Well, the original Yakuza game was released in 2005 in Japan and shipped worldwide a year later. Around that time, urban crime titles were hot ticket items, especially on the PlayStation 2 where the Grand Theft Auto series reigned supreme. Western gamers were eating up titles like True Crime: Streets of LA and Saints Row, which likely impacted the localized name choice.
Sega probably decided to dive headlong into the organized crime aspect of Like a Dragon and rename it Yakuza to appeal to Western audiences still riding the GTA high. Despite that decision, the franchise didn’t make much headway outside of Japan until Yakuza: Like a Dragon and Yakuza 0. So now that the series is finally receiving more attention outside of Japan, maybe Sega has seen fit to drop the “Yakuza” moniker and pursue more universal marketing and name.
However, it seems that the biggest reason why Sega is swapping the “Yakuza” name for “Like a Dragon” is because the Yakuza name isn’t really applicable to the series anymore. Up until Yakuza: Like a Dragon, the series revolved around the main character, Kazuma Kiryu, and his connections to various Yakuza families (most prominently the Tojo Clan). However, in Like a Dragon: Ishin!, the protagonist (Kiryu-lookalike, Sakamoto Ryoma) is ironically part of a police force known as the Shinsengumi. In Like a Dragon Gaiden, Kiryu has seemingly given up his affiliation with the Tojo Clan (and his name, by the sound of it) to live at a monastery and take odd jobs as a man for hire.
As for Like a Dragon 8 (spoilers for Yakuza: Like a Dragon), its main character, and new series protagonist, Ichiban Kasuga is no longer affiliated with any of the series’ existing crime families. Simply put, Yakuza has branched out from the initial urban crime theme that it has outgrown its original English name. A former Yakuza localizer seemingly confirmed that theory (perhaps jokingly so) with this tweet:
It’s a little sad to see the “Yakuza” name go, but if we’re being honest, it’s a good thing. If this decision represents the series’ growth over the years and the various ways Sega hopes to continue to grow and expand it, then Yakuza…err…Like a Dragon fans will likely embrace the change in time.