In Tokyo Vice, Jake Adelstein’s story isn’t interesting just because he’s the first non-Japanese to be employed as a crime reporter in Japanese. It’s got all the hype because of how close he got to the ever-elusive yakuza.
Now I know the yakuza sound like a mythical, oriental concept like ninjas or samurai (both of which are real). So, are they for real? If yes, what exactly are they?
Dating back to the 1600s, the yakuza is one of Japan’s oldest crime organizations. The yakuza peaked in 1960s, controlling major Japanese institutes. While they’re still currently active, both their numbers and influence have significantly dropped.
One can try to understand the yakuza in the same light as the mafia. They started out as small-time delinquents, who grew more organized as the decades passed by.
They then started defining their communities through specific attires, etiquettes, codes and rituals—a lot of which you may have already noticed in Tokyo.
Their history is long and colorful, so let me give the gist of all the important bits that will help you understand the show better.
Tokyo Vice’s Yakuza Explained
As you may have noticed, the yakuza have a specific dress code—well-tailored suits, slicked back hair, and the like. They don’t call themselves a chivalrous organization for nothing.
In contrast to the clean cut of their suits, their bodies are heavily tattooed, which is a huge part of their community-building. Originally Japanese criminals were “branded” with tattoos to invoke shame.
So the yakuza embraced these very shameful tattoos by getting them done with the tradition method of handmade tools. Tattoos used to be so widely associated with the yakuza, that anyone sporting a tattoo would immediately be assumed to be a gangster and denied entry into certain areas.
A few other important yakuza rituals/practices that we see in Tokyo Vice include:
- Sakazuki. Depicted in Ep 1, this is the sharing of sake which is done from the eldest to the youngest.
- Yubitsume. This is the finger-cutting punishment that Koji self-commits in Episode 8 as a way to apologize for angering Sato.
- Jingi. This simply refers to their ethical code which forbids them from “unchivalrous” conduct. While the term is not explicitly used, it is implied that the loan sharks’ method of business crossed the Jingi virtues.
- Rivalries like Ishida and Tozawa’s are quite common within the yakuza, where smaller factions will regularly try to expand their territory and powers.
Is the yakuza active now?
The yakuza were already in decline by the 2000s, and we may see that explored in the show which currently depicts a timeline of 1999-2001. It also makes sense with Towaza’s whole arc, seeing how he was willing to spill out certain secrets to the FBI.
The yakuza are active even today, though their stronghold isn’t what it used to be. Of course, if one encounters a yakuza member, it can be as scary as it can get.
The Japanese government has set up a number of laws that curb their activity (like denying them bank accounts) and stop their membership from growing. As such, most yakuza members are either middle-aged or older, with younger folks reluctant to join the fold.
On the other hand, having their activities restricted in Japan has resulted in certain yakuza branches moving abroad where they carved out a new chapter and culture for the organization.
About Tokyo Vice
Tokyo Vice is an HBO crime drama series created by J.T. Rogers based on Jake Alderstein’s 2009 book of the same name.
It follows a fictionalized Alderstein, who becomes the first Western-born journalist to work at a renowned Japanese newspaper. Here, he teams up with a veteran detective to uncover the crimes of the yakuza.
The cast includes Ansel Elgort, Ken Watanabe, Rachel Keller, Show Kasamatsu, among others.