Stippy.com Book Review: Tokyo Underworld: The Fast Times and Hard Life of an American Gangster in Japan
The good thing about the mob (or the Yakuza) in Japan is that they rarely involve innocent bystanders in their sometimes violent dealings, so it’s easy to forget the fact that they are still active on nearly every street corner of major cities of Japan. Incidents like the “Yakuza” killing the other day certainly bring home the reality of their existence and offer a rare insight into the power struggles that are going on everyday. Given the high gaijin population in Azabu/Roppongi, these most recent broad daylight killings are sure to invoke at least a little bit of anxiety in stippy.com readers. Are you afraid?
Even if the gang wars continue, it’s unlikely that your life will be disrupted as long as you keep to yourself. After all, what do gaijin have to do with Japanese organized crime and the Yakuza anyway?
Or, that’s what I thought until I read “Tokyo Underworld” – a book not only about the long history that Roppongi has had as a base for organized crime, but also an intriguing story about the “don” of gaijin Yakuza back in post war Tokyo. The shootings a day or two ago encouraged me to pull the book off my shelf again and have a re-read. I strongly recommend that you do, too.
“Tokyo Underworld” tells the story of Nick Zapetti, an Italian American who learnt “the trade” in the slums of Harlem and for some reason sets sail for Tokyo during WWII as a GI. Stationed in Tokyo at the start of the US occupation, Zapetti sees a business opportunity to manipulate the distressed streets of Roppongi and slowly starts to return to his old ways. Complete with photos of the streets at the time, you’ll be shocked to read about the key role that he and his GI friends played in supplying the black markets of the day. The book raises more than an eyelid about the motives of the US government at the time.
Small time success, a craving for real pizza, and some “liquidity problems” drive Zapetti into the restaurant business in the early 50s. Enter “Nicola’s” – Tokyo’s first authentic pizzeria. The more successful his pizza business becomes, the deeper he, his wife(s) and his lifestyle becomes interlinked with the Yakuza. In fact, the dearth of famous Japanese companies that still exist today illustrate how deeply seeded the mob is in even the Japanese business world of today.
By the mid 1950s, “Nicola’s” was “the” place to be. Artists, Sportsmen, Politicians, Businessmen and… you guessed it the dons of the Japanese mafia all frequented his pizzeria. Deals are done and promises are broken. Zapetti goes into detail about his relationship with Yamaguchi-gumi (still going strong today, obviously), Inagaki-kai, and his damning confessions stretch as far as famous politicians of the day.
While I was shocked at some of the revelations, I finished the book with a new found respect for the Japan of the 50s and 60s, and wish that I could have been around to taste some of the energy flooding through the nation at the time. I’m sure that any story showing a glimpse of the inner workings of the Yakuza is bound to be interesting, but what makes this story stand out is the personal saga behind Zapetti and his role in Japanese society. It’s rare for a gaijin to be accepted in Japan – period – let alone in the deepest darkest places of its underworld. This is a man who was called the Mafia Boss of Tokyo!
“Tokyo Underworld” is a true story and based on interviews with Zapetti before he died in 1992. The author, Robert Whiting, knew him personally and collected the data for the book over a series of years. Whiting is a Tokyo based journalist who is better known for his book “You gotta have wa” about the philosophical difference between baseball and yakyuu (野球). Whiting’s writing is intriguing and by the end of the book you will feel like you are an expert on Japanese nationalism and what makes the real Japan tick. For anybody who hasn’t read it yet, I definitely recommend that you drop by your local book store and pick up a copy – it’s never gonna be more topical than now.
If you want to know a little more about the background of Zapetti and his activities during his time in Japan, there is a nice story about him here. He just has to go down in the book of gaijin heroes in my opinion.
Again, here is a link to “Tokyo Underworld” on Amazon.co.jp if you are interested in reading.
If any readers can recommend any other interesting reads on Japan’s underworld we’d love to hear about them in the comments section below.