According to some people, the Yakuza descend from the kabuki-mono (the crazy ones), those former samurai who were known for their gaudy and strange clothing and hairstyles, the special dialect they spoke and the exaggeratingly long swords they wore tucked into their belts.

In the seventeenth century, Japan – exhausted by centuries of devastating wars – decided to close its borders, live in autocracy, and thus isolate itself from the rest of the world. In this way, the country was finally able to experience a long period of peace, known as Tokugawa.

During that period the samurai or hatamoto-yakko, (the shogun servants) who up to that moment had been considered as precious soldiers serving the feudal lords and had been honored as heroes, found themselves useless and without a job due to peaceful times. They were used to following a strict discipline which was dictated by authoritarian leaders, and finding themselves without guidance at that time, they felt lost and would drift aimlessly around the country (this is why they were nicknamed the “human wave”).

They organized themselves into gangs and would raid cities and towns, pillaging and terrorizing the population.

They were brutal in an unprecedented way, and as they were linked to one another through strong ties of loyalty and solidarity, they were ready to die or even turn against their own families in order to protect one of their own.
Nowadays, the yakuza refuse this theory about their origins and consider themselves to be descendants of the machi-yokko (servants of the city): groups of “good bandits” who rose up in the city in order to protect the poor and weak from the arrogance and oppression of the hatamoto-yakko.

Members of the Yakuza belong to three different categories: tekiya (roving vendors and drug dealers), bakuto (who managed gambling) and gurentai (who dealt in extortion and intimidation).

Kunisada Benten Kozo from Toyokuni Manga Zue
Kunisada Benten Kozo from Toyokuni Manga Zue

At the end of World War Two, the yakuza took advantage of the nation’s loss of governing power due to the occupation, and spread their power even further: they substituted the old swords with the more modern weapons available to them, and led organized crime to levels of violence that had never been witnessed before.

For the yakuza, it was a good thing to be an outlaw, and they openly declared this through the name they gave themselves: “YA” means “8”, KU “9” and SA “3”; the sum of these numbers is 20, the “losing hand” score in the card game hana-fuda (cards of flowers). Thus they considered themselves the “losing hands of society”, a definition which resembles that slogan, “Born to Lose”, which U.S. bikers have tattooed on their biceps.