The yakuza have long played a powerful, if often unseen, role in society. Romanticized in literature and film as noble outcasts replete with punch-perms, extensive tattoos and severed pinkies, the underworld is one of archaic language and secretive rituals and customs as well as extreme violence and intimidation.

The introduction of antigang laws in 1993, however, has made it tougher for the yakuza (known in legal terminology as "boryoku-dan") to operate as openly as they once did. Nevertheless, through legitimate businesses and ever more sophisticated extortion methods, the mob continues to thrive.

Though it has now subsided, a recent war in Tokyo between the two largest crime syndicates -- the Yamaguchi-gumi and Sumiyoshi-kai -- has returned the yakuza to the spotlight. Following are some basic facts about these organized crime gangs: