A gamer-neophyte friend of mine walked into my living room one day and glanced at my TV. “Oh, I’ve seen this one before,” he said. “Grand Theft Auto, right?” Not even close – I was playing Yakuza (Ryuu ga Gotoku in Japan), Sega’s spiritual successor to Shenmue for the PS2.

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The confusion is understandable. Kazuma Kiryu, the protagonist of Sega’s Yakuza series, is a badass. He plays by his own rules, even if those rules mean he’s got to bust a few heads (or get his head busted) in the process. He’s kind of like a Japanese John McClane, except for one thing: John McClane was a cop. Technically, Kazuma is a bad guy. After all, the Yakuza is Japan’s equivalent of the Mafia – an international crime syndicate that profits off of vice and violence.

Whether it’s bandits, bank robbers or the Mafia, Americans tend to love their gangster heroes because they can take what they want and do what we could only dream of. That’s part of the appeal of the Grand Theft Auto series, after all; we don’t love it for the in-game atrocities we can commit, per se, but the freedom to do whatever we want with minimal regard for the consequences. One would think that Yakuza would be designed with the same kind of escapist sensibilities in mind, particularly since the Yakuza have inspired some of the most gloriously gory movies to come out of Japan (see: Ichi the Killer). Instead, Kazuma spends his time protecting shopkeepers from other Yakuza and babysitting a little girl in the Tokyo red-light district. The real-life Yakuza are responsible for international drug trafficking, prostitution, child pornography, gun smuggling and all kinds of destructive graft and corruption. Why is practically none of this present in Sega’s version?

Robbin’ Hood

Here’s the short version of the Yakuza origin story: Certain lower-class groups during Japan’s Edo period (1603-1868), mostly street vendors (tekiya), gamblers (bakuto) and people with work related to death, like undertakers or leather-workers (burakumin) became embedded in Japan’s growing economy while doing the work that the Edo government couldn’t always provide or found distasteful. The name comes from an old Japanese card game called Oicho-Kabu; the “ya-ku-za” hand (eight, nine and three) is the hardest hand in the game to play and required incredible skill and luck to win. Likewise, the Yakuza were comprised of those who had no use to society and meant bad luck to those who opposed them.

For much of the Yakuza’s history, their outcast origin story resembled a Japanese version of Robin Hood. Gang members were officially criminals, but they also served the public in ways that national institutions of the time didn’t. Perhaps the most notable example is Shimizu Jirocho, a rice-farmer-turned-gambler who lived in Shizuoka during the latter part of the Edo period and was held in high esteem for providing order and protection from gang conflict, as well as defense from the oppressive samurai and police. After the Meiji Restoration, Jirocho became a police officer in charge of a local harbor and developed his under-the-table business with one hand while opening up an English language school and even a penitentiary with the other.

Considering the history of classist tension between the common folk that made up the Yakuza and the Edo-era samurai class and Meiji police force, it’s a little bit easier to see why Yakuza‘s Kazuma Kiryu is a gangster rather than a policeman. Police in Japan are commonly perceived as incompetent when it comes to dealing with violent crimes, and their reputation for Yakuza prosecution is even worse. Anyone who’s ever watched an episode of Law and Order knows about the Witness Protection Program and the RICO Act; the Japanese police have neither at their disposal. Thus, while it’s not hard for the police to figure out who’s who in the Yakuza scene, it is next to impossible for them to do anything about it (which is why Yakuza’s Detective Mako Date is practically useless). Needless to say, casting Kazuma as a cop would probably blow Japanese players’ minds.

Kazuma Kiryu, the People’s Champ

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After reading up on the Yakuza’s historical legacy, it’s not hard to see why Kazuma Kiryu doesn’t quite fit the criminal mold we expect. Gangsters in American movies are about manipulating, intimidating, killing and making money; Kazuma, meanwhile, seems content to beat up his fellow gangsters for chump change. What’s more, those fellow gangsters spend more time drinking, brawling and stealing from each other than they spend hustling. Yakuza doesn’t break my suspension of disbelief after Kazuma takes on an entire squadron of rival gangsters at once; it breaks it when I see countless anonymous guys in flashy suits walk around without so much as lifting a finger to steal the money needed to buy said flashy suit.

