Highsnobsiety: A Beginner’s Guide to the Yakuza

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Highsnobsiety.com (by Mark Edwards):

Japan is widely-acknowledged to be one of the world’s safest countries. In the Economist’s ‘Safe Cities Index 2015’, two Japanese cities are ranked in the top three, with Tokyo topping the list, and Osaka coming in third place. So, with this in mind, it’s strange to think that Japan is also home to one of the world’s largest and most notorious organized criminal networks – the yakuza.

This iconic underworld of criminals has been made famous in films like Fireworks, Youth of the Beast and Battles Without Honor and Humility, depicting the yakuza as an intimidating bunch famed for their violent behavior. But beyond the simplistic “suits and shades” stereotype of the Japanese mobster, the inner workings of the yakuza are secretive, complex, and as steeped in traditional Japanese values as any other part of the country’s culture.

If you’ve always longed to understand the a little more about the cryptic and labyrinthine honor codes or delicate power balances that underpin this infamous crime syndicate, here’s your chance…

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ORIGINS
The word ‘yakuza’ has its roots in a Japanese card game: a blackjack variant called oicho-kabu. In the game, a three-card-hand’s value is determined by adding each card together, and then using the smaller number from the resulting two-digit figure to indicate a score. For example, when added together, a hand of 8+9+3 = 20. The smaller number in 20 is 0, which means it scores no points. In fact, this is the game’s worst possible hand.

This losing hand of 8-9-3 is referred to ya-ku-za (ya, or yattsu, means ‘eight’; ku means ‘nine’, and za, or san, means ‘three’). The word yakuzaliterally means ‘good for nothing’. And this explains much of Japan’s attitude to the group.

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The word yakuza links back to of the origins of the network, which can be traced back to two Japanese social classifications – gamblers and merchants. During the Edo period in the 17th century, both of these groups were regarded as the dregs of society. Merchants were known as tekiya – peddlers of stolen goods, often with shady reputations. Gamblers were called bakuto, and were known for playing illegal dice and card games.

Both bakuto and tekiya were groups of outcasts, living outside the norms of Japanese society. But this slowly changed. The merchants started to form organised groups that were formally recognized by the Edo government. The gamblers banded together in gambling houses. This eventually led to loan sharking, which required the bakuto to employ their own security personnel.

These embryonic gangs of semi-legitimate criminals and delinquents were regarded by Japanese society with a mixture of fear and contempt. Nevertheless, they attracted new members and gained new influence, and went on to form alliances throughout Japan, eventually being referred to under the collective name: yakuza. These roots can still be seen in today’s yakuza, with some ceremonies still containing elements from the criminal network’s humble trade and gambling origins.

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MEMBERSHIP AND STRUCTURE
In the 1960s, police estimates put yakuza membership at around 184,000 – an all-time high. Recent figures suggest the current total number of yakuza members is somewhat lower, at 53,500 (the smallest number on record). This shrinking but still significant yakuza population is divided into 20-or-so large conglomerate groups, which in turn contain hundreds of gangs. The largest conglomerate is the Yamaguchi-gumi family, whose membership is put at around 27,500. This makes it the single largest criminal organisation in the world.

Yakuza groups are organised using a hierarchical structure that works much like a family. Each recruit is referred to as a kobun (child), and has a father, known as oyabun. This parent-child relationship operates throughout every level of the yakuza, from top-level conglomerate bosses (known as kumicho), all the way down to new recruits.

To strengthen these familial bonds, the parent-child relationship is honored and strengthened in a ceremony known as sakazuki. The words akazuki can refer simply to ceremonial cups, but it can also describe a ritual in which loyalty and allegiance are pledged through the symbolic sharing of sake.

Typically, the “parent” will pour the “child” a modest measure of sake, followed by a larger measure for himself. The two will then sip from each other’s cups, in a highly elaborate ceremony that’s often followed by a booze-fuelled feast.

When a kobun receives sake from an oyabun, they have officially passed their initiation into their yakuza family. At this point they’re ranked in a similar way to older or younger brothers. They’re also required to cut ties to their real family and swear allegiance to their local boss.

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RITUALS
Within the strict hierarchical structure of the yakuza, there are certain rituals that are designed to ensure every member knows exactly where they stand. The most well-known of these is called yubitsume, or “finger-shortening.” This gruesome atonement ceremony is required of a yakuza member when saying “sorry” simply doesn’t cut it.

