Book Review: Yakuza Diary

This book by Christopher Seymour from 1996 is the first one about Japan I’d ever read.  I came across it randomly whilst working at a library back when I was in high school.  This was back before Japanese gangsters were quite so popular in the media, and it really shows in the book.  You won’t find tales of all sorts of crazy murders and rapes here, because, although some of their number certainly become mixed up in those sorts of things from time to time, that is not what the yakuza are about.  What you will find instead are people.  The people the author meets as a journalist trying to cover the Japanese mob.

Yakuza Diary

And that is the real strength of this book:  it feels real.  It doesn’t read like the script to some yakuza B-movie like most of the supposed “true story” English-language books on the yakuza that have come out since.  The people the author meets are convincingly real.  They are involved in the shadier side of life (hustling, selling drugs, firearm possession, etc.), but they aren’t fictional characters.  They have lovers and families, histories and hopes, and webs of obligation that tie them to their juniors and superiors, just like any other worker.  If you want a peek at what life for a gangster in Japan is actually like, it is well worth your time to read.

However, even though many of the things the author is writing about are therefore somewhat mundane by comparison to what a lot of people in the West have been led to believe about the yakuza, the book does an excellent job of staying interesting.  This of course works especially well if you are someone with an interest in Japan, as the settings are richly described by an unabashed Japanophile.  You’d be surprised how quickly a few pages devoted to nothing but a simple game of Hanafuda pass; the author has a clear talent for setting a stage.

There certainly are places I can nitpick, such as his mention that crystal meth was given to kamikaze pilots during the war.  This is probably true, but he fails to also mention that most major militaries at (and before) that time gave it to vast numbers of their troops.  In fact, the US military still regularly gives amphetamines to its pilots to this day.

However, I really can overlook minor irritations such as that because the author truly is a rare specimen among Japan writers.  What makes him so unusual, you might ask?  Humility.  Yakuza Diary is almost certainly the least haughty book about Japan that I have ever read.

Let me give you an example at random of the kind of thing I am talking about.  Here is an excerpt from the “book description” of a work titled “Japan:  Stories from the Inside:”

“Everyone always said it takes ten years to read a newspaper, but I didn’t have ten years, I had two before I graduated college. So one day I sat down and developed my own method of learning kanji that had me seated at the translation desk of the US embassy just four years after I sat down in the first Japanese class I passed.

There was an entire year in graduate school in Tokyo where I refused to read English—I was determined to take all of my classes in Japanese and write my master’s thesis in the world’s hardest language.

After that internship at the US Embassy, I wrote, translated, and interpreted interviews for The Financial Times, sitting across from high-ranking members of Japanese government and industry alongside some of the world’s best reporters. But that still wasn’t enough. I had to work as a Japanese person, in a Japanese company, doing work that was difficult even for Japanese people. I gave it my all—my all to speak like a Japanese person, read and write like a Japanese person, work like a Japanese person—to be Japanese.

I was invited to weddings and to soccer games on the weekend, to native-only yakitori bars by random Shinjuku gangsters, golf in the mountains with bartenders and middle managers, $1,000 hostess bars with buddy salarymen, and on dates to Tokyo Disneyland.

I took minutes at board meetings of a multi-million-dollar Japanese investment company, transcribed a speech by Condoleezza Rice, appeared on a pamphlet for a car laser-alignment system, lost in the first round of a karate tournament, woke up at the end of a $100 cab ride with no money in my pocket, passed a securities broker examination in Japanese, and learned both the kind of Japanese that allows you to pick up 20-somethings in hundred-yen standing bars in Ginza and read memoirs from WWII field commanders.”

Don’t ask me what is so special about going to a soccer game or what “native-only yakitori bars” are, but this is clearly someone with a huge chip on his shoulder and something to prove.  I mean, read that and ask yourself if this is really someone you want to get to know.  But it’s totally par for the course when it comes to people writing on Japan.  Everyone seems to be primarily preoccupied with telling you how awesome they are, with writing an entertaining or informative book a distant second thought.

But not so with Yakuza Diary.  This author loses his girlfriend (who isn’t replaced), gets in trouble with the law (and admits to it being his own fault), gets scared when he is party to a real crime, and (something no one these days will ever admit to, even though it is true of everyone) still makes Japanese language mistakes after living in Japan for three years.  I said above that the yakuza presented in the book feel real, and the same is true of the author.  He is probably not someone I would want as my friend; his life is rather a mess.  But he is believable as an actual human being with faults.  Unlike every other Japan author, he is not afraid to present himself as something less than perfect.  And, quite naturally, this makes his book far more interesting to read than it would have been otherwise.

So if you’re looking for a book about Japan with a focus on yakuza life, you won’t go far wrong by choosing “Yakuza Diary.”

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