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Uncovering the Secrets of the Japanese Yakuza

By Bertil Lintner

Yakuza: Japan's Criminal Underworld, by David E. Kaplan and Alec Dubro. University of California Press. $24.95

The Dark Side: Infamous Japanese Crimes and Criminals, by Mark Schreiber. Kodansha International. Y2,700 ($23)

WHEN DAVID KAPLAN and Alec Dubro's book on Japan's criminal underworld, the yakuza, was first published in 1986, it became an instant best seller in Asia and soon earned a place as a standard reference on Japanese organized crime. But it was not until 1991 that a publishing house in Tokyo dared to publish a Japanese translation of the book.

According to the authors' literary agent in Tokyo, others had turned it down because "the content of the book presents possibilities of trouble as some words refer to racial segregation (our historical problem with Koreans) and references to particular figures in certain political parties and organizations are mentioned in the book. Most publishers fear that when published, they would meet some hindrances and pressures as the book touches taboos of our society."

The updated and thoroughly revised edition of their book touches on new taboos. Kaplan and Dubro show how Japan's booming "bubble economy" of the late 1980s poured vast fortunes into the hands of the yakuza and why the bad loans of that era will never be repaid.

They also describe how the yakuza, once known for their striking full-body tattoos and severed fingertips, are being replaced by a new generation of corporate mob bosses, who have added attorneys and accountants to their armies of hit men and hired muscle. The yakuza's role in luring young girls from rural Southeast Asia to the brothels of urban Japan is also examined.

Most importantly, the authors look into connections between the yakuza and crime syndicates in China, Russia and across Southeast Asia. Crime, like any other business activity, is becoming increasingly globalized.

This fascinating study by Kaplan, a veteran investigative reporter who covers organized crime and terrorism for the U.S. News & World Report, and Dubro, a freelance journalist and communications consultant, is bound to become yet another standard reference.

It is essential reading for anyone interested in contemporary Japan and why its economy never seems to rebound, despite the government's financial rescue packages and other official initiatives. This is investigative reporting at its best.

Mark Schreiber's book is less analytical in its approach to Japanese crime and criminals, but it is laden with fascinating tales about outlaws who roamed the plains around Tokyo in the 19th century, serial killers in post-World War II Japan, and more modern phenomena like the Aum Shinrikyo sect, which unleashed a deadly poisonous gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995.

Schreiber, a freelance journalist and translator who lives in Tokyo, is an excellent storyteller. Like Kaplan and Dubro, he shows that though Japan may appear peaceful and orderly, crime lurks beneath its smooth surface. Only the methods of the criminals may differ--like a man posing as a government health official who walked into a bank in Tokyo in 1948 and requested that all employees take what he claimed was medication for dysentery. It was poison, and they all died. The unorthodox robber made off with a vast sum of money.

In Western countries, bank clerks would have asked the "health official" for more precise identification than this man had--just a name card stating he was a doctor. But in Confucian societies, ordinary citizens seldom question authorities. This is also the reason why 18 Japanese publishing houses turned down the first edition of Kaplan and Dubro's book.

Few are prepared to expose links between organized crime gangs and officialdom. But in order to understand Japan's problems today it is necessary to examine those links and to study Japan's more general criminal traditions, which Schreiber does in his readable account of thugs, rapists, murderers and other nefarious members of Japanese society.

This article first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, May 29, 2003

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