A gamer-neophyte friend of mine walked into my living room one day and glanced at my TV. "Oh, I've seen this one before," he said. "Grand Theft Auto, right?" Not even close - I was playing Yakuza (Ryuu ga Gotoku in Japan), Sega's spiritual successor to Shenmue for the PS2.
The confusion is understandable. Kazuma Kiryu, the protagonist of Sega's Yakuza series, is a badass. He plays by his own rules, even if those rules mean he's got to bust a few heads (or get his head busted) in the process. He's kind of like a Japanese John McClane, except for one thing: John McClane was a cop. Technically, Kazuma is a bad guy. After all, the Yakuza is Japan's equivalent of the Mafia - an international crime syndicate that profits off of vice and violence.
Whether it's bandits, bank robbers or the Mafia, Americans tend to love their gangster heroes because they can take what they want and do what we could only dream of. That's part of the appeal of the Grand Theft Auto series, after all; we don't love it for the in-game atrocities we can commit, per se, but the freedom to do whatever we want with minimal regard for the consequences. One would think that Yakuza would be designed with the same kind of escapist sensibilities in mind, particularly since the Yakuza have inspired some of the most gloriously gory movies to come out of Japan (see: Ichi the Killer). Instead, Kazuma spends his time protecting shopkeepers from other Yakuza and babysitting a little girl in the Tokyo red-light district. The real-life Yakuza are responsible for international drug trafficking, prostitution, child pornography, gun smuggling and all kinds of destructive graft and corruption. Why is practically none of this present in Sega's version?
Here's the short version of the Yakuza origin story: Certain lower-class groups during Japan's Edo period (1603-1868), mostly street vendors (tekiya), gamblers (bakuto) and people with work related to death, like undertakers or leather-workers (burakumin) became embedded in Japan's growing economy while doing the work that the Edo government couldn't always provide or found distasteful. The name comes from an old Japanese card game called Oicho-Kabu; the "ya-ku-za" hand (eight, nine and three) is the hardest hand in the game to play and required incredible skill and luck to win. Likewise, the Yakuza were comprised of those who had no use to society and meant bad luck to those who opposed them.
For much of the Yakuza's history, their outcast origin story resembled a Japanese version of Robin Hood. Gang members were officially criminals, but they also served the public in ways that national institutions of the time didn't. Perhaps the most notable example is Shimizu Jirocho, a rice-farmer-turned-gambler who lived in Shizuoka during the latter part of the Edo period and was held in high esteem for providing order and protection from gang conflict, as well as defense from the oppressive samurai and police. After the Meiji Restoration, Jirocho became a police officer in charge of a local harbor and developed his under-the-table business with one hand while opening up an English language school and even a penitentiary with the other.