The yakuza is a social group with origins dating back to the Edo period of Japanese history. The word itself is derived from a Japanese-language phonetic transcription of the numbers 8-9-3 as taken from a Japanese card game similar to Black Jack, in which the objective is to achieve a score of nineteen; 8-9-3, which equals twenty, is also known as the "ya-ku-za" hand. It is the worst possible hand to draw in the game, because it means instant loss. Therefore, in the gambling underworld of Edo period Japan, the yakuza hand became synonymous with uselessness and quickly became a noun used to describe the "useless" members of society. In more modern parlance, the word is most often translated as "social outcast."
These social outcasts, the gamblers, and the lowest class citizens started forming "families," clans that over time evolved into what is thought of as the yakuza of today. Contrary to the popular opinion, organized crime is not the only thing the yakuza occupy themselves with. They openly embrace and acknowledge their samurai ancestry, and uphold the traditions of the Japanese feudal royalty. Yakuza criminal activities mainly include drug and firearm trafficking, prostitution and "protection" of nightclubs and host clubs.
The yakuza are often mythologized and compared to the Western legends of Robin Hood, as when the class first surfaced, its members stole from the wealthy and gave to the poor. Most Japanese citizens in urban areas fear the yakuza, but also respect them for following a very strict code of honor. They are often called the protectors of the unfortunate. It's not uncommon for the yakuza to take care of young people who would never have a chance for any kind of mature life, if they hadn't been accepted into a clan.
The criminal activities of the yakuza are undeniable, but it is a misconception to suggest that the class is the Japanese equivalent of the Italian mafia. In fact, because of pressure from the National Police Agency and new anti-yakuza laws being passed, their legal activities now outnumber the illegal. The yakuza remain the symbol and predominant force of Japan's underworld. However, the class has evolved greatly since the clan wars and public assassinations that took place in the first half of the twentieth century.
In Video Games
Due to their shadowy nature, the yakuza have made for a rich subject in fiction. In the realm of video games, the yakuza are most prominently depicted in Sega's Yakuza series (known as "Ryu ga Gotoku" in Japan). The franchise features stories involving rival yakuza families and their power struggles, both internal and external, typically as seen from the viewpoint of series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu.
Like Shenmue, the Yakuza series is known for its realism, and its games are typically marketed as interactive Japanese dramas inspired by the lives of real yakuza members. As such, the Yakuza games usually aim for a certain degree of authenticity, albeit with heavy influence from yakuza genre films popular in Japan. Jake Adelstein's book Tokyo Vice noted the franchise's accuracy compared to his interactions with real yakuza.