A well-written biography of an old-school Yakuza, providing an unvarnished account of the underworld and the underclass in early 20th century Japan.
What I loved
A lot of history focuses on leaders or the elite, whose names are committed to the ages by circumstance, ability or privilege. Confessions of a Yakuza provides a window into the lives of the other half: the poor, the outcasts and the criminals, who inhabit a world where the importance of guts and luck are less veiled, and where it is harder to hold illusions about human nature.
It is the biography of Ichiji Eiji, as told to a country doctor, Junichi Saga. Eiji is not an overly complicated character: he is tough, amoral and self-serving. He upholds a sense of yakuza honour, but mostly out of self-interest. At the age he recounts his tale, he is unconflicted about his past and given to only occasional reflection. He also has a weakness for woman, which, throughout his storied career, causes him to lop off a few fingers in penance, as per the yakuza code.
What I loved about this book were the everyday details. Eiji starts out poor, first working at a coal merchant, then on an illegal river taxi. This brings him into contact with people from the same rung of society.
In early 20th century Japan, if you were a poor man without family connections, you relied on cheap day labour that was barely enough to subsist on. If you were a woman in the same circumstances, you were a prostitute. You slept in a slum with open sewerage in the streets. If you died of illness, as one of Eiji’s friends does, your body would be stripped of all valuables, even your clothes, and your body would be tossed out onto the street. If that wasn’t enough, the police might move your body to a different district in what would become a macabre game of cadaver ping pong, to avoid the paperwork your inconvenient corpse would generate. It was no fun being poor.
Eiji becomes a yakuza when a gang boss thinks he has the right look. In those days, the yakuza were not involved in drugs or prostitution, only illegal gambling rackets, dice games. They had arrangements with the police and other gangs, and were willing to fight and kill for their territory, although Eiji plays down the violence. They maintained good relationships with the businesses in the area they operated in, and apparently did not take advantage of gambling addicts. The way Eiji tells it, you believe him. He rises through the ranks because he learns loyalty and can take a beating form the cops.
He is full of stories, his own and other people’s, that only those on the periphery of history could share.
Walking the streets of Tokyo after a miraculous escape from the 1923 Tokyo earthquake and fire, Eiji and a friend come upon the charred body of a mother and two children, so badly burned that they are at first mistaken for monkeys. Eiji’s friend wrenches the burned limbs of the children from their mother to get at a wad of money.
The man who knows how to cut off arms because, as a soldier in the war, he had cut the arms off his fallen comrade’s bodies, because they were the easiest part to carry, and it would give them something to burn later, to send the ashes home to the families.
The crazy kind-of-bravery that has Eiji and his customers continue playing dice as a fleet of American battleships shell the world around them, knowing they have no control over where the bombs fall.
What I learned about writing
About a thief, Eiji says: “he was the kind of man, in fact, who makes you want to take your hat off to the whole human race. I mean, they won’t let anything keep them down for long.” Eiji’s world view is shaped around survival.
The amoral can see people’s motivations and report their actions more truthfully, because they do not need to maintain their illusions.
The details of everyday life and work are fascinating. The world will never run out of stories.
What didn’t work
That horrible cliché title.
Eiji has so many women on the go as an old man that it becomes hard to keep up with them.
The sloppy editing in the final chapter. Not happy, Kodansha International.