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Research book Review: YAKUZA – Japan’s criminal underworld (Expanded edition)

Book: YAKUZA – Japan’s criminal underworld (Expanded edition)
Authors: David E. Kaplan and Alec Dubro
ISBN13: 978-0-52021562-7
Number of pages: 399

This book had been a little thorn in my side since I read Tokyo Vice a while back . One day I might be able to buy research books without eyeing the price, but that day is not today, and certainly hasn’t been any of the last period. However, Internet alerts are a wonderful thing and a few months ago the price dropped by a fourfold, so I promptly ordered it – while I don’t mind that some of my research books are second-hand, this one I wanted new.

It would have been worth the original price, let me tell you. The original version was compiled from a series of articles that the authors wrote in the subject of yakuza activities in California, and a few years later a Fullbright grant sponsored the Expanded Edition.

The book covers (from the chapter index):

  • Part I: Early history
    • The honourable outlaws
  • Part II: The Kodama years
    • Occupied Japan
    • Nexus on the Right
    • The Black Mist
  • Part III The modern Yakuza
    • The Syndicates
    • Corruption Japanese-style
    • The Keizai Yakuza
    • The Collapsing bubble
  • Part IV the move abroad
    • Meth, Money and the Sex Trade
    • Old Markets and New
    • Across the Pacific
    • To America
  • Epilogue: A New Yakuza.

Yakuza makes quite an impressive analysis on the birth of the yakuza as an organization and – one has to admit – a rather neutral one, although at times the authors’ fascination for the topic shows. It is explained how the yakuza rose from the groups of illegal gamblers, bakuto, and street pebblers, tekiya, in the wake of the pre-Tokugawa Japan.

The book makes an analysis on how the Japanese organized crime has for centuries been linked not only to the financial powers but toy the political ones as well, especially Rightists. A good number of Japanese Prime Ministers have been openly tied to the yakuza, have received money from the yakuza during campaigning or have been yakuza themselves. This open connection would be unthinkable in any other society.

In the beginning the yakuza thought of themselves as the last breed of Samurai, there to protect Japan from the evil influence of the West and to uphold the traditional values of the country. The concept of “honour debt” or “obligation” was considered their way of life. There is a quote in the book describing this whole idea:

By that time there were a number of unshakeable rules and bonds in place: extreme loyalty to the Oyabun, the heavy senpai-kohai relationships, no giving up other gang members if apprehended by the police, strictly no rape, not getting the common citizens involved and giving oneself up to the police for blood crimes.

In pre WWII as Japan changed so did the yakuza, and the yakuza businessman was born. Smuggling, real estate and drug trafficking became 3 new pillars to sustain the gangs along the fundamental and traditional one: vice (prostitution, gambling, entertainment). The ties with the political class became tighter, and then came the war, and post war periods. Especially after WWII the yakuza profited from the sell of basic goods to the hungry commoner and during the American Occupation they became a force for hire to take care of issues like strike breaking. With their right-wing ideology, the yakuza seemed to become the barrier between occupied Japan and the American’s Nemesis of the time – Communism.

In the ‘60s and ‘70s the yakuza made the big move abroad, i.e., the West noticed that they were abroad, since they had been moving around Asia since before the War. As many Japanese, they went on vacation to Australia, Guan and Hawaii, doing some business on the side. In their homeland, meanwhile, a profound change was underway. The old time Oyabun were old, dying or retiring, and a new generation with less “values” was taking over. Gang wars were public affairs, there was less confessing and more ratting out and much more violent crime. The yakuza had changed forever.

All in all the book is an amazing piece of research, although at times it becomes heavy due to the great amount of information it conveys and the necessary jumps back and forth in time to give a complete explanation of a given history period. Since I am not North American some of the events mentioned or used as comparison (such as the Lockheed Scandal) were of little use to me, but I don’t think that is a flaw in the book, which is after all an American research piece in an American university context.

I missed in the book a mention to the 1995 Kobe Earthquake and yakuza relief efforts, because I am particularly interested in the event. The expanded edition records up until 1996 events so I had some hope that there would be a line or two about it. I also missed any kind of comment on the ‘90s kidney transplant scandals.

I have learnt a great deal through this book, which was after all the goal, and some of it directly affects the Osaka Shikigami universe. For now I have been reassured that most of my scheme works, but that I need to look more deeply into some details, one of them is money laundering, which is the key of any successful organized crime scheme (I’m abusing the word a bit, I think). I have found out that the Nakano clan actually exists and that a yakuza called Nagai making a move to North America. I was really happy when the book described, even if briefly, some rituals like the exchange of sake for alliances and successions. The procedures of finger cutting I can live without, thank you XD

By the time I was done with the book, it had 52 sticky notes in it, with some of them covering several topics. I believe that this book has increased my knowledge a great deal and I am happy that I bought it. It is not a light read though, so I would not recommend it as a bedside book. However, as a research book I give it a 9 over 10. I am sure that it will improve my writing and my characterization of the Osaka Shikigami universe so I am very happy with it. And I will be making a lot of use of it when I undertake both the sixth book and the general revisions. I plan to go over all the notes again to organize them, there might be a blog post on them if the result is copyright-compliant.

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4 responses to “Research book Review: YAKUZA – Japan’s criminal underworld (Expanded edition)

  1. Denise January 16, 2012 at 13:53

    It is fun how the on-giri kankei concept turns up in this world. But you wrote A good number of Japanese Prime Ministers have been openly tied to the yakuza, have received money from the yakuza during campaigning or have been yakuza themselves. This open connection would be unthinkable in any other society. and I think I would object. If you delve into Italian politics, Siciliy especially, you find similar historic examples for mafia involvement in politics, for all I know. So while the Japanese version exceeds the Italian, unthinkable might be too strong a word for my liking.

    Other than that it sounds like a good read, especially since I never thought much about yakuza origins, especially pre-Tokugawa. Might have to sneak a look at that next time I am over. I promise not to mess up any sticky notes. Too bad it ends in the mid-90s though. I have yet to hear about a good resource for contemporary yakuza activities, which supposedly have changed greatly yet again with the use of modern means like the internet.

    How many of your guys started yelling while you read this?