Tokyo Underworld: The Fast Times and Hard Life of an American Gangster in Japanby Robert Whiting
In the ashes of postwar Japan lay a gold mine for certain opportunistic, expatriate Americans. Addicted to the volatile energy of Tokyo's freewheeling underworld, they formed ever-shifting but ever-profitable alliances with warring Japanese
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A riveting account of the role of Americans in the evolution of the Tokyo underworld in the years since 1945.
In the ashes of postwar Japan lay a gold mine for certain opportunistic, expatriate Americans. Addicted to the volatile energy of Tokyo's freewheeling underworld, they formed ever-shifting but ever-profitable alliances with warring Japanese and Korean gangsters. At the center of this world was Nick Zappetti, an ex-marine from New York City who arrived in Tokyo in 1945, and whose restaurant soon became the rage throughout the city and the chief watering hole for celebrities, diplomats, sports figures, and mobsters.
Tokyo Underworld chronicles the half-century rise and fall of the fortunes of Zappetti and his comrades, drawing parallels to the great shift of wealth from America to Japan in the late 1980s and the changes in Japanese society and U.S.-Japan relations that resulted. In doing so, Whiting exposes Japan's extraordinary "underground empire": a web of powerful alliances among crime bosses, corporate chairmen, leading politicians, and public figures. It is an amazing story told with a galvanizing blend of history and reportage.
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The New York Times Book Review
"[Tokyo Underworld] is an entertaining book that is far more than an entertainment."Washington City Paper
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Tokyo UnderworldThe Fast Times and Hard Life of an American Gangster in Japan
By Robert Whiting
Vintage Books USACopyright © 2000 Robert Whiting
All right reserved.
Urgent notice to enterprisees, factories and those manufacturers in the process of shifting from wartime production to peacetime production. Your product will be bought in large quantities at a suitable price. Those who wish to sell should come with samples and estimeates of production cost to the following address:
Shinjuku Market, 1-8-54, Tsunohazu,
Yodobashiku, Shinjuku Tokyo.
Kanto Ozu Gumi
August 18, 1945
It was surely some kind of record for speed. Three days after the end of the war--and a full ten before the first American soldier set foot in Japan--the above newspaper advertisement appeared for what would be the nation's first postwar black market. One of the very few paid announcements in print at the time, it was a call to commerce hardly anyone expected so quickly, given the wretched, bomb-ravaged condition of Tokyo.
Once a teeming castle town of wood and paper houses, Japan's capital was now mostly cinder, the ground one massive flat layer of residue from the terrible B-29 Superfortress incendiary attacks. The heavily populated lowlands to the east by Tokyo Bay where the merchant and artisan classes had lived and worked had all but been obliterated, as had vast sections of the neighboring industrial city of Kawasaki and the port of Yokohama, further to the south. Drivers of what few cars there were frequently got lost because it was so difficult to distinguish the road from the rubble of shattered roof tiles and burned-out homes. All that was left standing were several marble and stone buildings in the commercial business centers of the capital, Marunouchi, Ginza, and Nihonbashi, which the Occupation authorities were planning to use for themselves.
For most of Tokyo's inhabitants existence was a living hell. Homeless, numbering in the millions, lived in jerry-built huts of chicken wire, rocks, and cardboard, occupied subway stations and air raid shelters, or camped out in large bomb craters in the street. There was so little available food that people would travel hours to the countryside to trade expensive heirlooms for a tiny share of a farmer's crop. Yet, by August 20, only five days after Japan had officially conceded defeat, the Ozu open-air market was ready to roll. Located at the main entrance of the western commuter hub Shinjuku Station--or what was left of it--it boasted a startling array of goods. Displayed on wooden crates were pots, pans, kettles, plates, silverware, cooking oil, tea, rice, leather, electrical goods and geta (wooden clogs), along with vast quantities of military equipment and clothing. Most of the wares for the market, which bore the romantic-sounding name Hikari Wa Shinjuku Yori (The Light Shines forth from Shinjuku), had been stolen from a secret supply of provisions for a ghost army of 4 million men that was to have been mobilized in the event of an American invasion of the mainland.
The Potsdam Declaration had decreed that the Japanese government would have to surrender all such materials. However, with Japan in a weird post-surrender netherworld where no one was really in charge, looters appropriated an estimated 70 percent of all supplies held in military depots throughout the country, providing the Ozu market with its windfall inventory.
