Looking back at Yakuza 3 and its rare portrayal of orphans in Japan

6 months ago by Kazuma Hashimoto

The Yakuza games are remembered as an over-the-top action series, but they also touch on very real social issues.

While most of the Yakuza games drop us straight into the violent red-light districts of places like Tokyo and Osaka, Yakuza 3 spends a large portion of its time in the tranquility of small-town Okinawa, exploring more private and personal moments.

This could possibly be attributed to Masayoshi Yokoyama, who took the helm as lead writer on the series beginning with this entry. While some might argue that Yokoyama’s unconventional story plays against the game, making it inferior to series favorite Yakuza 2 or less exciting than more recent installments, Yakuza 3 actually has much to offer in the way of social commentary, especially concerning Japan’s treatment of orphans.

At the beginning of Yakuza 3, series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu retires from the world of organized crime to run an orphanage. Much of the first leg of the game is devoted to these quieter moments, the player experiences Kiryu as a caretaker and father figure; stepping out of his fashionable white snakeskin loafers and iconic grey suit -- a largely symbolic element as he attempts to leave the Tojo Clan behind him, and into the life of domesticity filled with Hawaiian print shirts and playing baseball on the beach. Many of the substories in this section of the game focus on the children in Kiryu’s care, all orphans who have lost their families or were given up. An orphan himself, Kiryu devotes himself to helping the children overcome their troubles, teaching them valuable lessons in trust and responsibility, and most importantly offering them a place to belong.

One moment early in the game sees Izumi, one of the orphans under Kiryu’s care, asking if “being an orphan is a bad thing,” after her friends at school make fun of her for not having a mother or father to take to Parents’ Day. Kiryu carefully navigates the situation, explaining to Izumi that “there are different kinds of families,” and suggesting that maybe her friends were worried about her feeling lonely at the event. He stresses that even though he and the other residents of Sunshine may not be related to her by blood, they are her family. While Kiryu succeeds at putting Izumi’s feelings of inadequacy to rest, it’s only the first of several vignettes the player will encounter that touch upon orphan alienation. 

Another story in Yakuza 3 directly confronts the player with the social stigma these orphans face in their day-to-day, such as bullying from peers. Bullying is considered common in Japanese schools: a 2017 survey showed that bullying was at an all-time high within Japan, resulting in increased suicides among students. Through a series of events and considerate conversations, Kiryu learns that another of his charges, Shiro, is also being bullied -- by the son of a teacher at his school, no less. Investigating further, Kiryu learns that the teacher in question was also a participant by proxy, allowing his son’s behavior to slide due to various social prejudices against both Shiro and Kiryu. While the storyline finds resolution after Kiryu confronts the teacher several times, it does emphasize how bullying can be perpetrated by adults as well.

Moreover, while the game portrays Kiryu’s seaside orphanage as picturesque, that is not the case where a majority of Japan’s orphanages are concerned. Many orphanages are grossly overcrowded and understaffed, leaving children neglected and without proper care. The player gets a glimpse of this in a flashback with Yakuza 3’s main antagonist, Yoshitaka Mine. Mine shares that he too was an orphan; a victim of a society and system that neglected him. “Loved by no one. Needed by no one,” he explains he joined the yakuza to forge bonds with others in a world that had left him feeling alone and unwanted. While Mine’s story is dramatic, his experience is not wholly uncommon. A large number of real-life yakuza come from socially ostracized backgrounds in Japan, many of them discriminated against because of ancestry or ethnicity. Orphans, delinquents, and bosozoku (biker gangs) also gravitate toward the yakuza in order to find feelings of acceptance or family.

This is exacerbated by the fact that for many orphans in Japan, foster care and adoption are remote prospects. Despite some changes within legislation to make adoption easier within Japan, the country’s bureaucratic priorities often seem to trump children’s rights, and there is still social stigma that makes life as an orphan difficult. Only within the last year have laws been revised to finally allow children with living biological parents to be eligible for adoption or foster care. Before this, children could be sent to institutions by their biological parents, only to spend most of their lives within the institution regardless.

However, even with changes to the law, social stigma is still heavily present and impacts adoptions rates within Japan. This is due to Japanese society highly valuing blood relations when concerning parents and children, and the social norm of what defines a traditional family. Deviating from this is seen as strange, resulting in scrutiny for both the parent and the adopted child. Additionally, children who are not adopted or taken into foster care are often left to fend for themselves once they are released from these institutions as adults, given little direction and guidance to integrate into society.

This lingering stigma is brought up again in Yakuza 6 (above), which arrives on PlayStation 4 next month. In it, Haruka and Kiryu’s relationship as family is called into question. Kiryu, not being related to Haruka by blood, finds he cannot legally intervene to save Haruka’s child -- his adoptive grandson -- from falling into the hands of the state when she enters a coma. Yakuza 6’s English localization lead recently discussed in an interview how the team worked to get this this cultural detail make sense for an English-speaking audience: “At the end of the day you can understand that okay, the state is coming for this child. And this is how Japan is treating Kiryu, and Haruka, and the child. They're breaking up this family."

While Yakuza is a series that lends itself to the flair of Japanese crime dramas, as a piece of media, Yakuza 3 provides both commentary and a glimpse into the real lived experiences -- albeit sometimes with a melodramatic viewpoint. It offers a more personal look at the series’ central protagonist, placing the player into the role of the father figure long before the current "dadification of games" trend reached its zenith (Yakuza 3 originally released in Japan in 2009), while also shining a light on rarely-discussed systemic problems in Japanese society.

Popular opinion might count Yakuza 3 out as one of the less interesting titles of the series, but I disagree. Not only does it allow for a unique perspective, the narrative that follows is not one rife with vengeance or marred with the death of a child at the expense of furthering the plot. It allows for peaceful contemplation and a realistic observation of the role as a caretaker in a highly conservative society. This is why Yakuza 3 stands as an incredibly important part of the series, in my opinion: not only for the exploration and greater understanding of Kiryu’s character, but for the growth of the series itself through its decade-spanning narrative.

Kazuma Hashimoto is a queer, transgender Japanese man. He currently works as a Japanese to English translator and reporter for RPGSite and Nova Crystallis. You can find him at @JusticeKazzy_ on Twitter.