The Yakuza in Tokyo Vice draw inspiration from real-life history and rituals. Tokyo Vice is the latest show from HBO Max, which is based on the memoir by Jake Adelstein, who covered the police beat in Tokyo from 1993-2005 for the Yomiuri Shinbun, one of the world’s largest newspapers, reporting as the first foreign correspondent for the paper. During his time there, Adelstein extensively covered the activities of the Yakuza, the equivalent of the mafia in the United States, which had influence over almost every aspect of Japanese life throughout the 20th Century up to now.

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The Yakuza is one of the oldest criminal organizations in Japan’s long, rich history, dating back to the early 1600s during the Edo period, where lower-rung social status peddlers and gamblers, who eventually got organized and formed families. Over time, the Yakuza grew into massive organizations, influencing every aspect of Japanese commerce, while having a hand in everything from law enforcement to politics to real estate and beyond. In the early 1900s through the 1960s, the Yakuza hit its peak of prominence, although it spilled out onto the streets, causing massive gangland warfare, which forced police to crack down, enacting laws that severely restricted the organization. In the late 90s and into the 2000s (when Tokyo Vice takes place), the Yakuza began a rapid decline in numbers and influence, while still maintaining a foothold in the criminal underworld, but without the firm grip it held in previous decades, as membership dwindled to 1/10th of its original size. However, the Yakuza has also made strides in being a humanitarian-style organization as well, providing significant assistance during Japan’s Kobe earthquake in 1995 and the Tohoku tsunami in 2011.

Yakuza In Japan’s History

Beginning as two social classes, the tekiya (peddlers) and the bakuto (gamblers) formed alliances in the early 1600s, founding what would become the Yakuza. The name Yakuza is derived from a card game called Oicho-Kabu. Getting the numbers eight, nine and three is the worst hand a player can get in the game, which is pronounced ya-ku-za, adopted to be the term for “gangster”. The organization harkens back to the feudal system of Japan, built upon a top-down leadership style, featuring an oyabun (or father) that serves as the main leader, with subordinates trickling down in various roles, all at the service of the family as a whole. As the organization grew in numbers, so too did it grow in power, eventually infiltrating all walks of Japanese life, from politics to business and beyond, making their presence a steady one all the way up to current times.

How The Yakuza In Tokyo Vice Compares To Real Life

Tokyo Vice real life gang

While Tokyo Vice does not portray any real people from the Yakuza organization (although it implies who some members are in real life), the portrayal is no less genuine and rooted in factual representation. The organization’s structure, influence and power is displayed as it was during the late 90s, as the Yakuza maintained a level of prominence that has since declined dramatically. The traditions, including tattoos, yubitsume (cutting off one’s finger), and the oyabun-kobun relationship is on full display in the show. The traditional displays of power between warring gangs is also shown in Tokyo Vice, as two factions continually maneuver against one another, which has been common throughout the organization’s history. The police interactions, including those with Watanabe’s detective Katagiri, are also similar, especially during this time period where the police acted as peacekeepers as well as law enforcement between the different factions. The two main oyaban’s in the competing Yakuza families in Tokyo Vice are Shun Sugata as Ishida and Ayumi Tanida as Tozawa.

Yakuza Rituals Explained

Yakuza rituals in Tokyo Vice

Once initiated into the Yakuza, members are expected to be in the family for life, after a ritual of sakazuki (sake sharing) from elder to kobun (initiate), although members can be excommunicated, punished, or even killed, depending on the severity of their crimes against the family. Another means of punishment comes in the form of yubitsume, which involves the ritual of cutting off a portion of ones finger and presenting it to the oyabun as a form of apology. The reason for this is rooted in Japanese samurai tradition, as cutting off a portion of the outside fingers weakens the grip on a sword, thereby making them reliant on the family to help and protect them. Another key tradition of the Yakuza is the Jingi (Yakuza’s Code of Ethics), which prevents members from using or selling illegal drugs, committing theft, committing robbery, and a prohibition of anything that “may be considered an indecent act, or an act that goes against Ninkyodo (Chivalry).” Adhering to the Jinga could mean life or death for Yakuza members.

The Meaning Of Yakuza Tattoos (& Why They’re Important)

Tokyo Vice yakuza tattoos

Another Yakuza tradition is the application of full-body tattoos, which are done in the traditional fashion of using handmade (non-electric) tools to apply, which is far more intricate, painful, and time consuming. As a result of Yakuza adopting tattoos as a gang symbol, it has led to tattoos being a social taboo and even outlawed in certain areas, such as gyms, pools, and beaches throughout modern day Japan. The tattoos are symbolic of the Yakuza’s “outcast” origins, as tattoos in early Japan were used as a way to mark criminals to the public. The Yakuza repurposed the use of tattoos as a badge of honor, owning the “criminal mark” and rebelling against society by making them a core part of their identity.

Related: Tokyo Vice: Who Is The Real Jake Adelstein And Where Is He Now?

How Influential Are The Yakuza Today?

tokyo vice yakuza today

The Yakuza were still a powerful force in Japan throughout the late 90s, but a government-wide crackdown on their activities made it near-impossible for them to operate as they traditionally had. These ordinances made it illegal for citizens and businesses to have relationships with Yakuza, including schools and banks, as Yakuza members are not allowed to have bank accounts or have credit cards. Still, the organization persists, although most of it’s members are middle-aged or older with very few young prospects to keep the legacy alive, as there’s very little incentive to join anymore. However, the Yakuza has spread all over the world, where it operates everywhere from the U.S. to Vietnam, taking on a new life, albeit still in traditional form, but without the strict laws of Japan. While the group maintains a level of prominence, and in some spaces, respect, it is currently at its least influential point in history, while still being romanticized and recreated in everything from film, TV, videogames, comics, etc., including Tokyo Vice.

Next: Tokyo Vice Cast Guide: Where You Know The Actors From

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