In a 2019 interview with Otaquest, Yakuza series creator Toshihiro Nagoshi was asked about his intended audience for the games. He responded simply that the games are stories about men, written by men, primarily for an audience of men. But, he went on: “because we tried to ignore both younger and female audiences, we inherently captivated their interest in the contents of the game.”
Even as he was faced with a growing fanbase of teenagers and adult women both in Japan and internationally, Nagoshi said he wanted to resist catering to those audiences because he felt it would jeopardize the franchise’s original vision, the one that had brought in those fans in the first place.
That instinct may seem somewhat understandable at first, but it’s off the mark. The Yakuza games have likely found a diverse and growing audience because of the way the franchise examines masculinity, especially toxic masculinity. But a commentary on masculinity — toxic or otherwise — must also necessarily be a commentary on femininity, and, indeed, the full breadth of the gender spectrum at large, in order to be complete. This is where the Yakuza franchise fails.
These games don’t exist in a vacuum. They may tell stories by, about, and designed for men, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that the same progressive, empathetic attitude the series takes with regard to its male characters doesn’t extend to its female ones.
The fact that the franchise both succeeds and fails in its discussion of gender has invited a lot of feminist analysis that attempts to make sense of all of these apparent contradictions. Rena, an artist and Yakuza fan, cited the 2019 interview with Nagoshi as evidence of a possible reason why the franchise treats its male and female characters so differently. She told Polygon that while it’s commendable that the series’ developers “are willing to implement healthy (and at times even subversive!) amounts of masculinity in their male protagonists by working in positive traits, they are less willing to listen to women’s voices in terms of handling female characters with agency instead of just respectfully.”
Yakuza includes compelling female characters who aren’t just there as eye candy or to serve as narrative crutches to further a male protagonist’s story. But, at the same time, the games deny these female characters the agency afforded to male characters. Women in the franchise are largely unable to achieve their own goals through their own actions, relying instead on the protagonist to help them first. This means that despite its best efforts, the Yakuza franchise’s discussions of toxic masculinity are necessarily incomplete.
Kazuma Kiryu is the Yakuza franchise’s narrative lens
From the outside, Sega’s Yakuza franchise seems to be offering players the standard male power fantasy found in so many other games. As Nagoshi said, these are stories about men written by men, full of action-movie machismo worthy of any Schwarzenegger flick. From the inside, however, the Yakuza games deliver a forceful, empathetic repudiation of toxic masculinity that is unique in gaming.
The Yakuza franchise chooses to frame its discussion of toxic masculinity through contrasting its main point-of-view character with its villains, setting a positive expression of masculinity against a toxic one. The stand-in for positive masculinity here is series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu, an ageless, legendary badass with washboard abs and an eggshell-white suit.
At first blush, Kiryu seems to fit all the stereotypes of a male main character: He’s incredibly strong both mentally and physically, and he’s conventionally attractive. This plays into the standard male power fantasy in gaming: You play as a perfect, sexy man who has complete power and control. Scott Strichart, the man in charge of localizing the games for a Western audience, described Kiryu to Gamasutra as a character who represents self-determination in the face of a Japanese culture that can sometimes devalue individualism. And though that depiction of heroism and masculinity reads differently overseas, in the United States, it’s easy to fit Kiryu alongside an endless stream of supermen able to effect change in the world around them.
Over time, however, it becomes clear that this isn’t all there is to Kiryu.
Kiryu spends time on both sides of the law, alternating between acting as a member of the yakuza and working with police to take down particularly evil people in the city of Kamurocho. The Dragon of Dojima, as they call him, is a hero, helping people with their problems, and taking responsibility for keeping the city safe, even though he’s involved with organized crime.
Throughout both side missions and the main story of the games, you’re encouraged to look at Kamurocho through Kiryu’s eyes. He helps women with their mundane problems (as well as some problems that are decidedly not mundane) as much as he helps men with theirs, and at least in the remastered games, he does not sexualize the women he helps out. Even in the side missions that lead to chances for Kiryu to pursue a romantic interest, Kiryu never makes the first move, instead always waiting for the person in question to express romantic intent first, then responding. (This respect, however, is severely undercut by the fact that the Yakuza games also allow you to date upward of five different women at once, without informing them and without consequence.)
Kiryu does not judge people in the sex work industry either. The most notable example of this is in the non-judgmental way he treats brothel worker Akemi in Yakuza Kiwami, but his respect is also visible in the way he chats with cam girls in Yakuza 6, following the flow of conversation as dictated by the model and never being obscene, or at least never being obscene in a way that doesn’t match the tone that the model has already set.
