Are Japan’s Yakuza disappearing? (Yakuza: Like A Dragon)

With guest co-host Kazuma Hashimoto!

Get your best suit on. We’re off to the classiest, seediest, and most fictional entertainment districts of Japan. Yakuza: Like A Dragon is the latest criminal RPG in the much-beloved Yakuza series. Yet what truth lies behind the flashy jackets and shocked expressions of its characters? Yes, Yakuza games are all melodrama and action, but can we learn anything about the real Yakuza of Japan through these lovable rogues? In this episode we speak to investigative journalist David Kaplan, who spent time in Japan investigating the criminal underworld. He fills us in on the history and current-day reality of these entrepreneurial crime lords, and blesses us with an anecdote involving some unfortunate little fingers…

Support Hey Lesson on Patreon!

Click “read more” for a full list of links and transcription.

Links:

Follow Kaz on Twitter

Or watch him on Twitch

David Kaplan is executive director of the Global Investigative Journalism Network

His book – Yakuza: Japan’s Criminal Underworld by David Kaplan (Goodreads)

Kaz recommends some reading:

Zainichi Korean activist speaks about prejudice in Japan

Talent agency suspends Yakuza 6 actor for alleged links to organised crime

Comedians in Japan should end ties with ‘antisocial groups’ like yakuza

Officials dodge questions about ‘anti-social’ guest at sakura party

Music and SFX:

All SFX taken from promotional trailers

Interview background music is Unwritten Return by yer man Kevin MacLeod
Link: https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/4570-unwritten-return
License: https://filmmusic.io/standard-license

Episode transcription:

David Kaplan, investigative journalist: The gangsters like to think of themselves as sort of latter day samurai – gangsters with honor.

Ichiban Kasuga [speaking in Japanese]: I kept you waiting for so long. But Ichiban Kasuga is finally back!

David Kaplan: These are mobsters… you know, not very nice people.

Brendan Caldwell, host: Hello there, welcome to Hey Lesson, the podcast where we ask smart people stupid questions about video games. But, uh, we sometimes ask a few sensible questions as well. The point is that we’re here to teach you things through the clandestine lens of popular games, such as this week’s game, the mobbed-up role-playing game Yakuza: Like A Dragon. It’s a melodramatic crime caper set in Yokohama, Japan, where you play a member of the criminal underworld who takes the fall for a murder he didn’t commit. And he gets out of prison years later, unable to find his old partners in crime. But are the real Yakuza also disappearing from Japan streets? And how much of this beloved video game series is a fair portrayal of those gangsters? Anyway, keep listening to hear from an investigative journalist who wrote a book on the Yakuza and who has some, uh, interesting anecdotes as well as some insights, uh, about where our heroes friends might’ve disappeared too. But first let me introduce this week’s guest co-host. It’s game journalist and streamer, Kazuma Hashimoto. Hello!

Kazuma Hashimoto: Hello. Thank you for having me on.

Brendan: How are you?

Kazuma: I’m doing pretty good, very excited to talk about this game.

Brendan: You’ve reviewed it. You’re a longtime player of the Yakuza series of games. And this is like the seventh one in the main series. So could you give us a breakdown of what these games are, usually, for someone who hasn’t played any of them?

Kazuma: So the Yakuza games, in my opinion, they’re sort of like playable crime dramas or playable Yakuza films where you basically take the role of — well in the first six games, rather seven. Because Like A Dragon would be considered the eighth game because of [Yakuza 0]…

Brendan: Oh, right. Yeah, of course. I forgot the number zero. Sorry.

Kazuma: I should know this considering I’m an actual meme in the community, with me holding all the Yakuza games. The first seven games follow the life of Kazuma Kiryu. You who is basically a member of the Yakuza that took a fall for his best friend, went to prison, and has effectively tried to distance himself from that lifestyle, but keeps getting dragged in over and over again. They have a lot of similar plot beats and story elements from a lot of popular crime dramas. And they often draw inspiration from real life events that are happening at that time. So if you like crime dramas or anything in relation to, I guess, organized crime and Japanese Yakuza films, you’ll probably have an idea of what they’re like. They have some really good storytelling. It’s really emotional. It’s really raw. And the most recent game has stepped away from Kiryu being a main protagonist. And now we have each Ichiban Kasuga, who’s similar to Kiryu. He’s a Yakuza who took a fall for somebody, went to prison, came out, and the world has changed and he doesn’t recognize the system that has sort of left him behind.

