Yakuza are criminals who are organized into criminal organizations somewhat like the Mafia in the US and Italy. For many decades, the yakuza were a relatively minor type of criminal, but in recent decades, they have become more of a problem. Until the early 1960s yakuza concentrated on gambling, especially pachinko, and the entertainment industry where prostitution and protection rackets were profitable. They tended to be relatively unaggressive outside of these activities. Recruitment is frequently through gambling or in recent years, motorcycle gangs.
In the last few decades, yakuza have expanded into drugs and other more serious criminal activity. They have also moved into sophisticated activities. For example, yakuza have often purchased a small number of stocks in a company and then raised embarrassing issues about the company. Companies frequently pay large amounts of money in order to ensure that the yakuza keep quiet, a form of extortion. Some companies employ the yakuza so that the company is not subjected to extortion or embarrassment by other yakuza or by legitimate stockholders.
Politicians and political parties, especially the conservative ones, have a long relationship with yakuza. They have often relied on yakuza to rough up opponents or protect supporters. As the criminals have moved into more ‘legitimate’ types of business, they have often formed conduits between companies and politicians. Former Prime Minister Takeshita Noboru has been attacked for allegedly receiving money donated through the yakuza.
The values and social organization of yakuza are usually very conservative. They profess the traditional values such as loyalty to their boss, which they express by slicing off the tip of a finger, and strong nationalism. Many are members of some of the extreme right-wing organizations which cruise through the streets in large sound trucks which blare out demands (‘Return the Northern Territories’, a demand that Russia return four islands seized at the end of World War II) and martial music. The concurrent growth of yakuza wealth and power and the rise of radical rightist sentiment causes limited worry by some social commentators.