Book Review: Tokyo Underworld–a classic on the dark side of Japan

There are very few gaijin (foreigners) who know what happens on the dark side of the rising sun like Robert Whiting. Whiting is an American author and journalist living in Japan, one of the rare ones who has written great books published in both English and Japanese language after he first set foot in Japan in 1962, when he was 20.

His most popular book, Tokyo Underworld: The Fast Times and Hard Life of an American Gangster in Japan, published by Pantheon, N.Y. 1999, and Vintage Departures, 2000, has been optioned for being made into a major motion picture several times but still hasn’t made it to the silver screen. It’s not surprising that the book would appeal to Hollywood. The main protagonist in the book seems to pop out of a movie! But he isn’t, Nicola Zappetti, aka “The Mafia Boss of Tokyo,” an Italian American GI whose pizza restaurant in Roppongi became the informal headquarters of the Tokyo underworld, really existed and lived in the country where you would think modesty and order reign.

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Whiting’s book while revolving around Zappetti, openly draws out the influence of the yakuza on Japanese society and politics. He illustrates historical facts by including Nick Zappetti’s encounters with some of the most intriguing Japanese figures, who brought Japan to become the world’s second largest economic power after the United States. He creates a great visual and fascinating world no one would imagine that modern-day Japan would emanate from.

Tokyo Underworld was translated into Japanese by Midori Matsui, at Kadokawa Bunko.[1]

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The book illustrates the genesis of the so-called keizai yakuza, or “Economic Yakuza,” the ones who intelligently mutated into financial wizards spurring the creation of new anti-mob laws in Japan—which also spurred more of the white-collar yakuza to go into finance. In Tokyo Underworld, Whiting explains how Japanese criminals, even suspected class A war criminals such as Yoshio Kodama, could escape execution, unlike the other war criminals, such as Hideki Tojo, the general of the Japanese Imperial Army who was directly responsible for the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Because the U.S. Occupation authorities needed to trade information about wartime government figures wanted by the GHQ (General Headquarters) to counter the growing leftist movements in Japan, the most vicious mob members were able to deeply root their organization in the structure of Japanese society. The Americans declared that all foreigners in Japan, whose native country was a Japanese colony before the end of the Pacific War would not be punished under the law, which was one of the reasons why the Korean community couldn’t be controlled by the Japanese police. The police thus made an unofficial agreement with the Japanese gangsters to keep the order. Whiting tells the story of how the most vicious of all Japanese worked hand in hand with their occupants.

The book retraces the life of Nicola Zappetti, an Italian-American who moved to Japan after the war as a U.S. Marine and later became the bridge that connected the American mafia and the Japanese yakuza. The story line follows the life of Nicola Zappetti, but incorporates the lives of various Japanese shady characters, such as Yoshio Kodama, who Whiting describes as “ A powerful wealthy ultranationalist and behind-the-scenes fixer (who was also the point of entry for America’s participation in this sphere.) Described by one historian as a master of channeling “unregistered” funds from big business and the underworld to politicians, […]

 

In 1958, Kodama went to work for the CIA, maintaining a professional relationship of considerable intensity that included helping to funnel agency money clandestinely to associates in the LDP (Liberal Democratic Party of Japan) and anti-communist groups. One of Kodama’s assignments was to cozy up to Indonesian President Sukarno and assess associates in a firm called Tonichi Trading Company were laying plans for business ventures in Djakarta, in part by supplying female companionship to the Indonesian president, a known womanizer, […]”

 

He expounds on how another historical figure, Hisayuki Machii, the boss of the Tosei-kai (now Toa-kai), which had 1500 mostly Korean members after the war, won a gang war against the pure-blooded Sumiyoshi-kai, a prewar gambling gang. “[…] Machii. The son of a Korean factory owner from Seoul and a Japanese mother, Machii had first made his name in the postwar black market running a band of young thugs. Nicknamed “Fanso” (Violent Bull) as a youth, he had won several barroom brawls versus larger American GIs, including one encounter with a U.S. Marine colonel, a karate black belt, whom Machii knocked out cold with one punch. He was famous for once having snapped a set of handcuffs in a fury over being arrested. […]“

Robert Whiting writes, “The Tosei-kai was symbolic of what had happened to the Tokyo organized crime scene. The old tekiya had fallen by the wayside as the street stalls gradually disappeared, and a new type of gangster had assumed control, drawn from the vast pool of jobless and homeless young men who filled the streets in the aftermath of the war.”

