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Goin’ Japanesque!

Yakuza (Ryu ga Gotoku): Great Game to Explore the World of Japanese Gangsters

Gang organizations that rule behind the scenes, similar to the Mafia in overseas communities, are called yakuza in Japan.

This time I am introducing games that allow players to experience the world of yakuza; “Ryu ga Gotoku” (meaning “Like Dragons”, English title is “Yakuza”.) This game series has strong popularity not only in Japan but also in foreign countries. Let’s look at them together along with the history of yakuza in Japan.


What Is “Ryu ga Gotoku”?

“Yakuza” is an action-adventure game developed by Sega Games. The first work was released in 2005 and the series has more than 10 games in total including spin-offs by now. Live-action adaptations were made such as TV drama and movies, and you can see it became very popular, having started as a game.

The main character Kazuma Kiryu commits the crime of killing his organization’s top boss (kumicho-goroshi) in order to save his mistress, and receives a 10-year sentence. After serving the sentence he appears in the town of Kamuro-cho and meets a girl who becomes the key figure for him to obtain 100 billion yen. In the first game Kazuma protects the girl from many gangs in the underworld, targeted by “Tojo-kai”, the top yakuza organization in the Kanto region and “Omi-rengo”, the top organization in the Kansai area. The second game and the third one are based on his story a few years afterwards.

Kumicho-goroshi: This is a phrase that describes killing the top person of the organization a yakuza belongs to. Yakuza world in Japan is characterized as a world of giri-ninjo (duty and humanity), and it is made not of ordinary organizations but of family-like groups bonded with deep trust. In other words, killing his own family’s boss is the ultimate crime in their world.

Kamuro-cho: It is the main stage of the game, modeled after Shinjuku Kabuki-cho in Tokyo.


History of Yakuza

Theories vary on the history of yakuza in Japan, however one of them dates back to the Edo period. It started by people differentiating those who made livings by gambling calling them “outlaws”. Many of them were delinquents or thugs, and they were violent and collected money from people. In the Edo period these people formed groups similar to yakuza in the modern day.

After the Meiji period started, some of them apparently lent a hand to vigilante function and engaged in activities to maintain the order of the town.

After World War II, yakuza groups that make illegal backroom dealings or significantly violent groups kept increasing.

In today’s world, activities of yakuza are rarely brought out to the open but they seem to have been closely connected to the police, politicians and so on behind the scenes since the old days. However in recent years such connections are brought to the public eyes little by little and it is fresh in our memory that connections between yakuza and entertainment field were heavily publicized.

There are several theories as to how the name “yakuza” was formed. One of them points to the fact that in Confucianism numbers 8, 9 & 3 were considered ominous. The theory states these three numbers are 8 (ya) 9 (ku) & 3 (za) when converted to Japanese number sounds. Another theory finds possible origin in the name “役座(different characters but the reading is also “yakuza”)”, which referred to people who used to mediate quarrels and conflicts in old days.

Related Articles:
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“Yamaguchi-gumi”, the Top Yakuza Organization in Japan

Crest of Yamaguchi-gumi

The top yakuza organization that reins their world in Japan is called Yamaguchi-gumi. It was founded by the first kumicho (boss) Harukichi Yamaguchi in 1915, and currently Shinobu Tsukasa holds the title of the sixth generation boss.
Their headquarter is located in Kobe City, Hyogo Prefecture, and under their influence members count over 14 thousands nationwide including Sumiyoshi-kai and Inagawa-kai groups to name a few.
The group is also estimated to have revenue of over 700 billion yen through illegal business activities such as drug trafficking and gambling.

More recently factions evolved among them and the organization has split itself between Kobe-Yamaguchi-gumi and Yamaguchi-gumi. Financial issues and opinion on the policy of Shinobu Tsukasa, the sixth generation leader, are suspected to have caused the rift.
Continued struggle between the groups resulted in many arrests of Yamaguchi-gumi members to date. Damage to the general public started to be reported, and their conflict due to the internal split is threatening our everyday life today.

This is a less known fact, however, when the Great East Japan Earthquake happened on March 11, 2011, yakuza groups helped many people by sending in relief supplies ahead of others (complex circumstances existed behind the action). Similar actions were observed in the past at the time of Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake (1995), too. Perhaps essence of yakuza includes support of the society in Japan in the underworld unknown to the general public.


International Version of “Ryu ga Gotoku” Series (Yakuza)

The newest work in the international version of “Ryu ga Gotoku” is “Yakuza 0”, and it was released on January 27, 2017. The stage is set in 1988 with the bubble economy in the background, and the story evolves in an earlier time than what is seen in “Ryu ga Gotoku 1”. Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima are the two main characters of the game, and they struggle with many issues in two main stages of Kamuro-cho in Tokyo and Sotenbori in Osaka (modeled after Dotonbori).

Players can experience how Kazuma Kiryu lived in his youth, which is very attractive, and even if this is the first game of the series you play, the story is easy to understand. Thus beginners can enjoy the game without worry.


Organizations that appear in “Ryu ga Gotoku” are fictional and do not actually exist. Yet this game helps you gain inkling of what we cannot learn in normal daily life; raison d’etre and value of yakuza that prop up our society in Japan behind the scenes and how their world is structured.

Townscapes and characters in the game are reproduced in fine detail and you can vividly experience the atmosphere in Japan through the game. This game is highly recommended.

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