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The Yakuza Code Of Ethics: Compliance In the Underworld


Oct 15, 2011

The yakuza, Japan’s organized crime groups, have close to 79,000 members. It’s very hard to understand why they are tolerated in Japanese society and not simply banned. Part of the reason for this is that for many years the yakuza observed, to some extent, a set of internal codes which made them appear to be a effective deterrent against street crime: robbery, muggings, theft, sexual assault.

Each group has its own code of ethics, usually posted on the wall of the organization offices. The rules are intended to prevent yakuza from being involved in ordinary street crime, such as purse snatching or mugging. Some groups actually adhere to the rules.

The Yakuza claim to be humanitarian fellowships and while engaging in numerous criminal activity, traditionally they have internally banned certain types of crimes. Those who break the rules were expelled.

Depending upon the Oyabun (father figure), the leader of a group, violators are quickly expelled. The code here forbids: 1) the usage or selling of drugs, 2) theft 3) robbery, 4) indecent acts (猥褻) and anything else that would be shameful under ninkyodo (仁侠道) aka the chivalrous/humanitarian way.  The other rules are about relationships amongst yakuza. What is a fairly recent addition to the code is “do not have any unnecessary contact with the authorities.”  In the old days, it was not uncommon for detectives to drop by yakuza offices and have chats over tea. One thing that should be noted, extortion and black mail are not expressly forbidden. One yakuza boss explains this as follows: “If you’re being blackmailed by the yakuza, obviously you’ve done something bad and deserve it. We’re enforcing social justice and fining people for their misbehavior. What’s wrong with that?”

I spoke with one yakuza who argued that the Sokaiya (racketeers) 総会屋 actually functioned as a the fourth estate in Japan. By digging up embarrassing information on large corporations and threatening to expose them, they would sometime force the companies to correct the error of their ways and behave in a socially responsible fashion. Of course, the primary motivation of the sokaiya wasn’t social welfare but their own profits. However, I’m willing to consider all opinions.

The reasons the police are cracking down on the yakuza like they never have before is that there is barely a semblance of even lip service to the old codes. As one yakuza boss put it rather eloquently, “When the yakuza rob people, deal drugs, when they attack civilians, their family members, or their children–they’re no longer yakuza, they’re just mafia. We have existed this long because the police have allowed us to exist and we have cooperated with them to some extent. Those days are gone. We are being replaced internally and externally by thugs and gangs who make no pretense of having any codes at all. I’m not sure that will make Japan a better place.”


27 thoughts on “The Yakuza Code Of Ethics: Compliance In the Underworld”
  1. I think maybe its time to distinguish the Yakuza so that those who follow the old rules of the Yakuza are called something different then the other groups who have no rules. If you are shunned from the Yakuza, where do you go from there, is there a support group? How does the police know if you’ve been kicked out of the Yakuza and are acting alone? It just seems so complicated.

  2. today more than 30% of Yakuzas are the korean though old yakuzas fought against the korean in japan
    they bring drugs from north korea. they dont Have the mind of old fascion’s yakuza

    1. Korea is a Christian country, Japan is Shinto. Japan has room for codes and ethics built around chivalry and such romantic notions. As the Japanese say, Koreans are hot blooded, and have a temper. Japan is a bit more reflective – I don’t think Yakuza will go away – personally I think they will replace the goons with no respect – as the gangsters in the U.S. once had respect for working class people and weren’t such bad people. I feel a Renaissance coming of the old way of doing things replacing the ultra greedy – simply because the new way isn’t working out.

  3. There are Korean yakuza who keep the old codes as well. The collapse of the yakuza ethical code can’t simply be blamed on the Koreans. Look at Goto Tadamasa, he’s very Japanese. It’s people like him who destroyed yakuza society and created the anti-organized crime laws.

  4. “It’s very hard to understand why they are tolerated in Japanese society and not simply banned.”

    Am I the only one in the room who finds this sentence completely ridiculous and absurd? What the writer is asking is “why doesn’t the government outlaw an underworld organization?” Duh? If they weren’t outside the law already, they wouldn’t be underworld, would they? Or do you think they need to file a business permit with the government to run a Yakuza organization?

    This writer confuses issues here. Seems like another socialist who thinks the government can legislate morals, habits and associations… You know, like how drunk driving is banned or driving without a seatbelt or even eating Fugu not prepared by a pro or even gambling?… Wow! You mean even though those are against the law, people still do it?

    Who’d a thunk it?

    1. The yakuza are recognized organizations by the Japanese government. They are regulated and monitored but their existence is not illegal per se. You note: “why doesn’t the government outlaw an underworld organization?” That’s not what I wrote.
      If you’d like to understand more about how the yakuza are semi-legitimate entities please go to the National Police Agency Website and download the following file. It should answer most of your questions.
      It may be that regulating organized crime groups rather than banning them works better at maintaining public order than banning them and driving them completely underground.

    1. You make some interesting points and i agree with you on many of them. The War on Drugs has turned into a War on The Poor. People with money and health care and social standing get doctor to prescribe them legal drugs on flimsy reasons so they can be happy while the less fortunate buy illegal street drugs, and if caught go to jail. Thank you for the comments.
      However, I do believe that if you don’t regulate the finance industry and the yakuza–that they will run amuck. Deregulation is the gateway to large criminal acts and plutocracy in many cases. Just a personal opinion.

  5. […] An interesting item on the codes of Japanese organized crime gangs by Jake Adelstein. Share this:TwitterLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. This entry was posted in Crime, Culture, Japan and tagged Crime, Culture, Jake Adelstein, Japan, Yakuza by Tom Arrison. Bookmark the permalink. […]

  6. hey

    im working with a project about yakuza. i need to know why people are going in to those groups.
    it would be great so we can finish our project.
    answer as quickly as possible.

  7. Oldest clans like yamaguchi-gumi still follow the code and believe yakuza is way better than American mafia or any other criminal organisation for the atleast have some code of ethics

  8. Is this what loyalty gets you. Needles in your sleep! From the blacks. I have picture to show. Yakuza has a scar to give to Zimbabwe woman.

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