The Kanto Ozu gumi (Kanto Ozu gang) was the largest crime syndicate in Western Tokyo at the time. They were tekiya (itinerant peddlers, racketeers), a type of gangster in Japan that for centuries had monopolized the festival vending stalls at temples and shrines. They contrasted with the bakuto (gamblers), who also dated back to feudal times, and with the latter-day stevedores, rickshaw drivers, and day laborers under control of the slum labor bosses, who had also formed underworld gangs.
Despite involvement in protection, narcotics, strong-arm debt collecting, strikebreaking, and blackmail, among other nefarious activities, all of them professed to be a cut above mobsters in other lands. They claimed to live by a strict code of chivalry, based on the samurai warrior's bushido ethic, which emphasized humility, duty, and loyalty to one's lord. They placed great value on the stoic endurance of pain, hunger, and imprisonment and saw honor in dying a violent death. (An old gangster credo went: "Strong men don't die on the tatami.")
Over the years, they aligned themselves with right-wing causes, developing a reputation as patriots in times of foreign conflict, as well as defenders of oppressed people in times of civil strife. Legend tells of the Edo-era outlaw Chuji Kunisada wielding his sword on behalf of farmers and peasants who were being treated cruelly by feudal lords; he became famous for the line, "I would like to die so that people can mourn my death." A tekiya chieftain was one of the heroes of the 1905 war with Russia. At the same time, however, the gang bosses and the Japanese civil authorities had also cultivated a mutually beneficial relationship in which certain mob activities were tolerated without interference from the law as long as they were accompanied by campaign donations.
During World War II, gangster-owned construction firms under government contract built and repaired airfields, dug tunnels, and constructed subterranean factories, earning a nice profit while kicking back a healthy percentage to their contractors. As the strain of a losing war intensified, gangsters helped run the POW camps and supervised imported Korean slave labor in domestic coal mines. The Tokyo Assembly even allowed tekiya bosses to take over as municipal tax agents, granting them legal authority to control pricing and distribution as well as the power to punish disobedience. The Metropolitan Police Board, getting into the spirit of the times, forced all stall keepers to join a tradesmen's union that was run by the mob.
At war's end, millions of demobilized soldiers, war widows, and other displaced persons began to make their way back into the cities and, as virtually all moral and government restraints subsequently collapsed, the mob strengthened its grip on the municipal economy. Open-air marts sprang into operation at every commuter line train station almost before the arriving Americans had a chance to unpack their duffel bags. The largest were at the major hubs on the Yamate Line that circled the city--Ueno, Tokyo, Shimbashi, Shibuya and Shinjuku. Within weeks, there would be an astonishing 45,000 stalls in the city, most of them under the control of the leathery-faced Ozu-gumi boss Kinosuke Ozu, and they provided jobs for half a million people.
The outdoor black markets were, incidentally, Japan's first experiment in democracy. Japanese society had for hundreds of years been divided into castes, socially and legally. The nobility and landed aristocracy were at the top; below them, the samurai warriors, farmers, townsmen, and eta (outcasts), in descending order. Status was rigidly fixed and every Japanese knew his proper rank and position in the community at large.
Centuries of feudal serfdom and national isolation under the Tokugawa Shogunate were followed by the domineering rule of military, bureaucratic, and financial cliques, starting in 1868 with the Meiji Revolution, which restored the emperor to the throne. In all, it had served to create a highly restrictive society where the arrogance of superiors was as ingrained as their subordinates' fawning obeisance.
In the Ozu and other markets, however, social rank no longer mattered. No questions were asked of applicants about their status, family origin, educational background, or nationality. Everyone was welcome, from high-ranking military officers to lowly privates, landed nobles to tenant farmers, college professors to unemployed gamblers. They all started out equally, spreading a mat on the street or setting up shop on top of a box to sell their goods. They all wore the same ragged clothes, lived in similar jury-rigged barracks of corrugated tin, and bathed out of the same oil drums. As historian Kenji Ino later wrote, "For a feudal country like Japan which had a long history of class and ethnic discrimination, this was indeed an unprecedented event."
