Played, reviewed and fact-checked. With the Yakuza.

Several months ago, I introduced you to Jake Adelstein, the fearless-to-a-fault Jewish-American reporter who spent 12 years as a crime beat reporter in Japan and wrote about it in his book Tokyo Vice. In Tokyo Vice, we meet Adelstein's arch-nemesis, a former yakuza boss named Tadamasa Goto; we also learn Adelstein he has a hodge podge of allies in the pervasive Japanese underworld. Turns out he's good enough friends with a few high-ranking gangster bosses that he was able to convince them to conduct an experiment for Boing Boing: to evaluate Yakuza 3, a popular video game about the infamous gangsters created for ordinary citizens. And so it was that Adelstein showed up at a shady real estate office in Tokyo one Thursday afternoon with a pack of cigarettes and a bottle of Duty-Free whiskey to teach these gangsters how to handle a PlayStation controller. — Lisa

It's a Thursday afternoon in Tokyo, and I'm sitting in the reception area of a real estate rental agency playing a video game. The real estate agency is actually a front company for the yakuza — the reception area doubles as a mini mob office, and on the same floor are the living quarters for young yakuza in training. The young yakuza come in and out of the room on occasion to empty the ashtrays and pour us tea. A security camera gazes down at us from the door.

This spring, Sega USA released Yakuza 3, the US version of the popular yakuza simulation/action game Ryu Ga Gotoku 3. The player takes on the role of Kazama Kiryu, a former yakuza boss and legendary enforcer. The story revolves around Kiryu's new life as the manager of an orphanage and his return to mob life when a real estate development project in Okinawa — linked to corrupt politicians, another yakuza group, and the CIA — results in circumstances which force him to fight back and protect the orphanage from being torn down. He must avenge attacks on his nobler yakuza brethren and reunite his former gang. In the process, he visits hostess clubs, reads sleazy magazines in convenience stores, and kicks the ass of every street-punk and loser that crosses his path. He also spends the first part of the game taking care of cute orphan kids and cooking for them. (Rarely have schmaltz and violence been so well integrated into a console game!) As Kiryu, the player gets to explore in depth the island of Okinawa and the red-light district of Tokyo, Kabukicho (renamed Kamurocho for the game).

As a game for katagi (yakuza slang for "civilians" or "non-yakuza"), it's tremendous fun — but what do the yakuza think of this game? How do they rate it? I was able to get three reviewers from the major crime groups who do not want to be identified by their real name. (While yakuza fan magazines do exist and the yakuza are not a hidden part of Japanese society, due to recent crackdowns by the police, the "reviewers" here choose to remain anonymous.) Midoriyama is a now-retired former mid-level faction boss. Shirokawa is a high-ranking boss from a different group connected to Midoriyama through a ritual sake exchange. Kuroishi knows them both but is also from a different group.

I enlist the aid of a teenager to show the yaks how to actually play a videogame. Even then, it's tough going. Of the three reviewers, only Kuroishi manages to play it all the way to the end. Two of the three are missing their pinkies — in the old days, when a yakuza or his subordinates screwed up, they chopped off pinkies as an act of atonement — and this seems to affect their gameplay.

Except for some hamonjo — notices of expulsion of a yakuza member circulated amongst yakuza groups — taped to the wall above the couch, this could be a waiting room at the Sony headquarters. There's a small bookshelf full of phone directories, files, manga, magazines, and DVDs. (Among the comic books I notice several issues of Shizukanarudon, a long running comedy series about a white collar worker employed at a women's underwear manufacturing company by day and transforms into a tough-as-nails yakuza boss at night.) The only other slightly unusual detail is a semi-nude centerfold of a young Japanese porn star posted on the wall, close to the door, with her signature on it.

I ask the yakuza to compare the game as they play it to their actual life experiences as yakuza; here are some highlights.


M: I've never been to Okinawa, but Kabukicho is dead on.
S: You mean the old Kabukicho. Governor Ishihara's totally ruined the place. It's like a ghost town.
K: It's like going back in time. Koma Theater is there, the pink salons, the Pronto Coffee shops, the Shinjuku Batting center, the love hotels.
S: You got your salaryman in there, the delinquent school girl and her sugar daddy, Chinese people, and even those Nigerian touts. What's with all the fucking gaijin (foreigners) in the area anyway? It used to be just Japanese, Koreans and Chinese.
M: Don't say gaijin. Say Gaikokujin. It's more polite. Jake's a gaijin.
S: Yeah, I forget sometimes. What's with all the fucking gaikokujin in Kabukicho anyway?
K: Internationalization. The world's a smaller place. The Nigerians? They marry Japanese chicks. They get a permanent visa. They stay. The cops can't get rid of them and they're good at steering customers into shady places. The young Japanese punks we hire, they give up, they don't browbeat drunks into bringing business to our establishments. They got no backbone. The Nigerians are aggressive. They can make good touts. By the way, Adelstein, usually when we say gaijin we mean non-Asian foreigners like you and the Nigerians. Not the Chinese or the Koreans.
S: Yeah, Koreans are chosenjin, not gaijin.
M: I like the fact that you power up by eating real food. Shio ramen gives you a lot of power — CC Lemon, not as much. It all makes sense.
S: The breaded pork cutlet bento box is like mega power. More than ramen. That's accurate.
K: If they had shabu (crystal meth) as a power-up item, that would be realistic. It's a yakuza game.
S: They have sake!
M: Kiryu is an executive, right? We all know the guys at the top don't drink or do speed.
S: Yeah, not anymore.
M: Can you smoke in the game? I forget. That should be a power-up.
S: Cigarettes and shabu should be in every yakuza game.


