“Tokyo Underworld” – The Fast Times and Hard Life of an American Gangster in Japan

englishcoverStippy.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.

Nicola's restaurantSmall 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.

Japanese version of 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.

16 thoughts on ““Tokyo Underworld” – The Fast Times and Hard Life of an American Gangster in Japan”

  1. Wow. I didn’t think that a gaijin could make it into the yakuza like that. Also I shouldn’t be proud of a gaijin becoming a crimelord, but I still am (especially as I have Italian ancestry 😉 ). If I can find a local copy of the book I will certainly check it out 🙂

  2. He wasn’t *in* the yakuza. He was just a shady foreigner who attempted to work some scams on the side. If you read the book you’ll see he wasn’t all that successful.

  3. Yeah I read about people like him in the local combini. The book translated into something like “Shocking Foreigner Crime: The Undercover File”

  4. Yea I remember dis meathead from back in the day….he did some jobs for the family and Genco ,our Sicilian olive oil business,….he screwed my wife, used my own f’n oil as lubricant! That disrespected me, that disrepected the Family ….. so I made him an offer he couldnt refuse…he refused.

  5. Another book with a lot on the Japanese underworld is “Toppamono: Outlaw, Radical, Suspect,” which is the translated version of the bestselling autobiography of Manabu Miyazaki.

    Robert Whiting, the author of “Tokyo Underworld, wrote the introduction.

    The first chapter, on Miyazaki’s family background as the son of a Kyoto yakuza boss, is available as a free download at the homepage of the publisher:

  6. I remember when i was in japan visiting some friends and family, and i saw some yakuza getting out of a car, and there was a tall black guy with them he was dressed in a really nice suit like them and had the same kind of shade on….

  7. i dont think he was a “family” member most guys are part of the organisation but not fully initiated family

  8. I read TOKYO UNDERWORLD about a year and a half ago-it really blew me away. The ending to his story is sad, but it’s amazing what used to go on-and still goes on in Japan.

  9. I read this book twice since I found in on a bookshelf in 2001. I found it interesting as a history of the post WWII era in Tokyo, with the blackmarket and such. Nice little antecdotes about little Japanese girls who did favors for GIs for candy and cigarettes. Later it tells of the history of organized crime in Tokyo in the 1950’s. All the while, here’s this little Jack Ruby type wannabe gangster that opens a resturant that popular with the local Yakuza and celebrities. WOW! It’s like Las Vegas in the 1950’s Frank Sinatra and Bugsy Segal in a booth at da Sands with da girls and da drinks. Ok truthfully, I liked the book it was informative. Sadly he looses his business he created from the ground up to WHO? his wife WTF, who da thunk it. Bitch got half……hmmm all the while she was sitting at that cash register doing her time waiting till she knew she’d be rich if she got a divorce. I hear that even today his son and the ex-wife have this chain of resturants through Japan, where like Nick complained about, she japanized the recipes….hmmm oshi scallop pizzia with mayo……A fool and his money are soon parted by a pretty girl who spead her legs for the guy. Fact is Ol Nick squandered all his money away on some of the most expensive marriages a man could be cursed with…….

  10. Japan has always had to import. So if your economy is black market–such as in the days of the Occupation and the immediate reconstruction–your black market is an import market. Studs Terkel’s oral history of WWII brings this out I think, if I remember, in the case of US military being involved in the black markets in Europe.

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