Brendan: What about like moment to moment? What does the player do in it? What does it look like?

Kazuma: Oh, so the first seven games, it’s kind of like a beat ’em up, um… RPG hybrid, beat ’em up where you walk around the street and you meet thugs that call you an old man or an asshole. And you just kind of just, you know… use your fists to settle your conflicts, but you don’t kill anybody because that’s not what the main character does. And sometimes you have very interesting sub-stories or side quests. People compare this series a lot to Grand Theft Auto. And I don’t know why, because they’re nothing like Grand Theft Auto. They have a lot more in common with Japanese RPGs. If that’s a good explanation.

Brendan: This newest game especially, Like A Dragon, is a little bit different from the previous ones. In that it’s even more like an RPG, right?

Kazuma: Yeah. It’s a complete turn-based RPG system. Now they call it… what do they call it? A… it wasn’t “real time” but it was like a “reactive RPG system” because your characters would move around the field. You can’t really tell them where to go, but while you’re doing your turn-based combat, you can get hit by cars and stuff because everything around you is still going on. So you kind of have to rely on the AI to position themselves. But it’s very Dragon Quest. Like there are so many Dragon Quest references that you could effectively call this a Dragon Quest-inspired RPG style system. If you played any turn-based RPG, this is basically what it is. They have magic, various set roles like tanking, DPS, healers, de-buffers, and things like that. It’s full RPG now. It even has a job class system.

Brendan: When you say “job class system” people who have played RPGs will think, “Oh, you know, one will be a wizard… Someone will be a mage. Someone will be a warrior…” But that’s not precisely what the job class system in this game is. Right?

Kazuma: So you literally have to go to a Japanese office for work to change your job because it tries to apply a real-world logic to this sort of fantastical idea that Kasuga has within his own imagination of what’s going on. So instead of having a mage, you have a fortune teller, uh, who can cast spells on the enemies. Or an idol that can basically fill her allies with cheer and heal them from grievous injuries and things like that. It tries to apply real-world logic and dynamics to these jobs that they’ve created.

Brendan: We’re going to talk a little bit more in depth about the game soon. But we also wanted to know how real any of this stuff was, you know, aside from the idols and magic fortune tellers. So after reading a little bit about the decline of the modern Yakuza in newspaper reports, we wanted to know if that criminal organization was really disappearing from the streets. So we spoke to a man called David Kaplan. He is an investigative journalist who spent time in Japan, interviewing members of the Yakuza, among others, to publish a book about the topic. Uh, the book is called Yakuza: Japan’s Criminal Underworld. Here’s what he had to tell us about all that

[Interview begins]

Ichiban Kasuga (soundbite): Growing up, all I ever wanted was to be a hero, just like the ones in my favorite video games.

Yu Nanba: Why not become a hero at 40, right?

Brendan: David, could you please introduce yourself for our listeners?

David Kaplan: I’m David Kaplan, I’m a journalist for some 35 years. Uh, right now I’m executive director of the global investigative journalism network that helps strengthen and support investigative reporting around the world. In another life I was a journalist based in Tokyo, Japan and ended up doing, uh, I guess the first popular history about Japanese organized crime, called “Yakuza”.

Brendan: For anyone who isn’t aware, can you briefly tell us: who are the Yakuza?

David Kaplan: The Yakuza are Japan’s version of La Cosa Nostra… of the mafia. It is one of the great crime syndicate traditions in the world. They’re some 300 years old. They are a formidable force in Japanese society and an endless source of fascination, but also terrifically entrepreneurial. They’re one of Japan’s most entrepreneurial sectors. These guys are very clever and have really transformed these more traditional notions, or images, long associated with them, like hacking off their pinky fingers for misdeeds, or full body tattoos. Those are the historic markers of Yakuza. But today they’re more likely to be working with hedge funds and venture capital than, you know, loansharking on the streets of an entertainment district.

Masumi Arakawa [soundbite, speaking Japanese]: I can’t afford to let Jo get arrested…

Brendan: Traditionally, how would a member of the Yakuza get their money?

David Kaplan: When you go back in time, the gangs really existed in a feudal economy. Then there were traditionally two kinds of Yakuza. Uh, there were gamblers called “bakuto” and there were street vendors called “tekiya”. The tekiya would appear at street festivals and, and run kind of small-time rackets, selling everything from food to bonsai trees without roots. And they’re there. They were kind of on the margins of society. And then these itinerant merchants became affiliated into gangs. The gamblers were also running, like, floating craps games, and the equivalent. In fact, Yakuza [the word] – Ya-ku-za – comes from the Japanese for the numbers eight, nine, three, which is a losing hand in an old card game. So if you… if you ended up with Ya-ku-za in the game, uh, you’ve lost.

