It feels good to be a gangsta

17 Jan

In Japan there’s a card game called Oicho-Kabu, similar to blackjack. The worst hand you can get is an eight, a nine, and a three; this is referred to as ya-ku-za.

In America the mafia is a secret underground organisation. Not so with the Japanese mafia, or Yakuza. They walk the streets in flashy suits and garish sunglasses, strutting through Tokyo (and every other major city). Their offices often have street signs outside the building, advertising their group name and services. These services include prostitution rings, extortion/protection rackets, blackmailing companies, international drug trafficking, and weapons smuggling. They won’t do theft; that’s reserved for non-yakuza. It’s a matter of principle. The media refers to them as boryokudan (violence group), as mandated by the police. The Yakuza refer to themselves as chivalrous business organisations.

I first heard of the Yakuza while browsing the shelves at my local video game store. Yakuza for the Playstation 2 was developed in 2005, released in Japan as Ryu ga Gotoku (Like A Dragon). The Yakuza series follows the adventures of Kazuma Kiryu, a former Yakuza member. Freshly released from prison at the start of the first game, it chronicles his adventures in the organised crime world. They’re enjoyable games, especially if you like picking up a sandwich board off the sidewalk and then beating someone over the head with it. The Yakuza series has excellent story lines, enjoyable mini-games, and the aforementioned excessive violence. I have to confess that what fascinated me the most were the tattoos.

I have a couple of tattoos myself, and may end up with more in the future. Neither are large; they are things that have meant something to me at different parts of my life. I don’t regret them.
Many Yakuza have full back or body tattoos, elaborate designs ranging anywhere from dragons to flowers. The tattoos are commonly done in the traditional style, Irezumi, punched by hand into the skin using a needle and ink. These can take years of weekly visits to complete, and hundreds of thousands of yen (about US $30,000 for a full body tattoo). Irezumi tattoo artists often operate underground, their business entirely derived from word of mouth. While tattoos are gaining popularity again in Japan, it’s still not uncommon to see signs outside of a public bath banning people with tattoos. They retain their cultural association with criminals, and with the Yakuza.

The tattoos are commonly concealed under flashy business suits in public, but Kazuma Kiryu didn’t seem to have a problem ripping his shirt off when appropriate. Despite being a criminal organisation, the Yakuza are far from underground, and the tattoos are another part of being easily recognizable. You don’t mess with a Yakuza. He might break a sandwich board over your head.

Stay tuned for next week when I talk about Bosozoku, or Japanese motorcyle/car gangs. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a guy drive down the freeway at 10mph with exhaust pipes attached to the hood of his car.


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