A vivid, unsentimental, and mostly credible chronicle of the Yakuza, Japan's 400-year-old crime syndicate. Kaplan and Dubro (both of whom are associated with the Center for Investigative Reporting) trace the underworld organization's roots back to 17th-century shogunates when itinerant gamblers preyed on the countryside. (The latter-day name derives from the Japanese for 8-9-3, the losing combination in a popular card game.) Following the Meiji Restoration (in 1867), the gangsters began forging links with ultranationalist politicians that endure to this day. Though at least as expedient as ideological, the authors conclude, these ties helped usher in an era of anti-democratic militarism that led eventually to WW II. With the tacit approval of US officials more concerned about leftwing activists than organized crime, the Yakuza survived the occupation in effective control of the rackets--extortion, drugs (mainly amphetamines), prostitution, et al.--as well as legal enterprises like sports, entertainment, gambling, labor unions, nightclubs, and street vending. The authors also document the staying power of the outlaws' political influence. To illustrate, they recount in detail how the late Yoshio Kodama (a godfather-like eminence) bribed former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka and other legislators on behalf of Lockheed. Equally intriguing are briefings on the macabre rituals of the hierarchical Yakuza, which, unlike the US Mafia, is an integral, if not precisely honored, part of Japanese society. Among other quaint customs, these career criminals lop off fingertips to show loyalty and/or contrition. Gang members also have massive tattoos burned into their skins (with bamboo slivers) as proofs of manhood and unit pride. While Yakuza have established toeholds in offshore markets, including Hawaii and California, Kaplan and Dubro fail to make a particularly convincing case for yellow peril. This quibble apart, they do a generally fine job of telling the story of an exotic hoodlum empire, all but unknown in the West. Complementing the bang-up text is a series of revealing photographs.