Combining open-world gameplay, dark and gritty crime drama that takes itself extremely seriously, and absurd side content that very much doesn’t, the Yakuza series has become one of Sega’s biggest money-makers in recent years. The series first achieved success in its home country of Japan, where it is known as 龍が如く (Ryū ga Gotoku, Like a Dragon). It was more obscure in the West until 2017’s successful international release of Yakuza 0, a prequel set in the year 1988.
The Yakuza games are extremely immersive, so for players outside of Japan, they create a powerful sense of stepping into a foreign culture. Yakuza 0 goes even further, taking players decades back in time as well. Western players are sure to experience culture shock several times throughout the game. But for my money, there’s nothing in the game that manages to be more confusing or impenetrable than the pager codes. Every now and then, the protagonist’s pager will ring, and he’ll somehow extract a meaningful message from a short, seemingly-random string of numbers. So, what’s going on there? Read on to find out!
Making Unintended Use of Pagers
The important thing to understand about the pager codes is that the senders aren’t trying to make their messages hard to understand. It’s the opposite: they are trying their best to send intelligible messages over a system never designed to carry them. The whole phenomenon of pager codes is a defiant struggle against technical limitations.
The pagers carried by Yakuza 0‘s protagonists, Kiryū Kazuma and Majima Gorō, are designed to do exactly one thing: receive phone numbers. Upon being paged, the recipient is expected to find a phone and call that number to find out what the person who paged them even wants. This is the normal way of using pagers, and we do see them used this way several times throughout the game.
However, the allure of being able to instantly send someone a message in an era before cell phones, even if they were out and about, was too powerful to resist. So, determined pager users developed a system of codes to get around this technical limitation. For example, in English, it was common to send 143 (“I love you”, derived from the number of letters in each word) or 07734 (“Hello” when viewed upside down.) It was a pretty rudimentary system that didn’t really have a way to send anything more than a few dozen stock phrases.
Things were different in Japan, though. Japanese pager users took advantage of 語呂合わせ (goroawase), a Japanese system of numerical wordplay, to encode other messages. Goroawase relies on the fact that Japan has multiple different systems of numbers. First, there’s the native Japanese 和語 (wago) numbers, which start with hito, futa, and mi. Then, there’s the imported system of Chinese 漢語 (kango) numbers, which start with ichi, ni, and san. On top of that, as Japanese high schools require all students to take English, educated Japanese people are familiar with the English numbers as well.
This already gives at least three ways to read each digit. Additionally, some systems have more than one way to read each digit. For example, the kango name for 9, ku, sounds exactly like 苦 (ku, suffering), and so Japanese people commonly pronounce it as kyū instead. On top of that, multi-syllabic readings can be shortened to just their first syllable (for example, ichi to just i). Lastly, in some cases where the needed syllable simply can’t be produced, a similar syllable may be substituted, usually by changing the vowel or voicing/devoicing the consonant. We’ll discuss examples of these as they come up.
Here is a table, for reference:
|Code||Kango (Chinese)||Wago (Japanese)||English|
Analyzing Individual Messages
Now that we have a rough idea how this works, let’s look through the individual messages that Kiryū and Majima receive over the course of the game, and see what they mean.
This is the first message Kiryū receives, a greeting from his sworn brother, Akira Nishikiyama. In the English release, Kiryū interprets it for the player as “Whatcha up to?” As this is the first message and one of the simplest ones, we’ll go through the process step-by-step.
The intended reading is 何してる (nani shiteru), which literally means “What are (you) doing?” 7 uses the wago reading, nana, shortened to na. 2 and 4 use the kango readings, ni and shi. 10 uses the English reading, ten, shortened to te. 6 is the most complicated one. With no better way to write ru, the closest you can get is 6, roku, shortened to ro, which then has its vowel substituted. The table below breaks all of this down, digit by digit.
Even in this simple example, we can see how difficult it can be to decode goroawase. There are tons of ways to read each digit, it isn’t always clear whether a 1 followed by a 0 should be read as a ten or as two separate digits, and using 6 to represent ro is a big stretch. 724106 is a particularly famous and common goroawase, so I’m sure many Japanese players recognized it instantly, but even Japanese players probably needed the protagonists’ help to decode later messages!
Luckily, most of this (from X onwards) is a phone number, and there is no meaning to extract from it.
As Kiryū points out, though, the 49 in the front means it’s urgent. Using kango readings for both, shi and kyū, makes 至急 (shikyū), urgent. This one is very straightforward, using no truncation or substitution!
Kiryū receives two other pages with phone numbers over the course of the game, X71-9348 and X70-2940. Each one is just a phone number containing no coded messages. Whatever they were for, I guess they weren’t urgent enough to justify putting 49 in front.
