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.

150+ whales found beached in Ibaraki, similar to what happened before 2011 Tohoku earthquake

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RocketNews 24:

A little over four years ago, a week before the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, 50 melon-headed whales were found beached in Ibaraki Prefecture, only about 100 kilometers (62 miles) from the earthquake’s epicenter.

Now the same omen of bad things to come has happened again. On April 9, about 150 melon-headed whales were found beached in Ibaraki Prefecture. As emergency teams race to save the whales, one thought is sitting in the back of their minds: is this foreshadowing another giant earthquake?

On April 9, more than 150 melon-headed whales (a type of dolphin) were found beached across a stretch of four kilometers (2.5 miles) of shoreline in Hokotashi City, Ibaraki Prefecture. Most of the whales were in critical condition, though the Ibaraki coast guard has been busy returning those still alive to the ocean. The ones that were too weak to be returned were euthanized.

The reason behind the mass beaching is still unknown, but it is suspected to be due to underwater tremors. Since melon-headed whales tend to prefer deeper waters, they would be more sensitive to plate/tectonic changes than other undersea mammals.

This has people worrying about another earthquake on the same or even higher level as the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. There is a theory that beached whales are often a sign of undersea tremors, and the severity of the incoming earthquake can be estimated by how many whales are beached. The coast guard reported that while every year some amount of whales are found beached on the shoreline, this incident is by far the most that they have ever encountered.

The city where the beaching took place, Hokotashi City, has started to take emergency measures against the predicted earthquake and tsunami. It is unclear whether the surrounding areas are preparing as well, but they should seriously consider it. To all our readers in the area, be safe and stay alert for any warnings!

The Last Farmer in Fukushima’s Post-Nuclear Wasteland: VICE INTL (Japan)

VICE: 

Two years since the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant went into full meltdown, and the resulting 20km evacuation zone was enforced, one farmer still remains behind braving high levels of radiation and loneliness to tend to abandoned animals.

His name is Naoto Matsumura, and he is the last man standing in the ghost town of Tomioka. Another farmer, Kenji Hasegawa‘s town of Iidate was also evacuated due to high levels of radiation, he sought refuge in temporary housing. Faced with a post­nuclear world both these men share brutally honest views on the state of their lives, TEPCO, government inaction and some of the hardest situations they have had to face in the midst of overwhelming radioactivity.

Yahoo! Japan to make disaster relief donation for every person who searches for 3.11 on March 11

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RocketNews 24:

Four years on, the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis that befell Japan’s Tohoku region on March 11, 2011 have very little effect on the day-to-day lives of most people in the country. The rolling blackouts have stopped. Batteries and bottled water are once again readily available. Trains are running, and whole cities aren’t spending hours walking home from work or school.

But while a return to normalcy is a desirable, and ultimately necessary, part of recovery, it’s also important to remember what happened. To stem the forgetfulness that often accompanies the later stages of coping with tragedy, on March 11 Yahoo! Japan will be making a donation to the Tohoku recovery efforts for every person that searches for “3.11” through the company’s search engine.

The Internet provider and portal conducted an identical initiative last year, supplying a total of 25,683,250 yen (approximately US $216,00) to charitable organizations. This year, Yahoo! will be making its donation to the Tohoku Recovery Support Organization (Toholu Fukkou Shien Dantai in Japanese).

A 10-yen donation will be made for each user who searches for “3.11” between midnight and 11:59 p.m. on March 11. To reiterate, the donation is made per user, not per search. Once you’ve searched once, you’ve done your job, so there’s nothing to be gained by repeating the search over and over again.

Instead, Yahoo! would prefer you took the time to read through some of the results that come up, in keeping with the program’s aim of creating a moment in which to think about the places and people’s lives which were so abruptly changed in 2011. The company also plans to release a video with interviews of people from the disaster-struck towns of Ishinomaki, Yamadamachi, and Soma, which are located in Miyazaki, Iwate, and Fukushima Prefectures, respectively. Yahoo! will also be creating a visualization of 3.11-releated searches, similar to the one from 2014

▼ Aside from jishin/地震 (“earthquake”), dengonban/伝言板 (“message board”), yoshin/余震 (aftershock), gienkin/義援金 (“donation”), and gasorin/ガソリン (“gasoline”) are all prominently featured.