Soundbite: We’re risking our lives for a measly 5,000 yen.

David Kaplan: The gangs grew in sophistication. They began moving into work on the docks, into the entertainment industries, restaurants, nightclubs, and became a significant force in the global economy. So from, from the 1950s to the 1980s is the heyday of the Yakuza. These gangs become huge. At the peak of the American mafia… its strength… at its height there were probably 5,000 made members of the U S mafia, maybe 20,000 associates. The Yakuza had 180,000 members, and there were gangs in every city. Moreover, it was semi-sanctioned. The gangs had the gang insignia on their offices. Some had their own magazines and they had a lot of the trappings of legitimate Japanese corporations. In a way they became kind of the honorable underground.

Narrator (soundbite): Everyone has a certain skill they bring to the table. Some people are like you, charging in head first without a thought

Brendan: In the video game series, they’re depicted in a whole lot of ways. As individual members, some Yakuza are cruel. They’re shown to be exploiting people, threatening people, and then others are shown as quite protective or heroic, essentially decent folk helping others, and not always in a violent way.

David Kaplan: You’ve hit on the competing images of the Yakuza in popular culture. You’ve got this traditional view of the noble gangster. You know, the gangsters like to think of themselves as sort of latter day samurai – gangsters with honor – who, you know, there’s an old saying that “we give the shady side of the street during a sunny day to the common people”. You know, they like to encourage stories about how they’ve helped out when there’s been an earthquake or another kind of disaster. Yakuza movies are kind of like Hollywood westerns in that they’re very formulaic. There’s a ton of them. And these themes often come out… the honorable gangster torn between loyalty to his boss and loyalty to his old friends… or he can’t help himself from breaking the law, but he has a good heart. And these, these things constantly play out a mid, you know, uh, lots of violence and car chases and so forth. The heyday of the Yakuza film has passed. But the video games kind of pick up the same things that were developed by the big studios like Toei. Now, there’s a more up-to-date image of the Yakuza of being, you know, uh… not very nice people. These are mobsters. And they use violence and intimidation and underhanded techniques to get their way. Blackmail is a huge industry in Japan. And as the Yakuza have gotten more powerful there’s been a reaction to it. And then there’s been a series of laws since the 1990s aimed at curtailing the activities of the gangs. And it’s diminished their numbers and it’s driven them more underground, but it’s also changed the nature of organized crime in Japan.

Ichiban Kasuga [speaking in Japanese]: I kept you waiting for so long. But Ichiban Kasuga is finally back! … [silence, wind] … Huh!?

Brendan: Recently there’ve been reports that, like you said, the Yakuza have been in decline. Their numbers are going down. Is that true? And why is that happening? If so, is it just that there are fewer people joining?

David Kaplan: Well, there’s a bit of sleight of hand here. Yes. The numbers of, you know, “made” Yakuza – of formal Japanese organized crime members of the big syndicates – those have gone down. There’s about 28,000 of these guys today. About half of those are considered “associates”. Those numbers are down. But that’s an official number in that the Japanese cops, they have a database with all these names. But as Japan globalized, to an extent, and the economy changed, the workforce changed, urbanization changed, you know, all these different forces were pushing on the Yakuza to modernize. So, one of the ways they’ve done it is, um, by having much more freelancers and then came in, you know, all this extra money from the bubble economy. And we began talking about a new kind of Japanese gangster, the “Keizai Yakuza”, the economic gangster. These guys are a whole different breed. I mean, they’ve got managers from Japan’s best universities handling their books in front offices. They’ve got lawyers they’ve got brokers. There are recent estimates of 5-15% of the companies on Japan Stock exchange are mobbed-up. Particularly in the venture capital and tech markets. Uh, you know, these guys aren’t cutting off their pinkies and getting full body tattoos, but they’re organized crime.

Masumi Arakawa (soundbite): Sorry Ichi… Die for me… [gunshot]

Brendan: One of the things that happens in these games is that young Yakuza members will take the fall for a crime, and they’ll go to prison for a long time. This happens in the most recent game, and it happens in at least one other. Is there any truth in that, or is that just another one of these tropes?

