Unlike other criminal organizations throughout the world, the yakuza are not interested in keeping a low profile: they don’t hide, in fact in many Japanese cities their clubs and general headquarters are designated by signs which are clearly out in the open.

The yakuza are organized into a hierarchical pyramid-like structure: at the top is the patriarch and his subordinates are organized beneath him, stratified at various levels of descending rank. Their governing principle is the “oyabun-kobun” relationship: oyabun literally means “paternal role”, while kobun means “filial role”. Anyone who decides to become a yakuza must accept this kind of relationship, and must pledge loyalty and undisputed obedience to his leader. The oyabun, like every godfather, is obligated to guarantee protection, help and advise his “children”, even in choices and difficulties linked to their private lives. In exchange, as an ancient Japanese proverb says “If your leader says that the crow flying by is white, you must agree with him.” A yakuza motto says: “The kobun must be willing to be a teppodama (bullet) for his oyabun”.

Famous bandit Ishikawa Goemon
Famous bandit Ishikawa Goemon, via Pinterest

If a member of the yakuza does not respect this code, he is punished with the yubizume.

This means that his immediate superior will hand him a knife and a tourniquet to stop the hemorrhaging… words are not necessary, because the kobun already knows that he must amputate the last phalanx of his little finger. This punishment goes back to the days of the samurai, when that kind of amputation seriously weakened the samurai’s ability to defend himself from other men’s swords, making him even more subjugated to his leader. Today this mutilation is purely symbolic, but it has a strong psychological impact which serves to transmit an image of strength and authority on the part of the organization and its leaders, in order to guarantee respect and obedience from the kobun. There’s an old yakuza saying: “Keep an eye on your enemies, but especially keep an eye on your friends”.

… If you liked this, stay tuned for part #3