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Outlaw. Radical. Suspect. My Life in Japan's Underworld.
by Miyazaki Manabu

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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 here.


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 Quiet Transformation."
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(c)2005 Dow Jones Reuters Business Interactive LLC (trading as Factiva). All rights reserved.

By courtesy of Professor Jeff Kingston.