David Kaplan: Uh, there is truth to it. In the more traditional gangs, it’s the job of the kobun, the soldier, to take the fall for the oyabun, the boss, and such things are not taken lightly. Years ago, I was interviewing the most powerful mob boss in Tokyo. Tokyo was run by a gang called the Inagawa-kai. And I was interviewing godfather Inagawa on the top floor of a posh Tokyo hotel. And it was… I wasn’t really interviewing him. It was more of an audience I’d been granted with this guy who was built like, uh, a tough football player. He was known as a reformer within the Yakuza, but he was explaining to me how tough it is to reform these traditionally minded gang members. And he told the story of how he decreed an end to finger cutting. Now, if a Yakuza commits a grievous error, disloyalty, or he bungles a mission, or he sleeps with the boss’s wife – Lord knows what – you do a ritual finger cutting, where you… you take a sharp blade and you sever the top joint of your pinky finger, wrap it in cloth, and present it to the boss.

Soundbite: If you want to be a Yakuza… you need to learn to take responsibility!

David Kaplan: And if the boss accepts it – all is forgiven. And in some of these gang headquarters, you can actually see a bunch of pinky tips preserved in spirits…

Brendan: Waaa…

David Kaplan: … as a reminder to not mess up. So godfather Inagawa thought that this was a tradition that they really needed to leave behind. So he decreed, throughout the Inagawa crime syndicate, an end to finger cutting. One day shortly after this, one of the lieutenants in the Inagawa syndicate committed some error. And, uh, he ended up cutting his finger off. Inagawa was furious, and he summoned [that man’s] boss to him. And he said, “How could you do this? I specifically ordered an end to this practice.” And the captain had lost so much face being berated by the godfather himself… what did he do?

Brendan: Oh no, he didn’t. No…

David Kaplan: He cut off his finger and presented it to Inagawa! So Inagawa, he tells this story with great pride because… He said, “My people are very loyal and bound to tradition”.

Ryuhei Yoshino (soundbite): To us, reputation is everything…

Narrator: From the shadows they rule Ijincho… The Yokohama Yakuza… the Seiryu clan!

Brendan: You delved into this realm for a while, living in Japan. But how do you go about even investigating the Yakuza firsthand. How do you get in touch with them? I can’t imagine you can just send them an email or call them?

David Kaplan: Uh, no… you need introductions. Japan’s a fairly formal society that way. And even as a journalist working on a, you know, a more general interest story, you can’t just call somebody cold and say, “Hey, I’m so-and-so with this newspaper. And I’d like to do an interview.” You need an introduction if you’re going to do… a serious engagement. And that means a go-between, it means someone’s going to vouch for you. You need someone who’s going to open doors. So I worked with colleagues in Japanese news media, uh, and they in turn had contacts. And, you know, when I did this, the Yakuza were just starting to get known internationally. This is in the 1980s, and they were getting heat from US law enforcement. They were getting arrested in Hawaii and California. So there was some interest on the Yakuza’s part in sort of getting their message across. So once I made the connections, I had an extraordinary entrée into this rarefied world of organized crime. And in Japan… the one time I got in trouble was actually trying to negotiate through this, this thicket of introductions and what is expected of you. And there’s… it’s a very, uh, shall we say, sticky world of social relationships. You don’t just go in and… and leave.

Ichiban Kasuga (soundbite): Well, this just got complicated

Brendan: That process, I guess, of investigating an organized crime group, is going to be dangerous. Presumably, they didn’t want you reporting certain things?

David Kaplan: Uh, yeah. At one point the same godfather, Inagawa, looked at me and said, “I assume you’ll be showing us everything you write before it’s published”…

Brendan: But what do you say to that!?

David Kaplan: Uh, I was vague. I think I said: “We’ll certainly take that into consideration”.

Brendan: Is there anything to learn from the way the Japanese media themselves cover the Yakuza?

David Kaplan: Well, there’s some brave and gutsy Japanese journalists whose work my own is built on, and some independent researchers. Uh, but most of it is covered, you know, kind of like the organized crime in our… in Western societies. You know, it’s crime by crime. And occasionally there’s a brilliant piece where someone steps back and tries to make sense of what’s going on. What fascinated me about the Yakuza was how political they became, and how closely allied to Japan’s far right.

Brendan: We see in the video games that the more nefarious Yakuza members often align themselves to high-ranking and corrupt politicians as well. So is that something that happens in reality? Do the Yakuza make friends with members of the Diet, the Japanese parliament?