First, the wrongdoer places a piece of white cloth on a table. Then, once they have tourniqueted their little finger with a piece of string, they place their hand on the cloth. Next, taking a razor-sharp knife, they sever their little finger above the top knuckle, and wrap up the resulting piece in the white cloth like a gift. Finally, they present the gory parcel to their oyabun. At this point, when the oyabun accepts the finger, they are also deemed to have accepted the kobun’s apology.

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Yakuza members are wise to learn from their mistakes: subsequent wrongdoing means that they have to amputate the next knuckle of their little finger. And so on, and so on, as long as they are seen to be transgressing the group’s strict code of conduct. It’s not uncommon to see more mature yakuza members missing significant portions of both sets of digits.

The yubitsume ritual is said to have its origins in the time when yakuzamembers carried swords. Without the top part of the little finger, it’s much harder to grip the sword handle firmly. This meant that the member missing the finger would be increasingly dependent on their senior members for protection, drawing them closer to the gang.

Today’s yakuza members are less likely to carry swords. But considering golf is a wildly popular pastime in Japan, a missing little finger can still cause a serious disadvantage…

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TATTOOS
One of the most iconic images associated with the yakuza is their intricate, full-body tattoo designs, which are an integral part of the group’s history and culture. These designs can sometimes be seen peeking out from beneath shirt-sleeves or collars: tattoos are considered taboo in Japan, so they’re typically worn in such a way that they can be concealed.

The traditional yakuza “body suit” often has an unmarked strip that runs up the centre of the stomach and chest – this means a traditional open kimono can be worn without openly displaying a tattooed torso. It also gives the body a place to sweat – which is important in preventing liver failure.

This culture of body art is more than just decorative: thanks to Japan’s traditional tattooing technique, irezumi, it’s a very clear way for members to demonstrate their ability to withstand excruciating pain for long periods. Irezumi tattoos are hand-poked – which means that ink is jabbed by hand into the skin using needle-tipped wooden tools. This process is time-consuming, uses toxic ink and is extremely painful – 80% of those aiming for the full “body suit” are unable to stick out the whole process. The technique may be excruciating, but it yields incredible results. The colours are vivid, and it’s possible to achieve subtle gradations in tone that are impossible with an electric tattoo gun.

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Those who do go the distance find that creating the full body suit is a lifetime journey, and one that requires them to form an intimate bond with their tattoo artist. These master artisans will often spend time getting to know their client before deciding on a theme for the tattoo design. Popular subject material includes koi carp, which symbolize courage and power, and cherry blossoms, which symbolize the fleeting nature of life (in other words, the yakuza way of saying, “life fast, die young”).

Yakuza members often meet in onsen (Japanese bath houses). These places are highly traditional, and require visitors to be naked – which means they cannot carry concealed weapons. While everyone is unclothed, unarmed, and equally vulnerable, tattoos serve as an effective way of intimidating other yakuza. A full body suit is a very clear demonstration of extreme physical toughness. For non-yakuza visitors to the bath house, the arrival of a bunch of tattooed heavies generally serves as a clear announcement that it’s time to hit the road.

YAKUZA ACTIVITIES
Different yakuza groups involve themselves in different forms of business, to varying levels of moral questionability. Not all of them are entirely unscrupulous: for instance, Japan’s largest yakuza syndicate, the Yamaguchi-gumi, forbids its members to engage in drug trafficking (yet this doesn’t stop them from earning an estimated $6bn a year!).

In general, however, the yakuza are known for engaging in fairly shady activities. These can range from the sex-trade industry, gun smuggling, illegal gambling, blackmail, extortion, protection racketeering and even politics. The yakuza even has an interesting way of playing the stock market – gangs will buy stocks in businesses, and then send members to board meetings. Once there, they use personal information to intimidate other board members, who are pressured to make payoffs in order to save their reputations.

Where blackmail or extortion are concerned, yakuza techniques are carefully crafted to uphold the Japanese values of politeness and honour. Instead of simply demanding cash, yakuza members will ask corporate leaders to give to fake charities, or attend fake benefits or golf tournaments, all requiring donations at ludicrously inflated prices.

It’s easy to imagine the criminal underworld as a place continually fraught with paranoia at its discovery by the police. But, in Japan, the mafia hides in plain sight – often with its own offices, business cards and corporate websites. It’s not illegal to belong to a yakuza gang. In fact, senior members even register themselves with the police, and some have their own pensions!

