Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods


Oyabun-Kobun, Father-Child

Like the Mafia, the yakuza power structure is a pyramid with a patriarch on top and loyal underlings of various rank below him.  The Mafia hierarchy is relatively simple.  The capo (boss) rules the family with the assistance of his underboss and consigliere (counselor).  On the next level, captains run crews of soldiers who all have associates (men who have not been officially inducted into the Mafia) to do their bidding. 

The yakuza system is similar but more intricate.  The guiding principle of the yakuza structure is the oyabun-kobun relationship.  Oyabun literally means "father role"; kobun means "child role."  When a man is accepted into the yakuza, he must accept this relationship.  He must promise unquestioning loyalty and obedience to his boss.  The oyabun, like any good father, is obliged to provide protection and good counsel to his children.  However, as the old Japanese saying states, "If your boss says the passing crow is white, then you must agree."  As the yakuza put it, a kobun must be willing to be a teppodama (bullet) for his oyabun.

The levels of management within the yakuza structure are much more complex than the Mafia's.  Immediately under the kumicho (supreme boss) are the saiko komon (senior adviser) and the so-honbucho (headquarters chief).  The wakagashira (number-two man) is a regional boss responsible for governing many gangs; he is assisted by the fuku-honbucho, who is responsible for several gangs of his own.  A lesser regional boss is a shateigashira, and he commonly has a shateigashira-hosa to assist him.  A typical yakuza crime family will also have dozens of shatei (younger brothers)  and many wakashu (junior leaders).

A successful candidate for admission into the Mafia must participate in a ceremony where his trigger finger is pricked and the blood smeared on the picture of a saint, which is then set on fire and must burn in the initiate's hands as he swears his loyalty to the family.  In the yakuza initiation ceremony, the blood is symbolized by sake (rice wine).  The oyabun and the initiate sit face-to-face as their sake is prepared by azukarinin (guarantors).  The sake is mixed with salt and fish scales, then carefully poured into cups.  The oyabun's cup is filled to the brim, befitting his status; the initiate gets much less.  They drink a bit, then exchange cups, and each drinks from the other's cup.  The kobun has then sealed his commitment to the family.  From that moment on, even the kobun's wife and children must take a backseat to his obligations to his yakuza family.

Japanese Katana sword
Japanese Katana sword (AP)

If a yakuza member displeases or severely disappoints his boss, the punishment is often yubizume, the amputation of the last joint of the little finger.  A second offense will require the severing of the second joint of that finger, and additional offenses might require moving on to the next finger.  A man knows that he must commit yubizume when his immediate superior gives him a knife and a string to staunch the bleeding.  Words are not necessary.  The origin of this practice dates back to the days of the samurai.  Removing part of the smallest finger weakens the hand for holding the sword.  When a katana (the samurai long sword) is gripped properly, the pinkie is the strongest finger.  The ring finger is the second strongest, middle finger third strongest, and the index finger does almost nothing.  With a damaged hand, the swordsman became  more dependent on his master for protection.  Today this ritual maiming is entirely symbolic, but it serves to make a point with delinquent kobun, and it shows that the yakuza, like their Mafia counterparts, abide by the old saying: "Keep your friends close and your enemies closer."

Like the Mafia, the yakuza in recent years have been forced to lower their standards when recruiting new members, and as a result some feel that they are neither as organized nor as powerful as they once were.  In the past, choice recruits came from the traditional bakuto (gambler) and tekiya (peddler) classes, but today a rebel spirit and a willingness to commit crime for an oyabun is all that is necessary to join the yakuza ranks.  Most new members currently come from the bosozuku (speed tribes), street punks known for their love of motorcycles.

This lowering of standards has led to the Japanese National Police Agency adopting the term boryokudan ({the violent ones}) for the yakuza, lumping them in with other criminal groups.  The yakuza, who treasure their ancestral ties to the old samurai, reject the term and consider it an insult.

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