My first real introduction to the Yakuza was someone describing the game as not sexist. Yakuza 0 had recently released in the west to widespread popularity, and all of a sudden a game series that had always been a detail I glanced over in announcement threads had become a college-appartmenthold name. The first and subsequent reccommendations I received for the game were all along the lines of “you have GOT to play Yakuza 0; don’t worry, it’s not sexist.” That’s really weird! While I do unfortunately expect most games to have some latent sexism in them, I would generally go around recommending games with “not sexist” as part of the pitch. Taking one look at Yakuza 0, and it becomes extremely apparent why it’s paired with this tagline. Several years later, I have finally played through both Yakuza 0 and Yakuza Kiwami, and I can declare the verdit: it’s not sexist. That doesn’t tell the whole story. Yakuza’s representation of women holds an extremely mixed bag that deserves to be address.
Yakuza 0 at a glance seems extremely sexist. This makes sense as to why the “it’s not sexist” caveat came with every recommendation. The game has you collect cards of scantily clad women, run cabaret clubs, watch women wrestle, I think there’s even an option to watch porn that I never did. To top it off, both Yakuza 0 and Yakuza Kiwami feature only two women in their central cast. It seems near impossible for a game this filled with classic scenarios that basically anyone would call pervy. The game decidedly doesn’t end up feeling like porn hub’s front page. I think in a sort of utilitarian way, Yakuza 0 and Yakuza Kiwami (hence forth collectively refereed to as Yakuza) end up falling into the category of “not sexist,” but it actually has high highs along with low lows.
Yakuza’s portrayal of sex work is extremely progressive. A disclaimer that I am not a sex worker, so my opinion isn’t as valuable as theirs on this topic. Sex work is everywhere in Yakuza, as you might expect in a series portraying, well, yakuza. A lot of games feature sex work, and most of the time it’s handled somewhere between neutrally and poorly. Yakuza actually manages to portray sex work in a positive light because it humanizes the sex workers. You get to interact with a large amount of sex workers throughout playing Yakuza, and they’re not just objects that men have acquired. These girls are actual characters, they help out the protagonist, have their own desires, and aren’t tied to their job. In Yakuza 0, one side story follows Kiryu helping a dominatrix gain the confidence she needs to perform her job. She sought out being a dominatrix because she wanted to improve her conviction, and she seeks Kiryu for advice on how to do that. Kiryu is happy to help and there’s no promise of sex after, he helps because he’s a good person. The game has a nice mini character arc showing this girl gaining the confidence she needs to navigate life, and it’s viewed through the lens sex work. In Yakuza Kiwami, part of the story has you tasked with finding where your injured patriarch is, and he has been entrusted to the care of a sex worker. The game treats this woman just as any other, she informs you to where your patriarch is, and then you fight some baddies invading the soapland. There’s a lot of characters like this in the game, and it’s refreshing that she’s one of the only ones who’s strictly on your side and helps you out. Throughout the game, you’ll find many examples of the game treating sex work as real work and sex workers as real people, like it should.
Yakuza’s cabarets also give great characterization to the girls who work there. While I won’t be talking about it, there’s also host club, and it’s nice to see both given important characters. Yakuza 0 starts off a bit rocky with showing some girls in a classic objectified scenario, Majima makes it clear that inappropriate conduct with his workers is forbidden and that this behavior is frowned upon. Your first quest as Majima also has you trading girls with another cabaret, but this is subverted when Majima values them as people rather than boiling them down to their looks. The game gives a lot of value to each girl, highlighting how hard they work and their different skill sets. This is shown further in the cabaret club managing sub plot. Yakuza 0 has you interact with cabaret girls and this is really where it shines. If it left it as valuing them for their worth rather than looks, it’d probably not be great, but luckily we get to learn about a lot of the girls who work there. Majima will have mock sessions with some of his workers, and you get to learn about their troubles and help them overcome them. I didn’t get to far into this section of the game, but from what I did play it was clear that these girls were probably more fleshed out characters than most of the main cast.
