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Reviewed by:
  • Yakuza: Japan's Criminal Underworld
  • Mark D. West (bio)
Yakuza: Japan's Criminal Underworld. By David E. Kaplan and Alec Dubro. University of California Press, Berkeley, 2003. xxii, 400 pages. $60.00, cloth; $19.95, paper.

Yakuza: Japan's Criminal Underworld is the industry standard, the most complete work on Japanese organized crime in any language, and required for your bookshelf. I'll spend most of this review supporting, contextualizing, and qualifying that view, but before I get there, allow me to give you some gossipy subtext.

In 1999, Curtis Milhaupt and I had just completed a draft of one of our own studies of Japanese organized crime,1 and I sent it to one of Yakuza's authors, U.S. News & World Report reporter David Kaplan (whom I've never met) for comments. And comment he did. It seems that in a footnote in which we cited the first edition of Yakuza, I (and it was me; I cannot blame my coauthor) described the book as "somewhat sensationalistic." Oops. This characterization did not please Kaplan, and he emailed me with a response that went something like: "what if I described your work as being the dull, boring, overly theoretical work of a couple of ivory-tower law professors?"

He was right, of course; I had exaggerated the description in a misguided effort to protect myself by ensuring that readers knew that I had not relied on investigative reporting as scholarly canon. I changed the text to "journalistic," and I think Kaplan and I patched things up (he generously refrains from characterizing my work as boring, at least). I tell the story not only to satisfy readers' more salacious appetites, but also because it serves as a nice crutch to contextualize the book. I begin with unbridled praise: Yakuza is well written, fascinating, has more relevant information in one place than any other source, and when Kaplan and Dubro modestly call it "a standard reference," I am tempted to replace the "a" with a "the." For anyone working around the various fields that organized crime touches, it's required [End Page 577] reading, and virtually an automatic footnote. The only other single work of the same scope is David Stark's 1981 Michigan anthropology dissertation, based on his year in the field.2 That piece is fun reading as an accompanying piece, but it is now nearly a quarter-century old and nowhere near as complete.

Yakuza is divided into four parts. Part I discusses early yakuza history and origins. Part II discusses the "Kodama years" in which yakuza came to power under Kodama Yoshio—godfather, kingmaker, millionaire, imperial adviser, author, and spy. Part III is an account of "modern" yakuza. Together, Parts II and III constitute the definitive description of yakuza; highlights include the role of U.S. occupation authorities and economic-bubble-related activity. The final part illuminates the internationalization of Japanese organized crime syndicates. Along the way, the authors describe and define the entirety of yakuza activity, with references to such diverse areas as film, gender, corporations, pachinko, morphine, and labor markets.

The authors are most impressive when they are presenting the results of their investigative journalism. They recount tales of political and economic corruption. They don't fiddle around interviewing a lot of cops or low-level associates; they interview syndicate leaders. And their story is told with a combination of what appears to be accurate factual retelling and a keen eye toward telling an engrossing story. As storytellers, they are superb; one of my favorite anecdotes that they tell is that of the don who decided to end the practice of finger-cutting. A soldier subsequently made some error, and his immediate boss had him slice off a finger tip. When the don learned of this, he scolded the mid-level boss, who "responded in the only way he knew how; he cut off his finger" (p. 140).

Great stuff. But fair warning: at its heart, the book is journalism, not scholarship. Importantly, I don't mean "journalism" in a pejorative sense, as a tamer substitute for "sensationalism." Rather, I mean there is no grand theory in Yakuza. It poses and answers questions...


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