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Tokyo Underworld: The Fast Times and Hard Life of an American Gangster in Japan Hardcover – Mar 1999

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 372 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon Books (Mar. 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679419764
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679419761
  • Product Dimensions: 3.2 x 17.8 x 24.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 2,127,563 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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From the Author

Publisher's Weekly Review of Tokyo Underworld
Whiting's probe of Japan's gangsters, corrupt entrepreneurs and political fixers reads like a James Bond thriller yet manages intelligently to illuminate the underside of Japan's postwar economic boom. At the heart of his colorful tale is swaggering, thickset Nick Zappetti, a tough from East Harlem's Italian ghetto who arrived in U.S.-occupied Japan in 1945 as a 22-year old marine sergeant. Zappetti stayed on to become a black marketer, branched out into illegal banking, pimping and armed robbery, then launched a Tokyo pizza restaurant, Nicola's, which became a favorite night spot for mobsters, diplomats and movie stars. After decades of booze, debauchery, multiple marriages, gangland ties and lawsuits, he lost control of his restaruant chain to his former Japanese partner and to his Japanese fourth wife. Zappetti died in 1992, nearly bankrupt and consumed with hatred for the Japanese, whom he saw as arrogant swindlers, intent on taking over America. Whiting (You Gotta Have Wa) an American journalist who lives in Tokyo, sets Zappetti's rise and fall against juggernaut Japan's financial ascendancy over the U.S. and its current slide into economic malaise. In this critical, revealing look at half-century of U.S. Japan relations, he blames General MacArthur's occupational government--with its massive embezzlement, theft, fraud and black marketing--for creating the environment that allowed Japan's organized crime syndicates to join forces with its ruling political and business elite, aided by strategic financial aid from the CIA. Eight pages of b&w photos.

