The Wall Street Journal Asia
2 December 2005
Taste -- Bookshelf: Memoirs of a Yakuza
By Jeff Kingston
(c) 2005 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. To see the edition in which
this article appeared, click
It's not everyday that you get a riveting post-WWII social history of
Japan from the perspective of one of its gangsters, the yakuza. Now, a
former Japanese underworld figure has risen to the task.
In the new English version of "Toppomano: Outlaw, Radical, Suspect-My
Life in Japan's Underworld." (Kotan Publishing. 460 pages, $26.95)
dapper social commentator Miyazaki Manabu waxes philosophical about the
hysteria and greed that gripped Japan during the booming bubble era at
the end of the 1980s.
Mr. Miyazaki, born into a Kyoto yakuza family in 1945, is not your typical
commentator. As a high-school student in the early 1960s, he was a brawler
who grew up around rowdies who lived to drink, gamble and chase women.
He left this world to pursue a university education, but got sidetracked
into radical leftwing activism where he found that his skills as a street
tough came in handy. This was an era of youthful exuberance channeled
into bloody brawls stemming from hairsplitting doctrinal differences among
leftists of various shades.
The yakuza like to portray themselves as men of virtue, respecting old
traditions and helping the downtrodden. In reality, they are thugs who
peddle drugs and run illegal gambling, prostitution, and protection rackets.
Mr. Miyazaki recalls his life as a toppamono, one who bulldozes his way
ahead regardless of the consequences. He returns to the dark side to rescue
the family's business. He tells his older brother to carry on the legitimate
side of the construction business while offering to secure contracts any
way possible. Mr. Miyazaki describes the art of bidding, cheating, price-fixing
and the nexus of corruption involving politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen.
Japan's prolonged post-1990 economic malaise is often termed the "yakuza
recession." This refers to the artful way gangsters were able to
shake down banks for massive real estate-related loans that they failed
to repay, pushing the financial system to the verge of insolvency. Mr.
Miyazaki argues that the real rascals were the bankers, and that the yakuza
have been cast as the convenient scapegoats. In his version, the bankers
were desperately pushing loans to shady land speculators, flipping land
and inflating the asset bubble with irresponsible insouciance. The bankers
knew who they were lending to as did the Ministry of Finance, and did
so willingly because they had lost their blue-chip corporate customers
who were raising money for nothing on the spiraling stock market.
Mr. Miyazaki has a point in fingering the bankers and bureaucrats for
their negligence, but surely the yakuza worked the relationship for all
it was worth and did commit crimes in carrying out the dirty work. Portraying
gangsters as hapless pawns stretches our credulity.
According to Mr. Miyazaki, the upper crust was not amused by the uppity
yakuza, but were happy to avail of their services when needed. Nor were
they amiable losers in the con game they created. The Establishment responded
by cracking down on the yakuza, passing new legislation aimed at putting
them out of business and in their place.
Mr. Miyazaki argues that under the guise of a crackdown, the authorities
have succeeded in replacing the yakuza with retired police officials,
and the rackets just continue under new management. He laments that this
signals the rise of a police state in "a deodorized society full
of people who can't start the day without taking a shower."
Mr. Miyazaki does slant the story in favor of the yakuza, to be sure.
But he also offers us the last few decades of Japanese history from a
most illuminating and unusual perspective. The result is a sordid story
that is told uncommonly well, turning over rocks of the Japanese Establishment
to reveal what comes crawling out.
Professor Kingston is Director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan
and author of "Japan's
(c)2005 Dow Jones Reuters Business Interactive LLC (trading as Factiva).
All rights reserved.
By courtesy of Professor Jeff Kingston.