An eye-opening walk on the not-so-wild side with members of the Yakuza, Japan's 400-year-old crime syndicate. A freelance...


YAKUZA DIARY: Doing Time in the Japanese Underworld

An eye-opening walk on the not-so-wild side with members of the Yakuza, Japan's 400-year-old crime syndicate. A freelance writer who is fluent in Japanese, Seymour lived and worked in Tokyo during the early 1990s. While there, he gained entree to several of the city's top mobs (gumi), subsequently connecting with gangs in Kyoto and Osaka. The author traces the underworld's roots back to 17th-century shogunate era, when itinerant gamblers preyed on the countryside. Following the Meiji Restoration (in 1867), gangsters forged links with nationalist politicians that endure to this day; they now effectively have control of the rackets--drugs, extortion, prostitution--and certain legitimate enterprises, such as gambling, nightclubs, sports, and street vending. The rigidly hierarchical Yakuza is an integral, if not precisely honored, part of Japanese society. On the evidence of Seymour's text, however, the way of the Yakuza underbosses and soldiers is neither very lucrative or exciting. While he kept close company for many months with dope dealers, gun runners, and loan sharks, they might as well have been nose-to-the-grindstone salarymen during daylight hours. Nor does there seem to be a yen's worth of difference between the two retired godfathers the author met and top corporate executives. After sundown, younger members of the outlaw bands become appreciably livelier in their pursuit of pleasure with the mainly Western and Filipina women they have turned out as carriage-trade call girls. Also intriguing are the macabre rituals of the Yakuza. Among other quaint customs, these career criminals who seldom murder rivals, let alone civilians, have massive tattoos burned into their skins (with bamboo slivers) as proofs of manhood and unit pride. While Seymour gamely tries to invest his Asian thugs with drama, he's too good a journalist to glamorize them or their surprisingly mundane lives. In consequence, the Yakuza (though celebrated in its homeland's B films and tabloid press) is still waiting for a Marlo Puzo.

Pub Date: Aug. 1, 1996


Page Count: 224

Publisher: Atlantic Monthly

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1996