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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Paul Thomas on 29 Mar. 2006
Format: Paperback
Tokyo Underworld is a story of the Japanese Yakuza, Korean gangsters and a tough American Italian in post war Japan.
Richard Whiting has a fantastic writing style, and as with his other books this is an un-putdown-able read. Most foreigners in Japan have read it, and people still recommend it to me now. The amazing true stories of diamond heists, sumo wrestlers gone bad, and sword fights in car parks are all backed up by pictures and newspaper clippings. The famous Yakuza loyalty is demonstrated, but a lot of the adventures are of non Japanese trouble makers, including the long suffering Koreans and Chinese. The main character is not overly likeable, but he is funny and he certainly led an interesting life as he sees Japan change through the 50 years he stayed there. As he has problems with his love life, and gets more and more into trouble with lawsuits, you stop having as much sympathy for him though.
A lot can be learned from this book about the Japanese way of thinking, the passage about the famous American lawyer trying to give them a fly fishing area for free, and their suspicious minds was amazing. This is my favourite book on Japanese culture by far, and I highly recommend it.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 1 July 1999
Format: Hardcover
A bit long winded about the main person Nick, but very interesting of how goverment U.S.-v- Japanese goverment-v- the gangster element and how they worked together in many areas to make Japan what it is today, Robert Whiting did a bang up job as usual.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful By alec harris on 2 Nov. 2002
Format: Paperback
A truely wonderful book. More than simply accurate and shocking this book is hillarious, moving and incredibly well written, perhaps the most important book written about post-war japan ever.
You simply won't be disapointed
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful By roy on 22 Nov. 2011
Format: Paperback
Contrary to most other reviews I found this book intensly boring but I persevered right to the last page hoping that I would find what other readers appear to have found.I didn't. Having read many other books of a similar subject this book is very low on my list of reads.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 32 reviews
21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
An engaging expose of U.S.-Japanese corruption. 19 Oct. 1999
By A Customer - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Nick Zappetti sounds like a proper name for a Mafia boss. What is unusual about this particular capo is his territory-the Roppongi district of Tokyo-as well as the time of his ascendancy-the fall of 1945, in occupied Japan. Tokyo Underworld is a half-century survey of the dark side of the Japanese economic miracle, the criminal empire born of the corruption which riddled the Marshall Plan. Part postwar history and part gangster movie, Tokyo Underworld is unfurled by its author with a melodramatic flourish:
It is an alternate, separate layer of reality, a shadowy universe of characters-gangsters, corrupt entrepreneurs, courtesans, seedy sports promoters, streetwise opportunists, intelligence agents, political fixers, and financial manipulators-who have perhaps done as much in their own right to influence U.S.-Japan affairs as their more refined and respected peers. Significantly, it has not always been easy to distinguish the latter from the former.
Drawing on police and press reports as well as personal interviews (Zappetti himself was interviewed extensively for this book between 1989 and his death in 1992 at age seventy-one), Robert Whiting, one of the few western journalists to live and write regularly in Japan, depicts an awesome cancer of corruption metastasizing behind the rigid veneer of Japanese society. From the smoldering ashes of postwar Japan (where things were so bad the Japanese had to fight for scraps with the Korean slaves they'd imported during the war), to the CIA's backing of yakuza gangs in the `50s and `60s as anti-Communist thugs, to the ruinous scandals of the `90s, where prominent Japanese executives and politicians were implicated in vast criminal rackets as the economy plunged into a tailspin, crooked and straight men mingled freely across previously impermeable caste lines in an ever-expanding criminal sphere which Whiting calls "Japan's first experiment in democracy". And where was Nicola Zappetti during these halcyon days? Hailing from Prohibition-era East Harlem, Zappetti had chosen crime as a career during adolescence, skipping school to learn instead from thugs and racketeers like his cousin Gaetano "Three Finger Brown" Luchese. Whiting contends that Zappetti actually joined the Marines to give his budding criminal instincts room to expand, and delighted in the hell of postwar Tokyo, where he quickly made a stake running contraband whiskey, cigarettes, and military scrip to-who else?-Allied soldiers and small-time Japanese gangsters, the only people in Japan with money or goods to trade. Zappetti shrewdly played the gangs off one another, recognizing their tribal hatreds and the burgeoning Japanese market for narcotics. He did so on his own initiative, using his own brains and brawn, not relying on the American Mafia (except to get back to Japan after being deported by the authorities in 1950). Zappetti also made a smart long-term investment early on, introducing the Japanese to pizza in the up-and-coming honky-tonk district of Roppongi. He made some erroneous investments as well, including a fur factory, several Japanese wives, and Japanese citizenship, for which he sacrificed his U.S. passport, thereby stranding himself in Japan. Crime and politics make for interesting bedfellows, and Zappetti's circle read like a Who's Who of both worlds. There was the famous Rikidozan, a psychotic sumo wrestler who met his end on the point of a yakuza thug's knife in a men's room. There was "Killer" Ikeda, a notoriously violent thug with whom Zappetti once went knife-to-gun, and won. There was Hiyasuki Machii, head of the Tosei-kai, Tokyo's most powerful Korean gang, which controlled the clubs and rackets of the booming Ginza strip (Machii also worked for the G-2 intelligence unit of the occupying American force, as a strikebreaker and anti-Communist thug). There was Yoshio Kodama, right-wing political fixer and yakuza money man (also a onetime G-2 operative, rooting out Communist groups in Japan). Much of the mingling between these men took place in Zappetti's Roppongi restaurant, Nicola's, or at the New Latin Quarter, a nightclub straight out of a James Bond movie: "It was a favorite hangout of the international intelligence community, agents from the KGB, CIA and MI6 often vying with each other for the same hostess." Zappetti died alone and penniless, unable to return home, broken by alcohol and diabetes, the victim of a new order of corporate criminals who used Japan's laws against him and his empire (known as keizai yakuza). Zappetti, who had survived knives, guns, and bombs, was mortally wounded by the sort of white-collar criminals who would carry the lessons of the street all the way up to the highest levels of the Japanese government, using corporate cutouts, money laundering, bogus investments, and the like. Zappetti had come up as the Mustache Petes in the American Mafia were going out; by the time of his death in 1992, Zappetti himself was the dinosaur. An exchange between Zappetti and one such new-wave crook showed the writing on the wall:
"What the hell is the point of being a yakuza," he asked one well-tailored mobster, "if you act like everyone else? You guys use electronic calculators instead of swords. You talk about derivatives. Your name cards say corporate vice president instead of captain or elder brother. You're trying too hard to be respectable." The mobster gave Nick a strange look and said, "What about you?" Then he asked for the wine list.
Whiting's book often veers away from Zappetti himself, panning out to focus on the big picture of Japanese crime during a given period. A far more concise summary of Zappetti's life and exploits appears in the book's acknowledgments, along with a thorough source list and bibliography. But the story tells itself, and it is a disturbing, thrilling account of U.S.-Japan relations and Japan after the Second World War.
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
A hilarious look at a very serious subject. 24 July 2001
By Marco Polo - Published on
Format: Paperback
5 stars to Japan-journalist Robert Whiting (of "You Gotta Have Wa" fame). The title of the book says it all - a documented account of the life and times of an American gangster, Nick Zappetti, in Roppongi, Tokyo from the Occupation in 1945 to Zappetti's death in 1992. This is not fiction, nor is it a straight history book. It is more like a biography, but focusses almost exclusively on Zappetti's life in Japan, with asides on the political and criminal background, including the Lockheed scandal. This is serious journalism, written with panache and wit. Whiting has done an excellent and difficult job, which only someone fluent in Japanese could do (the footnotes and references are just as fascinating as the main story). And what a story! Despite the violence and scams, and Zappetti's final embittered years, Whiting had me laughing out loud in several places. An ageing, impotent Zappetti, embroiled in endless lawsuits, is losing money on his flagship restaurant while the ones he was forced to hand over to his wife are making money hand over fist. His shrewd wife offers her free advice - "change the decor, adapt to Japanese tastes, turn up the lighting" - which Zappetti consistently ignores. Finally, at his wits' end, he does as she suggests and invests his last millions in a complete overhaul. The new shiny restaurant opens - just as Japan's bubble economy bursts!
This book will appeal particularly to people who live or have lived in Japan, but also to anyone who enjoys a lurid and seedy tale!
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
Gripping, disillusioning, frightening and real 14 May 2001
By James R. Hoadley - Published on
Format: Paperback
As you are reading this book, you will get the feeling that it can't be real, that it's all a fantastic work of fiction. However author Robert Whiting has provided an extensive list of notes and references in the back of the book to support his work. And the information that his book contains is frightening, and perhaps to those who are new to Japan, surprising.