David Kaplan: Yeah. Yeah. The Yakuza are sewn deeply into the social structure there at a local level. You know, you’ve got things like farmers co-ops that are a stalwart of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, but the farmers don’t have enough work. So they’ve got part-time jobs. And often that means working in construction. Well, who controls a lot of these local construction gangs? Yakuza bosses. So, if you want local votes when you make the rounds, you gotta go to the local gang boss.

Man with knife (soundbite): Let’s get started, shall we?

Ichiban Kasuga: How about we don’t?

David Kaplan: And again, you don’t just go and ask for votes. You have to have an introduction, you’ve got to create a relationship… It’s difficult to, you know, just walk away from these kinds of complex social relationships. And in Japan… Japan made some decisions that they’re not going to regulate certain areas well. They’ve limited, artificially, the number of attorneys, for example, in Japanese society. So how do you negotiate a dispute in Japan? Well, often you turn to these Yakuza-tied “fixers”, who will come in and deal with everything from a bankruptcy to an automobile accident. Uh, so there’s… there’s that whole sector. These guys are still out there, uh, but the smartest ones have moved a whole other level into, you know, high finance and international investment. And that’s really the future for the Yakuza.

Brendan: The Yakuza games often give a player a big city district to roam around. You can go and play darts in pubs or eat in restaurants or play pool. And karaoke is a pretty big thing. Do real Yakuza sing karaoke?

David Kaplan: Real Japanese [people] do. And I don’t think Yakuza are any exception. Karaoke is a Japanese word. It comes from Japan. And they take it very seriously. You know, businessmen will have some drinks and go to a karaoke parlour and sing everything from the latest pop hits to Frank Sinatra’s My Way.

Brendan: All right. I think that’s everything I’ve got to ask you. David Kaplan, thank you very much for speaking with us.

David Kaplan: Good gaming to you all. And thanks so much for the nice interview.

Yu Nanba, singing (soundbite): I’m such a mess… I’m lost, I’m no good at this…

[Interview ends]

Brendan: That was David Kaplan, investigative journalist and author of the book, Yakuza: Japan’s Criminal Underworld. If you want to hear the full interview with David, we did a much, much longer one. That was just a snippet. You can get that if you subscribe to our Patreon. It’s $2 a month, you can join up at Patreon.com/heylesson. All subscribers get access to full unabridged interviews with all of the experts that we speak to. They usually run to about 30 to 45 minutes, something like that. Um, and there’s lots of other fun details hidden away in those interviews. So, like I said, patreon.com/heylesson, or just click on the link in the description below. We’ll talk more about that at the end of the episode, for now, Kaz, how did you feel about his chat?

Kazuma: It’s extremely accurate. Like everything he has to say is absolutely correct. Um, the Yakuza are quote unquote officially in decline regarding the official numbers that they have to register with each, uh, family office. Because they have to be registered as a business basically. But if anyone’s played Yakuza 3, if you look at the antagonist, Mine, that’s more of the style of what the Yakuza are. Now, they’re more businessmen. They’re like Mine without the tattoo. And they don’t really abide by that old notion of honor. They’re more or less adapting to survive. The Yakuza series is a really overblown overdramatic, uh, interpretation of this sort… portraying them as like honorable criminals, which leans into a right-wing ideology regarding the Yakuza and like this sort of return to traditionalist values. But everything he says about them sort of changing the way that they present themselves and how they’re functioning within society is absolutely correct. Especially the part about them being in bed with politicians.

Brendan: So you see a lot of parallels with what David was saying about the idea of like a noble gangster, like do the characters in the game almost want to proliferate that image as well?

Kazuma: I feel like the games are most guilty of that within the most recent one, right? Because Kasuga is still very attached to the idea of what it means to be a Yakuza. “No, like, we’re honorable criminals.” Again in the beginning, you’ve chased down some guy that sold porn to a bunch of teenagers, right? So Kasuga beats that guy up, gives the kids back the money and he’s like, “we don’t take money from things like that…. that’s not what we do.” Like: “we’re above that”. And with seven, I feel like they leaned into that really hard with how they portrayed Kasuga, his relationship to his surrogate father and his relationship to the organization. You don’t really have that as much within the older games because Kiryu is always, like, “I don’t want to be involved in this. Like every year I get dragged back into this s*** for some reason”… Excuse my cursing. I’m so sorry if cursing isn’t allowed, but, um…

Brendan: We do have a try-and-keep-it-curse-free policy, but what I do is I just bleep… and then I give whoever cursed a little wag of the finger.