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These semi-legitimate organisations even take part in activities that are actively beneficial to the community. After the 1995 Kobe earthquake, the Yamaguchi-gumi syndicate provided disaster relief to the stricken communities — including a helicopter that they just happened to have lying around! — and the group was praised for responding much faster than the Japanese government. After the Tohoku earthquake in 2011, the same group opened their offices to refugees, and sent trucks to affected areas to deliver tons of food, blankets and supplies.

Although they are widely hated by the Japanese public, yakuza gangs are a surprisingly effective method of keeping troublemakers off the streets. Their hierarchical structure requires potentially out-of-control youngsters to adhere to a strict code of behavioural conduct (or risk losing their fingers), which is a counter-intuitive but efficient way of insulating the Japanese public against random acts of violence.

In fact, it could be said that without the ‘balancing’ force of the yakuza, Japan would be a much more dangerous place. And this leads to the rather bizarre conclusion that the country is, in fact, not a safe place in spite of the yakuza, but rather, in some part at least, because of it.

Edison Chen’s 3125C “Unlucky 13” pop-up exhibition coinciding with Art Basel Hong Kong

MR PORTER spends a day with tattooist Dr. Woo of Shamrock Social Club

Dr. Woo of Shamrock Social Club is one of the most coveted tattooists on the West Coast. With over 300,000 followers on Instagram, a long list of celebrity clientele and a wait-list that stretches well beyond summer, shines a spotlight on the artist’s core beliefs and values by spending a Saturday with him and his family.

In a previous video, he notes how the arrival of his children changed his career trajectory and now the video above acts as a narrative on what truly makes him tick. It’s easy to draw parallels between his body of work and his unique perspective on life.

Tattoo artist Jun Cha launches MONARC Studios

World renowned tattoo artist Jun Cha has unveiled a video to accompany the launch of his MONARC Studios, located in Downtown Los Angeles. The private studio will serve as a congregation space for tattoo, fine art, and design creatives — allowing these artists to collaborate on projects. Jun Cha started tattooing at the age of 16 and has delved fully into the art ever since. Drawing inspiration from Renaissance and Baroque classical periods to post-war era paintings, his work often features religious imagery, with Venus de Milo and the Goddess of Nike making appearances in this video.

Check out the Social Trust-directed video above, and head over to the MONARC Studios website for more information.

Guangzhou (China) House of Vans 2014 Recap

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HYPEBEAST: 

The last stop of the House of Vans Asia tour concluded in the city of Guangzhou, providing a three-day program of diverse cultural offerings to the local community, as well as tourists alike. Although Guangzhou may not be the first place to spring to mind when one thinks of creative locales in China, the illustrious city has long been leading the line in economic and cultural developments, yearning only for a platform to showcase the creativity it has to offer. House of Vans provided this platform, where multiple workshops grounded in art and expression brought together the like-minded community and even mothers who took their infants to experience the occasion.

Kicking off the first day were renowned photographers Tobin Yelland and Lele Saveri, teaching students the art of self-publishing through DIY zine classes. Shanghai art duo Idle Beats carried on the momentum by educating design and illustration students on the entire process of making a screen print, from design to creation, and finally printing a custom tote bag. Taking a different approach than to the previous House of Vans events to represent the more edgy side of expression, tattoo artists from Sunrat Tattoo in Korea and famed Chengdu-based artist Keke offered up free tattoos of which were well-received, causing local kids to line up in front of the venue from the early morning hours in a bid for some free ink.

A House of Vans event would not be complete without a slew of talented local and international music acts. Thus, the evening portion of the festivities saw Hong Kong-based punk rock drummer Kevin Boy open the stage to pave the way for Beijing indie/synth band The Big Wave. The first night was then capped off with Montreal indie dance band We Are Wolves, which ended everything off in climactic fashion and made sure the crowd stayed dancing into the early hours of the morning. Saturday night showcased a more hip-hop-laden roster as local crew Chee Productions successfully whipped the packed house into a frenzy by bringing out a surprise performance by Beijing’s MC J Fever. However, the next act that followed was arguably the highlight of the evening, where special guest Pusha T performed a full set of his most popular songs and verses, from the likes of ‘Grindin” to G.O.O.D Music tune ‘Mercy.’ The musical performances did not stop there though and DJ duo Two Fresh brought things to a close with an explosive performance. Sunday night also saw a rap-infused event and an MC battle by the Iron Mic brought together a plethora of young aspiring artists to battle it out in front of friends and family.