Women in the Yakuza series aren’t just there to make Kiryu look like a cool, empathetic, helpful, attractive, and nuanced guy, however. They also have their own stories, desires, and complaints. They won’t mince words about being surrounded by sexism, about feeling forced into a stereotypical hostess job, or about the unique pressures of being a woman in Japan. The women here are not set dressing. But although they all have their own well-written personal stories, they also all need the player character (whether it’s Kiryu, Goro Majima, or anybody else) to intervene in order to achieve their goals in ways that the male characters don’t. Andi, an artist who is also a big fan of the Yakuza series, summed it up this way when Polygon asked them to weigh in on the matter:
“Female characters [in the Yakuza franchise] tend to lack agency and are sometimes even punished for their willingness to make their own decisions or acting on their own interests, often played for one game only before some writing tool forces them out of the picture for the next. Their jobs often fall under only a few options - hostess, idol, or plot-relevant love interest, all of which [...] serve to enrich the roles of our male heroes. None of it is to say they are bad characters, nor is it to say Yakuza has not been getting better. But if the series truly intends to impact the game world with its themes, it still has a few milestones to catch up to in terms of the treatment of their female characters.”
Part of this could be attributed to the fact that there are barely any women represented in the franchise’s depiction of the yakuza. Indeed, the vast majority of the male civilians Kiryu helps out also need his help to achieve their goals as well. True self-determination in the series is reserved almost exclusively for people who are in some way connected with organized crime. This puts Kiryu in a unique place narratively, as he is portrayed as both a civilian and as a member of the yakuza. Since he exists in both worlds simultaneously, he is one of the only characters in the game to be blessed with both self-determination and the ability to have an emotional arc.
And indeed, throughout the series, Kiryu is consistently shown as one of the only members of the Yakuza who is in touch with himself emotionally. This characterization surfaces in many different ways both subtle and overt. Setting aside the fact that the vast majority of the Yakuza franchise’s side missions task Kiryu with selflessly helping regular people with their problems, Kiryu is one of the few protagonists in gaming who actually cries when tragic events occur.
His emotional range doesn’t just stop at “righteous sadness” though. He’s a badass, sure, but that doesn’t stop him from making a fool out of himself on the dance floor. It doesn’t prevent him from belting out a karaoke classic while tearfully reminiscing about his childhood at an orphanage, or about the good times shared with his former best friend-turned bitter enemy. It certainly doesn’t stop him from getting peed on while taking care of a baby. Kiryu doesn’t seem to see any of this as embarrassing or demeaning. He’s not ashamed of expressing himself through dancing or singing, and when a baby pees on him, his nonchalant reaction makes it clear that he’s not mad at the baby, or even embarrassed that his friends saw him get peed on. Despite the fact that singing, dancing, and childcare are all actions that require putting one’s emotions on display and showing vulnerability, Kiryu performs all of these acts with incredible confidence.
It bears mentioning at this point that in the original, non-remastered games, Kiryu was not always this understanding and kind. Before Yakuza 3 was remastered and released internationally, its developers — at the request of series creators, including Nagoshi — removed a group of transphobic side missions featuring Kiryu repeatedly misgendering a gender-variant character who also embodied several harmful stereotypes about trans people, such as behaving in a sexually predatory way.
In the modern and remastered Yakuza titles, a lot of work has been done to characterize Kiryu as a soft, charming dad who respects and is beloved by his entire community, no matter who they are. He also just happens to be a feared legend in the Japanese underworld. He’s vulnerable in a way that few Western male protagonists are allowed to be, and he’s also representative of a slowly changing attitude towards masculinity in Japan. The Sugata Research Institute wrote in 2015 that over time, it has not only become more acceptable for Japanese men to embrace more traditionally feminine behaviors and attitudes, but that this emotional vulnerability is also being viewed as a sign of bravery. This all ties into the expression of strong, positive masculinity that has come to define Kiryu’s character in the current-generation titles and remasters.
Atlus localization director Sam Mullen, speaking with Game Informer, discussed the difficulties in translating this type of positive masculinity for different audiences, pointing specifically to a series of quests in Yakuza Kiwami where Kiryu has the opportunity to date a woman who had described herself as a lesbian:
“I remember having a lot of discussion with Scott [Strichart, Yakuza localization producer] about how to approach that storyline. The way her story results in Japanese, if translated straight, comes off as that like “Well you just never met a real man” kind of feel to it. But I don’t think that’s the intention they were going for, that’s just the way it comes across in English. So I do remember there being this light feeling of needing to change the language, because that’s not the point here.”
The localization staff has clearly worked hard to make sure Kiryu’s embodiment of positive masculinity translates across cultures, and that’s not just by design. It’s vital to the franchise, because the antagonists in the Yakuza series, by and large, represent toxic masculinity.
Toxic masculinity is the real villain in the Yakuza series
Beginning with the three Dojima clan lieutenants in Yakuza 0 all the way through the enemies of Yakuza 6, Kiryu faces off with male characters who have been warped by ambition, abuse, or deep emotional repression. This warping causes them to violently and randomly lash out at other men, to emotionally and physically abuse women, and to betray trusted friends. Every game in the Yakuza franchise brings these destructive, toxic expressions of machismo into uncomfortably clear focus. And while these types of violence do not represent the entirety of the behaviors and attitudes that make up toxic masculinity as a whole, the fact that the franchise acknowledges toxic masculinity as not just something that exists, but as something that ruins lives and needs to be actively fought against, is rare in AAA gaming, especially in an open-world action game where you play as a criminal.