 

The book aims to trace the history of organized crime in Japan, and document the transition from the postwar Japanese gangsters to the “new breed” generation of gangsters, which inevitably mixed with the American culture, military, and politics, during the Occupation.

 

The book recollects many shady incidents and thus explains the moment when two or more cultures clash in an occupied territory. That’s when most improbable things happen. But they did happen, and that’s why the nonfiction genre fascinates us at time. Truth is often more interesting than fiction. True stories may not always be stranger than fiction but it sometimes they are much more fascinating than what never happened.

“Japan has the most honest used car salesmen in the world along with the most crooked politicians, and Zappetti’s story explores that conundrum,” The New York Times wrote in its review of Tokyo Underworld. Indeed, the Japanese are proud that their country appears to have one of the lowest crime rates in the world. At the same time, Japan has history of entertaining tacit interactions between some segments of its society and the underworld.

“When the first American-style “hit,” or shooting for hire, took place in Japan – the attack in 1958 on an infamous greenmailer (financial corporate takeover artist) named Hideki Yokoi as he sat in his downtown office – they, [The retired bosses of postwar outdoors markets] and the public at large, were overwhelmingly critical of the method employed. “Wearing American gangster clothes is one thing,” fumed one aging mobster in the Shukan Tokyo (Weekly Tokyo) magazine, in an article entitled “The Fire-Spitting Colt,” “but adopting the American custom of using professional hit men? How low can the Japanese gangster fall?” (The honorable way to settle a dispute, as everyone knew, was to grab a sword, purify it by spitting sake on it, and face the enemy man to man, not sneak up on him with a gun from the dingy back stairwell.)”

 

Whiting wrote, “The New Breed was there to stay and arcane distinctions such as tekiya and bakuto were fading away; the word ‘yakuza’ was being applied to all gangsters, and the term boryokudan, which literary means ‘violent group,’ was used for the gangs themselves.

Japan’s organized crime is still evolving. The gangs used to cooperate with the police in containing street crime and informing on each other. Some experts saw the new 1992 anti-gang laws as the beginning of a “mutually beneficial relationship” between the police and the yakuza, although their increasing involvement in legitimate businesses clearly became a serious concern for many Japanese. However, the law never officially made yakuza gangs illegal, and the smart mobsters, like mutating cockroaches, recycled their activities using dummy front companies to operate their vicious attempts to countermeasure the newly passed laws.

Currently, crime experts believe that the yakuza will continue to conduct their affairs in an even more covert manner. Japan’s economic growth was largely attributed to the power of the United States. “America will always be Japan’s oyabun, (father figure or godfather),” a retired yakuza boss recently commented to this reviewer.

Tokyo Underworld also recollects how the occupants helped the Japanese economy to become the world’s second largest in only a few decades. The rules and the laws, dictated by the Americans, made sure that the Japanese businesses would always win, as Zappetti learns towards the end of his years.

“According to the National Police Agency, […] the number of badge-carrying gangsters in the nation as a whole had swollen alarmingly. From a prewar total of several thousands, the total had risen to 56,000 by 1951 and then from there nearly quadrupled by the end of the decade. It was the largest concentration of organized crime members in history, several times the members of the Mafiosi in the United States, and was attributed in part to Japan’s precipitous economic growth, which had spawned thousands of new bars and nightclubs ripe for shaking down – as well as to the maturation of Japan’s baby boomers, which created new legions of juvenile delinquents. […]

Extortion, assault, and theft rates skyrocketed. Although Tokyo would later develop a reputation as one of the world’s safest cities, in that era, the burgeoning entertainment hubs were being described in the press as “hotbed of crime” and surrounding streets unsafe for anyone after midnight.”

