In some countries it’s called tong, triad, mafia, la cosa nostra — in Japan it’s yakuza. Organized crime. As an institution, it is a part of the fabric of Japanese life. For an individual, yakuza means many things: outcast, criminal, brother, compatriot.
But what is yakuza? Our hero Shig Sato’s closest childhood friend is Ses Fujimori, boss of a powerful yakuza clan, a position not just inherited from his father, Key Fujimori, but earned by Ses’s ruthlessness and business acumen. The Japanese police, and media by request of the police, call yakuza “bōryokudan” – violence groups – degenerate, violent gangsters with no sense of tradition or honor. Yakuza consider this an insult. They refer to themselves as “ninkyō dantai” – chivalrous organizations. Members often have elaborate tattoos, sometimes covering most of their body.
These organizations – often called clans, or families – in the Tokyo of 1991 view themselves much as Ses Fujimori does in the fictitious Shig Sato mysteries: legitimate businesses and charitable organizations, motivated by nothing but concern for the public good. The yakuza response to the 2011 tsunami and the 1995 Kobe earthquake are well documented. But so are the criminal aspects: Extortion, loan-sharking, day-labor contracting, drug-trafficking and blackmail all fall under the various clans’ control. It is gambling that is at the root of yakuza – the name comes from the worst hand possible in a card game (a reflection of the low opinion society views the men and the organizations).
Some say yakuza dates back to the 17th century and ronin – masterless samurai. Authorities knew roving bands of the “kabuki-mono” – crazy ones – were troublesome and were intensely loyal to one another. Some say the men viewed themselves as honorable, Robin Hood-like characters who protected towns and citizens. These gangs of men, among them some gamblers and some peddlers, gradually organized into clans, or families, adopting roles of leader/father and follower/child. Gambling, prostitution – legal and sometimes encouraged from time to time by the government of the day – were businesses the yakuza controlled. In the Shig Sato series, gambling is the activity that built the Fujimori empire, from its humble beginnings in Kawasaki in the late 1800s to its nearly untouchable status as a quasi-legitimate business empire 100 years later.
Shig Sato’s sense of giri – obligation – is central to who he is. This includes honoring his relationship with yakuza kingpins Key and Ses Fujimori. And Sato must reckon with this situation as he begins his new life as a reluctant P.I.