Nitpicky? Maybe a little bit – after all, the game is concerned with presenting a story, not a simulation of Japanese gangster life. But the story it presents is a bit too concerned with keeping Kazuma’s hands clean for my taste. In Yakuza, you protect a beef bowl storeowner from gangster harassment; a real Yakuza would drive off the rival gangsters and charge the storeowner a “protection fee” himself. In Yakuza, most of the fights go down with knives and chairs at worst; a real Yakuza wouldn’t have any problem getting his hands on a gun. And in Yakuza, Kazuma spends most of his time protecting a little girl named Haruka, eventually going so far as to take her and other orphans under his wing. However, the real Kazuma would have been more likely to use her to cash in on the underground appetite for child pornography, which Japan’s National Police Agency Organized Crime Division recently acknowledged as big business for the Yakuza. In short, no game portrays the old romantic Yakuza image – and glosses over their dirty work – quite like those of the Yakuza series.

Real Gangsters

But the historical perception of the Yakuza as champions of the common people stands in stark contrast to the organization’s modern reality. While it may have started out with a semi-legitimate protection role in feudal Japan, the contemporary Yakuza is a full-on international crime syndicate. The Yakuza are responsible for “importing” the women of Japan’s prostitution industry from China, the Philippines, Mexico, Brazil and Russia by telling them they can get jobs as receptionists and secretaries in Japan, then burying them in debt once they arrive. The same goes for guns and drugs: The amphetamines that fuel Japan’s high-speed lifestyle are produced in China and smuggled into Japan via Hong Kong with the cooperation of the Triads, as are firearms, which are notoriously heavily restricted in Japan.

Somehow, the image of the noble Yakuza has endured. No doubt some of this is due to a cultural inclination to hide, ignore or otherwise cover up the shameful elements of one’s own society. Prostitution, drug and firearm smuggling, white-collar graft and loan sharking could alternatively be rationalized as “victimless crimes,” or, at the very least, crimes that wouldn’t affect a good law-abiding citizen. Perhaps the strangest contributor to the Yakuza’s innocuous image, however, is the Yakuza’s connection to right-wing Japanese nationalism, both during Japan’s post-war rebuilding process as well as its current connections to fringe right-wing organizations called “uyoku dantai.” Yes, somewhere between the sex trafficking and corporate fraud is a true Japanese patriot trying to restore the former empire’s pride.

Honor and Humanity

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This isn’t to say that the noble Yakuza image is the only one in circulation, however. While we haven’t seen much in the way of GTA-esque Yakuza games quite yet, film director/actor Takeshi Kitano and director Takashi Miike are both known for exploring deeper themes through Yakuza films. Kitano’s Brother, for example, portrays the ruthlessness of an organized crime syndicate with a remarkable level of sympathy for the characters, while Miike is best known for the ultraviolent cult classic Ichi the Killer, whose Yakuza enforcer protagonist Kakihara is about as far from Robin Hood as you could possibly get.

The shift in perception from Yakuza as heroes to Yakuza as gangsters is commonly attributed to a lack of “jingi,” a Japanese word commonly translated as “honor and humanity.” Battles Without Honor or Humanity (Jingi Naki Tatakai) became the title of a series of five Yakuza movies from the 1970s directed by Kinji Fukusaku (who would later become famous for the gory cult classic, Battle Royale). Adapted from a series of newspaper articles about crime in post-war Hiroshima, these films were characterized by an overwhelming sense of futility and a perpetual state of internal violence not unlike the Godfather movies. Yet that futility and violence hardly comes up in Sega’s Yakuza games, despite the fact that 90 percent of Kazuma’s opponents are fellow Yakuza.

The Yakuza series keeps continuing, of course; though Yakuza 3‘s U.S. release status is somewhat ambiguous, production on Yakuza 4 has already started. Further Yakuza games by Sega are unlikely to bring out Kazuma’s darker side anytime soon, considering it would take a series reboot roughly equivalent to what we’ve seen Resident Evil go through over the last few years. Then again, Grand Theft Auto has done well in Japan, and game designer Goichi Suda is probably the closest we have to a Takashi Miike of videogames, so perhaps we’ll see a gritty, fatalistic game about the real Yakuza someday. But until that happens, we’re going to have to be satisfied with our babysitting, bare-knuckle brawling Kazuma Kiryu, because that’s all we’ve got.

Patrick Miller had a lot of help from Brendan Callum on this one.

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