Author's note: A heated discussion takes place as to whether the game is stereotyping the yakuza, which is resolved when Midoriyama points out that the stereotypes about the yakuza are more or less correct, with the exception of their alleged prowess in martial arts.

M: The corporate yakuza guys get a thumbs up for realism. Nice suit. Smart. Financially savvy. Obsessed with money. Sneaky and conniving. Ruthless.
S: There are a lot of guys whom I feel like I know. The dialogue is right too. They sound like yakuza.
K: Braggarts, bullies, and sweet-talkers. I agree — it feels like I know the guys on the screen.
M: Kiryu 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.
S: I don't know any ex-yakuza running orphanages.
K: There was one a few years ago. A good guy.
M: You sure it wasn't just a tax shelter?
K: Sure it was a tax shelter but he ran it like a legitimate thing. You know.


Author's note: Kuroishi and Shirokawa are both wearing dark green suits, the former by Armani and the latter handmade in the posh Ginza district from local fabric. Midoriyama is wearing gray sweatpants and a faded sweatshirt emblazoned with a drawing of Doraemon.

M: What's the deal with Kiryu's scarlet red shirt? He's supposed to be a former boss of the Inagawakai--and he dresses like a chinpira (low level yakuza punk). He's a yakuza, not a host.
S: Except for Kiryu's crappy shirt, it's realistic. The top executive yakuza are all wearing good suits. They look like businessmen. The cabaret girls have incredible outfits.The hosts in the game are dressed like hosts. Somebody did his homework.
K: The lady cop, her outfit is perfect too. The boring black suit with the white blazer. That's what a woman yakuza cop dresses like.
M: Except for Kiryu's shirt, good. And his tattoo.
S: Not much of a tattoo.
K: Only on his back as far as I can tell. Maybe he ran out of enough money to get it finished.


Author's note: Midoriyama gets very excited during the fighting sequences, standing up from the couch at points and actually lurching towards the screen. Kuroishi never loses his cool playing the game and keeps practicing combinations until he gets it right. Shirokawa curses under his breath, but whenever he wins he yells "Yatta!". They all agree that the combat is strictly fantasy material, with some exceptions.

S: Nobody ever dies. It's unrealistic.
K: Kiryu is fighting all the time. He's gotta be a fucking idiot. No yakuza is going to run around getting into fistfights like that. Especially not an executive type. He'll wind up in jail or in the hospital or dead, maybe even whacked by his own people for being a troublemaker. These days, he'd probably get kicked out before even going to jail. Guys like that start gang wars and nobody wants that now. When a yakuza gets into a fight, it's serious business.
M: A real fight--it's short and it's brutal. Over in a minute. Nobody goes around trading blows and crap like that. Usually the first guy to punch wins.
K: I like that you can grab things like ashtrays or billboards and beat the crap out of the punks bothering you. Or smash their faces into car windows. That's what you'd really do in a fight, grab something and use it as a weapon.
S: Why doesn't he just shoot them?
K: That would be unrealistic. Nobody is going to waste a bullet on some street punk, like the ones that keep bugging Kiyru.
M: If they wanted to make it realistic, he'd pull out a gun and shoot it and miss! Or the damn thing wouldn't fire. That would be realistic. (They all laugh).
K: Shooting people sends a message.
M: So does shooting anything. Shooting people gets you sent to jail.
K: That's part of the job description.


M: The whole plot about resort expansion in Okinawa and the CIA and the politicians involved and all that? Wow. That game came out last year, right. That's totally happening in Okinawa right now.
K: The politicians and the yakuza always have worked together. The game has got that right.
S: Yakuza and politicians, pretty much the same thing. We all have badges, we all have factions, we all have our oyabuns (father-figures).
M: Don't forget that there are some yakuza who became politicians.
K: And still are. The CIA part of the story, I don't buy though. Too nutty for me. What do you think Adelstein? You used to work for them right.
A: I never worked for the CIA. Well, not directly.
M: The Mossad. You're Jewish.
K: He'll never admit it.
A: I'll admit it. I'm Jewish. You overestimate the CIA. The CIA is not nearly as competent an organization as the Yamaguchi-gumi.
S: Well, I guess they wanted to make the game more international. And let's face it, these days, Americans and the CIA make great villains.
K: And the Japanese yakuza kick their ass! Go Japan go!


Overall, the game is favorably received by the three yakuza playing it. While it vilifies organized crime in many parts, in the end it glorifies the yakuza and gives the protagonist just cause — it was good PR for their profession. Plus, it is not wildly off the mark in depicting the modern yakuza. Ironically, the sections that Shirokawa seemed to enjoy the most were cut out of the US version: mahjong, the sexual massage parlor, and the hostess clubs. After I explain to him what Sega cut from the US version, he said: アメリカ版を買った奴がかわいそうだ。セガUSAが最低だね.(Translation: I feel sorry for the people who bought the American version. SEGA USA sucks.)

Words: Jake Adelstein • Edits: Lisa Katayama • Design: Rob Beschizza • Screens: Sega