The American Occupation officially began on September 2 with the signing of surrender documents aboard the U.S.S. Missouri in Yokohama Harbor. Its General Headquarters (GHQ) was located in the fortresslike Dai-Ichi building facing the Imperial Palace grounds and operated under the authority of the Supreme Commander of Allied Powers (SCAP), run by the dictatorial General Douglas MacArthur, who hardly ever consulted the Allies on anything he did. Although the occupiers were ostensibly in control (behind a shadow government of veteran Japanese bureaucrats), the black market bosses continued to operate as before. The Tokyo municipal authorities quietly continued to let them function as official tax collectors, allowing them to keep half the proceeds as payment. In addition, the mob ran the fire departments, the street-cleaning services, and all public transportation on behalf of the metropolitan government. Since the gangs also controlled the construction crews, the stevedore unions, and the operators of the newly emerging bars and noodle shops being slapped together with two-by-fours, they were, in effect, running the city.
GHQ had been assigned the massive and difficult task of democratizing a militaristic Japan--to write a new war-renouncing constitution, to abolish the Imperial Military Headquarters, to arrest war criminals, and to lift restrictions on political, religious, and civil freedoms. However, it was in other areas where the Americans would have a more immediate impact--like the underground economy.
MacArthur had made it clear he would tolerate no cruelty, no barbarism, no individual acts of revenge, thus the 600,000 Americans in the initial Occupation force were made up by design not of combat-hardened soldiers who had fought in the jungles of the Pacific and were therefore burning with hatred for the Japanese but of mostly fresh-faced teenagers who had seen little battlefield action and who viewed occupying Japan as their first big adventure in life. These youthful occupiers proved to be prodigious suppliers of heavily rationed commodities like cigarettes, sugar, salt, chocolate, soap, rubber, and beer, not to mention the more easily obtained C-rations and powdered milk. According to one informal survey, some 90 percent of the residents at the "Nomura Hotel," a former office building in Shimbashi housing several hundred GIs in "rooms" partitioned by blankets, were out daily in their off-duty hours dealing liquor and other items from the hotel military exchange. The statistic was considered typical of the Occupation as a whole.
The primary distribution system for American plenty to make its way to the black market gangs was comprised of thousands of young ladies who had been readied by a Japanese governmental group called the Recreation and Amusement Association to sleep with the Americans. The RAA had been established immediately after the cessation of fighting to sate the much anticipated and much dreaded Yankee libido while sparing the virginal flower of young Japanese femalehood (most of whose ranks had, in any event, been dispatched into hiding).
The association had called upon operators of bombed-out clubs, bars, geisha and quasi-geisha establishments, as well as outright houses of prostitution to mobilize all their available female talent in the cause of patriotism. And mobilize they did, with remarkable speed and efficiency.
An advance party of fifty men from the Marine Air Group 44, dispatched from Okinawa in early September to help secure the local air base at Omura in North Kyushu, was welcomed by a delegation of kimonoed women who invited them to move into an off-base "geisha house." The men spent the next few weeks there drinking beer, eating hibachi-grilled fish, and cavorting with the young ladies in residence--obligingly reimbursing their hostesses from a footlocker full of confiscated yen. (When a naval patrol happened by in late September to find some of the men lying about in the sun on a nearby beach, bearded and wearing cut-off fatigues, the officer in charge initially thought he had stumbled on a prisoner-of-war camp.) The first U.S. Army ground reconnaissance patrol to enter Tokyo, on September 2, was intercepted by an RAA truck filled with prostitutes, bedecked in their best finery; a spokesman explained that the women were "volunteers" to satisfy the lust of the Occupation forces. By October, the RAA had opened what may have been the largest brothel of its type in the world: a long open-bay barracks divided into cubicles by sheets hanging from the ceiling and with futons on the floor serving as beds. Nicknamed the International Palace and located in Funabashi in Eastern Tokyo, it processed hundreds of priapic GIs a day. It was an assembly-line operation so smooth that a soldier would leave his shoes at one end when he came in and pick them up, cleaned and shined, at the other end when he left.
There was also a half-mile strip of real estate stretching west from the Imperial Palace moat abutting the GHQ building to the Nomura Hotel, which quickly became known as Hooker Alley, in tribute to the several hundred young damsels patrolling the area. For a pack of Old Golds, the ladies would willingly cater to patrons in jeeps, in building stairwells, or in the cheerless Quonset hut complex nearby where lower-ranking men stayed--not really caring who watched. The moat around the Imperial Palace was so clogged with used condoms it had to be cleaned out once a week with a big wire scoop.
