americans know about the Yakuza, we’ve learned from Adelstein.

What Is The Yakuza?

Tokyo Vice was created and written by J.T. Rogers. The director of the pilot is Michael Mann, known as “the godfather” of Miami Vice, and the yakuza shares many attributes with the mafia. Both the American Mafia and the Yakuza hit their peak memberships during the 1960s. The U.S. mafia gave buttons to 5,000 members, a number which has remained fairly steady. Composed of about 3,000 separate, tightly-knit gangs, yakuza hit about 184,000 members during the decade. Between 1992 and 2010, membership averaged 80,000 members. During the same period, the Russian mob counted about 100,000 members, but they are made of a loose conglomeration of over 5,000 criminal groups.

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Yakuza operate almost entirely in Japan, as opposed to the mafia or Russian mob, which have an international presence. Yakuza families occasionally partner with outside organizations to import weapons, drugs and other products otherwise difficult to get in their country. Lile the mafia, yakuza’s criminal activities include illegal gambling, loan sharking, extortion, prostitution, smuggling, and drug trafficking.

Like the mafia, yakuza organizations are structured as families, and organized like corporations. Each clan is run by a patriarch, called a kumicho. Lieutenants, under-bosses and minor gang leaders answer to him. The key to the hierarchy is a father-son relationship, called oyabun-kobun. While in mafia families omerta goes without saying, yakuza membership is promoted openly

Crime syndication is illegal in America, and organized mobsters conceal their activities to fly under the radar of RICO laws. Japan recognizes yakuza membership as a legitimate right to assembly. The groups work with banks, corporations, and authorities. Yakuza openly participate in politics, endorsing candidates, and enjoying ties without scandal. They do it legally in public, and less so behind closed doors. Yakuza members carry business cards with the name of their crime syndicate. They also grant interviews to journalists.

Yakuza Roots and Origins

The yakuza are deeply ingrained in Japanese culture, tracing their roots to 17th century Samurai warriors. While specific origins are vague, the yakuza could have begun as groups of rōnin, or “masterless samurai.” Outlaw gangs, called the hatamoto-yakko, or servants of the shogun, broke bad and started pillaging villages. Other factions formed vigilante groups who defended those villages from the rogue samurai, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Their lineage may also be traced to two roving gangs which emerged during the prosperous and peaceful Edo period (1603 – 1868). The bakuto, who were gamblers, and the tekiya, who were a class of outcasts living below the caste system. The word yakuza means “good for nothing,” and the organization’s association is believed to have come from a worthless hand in a card game. But members never fold. The two groups organized and expanded into extortion, loan sharking, and other criminal operations.

Also called bōryokudan or gokudō, Japanese police officially classify these organizations as bōryokudan, or “violence groups,” like gangsters. The gangs, however, cast themselves as protectors of outcasts, and call themselves ninkyō dantai, or “chivalrous organizations.”

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This also parallels the origins of la cosa nostra, or “this thing of ours.” The Mafia began in Sicily sometime between 1812 and 1861, but the tradition of men of honor can be traced back to the story of “The Night of Sicilian Vespers,” according to Joseph Bonanno’s autobiography A Man of Honor. The March 30, 1282 revolt against French occupation is the only recorded incident in medieval times where a monarch was removed from power by the general population.

The yakuza follow a strict code of behavior, discipling members who break those codes. One of these punishments involves the tradition of yubitsume, cutting off the top joint of the left pinky finger and presenting the nub to the boss as an apology. The custom originated during the Edo period, when losing a finger enforced teamwork because swords were the primary weapon, and excessive displays were foolhardy. Japan currently has extremely harsh gun laws, and many yakuza bosses have banned the use of firearms entirely. Some yakuza groups reportedly required members to take a written exam on yakuza power structures and Japanese laws.

The Modern Yakuza

Tokyo police credit yakuza organizations for keeping down petty crime because they keep their own watch over the areas under their control. In 2013, a yakuza group was sued for taking monthly protection money and still being threatened by mobsters.

The tattoos are real. Yakuza bodysuit tattoos can also be traced to the Edo period, when prisoners were branded with tattoos. Yakuza tattoos cover both arms, parts of the chest, legs, and the entire back. According to a 60 Minutes report, many members develop liver disease.

Yakuza groups provided relief after the 1995 Kobe earthquake, the 2011 earthquake and tsunami which devastated the area off the coast of Tōhoku, in Northeastern Japan, and the 2016 Kumamoto earthquakes.

Japan’s gangsters always had their own approach to banking. During the 1980s and 1990s, many yakuza groups managed hedge funds, adopting corporate structures and investing in speculative real estate. Knowing the market made it easier for them to pull what The Sopranos and Goodfellas calls “busting out” a company. The yakuza groups put their own spin on that by blackmailing entire businesses. They would buy a controlling interest in shares of a company, and extort executives and board members during shareholders meetings.

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The worst crime committed in Tokyo Vice is a credit nightmare that makes loan sharks look like goldfish so keep watching to learn more about that! The series digs deep and hits hard at Japan’s most open secret.

The first three episodes of Tokyo Vice premiered on HBO Max on April 7. New episodes premiere every Thursday.