Kazuma: Okay. Well thank you for scolding me. I’ll try… Yeah. I’ll try to keep it down. But, um, he, yeah, it’s very much in contrast to how Kiryu has responded to everything… he’s like, “I don’t want to be involved in this anymore. Leave me out of this.” The only reason he gets involved… past Yakuza 2, is because there’s some things going down with land development in Okinawa that could threaten the orphanage that he’s running. So he gets involved. In Yakuza 4, he gets involved again because of some money laundering scheme or whatever. Yakuza 5, because he’s like, “I’m gonna become a taxi driver because I don’t want like my surrogate daughter to get in trouble because her dad’s a former Yakuza” and then he gets dragged in anyways. And it’s just like this whole ordeal, right? Like he’s always trying to like reject the system.

Brendan: Yeah. He’s always arguing. He’s always saying, “Look, I’m a civilian” and everyone’s always pointing at him and going, “No, you’re, you’re Yakuza. Right?” And he’s going, “No, I’m a civilian. Please stop, please stop asking me this.”

Kazuma: But Ichiban is more or less, sort of astounded with how the organization does… And he even goes to points in the story where he reinforces the idea of no, we’re not like this, this isn’t what the organization stands for. Like, we’re not corrupt. We don’t extort people. We don’t do unwarranted murders, you know, things like that. So I feel like in relation to the series, that’s where it’s kind of gone. The one thing that this series has kind of fumbled with, especially in Yakuza 2, is sort of this… you’ve played Yakuza 2, right?

Brendan: Uh, yeah. I’m actually playing through Yakuza 3 right now. That’s as far as I’ve got so far.

Kazuma: Okay. Um, well at the beginning of Yakuza 2, it’s basically sort of like, “well, we need to keep the Yakuza so we can keep foreign crime out of Japan”. And that’s, that’s legitimately, uh, a right-wing talking point and sort of a reason why people try to justify, you know, extortion or the existence of the Yakuza. And that’s what this series can kind of lean into sometimes.

Brendan: But does it ever do that critically or does it just kind of do it in a way of like, “this is how society is sometimes”?

Kazuma: Yakuza 2 I don’t think does it critically. In the other games? I think that’s really up to debate, but I think like when I play these games as a Japanese person, I know this isn’t real. Right. Like I know that this is just like a Yakuza film, basically it’s a… film that I can play, I like the acting, I like the voice actors. Sometimes they bring up things that are happening in real life, you know, like political corruption, the relocation of a military base in Okinawa. But when I play them, it’s sort of like, “Oh yeah, you know, this is an interesting coincidence that this is sort of being reflected in this game, but also what it draws inspiration from”. Like yeah, there there’s some fact there, you know?

Brendan: Yeah…. David touched on a bit and um, you were mentioning as well, the links between the Yakuza and the far right political entities in Japan. Is that something that’s overtly mentioned or hinted at in the games or do they largely like steer clear of that sort of thing?

Kazuma: Um, my memory of this is… So like I haven’t played Yakuza 4 and 5 in a while, but with Yakuza 3, they sort of talk about government corruption, but more or less in relation to like the CIA or an overseas organization. They don’t really discuss or portray the Japanese far-right politicians as being insidious. There’s even a moment where like in Yakuza 3 – sorry for spoilers, by the way – Kiryu speaks to a high ranking official to give him a talk about land development currently going on in Okinawa and then he gets on a jet and flies back to Okinawa, but they don’t really portray these politicians as like particularly insidious.

Brendan: I guess they’re more like… neutral politicians. It’s like the mayor. “Oh, the Yakuza is in bed with the mayor!” But the mayor is never really shown to have any kind of affiliation or policies, you know, beyond, I want to get rich and become the prime minister or whatever they do. The games do try to tackle some other social issues and stuff as well. Like homelessness is something that always comes up in Yakuza games or it comes up often, for example, one of the main characters in Like A Dragon, this new game, is a former nurse, I think, who is homeless when you meet them. How does Yakuza, this latest game, portray that character?

Kazuma: Uh, well, so I’ll be honest here. I have been homeless several times in my life. Um…

Brendan: Oh.

Kazuma: Yeah. Um, and there’s this moment when…

Brendan: Sorry, we don’t have to talk about this if you don’t want to.

