May 1, 2018
Gangsters or humanitarians? Businessmen or racketeers? Principled or vile? In reality, any of these terms could be used to describe those intriguing and controversial figures in Japanese society: Yakuza.
Pop culture has both idolized and vilified these figures. After all, Yakuza have victimized countless people through strong-arming and extortion, but they were also the first on the scene to respond to major crises including the Hanshin earthquake (Kobe city, 1995). They are truly a shady and colorful bunch, and many of you readers out there may be interested in learning more as part of your education on Japanese society.
I do not profess to be an expert, but I do believe I have a relatively well-rounded knowledge base. While there are countless Japanese language resources, three English language books in particular do a good job in lending understanding of this other side of Japanese society. These three books represent my recommendations for anybody seeking to learn about Yakuza, Japan’s own combination of Robin Hood and Al Capone.
Confessions of a Yakuza
by Junichi Saga
Written by a doctor with a most interesting patient: a one time Yakuza boss with a critical illness, nothing to lose, and a story to tell. Confessions of a Yakuza offers a memoir-style tale of Yakuza life and history. If you are just entering your education on the subject, I recommend starting with this. This book offers a colorful and interesting view told from the perspective of a single member of this Janus-faced cohort. It also spans decades, so you get a good picture of the evolution of the Yakuza story, including the former Yakuza's description of Yakuza traditions, practices, and history that spans back to the Edo period (1603-1868).
by Jake Adelstein
Jake Adelstein's seminal work covers his own story following the Yakuza as a foreign reporter for one of Japan’s leading newspapers. It’s a tale of greed, sex, money, and intrigue, with no holds barred. This book offers the most exciting take on contemporary yakuza in Japan. Adelstein is currently a freelance journalist here in Japan still covering the yakuza beat from time to time for the Japan Times and Daily Beast. If you're interested in the subject, do look him up!
Yakuza: Japan’s Criminal Underworld
by David Kaplan & Alex Dubro
For the most academic English language option, I recommend Kaplan and Dubro’s book on Yakuza. Unlike the other three recommendations, however, this book tends to be a dry read a better left for those who are more interested in taking a deeper look at Japan’s famous gangsters. It spans from the emergence of the modern Yakuza in the postwar period to modern day.
Do you have any other recommended reading on Yakuza? Feel free to use the comments section below!
Hitting the books once again as a Ph.D. student in Niigata Prefecture. Although I've lived in Japan many years, life as a student in this country is a first.
Blessed Dad. Lucky Husband. Happy Gaijin (most of the time).