Q: The yakuza were in the news a lot lately last month, after some shootings in Tokyo. Are they a gang? Japan’s mafia? What’s up with them?

A: The legal term for these guys in Japan is boryoku-dan, which means “violence group.” Yakuza is the collective name of several subgroups, some of them rivals, and organized crime is their game.

According to a recent Japan Times report, the yakuza have one foot in the underworld — with enterprises such as prostitution, gambling and drugs — and the other in legitimate businesses like real estate, construction, pachinko parlors and entertainment firms. Extortion of all flavors is a popular yakuza pastime. According to the Japan Times, police have warned business owners about tactics like forced magazine subscriptions and flower purchases from yakuza-linked firms.

So if the police know so much about yakuza tactics, why don’t they just shut it down? Well, it’s complicated. Many of the yakuza’s activities are actually legal — barely. And no one would ever admit it officially, but a common belief is that the yakuza’s might sometimes is used for public good. For example, a former government type told journalists last fall that Nagoya never would have scored its new airport or the 2005 World Expo without a little help from some, um, friends, the Japan Times report said. But in 1992, Japan passed a group of laws aimed at reining in the yakuza, so now they operate less openly, and probably somewhat less successfully, than in the past.

As an American living in or visiting Japan, you’re not too likely to get tangled up with these guys — unless you’re doing something you shouldn’t. But if you happen to walk by a Japanese man with the tip of his pinky finger missing or massive tattoos — visible traits of a lot of yakuza members — just keep going.

Got a question about goings-on in the Pacific? E-mail Stacy Chandler at:

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