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

In Tokyo Vice, the new acclaimed television series from HBO max, the public follows the adventures of the journalist jake adelstein in the Japanese underworld. The series is inspired by Adelstein’s memoir of the same name, published in 2009. Adelstein was the first Westerner to be hired at the Japanese media outlet Yomiuri Shimbun and in the series he encounters corrupt cops, stewardesses and the infamous Japanese mob, the yakuza .

Critics have questioned how true Adelstein’s account is. However, based on my own experiences as an investigator who has worked with the yakuza, their portrayal in the series isn’t too far off.

In 2017 I published a book on yakuza tattoos, the work was based on fieldwork in Yokohama and I interviewed 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 present themselves as honorable organizations (ninkyō dantai) descendant of the Samurai way of life.

It is difficult to prove that the yakuza are descended from samurai. But these organizations date back to the end of the 19th century; to the street vendortekiya) and player (bakuto) gang – losing a hand in the card game oicho-kabu it’s 8-9-3 and that’s pronounced Yesforon.

The man plays cards.
A member of the yakuza playing with the traditional hanfuda cards
Andreas Johanson, Author provided

Much of my experience with the yakuza came back when I watched Tokyo Vice and its explorations of the different ways the organization is perceived. At the time of my visit, the clan my informants belonged to had just split and there was a conflict between the two groups which made my visit all the 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 bad boss, Tozawa (played by Tanida Ayumi), is setting up a fraudulent loan company that makes money off of people’s debt by giving them the option of committing suicide and paying off 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 way the yakuza do business.

In real life, most yakuza headlines are about fraud, extortion, and murder. But the members I spoke with saw themselves as morally correct, emphasizing that they did charity work for the poor.

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

There are examples of these criminal organizations helping society, such as during the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that followed, when the yakuza were reported to be the first to bring relief supplies to affected areas. Yet even the yakuza acknowledge that 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 look of their offices 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 contain many traditional symbols such as Shinto gods, koi fish, and dragons.

Large tattoo on the back.
A yakuza member with a koi tattoo.
Andreas Johanson, Author provided

These symbols often have personal meaning and are not always connected to the yakuza way of life. Tattoos related to 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 the younger members of the yakuza. Many choose not to follow the traditional tattoo style. For example, a younger member of the series has tattoos on his neck, which is not a traditional place for a tattoo. I also ran into younger members of the yakuza who had more of an American gangster twist to their tattoos, displaying guns and RIP signs.

The program 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 that your life can end at any moment. Tokyo Vice brings me back to these feelings, not only through its exciting story, but also by putting a lot of effort into the details of portraying yakuza life.

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