Kazuma: Oh, no. It’s… I really don’t mind, it’s okay. Um, there’s this moment when Yu Nanba – the nurse, right – he confronts Ichiban about his perception of homeless people just being lazy. And he talks about how like, the system actively works against people. And that if you’re at a disadvantage, you’ll continue to be at a disadvantage because Japan doesn’t really care about helping homeless people. It doesn’t really care about helping people who are alcoholics or addicted to gambling or have maybe fallen down on their luck. You know, the system is unkind and it is cruel to people. And that’s… I guess in some ways it talks about that seriously, but it never really goes any further than that. It’s sort of that one moment. And then you have a side story about a homeless guy and a young boy and that’s about it. And then it moves on very quickly. I think in relation to the other games, when they talk about social issues, because there are so many characters, it sort of loses focus. Like, the previous Yakuza games with Kiryu… have always talked about social othering in relation to maybe being adopted or maybe being biracial or not having parents. Right? These are all still very real social issues in Japan. It’s still a thing. Like, just the other day in The Mainichi, there was a Zainichi Korean woman talking about how she continually has to fight for her rights and the rights of otherI Zainichi Korean people. And it’s basically because the only thing that she wants is to not have a fear of being physically harmed in the country that she grew up in.

Brendan: This is in real life. This isn’t in a Yakuza game.

Kazuma: This is a real thing. And I think Yakuza [games], when they focus on things like that, things that resonate a little more with the main characters, it has a clear focus. Because in Yakuza 7, they’re like, “Oh, social issue. Okay. That’s over, next character, social issue. We’re talking about sex work. Okay. That’s over, next thing.” You know, they just kind of go from thing to thing without really exploring that or contextualizing it in any meaningful way.

Brendan: Yeah. And they’re often done in these like silly side quests. Is that something that continues in Like A Dragon, there are a lot of little side quests?

Kazuma: Yeah. They have a lot of that. I personally don’t like it. Um, so I don’t really do a lot of them, but there’s a return of like, you know, the really absurdist humor that the Yakuza series is known for. You know, I mentioned the side quest with the homeless guy and the kid. That’s a little more sentimental, it’s a little more touching. And then you have the absurdity of Ichiban basically helping this confectionery become like the number one business in all of f***ing Ijincho and s***. And um…. Oh my God, I keep saying curse words. I am so sorry. I’m going to get, I’m going to get bleeped so much. I’m apologizing to all the listeners right now. I am so sorry.

Brendan: It’s fine! Do you think like those, uh, wacky side quests, do you think that they’re distract from a real point that some of the Yakuza games could be making? Or are they just kind of like a kind of cheap thrill? Why do you not enjoy them?

Kazuma: I.. I just… I’m not a very funny person. I just… I don’t know. When I play the Yakuza games, I play them because I know I’m going to cry at least once.

Brendan: Aww!

Kazuma: Yeah… that’s why I play them. But I feel like, uh, especially for a Western audience, people fixate on like, you know, Nugget, or the fact that you can summon a lobster in Yakuza: Like A Dragon and not so much about what the games are presenting. So people can kind of look at this, because I’m somebody that believes that you can use a piece of media as a really great jumping off point to get somebody really interested in something. About two years ago, I think, I actually wrote a piece about social othering in Yakuza 3 and about how the system regarding orphans and stuff in Japan is still… is still really ineffective. And a lot of orphans get displaced. They aren’t actually sent to orphanages. They end up developing severe mental illnesses or personality disorders, and they’re kind of let out to do whatever they want when they hit legal age. Right? And then they have nowhere to go. Sometimes they become homeless, things like that. And I feel like, with the fixation on the side quests, people kind of miss what the game could potentially say, or even educate them on, or get them interested in politics or social issues. You know?

Brendan: In one of the side quests – or I think it’s a mini game actually – you hold shareholder meetings. This made me [remember] what David was saying about the Yakuza partaking in legitimate businesses and getting involved in the financial sector as well. Can you explain like the gist of it? Is this just another silly mini game or is it also trying to make a point about the Yakuza getting involved in like dodgy elements of capitalism?

Kazuma: I think if… if you already know this, then you’d be like, “Oh yeah. Like, of course, well of course… he’d be doing this.” But I don’t think it’s any different from, you know, Kiryu buying real estate, because that’s what the Yakuza used to do. They used to fight over land and stuff in the 1980s and whatnot, or getting involved in hostess businesses. You know, it’s sort of like the… gamification of their extortion or their involvement in finance. For example, the Yakuza recently have really got into buying and opening bubble tea shops, because that’s like, that’s a new thing, right? It makes a lot of money. A while ago, there were… people talking about how they were getting into, like, big conflicts because they wanted to keep opening bubble tea shops and stuff to get in on the trend.