Yakuza Kiwami also has cabaret girl interactions, and it’s Rina plot is both a highlight of the game, and perhaps the most glaring fault. Rina is a girl a lot of players will meet accidentally when they’re trying to complete the Goromi quest. Drag Majima was no where near the shitshow a lot of cross dressing scenes are, and I’m glad I stumbled upon this character. Upon your first chat with Rina, you find out she’s a lesbian. I love this in general because it’s pretty rare to see gay characters in AAA games at all, let alone in this kind of context. Kiryu keeps requesting Rina every visit (you can’t request anyone else) and they even hang out outside the club. It’s really nice to see Kiryu be so progressive when it comes gay people, with him offering constant encouragement. There’s no prospects of anything other than a fun time talking with her, and talking with her genuinely feels like how my conversations about being gay go. Outside of a bad comment that men shouldn’t be allowed to wear make-up (they are and the ones who do rock it), pretty much all the conversations are great. I wish it could end there, but unfortunately there’s a big finale to this sub-story. In the finale, Rina ends up deciding that the girl she likes isn’t femme enough for her liking, and doesn’t ask her out. She feels like she’ll never be able to find a girl it’ll work out with, so she rather have the best man, Kiryu. Kiryu proceeds to tell her that she’s putting to much stock in butch vs femme and that if she really likes the girl as a person, it might work out better than she expects. This is good advice because while it’s totally fine to have a preference of femme or masc girls, if you like someone beyond that, then it’s worth following your heart. Rina takes the advice to heart, but then things turn for the worse. She decides that she still want a night with Kiryu, and they proceed to a love hotel. Questioning your sexuality and experimenting with a consenting partner you trust is also totally okay, but the game again doesn’t end there. The players are then “treated” to a first-person, live-action, not-sex scene. I think this ruins the finale. Her experimenting was a private affair the players weren’t invited into, and it feels bad that we get to see a lesbian lewd as a “reward” for pursuing her despite her sexuality. Rina then proceeds to proclaim she’s confident she only likes girls and maybe Kiryu should try being gay. There’s plenty of ways to see lewd girls in this game, heck this whole side story is right next to the strip club where you can see almost-naked girls pole dance. This was not the place for tease video, and it turned a very private moment public. Kiryu is not the player; you can only guide what he says between choices he would say, rather than speak directly for him. This was a personal moment between Kiryu and Rina, not the player. Rina’s storyline is still probably my favorite from Yakuza Kiwami, but I wish the developers skipped the “reward” for this plotline.
The place Yakuza stumbles in terms of sexism the most is it’s cast of characters. There’s only three prominent women featured throughout the two games, Reina, Makoto, and Haruka. Every other woman is either an optional side character or just in the story for a scene or two. Makoto and Haruka are both central to the plots of their games. I do like both of their characters, but I also wish they weren’t treated as objects by most of the cast. They both start off as helpless things in need of protecting who are worth large sums of money because of objects they own. Over the story they get more characterization, but I wish their starting point had already had some character to them. Reina is actually feels like a real character from the start, rather than an object turned into a character. Don’t get me wrong, Makoto is a badass by the end of Yakuza 0, and I love Haruka with all my heart. I don’t know how many women Yakuza there are in 1988 and 2005, but I imagine it’s at least more than the two we see. The two we do see, one is actually great as she is an extremely strong fighter who teaches Kiryu the beast style, which subverts the usual tropes for women fighting. The other is a doctor, which is also great. No one mistakes her for a nurse or thinks twice about her taking medical care of someone so important in such a stressful scenario. Why do the women end there? Just momentary glimpses that are great. The game is no where near realistic. Kiryu shoots down helicopters cars and manages to not kill anyone, is the star of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, takes down armies of men on his own, becomes a real-estate tycoon, and the list goes on. Even if you took a hard stance on the gender accuracy of the yakuza, there are tons of important, powerful characters that aren’t Yakuza, none of which are women. The exception might be Yumi, however most of the game she’s treated as a helpless girl. Kazama setting up the scheme grants her the momentary power, rather than something she built up herself. There’s tons of important characters from prominent club owners to underground informants who all could have been women. There’s an exception that “The Forger” is a women, and this moment is played as a plot twist, and the character only exists for maybe 5 minutes and has 3 lines total. I do know that in the most recent entry, Yakuza: Like a Dragon, there are two female party members. I don’t know what roles they play or how prominent to the story they are, but I am hopeful that this pushes the series in the right direction.
There’s plenty more examples of good and bad things, but I don’t think it’s worth getting into detail. I’ll list of a few things I mentioned earlier just to not leave them as loose ends. The telephone card collection quests I think ends up being sexist. You just collect pictures of naked girls, give them to a horny guy, and he gives you cash. The wrestling I don’t find sexist. The women’s outfits are pretty akin to what you imagine men’s outfits are. They show a lot of skin and vaguely provoke an idea. The women perform legitimate wrestling moves; it’s not like they just flail around. Yakuza also definitely has a problem with body diversity in women. The men of Yakuza have quiet a bit of body diversity across the cast, but adult women are all petite, great curves, light skin, very “conventionally attractive.” Body diversity is a problem in all media, and Yakuza doesn’t escape that problem.
The final verdict on Yakuza ends up being it’s not sexist. I wouldn’t go nominating it for any awards on women’s representation, but it does fair significantly better on average than a lot of other games. It might even be the AAA game with the best written lesbian where being a lesbian is central to her character and not just as a one off romance scene with the main character. I look forward to how the future games give further development to Haruka’s character (I assume she’s in them) and am hoping the series will surprise me with some more prominent women characters.