Sega’s Yakuza series has always been quite popular in its home country of Japan, and only recently has the series made a huge name for itself in the West. With the 2017 Western release of Yakuza 0, these serious yet wacky games have since been regarded as some of the best titles on the Playstation 4. The world is fascinated by the way Yakuza is portrayed in the game – glamorous, rich, dangerous, hard on the outside but soft on the inside.
But is it really the case in real life?
▍The Yakuza in Video Games
Yakuza mainly follows a fictional main character, Kiryu Kazuma.
Even though he is a former yakuza member, each main entry sees him getting involved with the different clans. For the woman he loves, for the friends he treasures, he willingly goes to jail for a crime he didn’t commit. After being release, all he wants is a peaceful life with his adopted kids. However, his old enemies never give up going after him…
▍Filling the Niche
As a Japanese-American growing up in the 90s, the yakuza wasn’t really seen often in media. In fact, the only time I remember seeing them was in a single episode of The Simpsons, in which the yakuza were hired to fight the Springfield Mafia.
The yakuza was a topic that I knew of because of my parents and the occasional Japanese news broadcast, but I didn’t really know much about them. And for the most part, it was something that seemed completely foreign to Western media, so even my friends who loved Japanese culture remained completely unaware of them.
With the absence of the yakuza in Western media, the Yakuza series is a perfect introduction to the world of the yakuza. Following in the footsteps of the yakuza films from the past, the Yakuza games dive deep into these organizations, showing off the criminal elements and how their gangs function, as well as explaining all the different terms and traditions the yakuza have. At the same time though, the series shows some of the more chivalrous aspects that the yakuza were once known for, such as protecting the innocent and offering aid to those in trouble. With the current state of the yakuza in Japan though, the Yakuza series might be one of the few remaining ways to experience their world.
▍The Yakuza in Reality
The real life yakuza are a rather interesting, almost contradictory sounding group.
Yakuza group Takahashigumi
(Source: Sputnik News)
They are all fierce gangs known for their illegal activities ranging from drugs, to extortion, and other less than savory activities. But when the public is in desperate need of aid, the yakuza have been quick to assist – such as during the 1995 Kobe Earthquake and 2011 Tohoku Earthquake, where the yakuza were quick to provide aid and trucks full of supplies.
Yakuza distributing free Halloween candies to children in Tokyo
Not to mention that they aren’t shady underground groups like the Western mafias. In fact, the yakuza are all registered businesses and you can even find their offices registered in phone books. With the yakuza acting as prominent figures in Japanese society, it’d be easy to think of them as huge, unstoppable organizations. The truth is though, it’s almost the exact opposite.
■ The Disappearance of the Yakuza
At the peak of their existence in 1964, the yakuza were believed to have over 184,000 members among their ranks. Whereas in 2017, the number was a dramatically low figure of around 34,500 which is the lowest it’s ever been. Any glamor that the yakuza once had (such as the money and prestige seen in the games) has disappeared, leaving some members to resort to stealing every day items like rice just to get by. What exactly is causing the dropping numbers in membership and the lack of funds among the yakuza?
■ A Tough Crackdown
Ex-Yakuza boss arrested in Thailand
(Source: Asian Correspondant)
Starting back in 2011, the Japanese government began implementing laws that made it tougher for yakuza to operate – such as making it illegal for businesses to pay the yakuza protection money or for yakuza members to open bank accounts and sign real estate contracts. It’s become harder, if not impossible, for many yakuza members to make a living. As a result, many members are quitting and young prospective members are choosing other careers. And despite the yakuza’s attempts to re-establish themselves as productive members of society, some experts predict that their downfall is just around the corner, possibly after the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics – the time when the government needs to wipe them out in order to present a “clean” international image and provide a safe environment for thousands of visitors.
Like a fading memory from a time now past, the yakuza seem to be dying out as Japanese society moves on without them. With the newfound popularity of the Yakuza series though, the charm and criminality of these gangs can be experienced and remembered by those who are willing to pick up a controller and explore the world of Yakuza.
In the words of an actual yakuza member who reviewed Yakuza 3, “Kiryu [the series protagonist] is the way yakuza used to be. We kept the streets clean. People liked us. We didn’t bother ordinary citizens. We respected our bosses. Now, guys like that only exist in video games.” Let’s hope that unlike the real yakuza, the Yakuza series stays strong and provides us with many more hours of karaoke, fist-fights, and yakuza fueled adventures.
Yakuza Online is now released on mobile. For those who do not have a console to play Yakuza, they can experience the legend in this new mobile game!
• Sega’s Yakuza Online Now Available for Download
Graphic Designer and Illustrator, gamer addicted to JRPGs and rhythm games, always hanging out with his cats and building up those social links!