How Realistic is Yakuza 6? Behind Japan's Long History of Crime Syndicates

How Realistic is Yakuza 6? Behind Japan's Long History of Crime Syndicates

How close to reality is the Yakuza series' depiction of Japan's underground crime syndicates?

This article contains ending spoilers for Yakuza 6, Yakuza 5, and other moments in the Yakuza series.

Kazuma Kiryu has a heart of gold. This remains somehow true, whether he's grinding a man's face into the grater-rough asphalt of a Tokyo street or stabbing another in the gut with a knife before roundhouse kicking the blade's hilt deeper into tissue and organ. He's lovable too—the owner of an orphanage and dutiful surrogate father to many different children and young adults. He's a stalwart protector of the downtrodden and a man who, despite his involvement with organized crime throughout the Yakuza games he stars in, players are meant to regard as heroic.

In Yakuza 6: The Song of Life, Kiryu’s story is brought to a close after more than a decade of games that have followed the character struggling with his place in the eponymous yakuza, Japan's organized crime syndicates, since all the way back in 2005. Onetime chairman and on-again, off-again member of the fictional Tokyo-based Tojo Clan, over the length of the series, Kiryu has been shown working both with and against various gangsters. When Yakuza 6 begins, he's just left jail again, hoping to atone for his history.

In Yakuza 6, Kiryu finds himself caring for an infant—Haruka's son.

Yakuza 5 ended with Kiryu bleeding out in a dark alleyway as the result of his efforts to protect Haruka, the young woman he's been a father figure to since the first game. He realizes that the events that brought him to this point can never be solved by fighting or hiding, as Yakuza 5's story involves a labyrinthine criminal conspiracy that uses Kiryu's reputation to endanger Haruka’s career as a pop idol. Instead, he bites the bullet (not literally, though Kiryu is definitely tough enough for that) and spends three years in prison. Returning to the orphanage he owns, hoping that he's finally put his past behind him, he finds Haruka missing. Following the trail to Tokyo, he discovers she's had a child, was injured in a fishy hit-and-run, and now has to solve the mystery of who's still out to hurt him and those he loves as she remains in critical condition, comatose in the hospital. As in just about every entry to the series, Kiryu's attempts to leave the yakuza behind him are foiled. Like a super-buff Michael Corleone, just when our hero thinks he's finally gotten out, the criminal world pulls him back in (now, hilariously, for the sixth or seventh time, depending on how implicated you need Kiryu to be to count it).

Despite palling around with a small, Hiroshima-based crime family and embedding himself in a gang war that ropes in yakuza, Chinese triad, and Korean mafia groups alike, Kiryu's final journey through the Japanese underworld never sees him portrayed as a callous criminal. Instead, perhaps more than any other game in the long-running series, Yakuza 6 uses Kiryu's basic heroism as a sign of yakuza traditions the games consider valuable. It caps off his long career of trying to balance being a good person with holding a job based on exploiting society. In it, players once again see Kiryu positioned as an idealized, glamorous yakuza counterpart to the more recognizably self-serving criminals he must interact with.

The Romantic Yakuza

This struggle between a romanticized version of Japanese organized crime and its reality is a fitting theme for the final Kiryu-starring Yakuza game. Throughout every entry, no matter who he's up against, the series' protagonist has always fought against those who let greed or sheer brutality define their criminality. He, as opposed to the people he works for and against, isn't driven by a desire for money or power. Instead, Kiryu is defined largely by his need to use his knowledge of and connections within the Japanese underworld (not to mention his incredible talent for ass-kicking) to protect those victimized by their plans. He's a hero, which might seem strange for the main character of a series all about organized crime.

Yakuza is hardly the first popular art to take this kind of approach, though. The roots of this kind of portrayal stretch almost as far back as the history of the organizations themselves. In David E. Kaplan and Alec Dubro's Yakuza: Japan's Criminal Underworld, a landmark English language survey of the origins and historical activities of the yakuza, the authors note that "the yakuza … form a central theme of popular culture in Japan, with heroes and anti-heroes enshrined in countless movies, books, ballads, and short stories." The series, as dissimilar as it may be from the gritty, anti-hero-filled mafia movies that define our crime media, is part of a long-standing tradition in Japan. Kaplan and Dubro write: "For [many], the history of organized crime in Japan is an honorable one, filled with tales of yakuza Robin Hoods coming to the aid of the common people. The heroes of these stories are society's victims, who made good, losers who finally won, men who lived the life of the outlaw with dignity. These tales stand at the heart of the yakuza's self-image—and of public perception as well."

Kiryu manages an orphanage too, but the yakuza lifestyle always tears him away.

Yakuza 6 typifies this image in its broadest plot points. Kiryu works to solve a war that threatens Haruka, her young son Haruto, and the Hiroshima gang he ends up associating with. His own past—a troubled young man who found family in the yakuza, but never gave in to self-serving crime—is echoed by numerous characters from the various syndicates. We see Kiryu as the outcast trying to do right by his loved ones, willfully going to prison—just as he did when accepting the blame for a murder in the first game. We see Kiryu allowing himself to be beaten half to death and unflinchingly take multiple gunshot wounds in order to protect others. Finally, Yakuza 6 ends with Kiryu faking his own death and leaving his orphanage for a self-imposed exile so that associating with him will never harm his makeshift family again. He, of course, never complains. He's tough and does the right thing, no matter how much it may hurt him.

