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Man in suit behind two women in traditional Japanese dress.
The ‘bad’ Yakuza boss, Tozawa in the series Tokyo Vice. James Lisle/HBO Max

Tokyo Vice reminds me of my experience with the yakuza in Japan

In Tokyo Vice, HBO max’s new highly praised TV series, the audience follows the adventures of journalist Jake Adelstein in the Japanese underworld. The series is inspired by Adelstein’s memoir of the same name, released in 2009. Adelstein was the first westerner to be hired at the Japanese news outlet Yomiuri Shimbun and in the series he encounters corrupt cops, hostess girls and the infamous Japanese mafia, the yakuza.

Critics have questioned how real Adelstein’s account is. However, based on my own experiences as a researcher who has worked with yakuza, the representation of them in the series is not too far off.

In 2017, I published a book on yakuza tattoos, the work was based on fieldwork in Yokohama and I conducted interviews and photographed yakuza members. The series brought me back to my experience with the yakuza, which was both frightening and fun.

Bad reputations

Yakuza is the common name for organised crime in Japan. The yakuza is not one organisation, but several. They often portray themselves as honourable organisations (ninkyō dantai) descending from the Samurai way of life.

It is hard to prove that the yakuza descended from samurais. But these organisations can be traced back to the late 1800s; to street peddler (tekiya) and gambler (bakuto) gangs – to lose a hand in the card game oicho-kabu is 8-9-3 and that is pronounced ya-ku-sa.

Man plays cards.
A yakuza member playing with the traditional Hanfuda cards. Andreas Johansson, Author provided

Much of my experience with the yakuza came flooding back as I watched Tokyo Vice and its explorations of the different ways the organisation is perceived. At the time of my visit, the clan to which my informants belonged had just split and there was a conflict between the two groups which made my visit more thrilling.

One of the stories in the series is based on the rivalry of two yakuza families and viewers are introduced to a “good” and a “bad” yakuza boss. In the series the bad boss, Tozawa (played by Tanida Ayumi), is setting up a fraudulent loan company that makes money from people’s debt by giving them the option to kill themselves and pay their debt in an insurance clause. The other yakuza boss, Ishida (played by Shun Sugata) explains to Adelstein that making people kill themselves to pay their debts is not the yakuza way of doing business.

In real life most headlines concerning the yakuza relate to fraud, extortion and murder. But the members I talked to saw themselves as morally correct, stressing that they did charity work for the poor.

Large back tattoo.
Yakuza member with a tattoo of Teitoku Son, a hero from traditional stories. Andreas Johansson, Author provided

There are examples of these criminal organisations helping society, like during the 2011 earthquake and the tsunami that followed, when it was reported that yakuza were the first to bring relief supplies to affected areas. However, even the yakuza acknowledge they don’t have the best reputation, despite seeing themselves as Robin Hood-type figures.

New approaches to tattoos

Another concept that is spot on in the TV series is some of the cultural aspects of the yakuza, from the way their offices look to certain ceremonies but also their infamous tattoos. Full body tattoos (irezumi) are very common among yakuza members. In the show, these are very accurate and they contain many traditional symbols like Shinto gods, koi fish and dragons.

Large back tattoo.
A yakuza member with a koi tattoo. Andreas Johansson, Author provided

These symbols often have a personal meaning and are not always connected to the yakuza lifestyle. The tattoos that are related to the yakuza life often represent the hierarchical structure of the organisation. For example, tattoos of koi fish swimming upstream to become a dragon is a symbol of wanting to become a boss.

Another interesting aspect is the tattoos among younger yakuza members. Many choose not to follow the traditional tattoo style. For instance, one younger member in the series has neck tattoos, which is not a traditional location for a tattoo. I also encountered younger yakuza members that had more of an American gangster touch to their tattoos, showing guns and RIP signs.

The show made a lot of the emotions associated with working with such people and institutions come back to life. Walking down the road with a yakuza boss gives you multiple feelings. On the one hand, you feel untouchable and powerful; on the other hand, you feel like your life can end at any moment. Tokyo Vice brings me back to these feelings, not only through its thrilling story but also by putting a lot of effort into the details of portraying yakuza life.

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