The exact origins of the yakuza are largely shrouded in mystery. It is commonly held that they evolved during the mid-Edo period (between 1603 and 1868 CE) from two different criminal elements in Japanese society: the low class tekiya, who were peddlers and dealt mainly in illicit, stolen or poor-quality goods, and the even lower class bakuto, who ran illegal gambling and loan sharking operations. Tekiya began to organize themselves, and formed groups that rose to some prominence in Japanese society, with leaders of organizations, called "oyabun," gaining traditional symbols of power such as surnames and the right to carry short swords. These groups eventually joined with bakuto, and possibly also with the kabukimono (unemployed samurai who formed gangs in times of peace) and macchi yakko (private police forces who often as not supplemented their income with crime), and formed what is now considered the original yakuza.
In the years following its foundation, the yakuza began to develop the strict formalized ritual that has come to characterize much of their portrayal in popular media. They remained fairly lucrative criminal enterprises until the Second World War came to Japan. The traditional yakuza entered a period of sharp decline as the island came under strict military rule for the duration of the war. When it ended in 1945, the yakuza were quick to adapt to life under American occupation. As it was a time of scarcity, especially of essential goods like food, the yakuza took control of the black market, which thrived under their control until the end of American occupation in 1952. They continued to expand following the departure of the Americans, and expanded to other countries as well. Though not as wide-spread as the Mafia, there are well-established organizations in America, North Korea and Mexico, as well as in other countries.
Modern operations are engaged in protection rackets, extortion (especially sokaiya, a specialized form that involves threatening stockholders), blackmail, human trafficking, prostitution, and smuggling. Some organizations, notably the Yamaguchi-gumi, forbid trafficking in drugs, while others do not. Many yakuza clans also have ties to legitimate businesses, and operate in a semi-legal capacity. They are something of a Japanese institution, and despite their illegal nature they participate in a variety of festivals in Japan, and during the 2011 tsunami members of the Yamaguchi-gumi mobilized and provided disaster relief.
Currently there are estimated to be between just under 90,000 and just over 100,000 active yakuza members spread across a number of clans, of which Yamaguchi-gumi, Sumiyoshi-kai, and Inagawa-kai are the largest, together comprising about 85% of all yakuza membership. Many members are young, and often drawn from groups that are traditional outcasts, such as the burakumin and Korean immigrants, who together make up an estimated 70% of modern yakuza organizations despite together comprising only about 0.51% of the total population of Japan. Members are recognizable by the full-body tattoos that many possess, called "irezumi." These are usually covered up in public, to hide the member's yakuza affiliation from civilians. Some members are also recognizable by the removed tip of their left little finger, which is removed as an expression of apology or penance in a ritual called "yubitsume'.
Major Story Arcs
The yakuza figure prominently in comics and manga that are set in Japan. Often they are featured as antagonists, though they have occasionally been shown to take a protagonist into the fold. As the yakuza are noted for their exceptionally strict codes of honour and loyalty, they are generally portrayed as less corrupt than most other forms of organized crime, but are no less violent.
In Other Media
Portrayal of the yakuza is largely limited to Asian popular media, though they have occasionally made appearances in Western media as well. Yakuza film is an entire subgenre that is popular in Japan.