Notwithstanding what Vans is predominantly known for, the three-day event also provided a program of skateboarding activities open to all. Independent skate/surf photographer Leong Zhang took out a crew of young photographers to give them insights into the intricacies required for shooting skating activities. Using the Vans China/Hong Kong skate team as the subjects for the class, the participants took note of the details and angles that transform a great photo into a legendary photo. Two days of skate contests for amateurs and pros were also offered as Chongqing artist Panda and local graffiti crew Dickid created a monster 6-meter tall, Sk8-Hi-inspired set filled with a mammoth quarter-pipe as well as street obstacles painted by American artist Rich Jacobs. The much-anticipated jam-format contests brought out the pro’s representing five local skate brands: Vagabond, 8FIVE2, HKit, Symbolic and Hero, who all battled it out to take home the winnings. After impressive displays of tricks and creativity from all those involved, it was the 8FIVE2 team from Hong Kong that took the title for best street run and Shenzhen-based team Vagabond winning the best quarter-pipe jam.

Enjoy the recap above and head over to House of Vans Asia for more information regarding the events, while you can also check out recaps of the previous stops in the tour here.

 

Image of Guangzhou House of Vans 2014 Recap

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Kanji Fail: Japanese World Cup fans notice Greek player’s strange tattoo

 

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RocketNews 24:

 

It must be tough playing in the World Cup. Not only are you representing your entire country, but every mistake you make is seen by millions of people all over the world. Poor Igor Akinfeev, the Russian goalkeeper who let a straightforward shot from Korea’s Lee Keun-ho roll up and over his head and into the goal. It was enough to make anyone want to curl up into a ball and die, and Igor’s mortified face was painful to watch, inspiring thousands of Tweets proclaiming, “Yikes!”

Japanese netizens have taken notice of another footballer faux paus, this time in the form of an unfortunate tattoo. We’ve seen it before – misinformed fans of body modification adding “Chicken Noodle Soup“ or “casket maker” in exotic scrawl, and Team Greece representative, Theofanis “Fanis” Gekas, has added to the list of tattoos that have piqued the interest of Japanese netizens.

Many Japanese netizens have been tweeting about the tattoo, commenting on the strange use of 寒冷殺人拳, most closely translated as “Cold Killer Fist.” The first two kanji (寒冷) definitely mean “cold,” but in the temperature sense, like “a cold climate” or “frigid air,” not in a heartless, “murder your mother” way.

But taking a closer look, the last character may be a little different than Japanese netizens are claiming, though the change fails to change the unusual nature of the words:

 

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It appears the last kanji is actually 魔 and not 拳. Here, 魔 can mean “demon” or “devil” but also gives the connotation of someone who habitually performs a negative act, in this case, killing. Put it together with the previous two kanji and you get something like, but not quite, “serial killer.”

Japanese sources (including Wikipedia, the fountain of internet knowledge) report that Gekas meant to scribe “cold killer” on his right arm, but he most likely wanted it to read “cold-blooded killer,” a nickname given to him by Greek soccer fans for his impressive scoring ability.

Either way, Gekas’ tattoo isn’t quite right in Japanese or Chinese (our Chinese-speaking correspondent says it has a “Google translate feel to it”), and is a phrase that might conjure up an image of an ice-encrusted fist dealing a death blow. If Gekas truly wanted to write “cold-blooded killer” the closest approximation in Japanese would be 冷酷な殺人 (reikoku na satsujin, literally “ruthless murderer”) or 血も涙もない人殺し (chi mo namida mo nai hitogoroshi, literally “a murderer without blood or tears”). Personally, we like the last one for the images it brings to mind (“I’ll be back.”), but we suppose “frigid killer” is cool in its own way too.

And let’s face it, it could be worse. He could have 龙蛇吉勇羊 (dragon snake fortune brave sheep) tattooed on his arm like German footballer Torsten Frings. Or even the characters 酸甜鸭子7.99欧元 (sweet and sour duck 7.99 euro) that is said to be tattooed on Frings’ back.

 

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Kanji Fail: Japanese World Cup fans notice Greek player’s strange tattoo