Robert Whiting is one of the top American nonfiction writers on Japanese subcultures and history. Tokyo Underworld documents historical facts. Robert Whiting translated himself most of the Japanese news articles and he conducted nearly 200 interviews with various sources and began meeting Nicola Zappetti in the fall of 1989 until his death in 1992, including his friends, family, business associates and enemies. The book is great work of investigative non-fiction. While the book tends to be stuck in the true crime section, it is a wonderful sociological study of Japan, and may even be useful for the foreign businessmen. Tokyo Underworld explains deftly just how hard it was for a foreigner to start a business in Japan and keep it running.

While Tokyo Underworld rests in development limbo, Linson Entertainment and Silver Pictures are producing “The Outsider,” directed by Takashi Miike, starring actor Tom Hardy, who will play the role of an American expat in Japan who becomes a yakuza after WWII. The project is based on an original idea by John Linson, who will produce along with Art Linson through their Linson Entertainment banner according to Deadline. The story for the movie, although it is a fiction, seems similar to Nick Zapetti’s biography, as reported in Robert Whiting’s Tokyo Underworld. Zappetti was never a yakuza but perhaps his heart became tattooed over the year.

Robert Whiting, in his early career wrote about the Japanese society seen through baseball, the American sport adopted by the Japanese, sometimes called 野球 (yakyu). Many still say that the best way to understand Japan is to read his classic about Japanese baseball, You Gotta Have Wa. It’s clear that Mr. Whiting knows a lot about Japan and about baseball. Tokyo Underworld, as a work of non-fiction narrative is a home run with all bases loaded. Highly recommended.


[1]

Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan, by author Jake Adelstein was never published in Japan because it names a promiment Japanese entertainment firm as a yakuza front company and touches upon other taboos, like the murder of Juzo Itami, the movie director who directed Minbo no Onna (The Gentle Japanese Art of Extortion) .

After the release of the film in 1992, members of the Yamaguchi affiliated Goto-gumi, unhappy with the portrayal of the yakuza in the film, conducted an attack against Itami, slashing his face and beating him up in front of his house, six days after the movie release. In 1997, Itami was found dead after falling from a high building in Tokyo. The Japanese police officially reported that he committed suicide, however his death is alleged to have been murder under the guise of suicide, purposed to prevent him from making another yakuza movie illustrating the links between organized crime, Sokka Gakkai, and political parties in Japan.

Comments
7 Responses to “Book Review: Tokyo Underworld–a classic on the dark side of Japan”
  1. Pei says:

    Was a great book indeed especially the historical side of things. I’m actually using some of it as references in my literature review : )

  2. Captain Marginal says:

    I read Tokyo Underworld more than a decade ago and very much enjoyed it, despite knowing almost nothing about Japanese politics and post-war economic history at the time.

    Kudos to Mr. Adelstein on being the first major English-language source openly questioning Juzo Itami’s suicide. Before reading Tokyo Vice I had only seen that topic discussed on one obscure website – but it seemed obvious to me… Anyone who makes a movie as hilariously scathing as Minbo was bound to piss a lot of people off, but it was really his film “A Taxing Woman Returns” that set the tone for his death. A dark comedy about a “new religious group” tied to senior political kingmakers and everything that entails – if Itami was working on a follow-up with similar themes, then maybe he was murdered because of something specific he had discovered. Just idle speculation…

    • subcultureist says:

      Thank you sir. I don’t think Itami Juzo killed himself. Proving it was someone else may be impossible.

  3. Drop Phone says:

    Question: 3rd to last paragraph, there’s the sentence: “The book is great work of investigative fiction.” Did you really mean ‘fiction’? I thought it was journalism…or, at the very least, non-fiction.

    Thx!
    –E.

  4. Nando says:

    Fantastic. I am a big fan of Vice and this book as well as “You Gotta Have Wa,” will be great additions to my collection.

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