As winter set in, there were many deaths from exposure and starvation. Groups of people huddled around bonfires, covering themselves with burlap rags, shivering through the night, much too cold to sleep. Gangs of vagrants roamed through the back alleys of buildings where Americans stayed, rummaging through the trash and garbage for food. Yet thousands of well-coiffed "comfort girls" could be found at special rec centers ready to play billiards and cards with servicemen and otherwise entertain them. Several cabarets, including one six stories high, had opened up in the Ginza. In February 1946, the Mimatsu Cabaret started business next to the Ginza Mitsukoshi Department Store. All of these enterprises featured floor shows and Japanese dance bands that played Western music.
As conqueror and conqueree got to know each other better, illicit commerce grew in scope and dimension. A band of enlisted men at the Yokosuka naval base began making midnight speedboat runs across Tokyo Bay carrying loads of PX contraband to gangs on the far shore of Chiba. An NCO club manager in Sugamo took to selling sugar in hundred-pound lots to the Ozu market. A civilian American trader with the Tokyo Metals Association was stunned when an Army lieutenant came to see him, first soliciting advice on how to sell several tons of manganese he had acquired and then asking, "Do you know where I can find a buyer for a shipment of mattresses? That's the next item on my list."
By mid-1946, members of the armed forces had remitted back to America approximately $8 million a month, a sum exceeding the entire military monthly payroll. Army finance officers attributed this phenomenon directly to profit from black marketeering, and although SCAP subsequently declared it illegal to reconvert yen to dollars, the dealing continued unabated anyway, as did other forms of corruption.
By 1947, the New York Herald Tribune and New York Times were publishing accounts of American officials misusing their positions to grow rich--for example, by extorting stock and real estate from Japanese businessmen in exchange for their "cooperation." The International News Service was describing illicit links between the 8th Army Procurement Office (which controlled reconstruction expenditures) and a triumvirate of Japanese politicians, subcontractors, and gangs, while the Associated Press, for its part, was reporting on an urbane prewar bakuto boss named Akira Ando who had won several lucrative GHQ transportation contracts for his fleet of taxis, trucks, and private cars by bribing GHQ officials. Ando, who had grown rich during the war doing construction for the Tojo government, openly bragged that one high-ranking general was his protector. He had a black book that reportedly contained the names of hundreds of Occupation officers he had befriended whom he could frequently be seen entertaining at one of the several Ginza nightclubs and Asakusa bordellos he owned. To AP correspondent Mark Gayn, Ando's activities were part of a well-organized and well-financed campaign to corrupt the U.S. Army. But, as many cynical observers liked to point out, it was not a very difficult campaign to wage successfully.
In later years, Japanese gangsters liked to boast that they were the ones who, with their postwar markets, had saved Japan from starvation. However, while it may be true that the open-air stalls did help get the economy going again to some degree and feed some of the hungry masses (government rationing being so inadequate that a Tokyo District Court judge who refused to eat anything purchased illegally died of malnutrition), the men who ran them were anything but altruistic. They charged criminally high prices for their wares--the equivalent of a day's wages, say, for a stale bun or a handful of surplus cornmeal originally donated by the U.S. State Department--and also demanded outrageous fees from those who participated in their wondrous democratic experiment. To operate in the Ozu market, for instance, a seller had to pay a tribute of half of his daily profits, among other charges. Ozu himself personally ripped down the stalls of anyone who objected to such extortion, which may be why an Occupation authority would later term him the "worst criminal in Japan."
It was perhaps understandable that a self-descriptive word that bakuto used for a losing hand at cards, ya-ku-za (8-9-3), a term occasionally used to refer to Japanese mobsters in general--alluding to what some believed to be the uselessness of gang members to proper society--would gain currency as the years passed. (So would gokudo, meaning "scoundrel, villain, rogue.")
Attempts by honest officials in the GHQ to control crime and corruption during the Occupation were not overly successful. A four-year campaign to crack down on lawbreakers was launched in late 1947 when Colonel Charles Kades, chief of the GHQ Government Section, formally declared war on what he called Japan's "Underground Government." In a much heralded press conference, he announced that the real rulers of Japan were not the duly elected representatives of the people, as the GHQ had intended, but the "bosses, hoodlums, and racketeers who were in league with the political fixers, the ex-militarists and the industrialists, as well as the legal authorities from the judges and police chiefs on down." This, of course, was something most Japanese already knew.
