|sci.lang.japan FAQ / 3. Word origins|
|A set of hanafuda cards|
The name Yakuza meaning Japanese gangsters comes from "893" (yattsu, ku, san).
This name originates from a card game called oichokabu (おいちょかぶ), which is usually played with a deck of hanafuda (花札) "flower cards". (A normal deck of cards can also be used if the Kings, Queens, and Jacks are removed and the aces are regarded as 1).
A player's score in this game is decided by adding the scores on several cards and using only the smallest digit. So because 8 + 9 + 3 = 20 = 0 points, "8-9-3" means "no points". So the original meaning of yakuza (ya for yattsu, eight, ku for "nine" and za for san, "three" was "no points" or "useless". Later, this meaning changed to "useless people" or "gambling people".
See also 12.5. What are Japanese number puns? for more on Japanese number puns.
Edited from posts by Jack Oatmon, KATOH Motoshi and Koji Kawakami.
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