Friday, September 26, 2008

Confessions of a Yakuza

I just finished a very interesting book called Confessions of Yakuza, which I highly recommend if you're interested in the history of Japan.

What is most surprising about the book is its relative lack of violence. The old guard Yakuza portrayed in this book are most concerned with keeping the Police away through maintaining good relations with neighbors, and providing a comfortable gambling environment for their customers. While Eiji, the titular Yakuza, does spend time in jail for killing a man, it was a fellow Yakuza, and if his story is to be believed, it was in self-defense. And there is little reason to doubt his story, as the book is full of confessions and tales which are embarrassing and unflattering. It seems he was holding back little from the author, Dr. Saga.

The portrait of Japan during the prewar period is especially interesting, with its rampant corruption and rotten infrastructure, it is easy for a Yakuza to come off as more of a good guy than the Police or Officials. Many gangster books romanticize the life, and make the code of conduct and code of honor seem more inviolate than they ever really were, and this book does seem to be doing that. But knowing whatever crimes Eiji may have omitted to make himself look better would do nothing to diminish the fact that Japanese life during his time was not the utopia that many in the US currently fantasize about Japan.

It is a kind of historical biography that is very uncommon. Criminal histories abound, but biographies of someone who isn't famous are quite rare (Eiji was a Yakuza boss, but he is very far from a household name like Al Capone). Without that fame getting in the way, the author need not have an agenda, and the resultant book feels convincing, and definitely worth a read if this sort of thing is your cup of tea.