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Bakuto (博徒) were itinerant gamblers in Japan from the 18th century to the mid-20th century. They were one of two forerunners (the other being tekiya, or peddlers) to modern Japanese organized crime syndicates called yakuza.
Beginning around the 17th century, Bakuto plied their trade in towns and highways in feudal Japan, playing traditional games such as hanafuda and dice. They were considered social outcasts of various stripes, living outside the laws and norms of society.
During the Tokugawa shogunate, violent bakuto ikka (families) rose to power with the gambling spaces they ran, occasionally hired by local governments to gamble with laborers, winning back worker's earnings in exchange for a percentage. They had varying qualities of relationships with the villages in which they lived, often as well with the government despite their connection.
In the 18th century, the tradition of elaborate tattooing was introduced into Bakuto culture. Dealers of card or dice games often displayed these full-body tattoos shirtless while playing. This eventually led to the modern yakuza tradition of full-body tattooing. Bakuto were also responsible for introducing the tradition of yubitsume, or self-mutilation as a form of apology, to yakuza culture.
Bakuto were responsible for coining the term "yakuza" for themselves, a homonym for "ya-ku-sa", a losing hand in card games. "Ya-ku-sa," synonymous with "useless", was meant to symbolize society's dislike for them.
Up until the mid-20th century, some yakuza organizations that dealt mostly in gambling described themselves as bakuto groups. But this was seen as outdated, and most were eventually absorbed into larger, more diverse yakuza syndicates. For example, the Honda-kai was a Kobe-based bakuto gang which formed an alliance after World War II with the Yamaguchi-gumi, but were soon overtaken by the larger gang.
Kunisada Chuji was a notable Bakuto ikka boss. His story is mainly responsible for the romanticized "chivalrous bandit" image. He was publicly executed in 1850 for various crimes after a large man-hunt.
Fictional examples of bakuto can be see in the Zatoichi Japanese film series, about a blind masseur who would often participate in bakuto-run gambling. The 1968 movie series Red Peony Gambler (Hiboten Bakuto), starring Sumiko Fuji, also references bakuto culture.
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