This is typical of traditional yakuza stories, whose modern form stretches back to the popular matabi-mono genre of the early 1900s. The criminal bakuto (organized gambling groups who serve as of the yakuza's predecessors) are portrayed in these tales, as Kaplan and Dubro note, "as faithful and humane people, men whose loneliness and sorrow few outsiders could understand." Popular matabi-mono tales depicted "men of questionable backgrounds who fought as hard as they gambled, yet maintained a philosophy of supporting the underdog and never troubling the common folk." In these stories, a cultural tradition was born that would lead to the romanticized yakuza of film, books, and video games. "The aggressive yet compassionate outlaw, useless to mainstream society but willing to stand up for the common man—these are the essential components of the yakuza legend," Kaplan and Dubro write. If this sounds familiar, it's probably because it's a shorthand description for Kazuma Kiryu, adopted into the yakuza and struggling to rectify his criminal associations with his moral decency too.

The Yakuza games also draw heavily from the more recent genre of yakuza movies, which Kaplan and Dubro describe as “descendants of the old samurai epics” that have more in common with the American Western “in which cowboy and outlaw clearly define a code of morality” than Western gangster films. In these movies, audiences have been given an idealized vision of the yakuza. Robert Whiting, author of Tokyo Underworld: The Fast Times and Hard Life of an American Gangster in Japan describes how the massive film production company Toei Film Studios’ glut of genre movies romanticized the syndicates through movies starring "heroic, taut-muscled figures elaborately tattooed and wearing colorful kimonos and carrying long swords."

Whiting notably contrasts onscreen yakuza with their fairly disappointing real-life counterparts. He describes the mob members who haunted post-war Tokyo as being dressed in black suits, black hats, and sunglasses, and that the gangsters "were all in notoriously bad health, with toneless bodies and wan complexions caused by a steady morning-to-night diet of cheap sake, unfiltered cigarettes, and methamphetamines." Rather than striking, physically imposing and stoic figures like Kiryu, he notes that "many of them suffered from diabetes and they talked incessantly of treatments for tooth cavities and hemorrhoids, afflictions for which medical care was denied in Japanese prison, where most of them wound up at one time or another."

Truth and fiction, when it comes to the yakuza, are often pretty far apart.

The Yakuza Outside of Yakuza

It makes sense that the Yakuza games would have a hard time balancing the romantic and grim realities of the gangs. These difficulties afflict even the yakuza themselves. In Tokyo Underworld, Whiting describes how the post-war Kanto Ozu-gumi, which "was the largest crime syndicate in Western Tokyo at the time," believed that they were somehow more righteous than mobs from other parts of the world and that the groups "claimed to live by a strict code of chivalry, based on the samurai warrior’s bushido ethic, which emphasized humility, duty, and loyalty to one’s lord."

Yakuza 0 takes players to Kiryu's origins in the 1980s.

The reality, of course, doesn't always jibe with the yakuza’s history. The modern syndicates have controlled not just the expected criminal businesses of narcotic sales (particularly amphetamines), human trafficking, sex trafficking, racketeering, union-busting, general extortion, and much else, but are deeply involved in the political and corporate worlds as well. Though hardly as exciting as the shirtless fistfights that punctuate every Yakuza game, the gangs are an important part of construction projects (which, as per Whiting’s book, written in 1999, account for "20 percent of [Japan's] GNP [or, gross national product]"). The construction companies who receive all of this money are, in turn, "among the largest of all political campaign contributors" and, Whiting continues, "have deep ties to organized crime, which controls work crews and supply companies and in some cases owns construction firms outright."

Naturally, the yakuza have historically been involved in the Japanese government too. Since the American occupation following World War 2, when the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP) offices strategically emboldened Japan's far-right gangsters in an effort to purge Japan of potentially Soviet-sympathizing leftists, powerful yakuza have been associated with the country's government. The legacy of this combination of ultranationalist groups, organized crime, and mainstream politics has continued, in various forms, to recent years. (As Kaplan and Dubro put it in the introduction to their book: "There is no clear analogy in American society. In some respects it is as if the Ku Klux Klan and the Mafia formed an enduring, politically potent alliance.")

Though we never see the heroic Kiryu dirtying his brawny hands in this kind of business, the Yakuza games do a good job of showing some of these less than glamorous aspects of organized crime. The games' plots use action and interpersonal drama as capstones for stories that, when you look past the rooftop brawls and screaming over matters of mob loyalty, are driven by pretty mundane stuff. Over the course of the series, Yakuza's crime stories have centered around real-estate wars, international government conspiracies, and the nefarious plans of Japanese politicians.