Several police raids ensued, in which fully half of the known 50,000 underworld figures in the country were arrested. However, only 2 percent of them ever wound up doing any time. The rest were released, benefiting from the unwillingness of witnesses to testify, missing evidence, and pressure on the courts from corrupt politicians, including several dozen Diet members who would later admit to having taken illegal donations during the first Occupation-sponsored parliamentary elections in 1946. Black market godfather Ozu was among those tried and convicted, but the police, the public prosecutor, and other judicial officials involved in his case certified that he was too sick to be jailed. Attesting to his "high moral character," they recommended release instead, and much to the chagrin of Kades' crime fighters, Ozu walked out of jail a free man. That the intelligence wing of the GHQ was hiring Japanese gangsters at the very same time to fight Communist insurgents and break labor strikes did not further the overall effort to serve justice.
One rather unexpected result of the crackdown was the resignation of the prime minister and his entire cabinet, and the indictment of sixty-four individuals, when it became known that executives of Showa Denko, a big fertilizer producer, had been bribing Japanese government officials for low-interest loans from a reconstruction financing agency. When the GHQ campaign against crime had run its course, however, the annual total of embezzlements, forgeries, and fraudulent conversions had actually increased, as had the number of known underworld gangsters, as counted by the Japanese government's Crime Prevention Bureau.
The problem was not just the chaotic times or the possible incompetence of Americans directing the prosecution, whose unfamiliarity with local language and custom no doubt put them at a disadvantage. The problem was also that the culture of corruption was too deeply rooted in Japan to be cleaned up overnight. Despite laws long on the books that banned bribery and Confucian ethics that deemed it immoral, handouts had existed as long as there had been village politics and village bosses to dispense patronage. In the Tokugawa Shogunate era, public servants had regularly supplemented their monthly stipends with "gifts," the custom becoming so ingrained that the line between proper etiquette and downright bribery was often impossible to distinguish. The blurring of this distinction gave rise to cozy alliances of convenience among public leaders and private interests, which evolved further in the mid-nineteenth century when the parliamentarian system of government was adopted. Political parties, which controlled the lower house of Parliament and hence the national budget, grew so dependent on funds from the big financial combines for elections (as well as money and other help from the underworld) that corruption was all but inevitable.
Thus, periodic public scandals have been the rule, not the exception. In 1914, a massive bribery scandal involving Navy officials, the great trading house Mitsui Bussan, and two foreign companies--the German electronics giant Siemens and the British weapons manufacturer Vickers--brought down the government. Attempts by the authorities to suppress evidence (which included the use of hired thugs to threaten witnesses) in regard to "gratuities" paid under the table to a vice-admiral in charge of naval stores to secure a contract to build a new cruiser, were undermined when an ex-Siemens employee, on trial in Germany for an unrelated matter, revealed his knowledge of the bribes in open court testimony. Following that were scandals involving Yawata Steel (1918), Teijin (1934), and the Showa Denko firm (1948), which set the stage for even more dramatic eruptions to come, including the Lockheed Aircraft payoffs of 1976 and the stock brokerage-related graft of the 1990s.
The GHQ's ill-fated assault on the underground government was accompanied by a crackdown on crime committed by its own personnel that was only slightly more fruitful. It produced a number of dishonorable discharges, including that of an Army colonel court-martialed for selling nine dollars' worth of cigarettes. But those responsible for the disappearance of some 800,000 karats' worth of diamonds--which had been transferred to the custody of the GHQ from the Bank of Japan--were never found; nor were those who had made off with the entire armory of the disarmed Tokyo police force sometime between 1945, when the GHQ disarmed the Metropolitan Police Department and placed the weapons in securely locked storage crates in a military warehouse in Yokohama, and 1951, when the crates were opened and the contents were discovered to be missing. Throughout it all, an assortment of small-time smugglers continued their operations from a downtown office building right next to the Provost Marshal's office.
By the time the exercise was over, it had become increasingly clear that the new era of democracy and bilateral friendship being forged had a powerful, resilient underside. A pattern of illicit collusion had been established through an extraordinary mix of desperation and opportunism, and it was not about to go away.
Excerpted from Tokyo Underworld by Robert Whiting Copyright © 2000 by Robert Whiting.
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I honestly didn't expect all that much from this book, but I couldn't put it down. It's a great trip through the intersection of gangs, politics, big business, and gaijin.