This conflict between positive and toxic masculinity is, in many ways, the heart of the Yakuza franchise, and it’s exemplified in the way Kazuma Kiryu’s relationship changes with his best friend and sworn yakuza brother Akira Nishikiyama across Yakuza 0 and Yakuza (or Yakuza Kiwami).
In Yakuza 0, a prequel title that serves to tell the story of how Kiryu joined the yakuza in the first place, Nishikiyama (or Nishiki, to his friends) is portrayed as a warm and loving, if impulsive and emotional, character. He and Kiryu both grew up in the same orphanage, raised by the same surrogate father, meaning they are not only sworn brothers in the yakuza but also, for all intents and purposes, familial brothers as well.
During the events of Yakuza Kiwami, however, Nishiki changes. An inferiority complex borne from being unfavorably compared with Kiryu by higher-ups in the yakuza, combined with a heartbreaking series of personal tragedies culminating in the death of his sister, cause Nishiki to choose to become cold and unfeeling instead of grappling with his own intense pain and sadness. He spends the duration of the game trying to prove himself by killing Kiryu, the one way he feels he can prove his value to the world at large.
Though other antagonists in the series don’t always depict such a clear representation of how horrifically toxic masculinity can change a person, they are all warped in their own ways as well. This stretches across Kiryu’s story, from the violent, raging machismo of Yakuza 0 antagonist Kuze, who insists on battling Kiryu no matter how broken his body is, to the emotionless cruelty of Yakuza 6 antagonist Tsuneo Iwami, a man who destroys his own family in order to achieve his own goals. The lesson is clear: Toxic masculinity destroys everything it touches, but, in the end, it can itself be defeated by having a healthy relationship with your own emotions, one that enables you to take righteous, brave action to protect what you believe in. In the world of Yakuza, however, that action is reserved for men alone.
The women of Yakuza are stuck
Kaile Hultner, a Yakuza fan and a writer for No Escape, brought up Yakuza 0 when asked for their thoughts on how the Yakuza franchise deals with gender, and specifically highlighted the character of Makoto Makimura, a woman who has been blinded because of horrific abuse and who holds the deed to a very important piece of land.
In the game, Makoto makes a power play when she demands the murder of three ruthless yakuza lieutenants in exchange for the deed. Once Makoto makes this demand, she immediately gets shot by a hitman. Kaile contrasts this with a scene earlier in the game, when a male character (Tachibana) makes a similar request to the same man (the release of Kiryu in exchange for 1 billion yen). Tachibana walks out unscathed.
Kaile told Polygon that the implication here is that either because Makoto is a woman, or more charitably, because she’s not a part of the yakuza world, her demand of blood for blood was “so laughably unreasonable that negotiations just didn’t need to happen at all.”
In Yakuza 0, Makoto’s lack of agency is so palpable that she herself recognizes it after she’s shot, telling Kiryu and Majima point blank that she hates that they have to be there to move her narrative forward. That sentiment is shared by many Yakuza fans as well, who wish that Makoto were more in control of her own destiny.
This theme continues with Haruka Sawamura, who was the franchise’s only playable female character prior to the release of Yakuza: Like A Dragon. Despite her intelligence, her ambitions, her strength, and her talent, she spends the majority of the franchise waiting on approval from men to continue along her narrative arc. She does achieve her dream of becoming a pop star through her own blood, sweat, and tears, yes, but you’re still mostly playing as Kiryu when you’re breaking down the narrative barriers that prevented her from working toward the goal in the first place. In the few moments of self-determination that she has when she’s playable, Kiryu’s trusted (male) friend Shun Akiyama is always around to provide narrative momentum.
It’s impossible to fully determine whether this is because the games themselves are making a subversive point about sexism in Japan, or whether that’s an overly charitable reading of a game franchise that has consistently struggled to give its female characters agency. The fact that the Yakuza series views masculinity with such a subversive, empathetic tone makes its failings with regard to its female characters seem worse in contrast, even if those failings are far from unique in gaming at large. Kiryu seems to treat women with more respect than the game itself does; he respects sex workers, and he never harasses hostesses. While the game’s storylines may deny its female characters agency, Kiryu encourages women to fight back against sexism, break out of abusive relationships, and strive for self-determination in any way they can. There’s also evidence that the folks who work on these games have their hearts in the right place, despite past missteps.
The path forward for the Yakuza franchise on these issues is up in the air at this point, especially since the series has essentially wrapped up the story of Kazuma Kiryu, opting instead for an ensemble cast of protagonists in Yakuza: Like A Dragon. Time will tell whether or not their narratives will continue to champion Kiryu’s trademark positive masculinity, but given the fact that the recent Yakuza spinoff Judgment did so, that seems to be a safe bet.
Having said that, the removal of a hero like Kazuma Kiryu from Yakuza’s overarching narrative means that he won’t be there to spur women’s stories forward. Hopefully, this means that the women of Yakuza will, for once, be able to do it themselves.