When you think of the yakuza, you probably think of hardened criminals that made up the deadly and sinister Japanese mafia. Or maybe you think of the dirty political deals, gambling empires, smuggling, and violence. Or you could just think of the hit video game series highlighting the aforementioned criminal activities. But was this always what the yakuza was? Maybe, maybe not – depending on who you ask.
Hatamoto-yakko and Machi-yakko
The origins of the yakuza date way back to the Tokugawa Era, an era of relative peace. The country shut out the rest of the world, the economy was pretty stable, and everyone was doing great. Unfortunately for the samurai, peace meant they were out of a job. Warriors are less into peace time than farmers generally are. As a result, groups of the newly unemployed samurai (ronin) decided to keep doing what they were good at (violence and combat) and formed groups known as hatamoto-yakko to go around robbing and killing the general population. The hatamoto-yakko are also interchangeably reffered to by a different name, the kabukimono. Kabukimono were known for dressing all crazy, in bright colors (like yellow, gasp!) or women’s clothing. The name kabukimono is usually translated to something like “wild ones” or “crazy ones.” You may recognize the word “kabuki” as one of Japan’s renowned traditional theatre/dance styles. Yes, the name did come from these bands of hooligans.
A particularly nasty aspect of these kabukimono/hatamoto-yakko groups was the practice of tsujigiri. Tsujigiri translates to `crossroads killing` and is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. The ronin would walk past an innocent traveler on the road and just…..cut off their head. Supposedly, this horrible practice developed to test out the effectiveness of a new katana – but it honestly was used as just a particularly cruel and capricious way to rob someone. Tofugu has a great article discussing this practice more (Tsujigiri – Tofugu) The gangs were also big fans of petty crime and robbery. You name the crime, these guys probably did it.
Unsurprisingly, peasants and merchants got really tired of having to constantly live in fear of random decapitation by the hatamoto-yakko. Another group popped up in response, the machi-yakko. These groups were townspeople and the occasional ronin who didn’t join the murder team. They were the classic ragtag band of heroes with only assorted farm utensils as weapons, up against the mighty forces of trained warriors. Commoners were not allowed to carry swords like the samurai but some classes, like merchants, were allowed short swords called wakizashi. These short swords may have been where the yakuza’s favored dosu knives evolved from. The machi-yakko were considered defenders of the people, guarding towns against the roving bands of hatamoto-yakko. Townspeople deeply respected them for taking a stand against the violent gangs, despite being equally as illegal. They were the power of the people and became Robin Hood-esque folk heroes. These were the groups that the modern day yakuza trace their roots back to.
Now, the thing about folk heroes is that they’re very closely related to folk tales and probably nothing about them is entirely accurate. Did the yakuza really come from heroic bands of rag-tag peasants? Or are they more closely related to the murderous, crazy hatamoto-yakko? At this point, it’s impossible to definitively say.
(It’s both. The answer is definitely both. Just saying)