Brendan: So should we look forward to the next Yakuza game having a bubble tea shop mini game?

Kazuma: Oh, absolutely.

Brendan: Finally, some of these games, they can seem maybe a little intimidating, especially when there’ve been so many of them. Like, I’m sure some people who haven’t played the Yakuza games have been listening to us going, “What? What is going on? Why are… why is there an orphanage? Why is he an orphanage owner in one game, and a taxi driver in another?” It’s pretty wild. So why should someone who hasn’t played any of these games in your opinion, give the series a shot? Like what makes it special to you? What makes it stand out?

Kazuma: Yeah, so I’ve been playing these games since they released, um, mostly because I’ve just been kind of interested in this kind of stuff. Like, it was the storytelling that really got me. I really liked the idea of basically playing a film. People say, you know, “Oh yeah, David cage, you, you play a film”. Whatever. The way that these Yakuza games are formulated and the way that these cutscenes play out, they have some great cinematography, absolutely amazing acting, and some stellar writing – when it comes to more emotional moments. There’s one scene that happens in a forest in Yakuza 0 that I think… that moment is one of the best moments of that entire series. And it’s so well acted that I’d be like, you know… if you’re looking for a cinematic game? Like an actual cinematic experience? Go play the Yakuza series because it’s basically, again, like I said, a playable crime drama. And I think that’s the appeal of the series for the most part, at least in my opinion. It basically follows the life of somebody as he is sort of going through the motions of, you know, uh, being an old man – by social standards in Japan – and I think that’s an interesting perspective for people that sort of want to have an experience with a protagonist that is in his late thirties, who eventually gets into his late forties. And I think we don’t have a lot of that in gaming. A lot of Japanese games focus on teenagers. And then you also have this sort of emotional vulnerability that happens throughout this series. And I know people talk about, you know, God Of War and the “dadification” of games… you’re laughing, but I think that’s an actual term. I hope it’s an actul term…

Brendan: It is, it is! I’m laughing because it’s absurd that we talk so much about it.

Kazuma: It’s like, uh, basically the Yakuza series has done that for a very long time and people really never noticed the series until recently. I feel like if you want to see, in general, a very positive relationship between a father and a daughter, that’s also a series I would suggest honestly, Because Kiryu’s relationship with Haruka is really good… With the exception of some moments in [Yakuza] 1 and 2.

Brendan: Yeah. I was going to say… he grows into it. He grows into his father role. Right. Sweet. All right. That’s all we have time for, I’m afraid. You’ve been listening to a Hey Lesson with me, Brendan Caldwell, and this week’s guest co-host. Uh, Kazuma Hashimoto. Thanks very much for joining us and lending us your knowledge of Yakuza lore.

Kazuma: No problem.

Brendan: If people have listened and thought, “Oh, Kaz seems cool. I want more of him in my life” where can they find you on the internet?

Kazuma: Uh, you can find me on Twitter @JusticeKazzy_ … If you’ve played Yakuza, then you’ll know. Um, if you haven’t… well then maybe you’ll get to know if you play Yakuza. And you can also find me on Twitch at JusticeKazzy.

Brendan: Cool. This is normally the part of the show where I shake down our listeners for some sweet Patreon cash. But if you’ve enjoyed this episode and don’t have the $2 or $5 a month to help us out, then there is another way… there’s another way to help us. And that’s just to tell people about the podcast. So if you’re listening and you have a pal… who’s into games or into science, history, random trivia. If you have a friend or a mum or brother or cousin or workmate or whoever, who you think might enjoy this – send it to them. Please, just email them a link, tweet at them. Facebook, Discord, whatever. We don’t have any ads, no sponsors. So the one thing we do need is a whole bunch of listeners. And we’re still quite new on the scene, still quite little. So if a few people give us a shout-out, it means a lot. If you are already of the Patrons who support us – one of our beloved fact rats, we call them – then a big thank you to you because, yeah, that’s top stuff. Anyway! Sorry. That’s it. Kazuma, thank you once again for coming on.

Kazuma: No problem. Thank you for having me.

Brendan: And until next time everyone – keep lessoning.

Ichiban Kasuga (soundbite): I say, with the right friends, anything’s possible…. Hey, how’s it going?

Leave a Reply