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Yahoo! Japan’s search box can be found here.

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First nuclear power plant set to restart in Japan after 2011 meltdown

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RocketNews 24:

 

Against much public backlash, two reactors at a nuclear power plant in Sendai are scheduled to be restarted. These will be the first to restart operations after all the country’s nuclear plants were shut down indefinitely following the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in 2011.

The Sendai Nuclear Power Plant operated by Kyushu Electric Power is set to be the first of Japan’s inactive nuclear power plants to restart after the local assembly overwhelmingly voted in favor of it being put back into action.

After the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami which resulted in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster,  all 48 of Japan’s nuclear plants were shut down indefinitely. Prime Minister Abe’s government has been pushing to bring Japan’s nuclear power generators back online on the grounds that importing fossil fuels to make up for the 30 percent of power that was previously nuclear-generated is having a detrimental effect on the Japanese economy. However, the final say on restarting has been left to local authorities. Satsumasendai, the city where the plant is located, had already voted in favour of restarting the plant and a vote on Friday also resulted in 38 out of 47 of Kagoshima’s prefectural assembly backing the restart.

The governor of Kagoshima Prefecture, Yuichiro Ito, also endorsed the restart, telling press, “I have decided that it is unavoidable to restart the No. 1 and No. 2 Sendai nuclear reactors. I have said that assuring safety is a prerequisite and that the government must ensure safety and publicly explain it thoroughly to residents.

While the plant’s restart has been officially approved, due to further regulatory and safety checks it is predicted that it will not be operational until sometime next year.

Japanese scientist predicts another major earthquake in Japan by 2017

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RocketNews 24:

 

According to Japanese scientists, Japan might be in for another big one.

Dr. Masaaki Kimura, a seismologist who reportedly predicted the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake, recently appeared on Japanese TV to share his theory about the next major earthquake to strike Japan. Based on his estimates, the quake will occur by 2017 and will be of similar magnitude to 2011’s. Similarly, astronomer Yoshio Kushida continues to insist that a big quake is not too far away. Keep reading to find out more about their respective theories and which specific areas of Japan they’ve got on the radar.

For over 25 years now, legendary Japanese actor Beat Takeshi has hosted a variety show called Beat Takeshi’s TV TackleThe show takes the form of a panel discussion in which guests are invited to share their opinions and debate about different topics, which are typically of a political nature.  

On the July 21 broadcast of the show, several prominent scientists appeared to discuss their ideas regarding future seismic activity in Japan, including the possibility of another major earthquake. The end result of their discussion? The question is not so much if, butwhen, another major quake will occur.

Dr. Masaaki Kimura, an Emeritus Professor of submarine geology and a seismologist at the University of the Ryukyus in Okinawa Prefecture, was eager to share his thoughts regarding the matter. His predictions are based on observations of regions in Japan where there have not yet been any major earthquakes, but where smaller ones occur frequently; he calls such regions “earthquake eyes” (地震の目). He predicted the location of the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake using the same theory four years before it occurred, and although he presented his findings before the Pacific Science Congress in Japan, no one endorsed his ideas at the time.

 

▼Seismic activity off the coast of northern Japan on March 11, 2011

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Perhaps that’s an indication that Dr. Kimura will carry more clout this time around, because by his predictions another major quake is set to hit Japan by 2017 (his actual calculation was the year 2012, plus or minus five years). Furthermore, he anticipates that its epicenter will be in the Izu Islands, a volcanic island chain stretching south from the Izu Peninsula in Shizuoka Prefecture (the islands themselves are governed by Tokyo Prefecture). As for its strength, Dr. Kimura claims it will be of similar magnitude to the 2011 quake, which puts it in the 9.0 class of the moment magnitude scale used for measuring the size of earthquakes. He adds, however, that any damage caused by the quake won’t be nearly as costly as any damage caused by a resulting tsunami.

