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How the role of women has evolved in the Yakuza series

Not just one of the LADs

From the beginning of its inception, Yakuza was a game made for the adult male audience in Japan. It’s a point that its creators have previously brought up when interviewed about the games.

Yet, as the entire mainline series is finally available on PC, Yakuza has become an international hit for Sega, and I’m thrilled that many new converts and some of the most vocal cheerleaders are women. Coming to the latest entry, Yakuza: Like A Dragon (LAD for short), there are a lot of drastic changes to the formula, from new protagonist Ichiban to a turn-based JRPG battle system - but one notable shift is its relationship with women.

Even as a macho-centric series, women have always played a role in Yakuza, notably Kiryu’s adopted daughter Haruka, a series regular who must be protected at all costs. Memes aside, that is actually the running theme for most women in the series. From Makoto in Yakuza 0, to Yuri in Kiwami and Lilly in Yakuza 4, most fit the damsel trope of desperate victims in need of rescue from men. A few of them meet tragic ends, and even if it's not outright fridging, their deaths are still also used as a way to affect the men in the story.

That's just the dramatic side, though. On Yakuza's lighter, sillier side, your romps in the seedy red light district of Kamurocho also mean an excuse to double down on the male gaze. In this context, the women you encounter in mini-games are purely there to titillate the assumed adult male player, whether you’re chatting up hostesses in cabaret clubs, on a table tennis date in Yakuza 4 (where ogling your opponent's chest is a genuine key to victory), or typing hilariously horny phrases to make cam girls take their clothes off in Yakuza 6. Part of the draw for Japanese players is that most of these women you see, both virtually and in FMV, are also played by real adult actresses.

That doesn't mean the series hasn't tried a different tack, as it did early on in the sequel (which we get with remake Yakuza Kiwami 2) with bad-ass detective Kaoru, who’s introduced as 'the Yakuza Huntress'. But while Kiryu might consider her his equal, the plot somewhat neuters her character, from the moment you’re having to carry her around town when she gets shot, to the inevitable point that she becomes a love interest. It’s telling that, when she’s briefly referenced in Yakuza 5, we learn her police department in Osaka became a joke after she fell in love with Kiryu.

Kiryu's adoptive daughter Haruka (now a J-Pop idol in Yakuza 5) points at the crowd while performing in a pink dress.

Haruka is a more interesting case, as players watched her grow up from a precocious nine-year-old to a young woman and mother, and the time we spent getting to know gives her more depth than any other female character in the series. More importantly, she also becomes the series' first playable female protagonist in Yakuza 5. Okay, so she's not canonically going around beating up thugs (although that hasn’t stopped modders) - instead, she's out on the streets of Sotenbori to fulfil many a Japanese high school girl’s dream - making it as a pop idol.

There’s more depth to Haruka’s arc than you might expect, as we also experience some of the ugly side of the idol business. There's drama with rival duo T-Set, and mini-games that reflect some of the social minefields an idol (or come to think of it, women in general) has to deal with - whether that’s being able to grin-and-bear handshaking events with creepy guys, or not getting flustered by gossip journalists.

"Haruka's arc feels much more like filler compared to the more serious drama going on in the rest of Yakuza 5."

Personally I enjoyed taking on all of Haruka’s jobs, and as a rhythm game nut I loved how smacking down your opponents is suddenly replaced with wholesome Hatsune Miku: Project Diva-style rhythm mini-games. Still, it’s hard to deny that for a debut female protagonist in the series, it feels much more like filler compared to the more serious drama going on in the rest of Yakuza 5.

So it's refreshing how much the series takes a leap forward with LAD when we meet Saeko for the first time. Her introduction cleverly subverts our expectations of the first few hours, where LAD deals with typical Yakuza themes of surrogate paternal figures and male bonds. Our trio of middle-aged men are down on their luck, and take a job to help a soapland brothel owner’s girl Nanoha, who’s being financially squeezed by a yakuza scam.

After the sudden murder of soapland boss Nonomiya, we get Nanoha’s alter ego on the scene. To be exact, Saeko is her older twin sister, both a literal and figurative replacement of the typically vulnerable damsel - a fiercely independent hostess-turned-bartender who can hit as hard as the lads, not to mention out-talk and out-drink them.

Saeko quickly ingratiates herself into the group’s dynamics, sharing their struggles and quickly dismissing Nanba’s early, retrograde attempt to be protective of her just because she’s a woman. Saeko cries, but they're more tears of anger and frustration, wanting justice for Nonomiya. Her helplessness isn’t that of a woman waiting for her problems to be solved by men, but part of an inherent theme in JRPGs: that no one person can do it alone.

There’s also Eri, the struggling business owner of Ichiban Confections who can also join your party. Eri and her likeness is actually played and captured by Eri Kamataki, who won the role in a casting competition, while four runner-ups - Iroha Yanagi, Sumire Sawa, Manae Miyakoshi and Ririka - also feature in the game as NPCs based on themselves. Rather than being there as eye-candy hostesses like they might have been in the past, we see them working across different facets of society - a bar, factory, vocational school and job centre respectively - which is a greater breadth of representation than one might have expected from the series previously.

"But Yakuza: Like A Dragon's relative progressiveness isn't without its own limitations."

While still set in a seedy part of town (Yokohama’s Ijincho rather than Kamurocho), the story sympathises with sex workers, and does so without then turning around to exploit them with creepiness in mini-games or other features. Hostess clubs do still exist, but they take a backseat compared with past instalments, while mini-games involve go-karting or staying awake at the cinema rather than the more titillating offers in the past.

But LAD’s relative progressiveness isn’t without its own limitations. One that immediately sticks out when Saeko joins your party is that the job classes are gender-specific (host and hostess being the exception), with notably fewer jobs available for the women. Don’t get me wrong: it can be hilarious seeing Eri taking her rage out on a gang of thugs with office supplies, and the Night Queen (i.e. dominatrix) job can be wickedly powerful. But seriously, women can’t be chefs or musicians? And unfortunately, because every party needs a healer, it’s more than likely that Saeko ends up becoming your go-to white mage idol by the end.

While Saeko is almost treated like one of the boys, with plenty of sharp banter to give back, it’s hard not to notice the moments when she’s singled out - such as when they’re going undercover at a shipping company. Saeko is pulled to one side for the office job, while the men carry on with the heavy lifting. In another scene she poses as a Chinese hostess and gets groped by one of the slimeballs they’re after. Eri, meanwhile, gets nowhere near the same screentime, due to her being an optional character who is essentially invisible from the core story whenever a cutscene happens.

But even if LAD does stumble back into some old-school sexism, that shouldn’t undermine the steps forward - the evolution that the Yakuza series has undergone since first being marketed purely for adult Japanese men. Yakuza may still be fundamentally masculine with its characters and themes, but in the same way the term lad has also evolved in recent years to encompass not just young men but progressive ideas, the series has done its share of growing up.

I’ll still have a soft spot for the old games’ more problematic elements, which you can still play at any time in its best remastered/remade iterations, but women’s roles in Yakuza are only getting better from here on out.

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Yakuza: Like a Dragon

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Alan Wen