Corruption in Japan runs deep, and this book dives all the way to the bottom. Whiting has done a remarkable amount of research and has had amazing access to those people who really run Tokyo and by extension Japan, namely organized crime. Using a relocated New York Mafioso as his catalyst, Whiting exposes how deeply ingrained the Yakuza are, with influence extending as high as the Prime Minister's office and as far afield as the US and Indonesia.

Nicola Zapetti knew and worked with some of Japan's most powerful Yakuza, and in Japan, many argue that the Yakuza are the most powerful group of all. Yoshio Kodama, a pardoned Class-A war criminal, ultra-right wing politician and well-known Yakuza once referred to himself as "the worlds richest fascist." LDP kingmaker Shin Kanemaru was found with millions of dollars in cash, bearer bonds and gold boullion in his house, much of it bribes from the Yakuza.

New Prime Minister Koizumi has been labelled a "reformer" by the media in the West. Those who have read Whiting's book know enough to doubt both his sincerity and his chances of legitimate success at changing this system which is corrupt at its very core.

If you want to understand the Japan that they don't teach you about in Polical Science and Business classes, you need this book.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
An excellent companion piece to "serious" analyses of Japan 4 Dec. 2001
By m_noland - Published on
Format: Paperback
This entertaining book delves into the seldom analyzed large parallel underworld of Japanese gangs and their links to politicians and "legitimate" businesses. It does so through the remarkable life of Nick Zapetti, a small-time American hood who found his niche in post-war Japan. Whiting sometimes has to stretch to connect Zapetti with the various themes and events that he describes (Zapetti's links to the Lockheed bribery scandal that brought down a Japanese government are pretty tenuous, for example), but he manages both to describe institutions such as sokaiya (corporate extortionists) who are important to the workings of the Japanese economy, and give the reader a sense of daily life in modern Japan.
The website is replete with scholarly studies of Japanese politics and economics. This book is an interesting and important companion piece to "serious" analyses of Japan and would be an excellent addition to undergraduate syllabi on modern Japan.
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
An enjoyable yet utterly forgetable romp thru seamy Tokyo. 20 Oct. 2002
By Zendicant Pangolin - Published on
Format: Paperback
First off, I believe that this book is definitely worth the price of admission as it is an engaging encounter with a part of urban Japanese society that one rarely has the opportunity to become acquainted with. Having said that, the book suffers from some structural problems that leave the reader a little bit at loose ends by the time he reaches the end. This book, although ostensibly about the 'Tokyo Underworld' is actually composed of three distinct threads of discourse. Thread one is a semi-biographical tale of an extraordinary character from blue-collar New York City who, as a result of a post-world war II stint in the Army lands in and adopts Japan as his home and destiny for the rest of his life. The book is semi-biographical because the biography seems to be a fusion of a free association telling of a life's story to the author by this character, and the author's own haphazardly researched, yet thoroughly entertaining description of the characters and events that crop up in the course of this story. The second thread is an off-the-cuff social history of an area of Tokyo that went from urban blight to some of the most renowned and expensive real estate in the world, and is now somewhat equivalent to NYC's 'Great White Way,' or at least what an outsider imagines the GWW should be. The third thread is an anecdotal description of the notorious Tokyo Yakuza and its alleged massive influence and sway over Japanese society from dark alleyways all the way up to the halls of power.
If this sounds like an awful lot of material to fit into one teeny tiny book, it is, and because it is the author has to make some compromises. The compromises come in the form of cursory treatments of all three subjects, but done in such a glib and insousciant manner that the reader forgives the author his dilatory story line in return for the verbal ride. This really is not a book about the 'Tokyo Underworld' so much as it is a fun topical read about a colorful 'GaiJin' of questionable character who, against all odds, becomes a notorious and successful figure during a particular era in a discrete section of Tokyo's entertainment district.
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