 

▼The Izu Islands

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To spice things up a bit, the program also invited Yoshio Kushida, a self-taught astronomer, to the show to share his opinions. Mr. Kushida has gained a sort of infamy in Japan due to his frequent predictions of an impending major earthquake, which he posits by studying seismic waves. Based on past events, we’ve got reason not to take Kushida too seriously, but you never know…

Mr. Kushida has been predicting a major earthquake in Japan’s Kansai region (to the south–Kyoto, Osaka, Hyogo, etc.); more specifically, near Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture. He says that abnormal FM rays have been evident since 2008, and the quake could hit on November 11 of this year, plus or minus a few days, at the earliest. In addition, it should be around a 7.8 on the magnitude scale.

But wait, there’s more! Dr. Robert Geller, Professor of Geophysics at the University of Tokyo, was also in attendance on the show. He opposed both Dr. Kimura’s and Mr. Kushida’s ideas, asserting that they should publish scientific articles and present them before an academic committee so people can verify the legitimacy of their claims. It sure sounds like the show achieved its objective of getting in some good debate action!

Regardless of whose theory will prove to be most accurate, what it all comes down to is that there is no foolproof way to predict an earthquake, not even a major one akin to the 2011Tohoku disaster. If you live in Japan, you can take precautionary measures by packing yourself a simple earthquake kit and signing up for the Earthquake Early Warning system issued by the Japan Meteorological Agency to get preemptive alerts on your mobile phone when an earthquake is detected. It’s a bit disconcerting when everyone’s phones start beeping in the same room, but believe us, better that than to be caught completely unawares when the tremor hits only seconds later.

If you can read Japanese, you might also be interested in visiting Dr. Kimura’s homepage, where you can follow his latest work.

Artist Profile: Takashi Murakami’s solo show “Arhat Cycle” at Milan’s Palazzo Reale

 

Image of Takashi Murakami "Arhat Cycle" @ Palazzo Reale Recap

 

Takashi Murakami recently took to Milan’s Palazzo Reale to present his solo show “Arhat Cycle.” Organized by Blum & Poe and Murakami’s production company Kaikai Kiki Co., the exhibition showcased new pieces that continue the famed Japanese artist’s alluring style.

Mystical creatures and aged caricatures from Murakami’s Arhat series take on three large canvases, while an Oval Budha Silver sculpture is positioned firmly in the middle of the exhibition. The flamboyant paintings represent Murakami’s wild imagination while also serving as commentary and reflection on the aftermath of 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami.

Coinciding with the show, Palazzo Reale will also be hosting the European premiere to Murakami’s film Jellyfish Eyes. Enjoy the recap here and be sure to check out the exhibition if you’re in Milan.

 

Palazzo Reale
12 Piazza del Duomo,
Milan,
Italy

 

Image of Takashi Murakami "Arhat Cycle" @ Palazzo Reale Recap

Image of Takashi Murakami "Arhat Cycle" @ Palazzo Reale Recap

Image of Takashi Murakami "Arhat Cycle" @ Palazzo Reale Recap

Image of Takashi Murakami "Arhat Cycle" @ Palazzo Reale Recap

Image of Takashi Murakami "Arhat Cycle" @ Palazzo Reale Recap

Image of Takashi Murakami "Arhat Cycle" @ Palazzo Reale Recap

Image of Takashi Murakami "Arhat Cycle" @ Palazzo Reale Recap

Image of Takashi Murakami "Arhat Cycle" @ Palazzo Reale Recap

Image of Takashi Murakami "Arhat Cycle" @ Palazzo Reale Recap

Image of Takashi Murakami "Arhat Cycle" @ Palazzo Reale Recap