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3 Business lessons from the Japanese Mafia

Yakuza, the Japanese mafia, is as far away as it gets from tattooed samurais that fight each other with katanas. The organization is more likely to resemble a very successful corporation that in 2015 had an estimated revenue of $80 Billion dollars. Unlike most organized crime groups, the yakuza is legal. (or at least, sort of legal). They are legally permitted to have a company that unites them. Thus, it is not unusual to see building placards with their name when walking around in Tokyo. With centuries of history and an idol-like image in the media, yakuza members are clearly capable business man. They put the accent on the “organized” in “organized crime” and some of their lessons could be more helpful than one might think. Therefore, I will look at three things that the Japanese Mafia has got right when it comes to running a successful business.

1. Team-work and mutual respect

Yamaguchi-Gumi is one of the biggest gangs in Japan. Controlling over 2500 businesses and getting the majority of their revenue from manipulation and protection, the organization hierarchical structure is very similar to that of a big corporation.

The main difference is the accent put on respect and relations. It is said that new members are welcomed into the group as they are a family. They are trusted and provided with both financial and emotional support. Initiations ceremonies are built to gain the trust of the recruit. All codes of conduct are thoroughly respected by each members, no matter the rank, which often builds a sense of individual responsibility among the individuals. Respect and orderliness are extremely important and valuable.

The cultural heritage they carry is also an important factor when it comes to the building of loyalty within their community. After the 2011 earthquake that hit Japan, the organization has helped with the rebuilding process and provided important funds. This unveiled a feeling of solidarity and the important media image that the mafia has among the population. However, this achievement did not last as long as planned. As a result of multiple homicides and gang wars, the public seems to have recently moved away from the romanticized picture of the yakuza. Nonetheless, their commitment to respecting the rules and the loyalty built within the gang is an aspect that can be implemented outside of the mafia lifestyle.

2. Good incentives

The origins of the yakuza are not clearly known. They are believed to have appeared in the 17th century Japan from either masterless samurais or misfit pedlars and gamblers. Nevertheless, none of those people were considered particularly well off. Today, the so-called “street soldiers” do not differ much, but they have the opportunity to aspire to be respected in their community, when all their lives were most likely lived in mistrust and poverty. The financial benefits and the sense of family are attractive to many. On the other hand, punishment is taken seriously by the gangs. A common tradition is having to chop off your pinky and ring finger when you have to apologize for your mistake. The dreadful practice’s origins are underlines in mastering the sword. In order to have full control over the weapon a lot of strength is needed in the last two fingers. Today, the tradition is still respected and one could guess members are trying to not make any mistakes. While, I do not think anybody should ever consider physical punishment, beyond the cruelty there is another lesson to be learned. Mistakes only pave the ground for success and failure can sometimes only make you more determined. After all, many of the most successful gang members often find themselves lacking the fifth finger.

3. Know your competition

Meetings between enemy yakuza gangs are often held in bathhouses. The reason for that is quite self-explanatory; you are naked. Tattoos are an important symbol for members. They often represent an event that happened in their lives and character traits portrayed in the style of Japanese myth. In the bathhouse, you can read your enemies skin as their tattoos are, in effect, a reflection of themselves. Furthermore, to keep things practical it is hard to hide weapons when you are naked. Similar to Michael E. Porters view, the strategy based on thoroughly knowing your competition is likely to work in your favor and shape your business strategy. The Yakuza understand that in order to advance, your enemies need to be a big part of your plan. Getting to know them up close and personal could save you of later trouble.

All in all, it is important to not forget that yakuza members are promoters of illicit activities that harm many people, gang members or not. Low ranks are still highly persecuted and have the highest death rates. The life they live is often described by running away and modesty. However, some of their rituals have a deeper meaning.A big part of their activity is based on the image they project and the fear and respect they impose, rather than on actual violence. The control they have is often superficial and kept afloat by centuries of history and tradition. Looking past the obvious, some of the principles that guide their lifestyle could be implemented in our day to day routine. After all, they seem quite obvious, but they are easier said than done.


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