According to Kiryū in the English version, 89 means “all set” and 01104 says “come by”. The localization is slightly inaccurate here, as the hyphen is doing more than just separating the two ideas. It’s being used to represent ー, a 長音符 (chō’onpu), or vowel lengthening symbol, as both characters are horizontal lines. All together, “89-” encodes バッチグー (bachigū), a dated slang term that’s there to remind you the game takes place in the 80’s. Basically, imagine it says “Gnarly!”
Onto the second half of the message, 01104. It starts off with something tricky, using the fact that the digit 0 resembles the letter O! Next, 10 is used to indicate ten, which is truncated to te and then substituted for de. To an English speaker, using te for de might seem like a big stretch, but it’s natural for Japanese speakers. The syllable de (で) is written by starting with te (て) and adding two little strokes to it to form a 濁点 (dakuten, voicing mark). Strategically adding or removing voicing marks is a common strategy used to encode more syllables in goroawase. In fact, this was used to turn hachikuu into bachiguu earlier in this same message.
Apart from that, it doesn’t use anything we haven’t seen before—see the table below for the details if you’re curious. The result is お出でよ (oide yo), a slightly condescending way to say “come here” that is often used for pets. However, due to the extreme difficulty of encoding coherent messages in pager codes, it can be okay to sacrifice a little politeness for clarity. Due to the nature of goroawase, some messages are easier to encode than others, so it’s common to rephrase a message into a form that’s easier to encode.
Kiryū tells us 106 means “phone” and 0-9 means “OK”, and interprets the message to mean that a call he was expecting has come in. The first part, 106, encodes テル (teru), short for telephone. The first hyphen is there to separate the two thoughts and make the message easier to interpret.
The second part, which encodes オーケー (ōkē, okay), mostly uses what we’ve already seen; the number 0 represents the letter O, and hyphens indicate chō‘onpu. With no way to write ke, the closest you can get is 9’s kango, ku. The localization has once again elided the fact that a hyphen is being used to encode a vowel lengthener, which is more noticeable here since there’s no way to interpret a hyphen at the end of the message as a separator.
65810-51 and 65810-29
After the player is given control over the game’s second protagonist, Majima Gorō, and given a chance to explore Sōtenbori, they will be introduced to an establishment called The Dragon & Tiger. Although it is ostensibly a Chinese restaurant, its side business as an equipment shop is far more relevant to the player. In addition to being able to buy weapons and armor there, Majima can pay to send agents around the world to gather materials which can then be used to craft better equipment. When the Dragon & Tiger has something to tell Majima, such as when an agent returns with materials, they will page him. Let’s look at those messages.
The two messages are very similar, both starting with 65810. This part encodes the Japanese name of the establishment, 龍虎飯店 (ryūko hanten, Dragon and Tiger Chinese Restaurant). However, it starts with the biggest curveball this game has thrown us yet. This doesn’t use any of the standard readings we’re familiar with. See, the game of mahjong has its own system of numbers! For example, the 2 of pin (circles) is called リャンピン (ryan pin), instead of ni pin like you might expect. The closest equivalent in English would be the words ace and deuce, words meaning “one” and “two” that are only used in reference to playing cards and dice.
What’s worse, the mahjong reading used here isn’t even the standard one. Normally, 6 is pronounced ロー (rō) in mahjong, but this message uses the rare alternative リュウ (ryū). So this message is two curveballs in one! Not only is the recipient expected to figure out 6 uses mahjong terminology, which is already nonstandard, but it uses actually uses uncommon, variant mahjong terminology! Since the mahjong numbers come from Chinese, and the couple who runs the Dragon & Tiger is also Chinese, using this reading may have seemed natural to them.
Even after that, there’s one little wrinkle that needs to be explained. It’s pretty typical in goroawase to just omit a the ん (n) kana, as is done here for the n in han, and just make the reader figure out when syllables do and don’t end in n. I would imagine even many Japanese players were glad to have Majima interpret the first half of this message for them! On the other hand, the second half of the message is much more straightforward, encoding 来い (koi, come) using techniques we’ve seen before.
The second message ends with 29 instead of 51, and encodes 武具 (bugu), a word that refers to both weapon and armor. A dakuten is added to each syllable to turn ふく(fuku) into ぶぐ (bugu).
Whew… that was a quite a lot! We’re done for now, but we haven’t quite finished interpreting every single pager code in the game. Once either protagonist completes every side story in his area, he receives three pages containing a challenge from a mysterious figure who serves as an optional superboss. These messages are so difficult that even the protagonists struggle to understand them, and end up with entirely different interpretations! There’s enough there that I’ve decided to separate that out into its own article, which you can check out here! If you’re interested in a less technical article on Japanese wordplay, check out the hidden reference to Etrian Odyssey in Soul Hackers 2, or why the true name of “A Painful Death at the Hands of a Psycho” from Live A Live is pretty much impossible to translate into English.