text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
In the traditional Japanese version of baccarat called “oicho-kabu” (おいちょかぶ) the worst hand is drawing 3 when you already have an 8 and a 9. Like the ace of spades in the West, the 8-9-3 combination found its supporters among those who wanted to give a romantic tint to the idea of the “loser”, the person who has nothing to lose anymore and who can do anything; the gamblers of the Edo period adopted this meaning and its alternative reading remained to characterize the organizations that begun from them and would become one of the most recognizable institutions of Japanese society, or to be exact of its fringes. That reading is “ya-ku-za” (ヤクザ).
Almost everyone has heard about their full body tattoos that have their origin in the Edo firemen, also a class that walked the tightrope between lawfulness and lawlessness, and further back in Kuniyoshi’s illustrations of the “Suikoden” (水滸伝) the Chinese heroic fiction classic. And almost everyone has heard about their strict hierarchical structure that reminds the feudal era armies and about the cut fingers-payment to their leader for some transgression against the “family”. What people outside Japan might find hard to realize is their position in the Japanese collective consciousness: the boryokudan (暴力団) as they are called by police requirement are one more weft tightly woven in the warps of society; this is probably the reason that they still exist despite the constant obstacles put up by the state.
In Tokyo, they can be seen in Roppongi, Akasaka and traditional Asakusa –places where some organizations have their offices- or in Kabukicho, east of the Sinjuku station where some of their most profitable business (particularly adult entertainment business) can be found. Casual passersby will probably miss them since they take care to hide their tattoos –one of the few chances they have to display them publicly is in the big festival Sanja Matsuri where there is a tradition of them climbing up the omikoshi portable shrines and setting the tempo with their fans. But even if you don’t see them, they are still there –where there is sun there are also bound to be shadows.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.