In Yakuza 6, for example, a plot point centers around East Asian human trafficking, discussing the illegal immigration of Chinese citizens by the mob during the 1990s—an activity that formed "a lucrative and reliable source of income," according to Kaplan and Dubro, after the national economic boom of the late '80s Bubble Economy came to an end. (Series fans will remember Yakuza 0, which used the super-rich, super-gaudy character of this period as the setting for a story that revolved around a key piece of Tokyo property whose value soared alongside the Bubble's Japanese markets.) It also, like Yakuza 2, involves the fraught relationship between yakuza and the Chinese and Korean gangs who exist within Japan. This is hardly romantic stuff.

Truth and fiction, when it comes to the yakuza, are often pretty far apart.

More importantly to its plot, mob and corporate politics intersect in Yakuza 6 as the driving force behind its central mysteries and the catalyst for its mob war. Convoluted, in true Yakuza fashion, the game's finale involves the discovery of a Second World War-era military battleship. Ridiculous as the sight of the huge ship rising out of a secret dock in rural Hiroshima may be, the game ties its existence to the kind of systemic corruption the yakuza have helped create. Kiryu and friends soon learn that a powerful construction company (and not-so-secret mob family) called Iwami Shipbuilding is responsible for its creation and that it was financed by a powerful government agent, implied to belong to the nation’s far right, called "The Fixer." All of it would sound unbelievable if it wasn't for the historical precedents—like the career of notorious gangster, political kingmaker, and ultranationalist Yoshio Kodama—the whole mess pulls from.

Standing against the criminal forces responsible for the Hiroshima battleship are, of course, Kiryu and his allies. They, unlike the more realistic yakuza who make up the game's enemies, represent a romantic tradition that seems like it should be completely unrealistic. But as we watch the shape their idealized struggle takes, their characters end up standing in for another aspect of the Japanese mob. In this aspect of the game, Yakuza 6 hones in on what may be the only quality of organized crime that can actually be romanticized: its creation of family.

Finding a Home for Outcasts

Family is everything in Yakuza 6. Kiryu finds himself growing older, moving from stand-in father to Haruka and the members of his orphanage to stand-in grandfather to her infant son Haruto. The Hiroshima gang he lives with have a similar relationship, forged through crime with their boss, the traitorous Toru Hirose (played by the great Beat Takeshi). The criminal owners of Iwami Shipbuilding and the leaders of the game’s Saio Triad are defined by father-son relationships, too. Everywhere in the game, the theme is hammered home: one of the most important relationships a person can have, Yakuza 6 says, is the one that exists between parent and child, bound by blood or circumstance.

This is so central a concept to the real yakuza that the groups were investigated by the American SCAP occupation authorities immediately after WW2 through the Oyabun-Kobun subcommittee—a name that refers to, as Kaplan and Dubro summarize, "[a] father role-child role." Following on their description is a basic summary of the familial hierarchy that traditionally binds yakuza members to their boss: "The oyabun provides advice, protection, and help, and in return receives the unswerving loyalty and service of his kobun whenever needed."

Kamurocho, here as seen in Yakuza Kiwami, is a staple location in the Yakuza series.

The importance of this relationship gains great significance when viewed in light of the common gang tendency to provide not just improved economic security to its recruits, but also a sense of belonging to those who may not have it in their personal lives. Referring again to Kaplan and Dubro, surveys by the Japanese National Police Agency's Tokyo-based social science group, the National Research Institute of Police Science (NRIPS) in the late 1980s "found that the offering of a surrogate family was often what attracted recruits to the ranks of the yakuza. The varied gangs serve as a kind of safety valve for tightly structured Japanese society, in which not having a steady job or an upstanding family can ruin one for life." The surveys found that "most new [yakuza] recruits were poorly educated, nineteen to twenty years of age, and were living alone when they joined ... Forty-three percent had lost one or both parents."

It shouldn't be a surprise, then, that the final entry to Kazuma Kiryu's story—one that started with him finding his way into his surrogate father's yakuza group while living as an orphan—would center so strongly on the makeshift and real families that redeem its criminal cast. As its title makes clear, Yakuza 6 encapsulates an entire series of games about those on the margins of society finding new avenues of personal meaning through the creation of ad hoc families, from criminal gangs full of sworn brothers and parents to stand-in father-daughter relationships like the one between Kiryu and Haruka that guides his actions throughout each story.

This kind of focus sidesteps the contradictions of the game's portrayal of both romantic yakuza heroics and its recognition of the nasty realities of Japanese organized crime. Though it's always split between how much to emphasize the morality of Kiryu versus the awful job he's caught up in, Yakuza 6 identifies something redemptive about its outlaws in the end. It highlights the bonds that tie together society's outcasts and makes that the focus of its protagonist's final story.

This is especially true in the case of Kazuma Kiryu, who ends his long journey through the series by sacrificing himself once again in an act of nearly superhuman loyalty. Regardless of the horrible business he's associated with, in the end, it's the family relationships he’s forged through a life of crime that let us believe that he's a respectable figure, all things considered. While not exactly a faithful depiction of a real-life yakuza, it's close enough to one aspect of Japanese crime that it manages to ring true enough.

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