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The Japanese mafia, known as the yakuza, has had a presence in Hawaii for over a century.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: The yakuza first came to Hawaii in the 1880s along with many Japanese immigrants seeking work on sugar plantations. While their activity was more prominent in Hawaii in past decades, they still maintain operations there today.

In this article, we will take a comprehensive look at the history of the yakuza in Hawaii.

We’ll explore when they first arrived, their operations during WWII, their growth and peak in power, and their more recent, declining activity in the state.

Arrival of the Yakuza in Hawaii


The Yakuza, a notorious Japanese criminal organization, has a long and intricate history that dates back to feudal Japan.

The origins of the Yakuza can be traced back to the Edo period, where they emerged as a vigilante group known as the “bakuto“. These bakuto were gamblers who provided protection to the common people against corrupt officials.

Over time, the bakuto transformed into the Yakuza we know today, with their own unique code of conduct and hierarchy.

Origins in feudal Japan

The Yakuza’s roots in feudal Japan can be traced back to the samurai class. During this time, the samurai were not only warriors but also enforcers of the law.

However, as the power of the samurai declined, a power vacuum emerged, which allowed criminal organizations like the Yakuza to flourish.

The Yakuza became involved in various illicit activities, such as gambling, prostitution, and extortion, and established a reputation for their strict codes of conduct and loyalty.

Migration to Hawaii in the 1880s

In the late 19th century, a wave of Japanese immigrants migrated to Hawaii in search of better opportunities.

Among them were members of the Yakuza who saw the islands as a new frontier for their criminal activities.The Yakuza quickly established a presence in Hawaii, taking advantage of the bustling economy and the diverse population.

They initially focused on gambling operations and illegal liquor trade, capitalizing on the desires and vices of the local community.

Early activities and operations

The early activities of the Yakuza in Hawaii were marked by a combination of violence, intimidation, and strategic alliances.

They formed partnerships with local criminal organizations, creating a network of illegal activities that extended beyond Hawaii’s borders. The Yakuza controlled gambling dens, brothels, and drug trafficking operations, exerting significant influence over the local economy.

However, as law enforcement agencies became more aware of their presence, the Yakuza faced increased scrutiny and crackdowns. They were forced to adapt their operations and adopt more covert methods to evade detection.

Despite these challenges, the Yakuza’s influence in Hawaii continued to grow, with many of their activities remaining hidden from the public eye.

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The Yakuza During World War II

During World War II, the Yakuza, Japan’s organized crime syndicates, played a significant role in the war economy.

As the country mobilized for war, the Yakuza found opportunities to profit from the chaos and demand for resources.

Profiting from the war economy

The Yakuza capitalized on the scarcity of goods by engaging in various illicit activities such as smuggling, hoarding, and price gouging.

They controlled the distribution of essential items like food, fuel, and medicine, creating a lucrative black market. This allowed them to amass great wealth and power during a time when Japan’s economy was struggling.

Running black markets

The Yakuza operated extensive black markets both within Japan and in occupied territories. They smuggled goods, including military equipment, and sold them at exorbitant prices.

Their networks stretched from major cities to remote areas, enabling them to evade authorities and profit from the war effort.

Gambling and prostitution rings

In addition to their involvement in the war economy, the Yakuza also established gambling and prostitution rings to cater to the needs of the military personnel and civilians.

These activities provided a steady source of income for the Yakuza and allowed them to maintain control over certain areas.

Despite their illicit activities, it is important to note that not all Yakuza members were involved in war-related crimes. Some Yakuza groups focused on providing support to their communities and even helped with relief efforts during wartime.

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Peak Power and Prominence in the 1960s-80s

During the 1960s to 1980s, the Yakuza experienced a significant rise in power and prominence in Hawaii. They established themselves as a formidable force through various illegal activities and their infiltration into legitimate businesses.

Let’s take a closer look at some key aspects of their operations during this period.

Extortion rackets

One of the ways the Yakuza exerted their influence was through extortion rackets.

They would target businesses, particularly those in the entertainment and hospitality industry, and demand protection money in exchange for ensuring the safety and security of the establishment.

Refusal to comply often led to violent consequences, making it difficult for business owners to resist their demands. This allowed the Yakuza to establish a strong foothold in the local economy and exert control over various sectors.

Infiltrating legitimate businesses

Another method used by the Yakuza to expand their power was through the infiltration of legitimate businesses. They would invest in or establish front companies, using them as a cover for their illegal activities.

This allowed them to not only generate significant profits but also gain influence and control over various sectors of the economy.Their involvement extended to industries such as construction, real estate, and even the food industry.

By operating behind legitimate businesses, the Yakuza were able to exploit legal loopholes and continue their criminal operations under the radar.

Political bribery and corruption

To further solidify their power and protect their interests, the Yakuza engaged in political bribery and corruption.

They would offer financial support and favors to politicians in exchange for protection and leniency. This allowed them to operate with relative impunity and avoid prosecution for their illegal activities.

The Yakuza’s influence over the political landscape during this period was a significant factor in their ability to maintain their power and prominence in Hawaii.

It is important to note that while the Yakuza’s activities were widespread and impactful during the 1960s to 1980s, efforts were made by law enforcement agencies to combat their operations.

The increased scrutiny and crackdown on organized crime eventually led to a decline in the Yakuza’s influence in Hawaii.

Today, their presence is significantly reduced, but the legacy of their peak power and prominence in the past continues to shape the history of organized crime in the state.

Declining Activity in Recent Decades

While the Yakuza presence in Hawaii was once a significant concern, there has been a noticeable decline in their activity in recent decades.

This can be attributed to several factors, including law enforcement crackdowns, new legislation, and the remaining small operations.

Law enforcement crackdowns

Law enforcement agencies have been actively targeting Yakuza activities in Hawaii, leading to a decrease in their influence.

Through comprehensive investigations and increased cooperation with international law enforcement agencies, authorities have successfully dismantled major Yakuza operations and disrupted their criminal networks.

The implementation of intelligence-led policing strategies has also played a crucial role in identifying and apprehending key members of the Yakuza.

New legislation

In response to the Yakuza’s presence, Hawaii has enacted new legislation to combat organized crime. These laws provide law enforcement agencies with enhanced tools and resources to target illicit activities associated with the Yakuza.

The legislation includes measures such as stricter penalties for criminal activities, asset forfeiture provisions, and improved cooperation between law enforcement agencies and the private sector.

These measures have created a more hostile environment for the Yakuza, making it increasingly difficult for them to operate in Hawaii.

Remaining small operations

While significant progress has been made in combating the Yakuza, it is important to note that small-scale operations may still exist.

These smaller groups often engage in less visible criminal activities, such as loan sharking, extortion, and illegal gambling.However, the impact of these remaining operations is considerably diminished compared to the Yakuza’s heyday.

Law enforcement agencies continue to monitor and target these smaller groups to ensure that their influence does not grow.

Also readThe History And Influence Of The Mafia In Hawaii


While not as extensive as in past decades, the yakuza still maintain a quiet presence in Hawaii today.

Through a tumultuous history spanning over 100 years, they have shown an ability to adapt and regroup when challenged.

However, increased law enforcement pressure and legislation has curtailed much of their criminal operations over the last 30 years.

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