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

In Tokyo Vice, the new critically acclaimed TV series from HBO max, audiences follow the adventures of a 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 by the Japanese news channel Yomiuri Shimbun and in the series he encounters corrupt cops, hostesses and the infamous Japanese mafia, the yakuza. †

Critics have wondered how real Adelstein’s story is. However, based on my own experiences as a researcher who has worked with yakuza, the portrayal of them in the series is not 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 scary and fun.

bad reputation

Yakuza is the common name for organized crime in Japan. The yakuza is not one organization, but several. They often portray themselves as honorable organizations (ninky dantai) descended from the samurai way of life.

It is difficult to prove that the yakuza descended from samurai. But these organizations can be traced back to the late 1800s; to street vendor (tekiya) and gambler (bakuto) gangs – to lose a hand in the card game oicho-kabu is 8-9-3 and that is pronounced YesuntilOn

Man plays cards.
A yakuza member plays with the traditional Hanfuda Cards.
Andreas JohanssonAuthor provided

Much of my experience with the yakuza came back as I watched Tokyo Vice and its explorations of the different ways the organization is viewed. 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 even more exciting.

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 evil boss, Tozawa (played by Tanida Ayumi), sets up a fraudulent loan company that monetizes people’s debts by allowing them to commit suicide and pay their debt in an insurance clause. The other yakuza boss, Ishida (played by Shun Sugata) explains to Adelstein that making people commit suicide to pay their debts is not the yakuza’s way of doing business.

In real life, most of the headlines about the yakuza involve fraud, extortion, and murder. But the members I spoke to saw themselves as morally correct and emphasized that they were doing charitable work for the poor.

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

There are examples of these criminal organizations helping society, such as during the 2011 earthquake and the tsunami that followed, when yakuza were reported to be the first to bring relief supplies to the affected areas. But even the yakuza recognize that they don’t have the best reputation, despite seeing themselves as Robin Hood-esque figures.

New approaches to tattoos

Another concept that stands out in the TV series are some of the cultural aspects of the yakuza, from the way their offices look to certain ceremonies, as well as their infamous tattoos. Full body tattoos (irezumi) are common among yakuza members. In the show, these are very accurate and include many traditional symbols such as Shinto gods, koi fish, and dragons.

Large back tattoo.
A yakuza member with a koi tattoo.
Andreas JohanssonAuthor provided

These symbols often have personal meanings and are not always associated with the yakuza lifestyle. The tattoos associated with the yakuza life often represent the hierarchical structure of the organization. For example, tattoos of koi fish swimming upstream to become a dragon are 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 example, a younger member in the series has neck tattoos, which is not a traditional location for a tattoo. I also ran into younger yakuza members who had more of an American gangster touch to their tattoos, with guns and RIP signs.

The show brought many of the emotions associated with working with such people and institutions 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 could end at any moment. Tokyo Vice brings me back to these feelings, not only through the thrilling story, but also by putting a lot of effort into the details of portraying the yakuza’s life.

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