On Evolution and Gentrification
Note: Spoilers for the Yakuza franchise ahead.
After finally defeating Yakuza Kiwami 2, I can finally make a decision. My favorite character in the Yakuza franchise isn’t series protagonist Kiryu Kazuma. Nor is it Majima Goro, one of Kiryu’s major foils. It’s not Kiryu’s cop friend, Date Makoto, love interest Sayama Kaoru, sort-of-adopted-daughter Sawamura Haruka, or anyone in either the Tojo Clan or the Omi Alliance.
My favorite character is Kamurocho, the fictionalized Shinjuku neighborhood (IRL: Kabuki-chō) where most of the franchise’s action happens. I have roamed its streets more in the past few months than I have the streets of Oklahoma City, where I live, in years. Of course, the pandemic hasn’t helped in this regard.
As you can probably imagine, a lot of ink has been spilled about the human beings who inhabit Kamurocho and its Osakan counterpart, Sotenbori (IRL: Dotonbori). Bullet Points Monthly devoted their September 2018 issue1 to the series, and returned to the universe that Ryu ga Gotoku Studio created when it covered the 2019 detective action game Judgment2 in July 2019. The video game architecture zine Heterotopias released a special issue by artist Eron Rauch and writer Justin Reeve that focused on the city as it appeared in Yakuza 0,3 but even that was limited to the city in a static context.
I’m interested instead in the city as it evolves over time,4 something which has seemingly received little attention in discussions about the franchise. In Yakuza 0, Yakuza Kiwami, and Yakuza Kiwami 2, we get a unique opportunity to watch a city transform, and we even get the context necessary to understand this transformation: the gentrification project5 pursued by all major factions in Yakuza 0 at the height of the Japanese Asset Price Bubble.
From Yakuza 0 to Yakuza Kiwami 2, we get to see Kamurocho shapeshift around us from a seedy, trash-strewn pleasure district in the throes of an economic boom, with unique bars, massage parlors, and cabaret clubs, into a more… toned-down and family-friendly place, thanks to the so-called “Kamurocho 21st Century Revitalization Project.” Carried through to its logical conclusion, when we glimpse Kamurocho in the near-present day in Judgment and Yakuza: Like a Dragon, it is almost indistinguishable from a sterile tourist trap like Oklahoma City’s Bricktown: all flash, no flavor. (This transformation seems to be viewed as insidious and negative by the game’s developers, as the vanguard of this transformation in the series’ 2010s is also the head of a group literally called “Bleach Japan.”)
Cities change around us all the time, often without us noticing. We might live somewhere for years, turn a corner, and bam—encounter new, sterile development where before there was a mom-and-pop restaurant or a taqueria or a record shop. Oklahoma City has been undergoing a radical transformation in this regard since 1994, when the first Metropolitan Area Project Plan, or MAPS, was implemented. The city’s residents were sold on the idea of urban revitalization by then-mayor Ron Norick, and voluntarily passed a penny sales tax on themselves to fund several major urban development projects. The first MAPS plan lasted until 2004, and subsequent MAPS plans have been passed for everything from public transport to funding for mental health facilities.
Like Kamurocho, Oklahoma City has made good on its promise of cleaner, “safer” streets and a more modern urban environment. But it has come at a cost: real-estate prices across the city have skyrocketed, pricing lower- and middle-income residents out of the communities they’ve typically called home for decades. The police force is one of the deadliest in the nation.6 And the benefits of this long-running urban development are often not felt at all in majority-Black OKC communities. In particular, Northeast OKC is the conspicuous epicenter of a pronounced food desert that has existed since 1995.7
Life imitates art. I am not a lifelong resident of Oklahoma City. I only moved to a suburb of OKC in 2005, when I was 14. But 16 years is a long time to watch a city change. In particular, I was present to watch the construction of Oklahoma City’s own version of Kamurocho’s Millenium Tower: the Devon Energy Center, the sixty-second-tallest building in the world, a $709 million ode to corporate maximalism and greed. It was in the lobby of this building that two environmental activists were arrested and charged with a “Terrorism Plot”8 for carrying a glittery sign in 2013. To this day, it rises above the midnight skyline, an eye in the darkness, watching over a city ever-changing in its image.
1 Bullet Points Monthly. https://bulletpointsmonthly.com/issue/yakuza-series. Accessed 20 Feb. 2021.
2 Bullet Points Monthly. https://bulletpointsmonthly.com/issue/judgment. Accessed 20 Feb. 2021.
3 “007.” Heterotopias, http://www.heterotopiaszine.com/007-2/. Accessed 20 Feb. 2021.
4 “How Yakuza’s City Changes From Game To Game.” Kotaku, https://kotaku.com/how-yakuzas-city-changes-from-game-to-game-1821884988. Accessed 20 Feb. 2021.
5 “In Yakuza 0, Cash Rules (Almost) Everything.” Pastemagazine.Com, 2 Feb. 2017, https://www.pastemagazine.com/games/yakuza-0/in-yakuza-0-cash-rules-almost-everything/.
6 “Chief Calls Report ‘Extremely Flawed’ but Data Appears Accurate in Labeling OKC with Second Highest Police Killing Rate.” The Frontier, https://www.readfrontier.org/stories/chief-calls-report-extremely-flawed-but-data-appears-accurate-in-labeling-okc-with-second-highest-police-killing-rate/. Accessed 20 Feb. 2021.
7 Sridhar, Supriya. “High Prices Still a Concern After An Oasis Fills Northeast OKC’s Food Desert.” Oklahoma Watch, 7 Dec. 2020, https://oklahomawatch.org/2020/12/07/high-prices-still-a-concern-after-an-oasis-fills-northeast-okcs-food-desert/.
8 Redden, Molly. “Tar Sands Protesters Arrested on Terrorism-Related Charges For…glittery Banner.” Mother Jones, https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2013/12/tar-sands-keystone-protesters-arrested-terrorism-glitter/. Accessed 20 Feb. 2021.