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Tokyo Underworld: The Fast Times and Hard Life of an American Gangster in Japan Hardcover – March 30, 1999

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Editorial Reviews Review

In this compelling history of the rise of Japanese organized crime since the end of World War II, Robert Whiting, author of You Gotta Have Wa (an excellent book on Japanese baseball), demonstrates that Americans have only themselves to blame for the omnipotence of the yakuza in Japanese politics and society and the rebirth of conquered Japan as one of the world's great financial giants.

Whiting's real-life protagonist, Nick Zapetti, arrived in Tokyo during the days of the postwar occupation and decided to stay. Jolted from a budding career in low-rent confidence games by a lingering bout of insolvency, Zapetti opened a restaurant on a whim. Against all odds, Nicola's Pizza became the Tokyo hotspot in the '50s for expatriates, ballplayers, entertainers, and politicians, and inevitably, the local mob. Zapetti's erstwhile adventures as a semi-honest restaurateur in a strange land frame the book's real story: the savage backstabbing and dirty dealing of Tokyo's business community, which overlaps so seamlessly with the yakuza at times that it's difficult to see where one entity ends and the other begins. Whiting expertly details the evolution of "the Great Transfer of Wealth," as he calls it (the shifting in funds from American to Japan), and explains why American foreign policy (and its fear of communism) may have unwittingly allowed it to happen. Whiting's writing is illuminating and engaging, and his conclusions belie the simplistic protectionist rhetoric heard from both sides of the fence.

As for Zapetti, he eventually became a Japanese citizen and took his wife's last name. In poor health and dogged by the financial ruin of his pizza empire, Zapetti turned rabidly anti-Japanese: "You ever see the movie Rio Bravo?" Whiting quotes Zapetti as asking one of his foreign customers one night. "You remember the scene where the leering cowboy throws the money into the spittoon ... and Dean Martin, who's the town drunk, crawls after it? That's Japan's fantasy image of us. They want us to beg like Dean Martin." --Tjames Madison

From Publishers Weekly

Whiting's probe of Japan's gangsters, corrupt entrepreneurs and political fixers reads like a James Bond thriller yet manages intelligently to illuminate the seamy 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 restaurant-chain empire 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 and writes a weekly column for the Japanese press, 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 a 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. Agent, Amanda Urban.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon; 1st edition (March 30, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679419764
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679419761
  • Product Dimensions: 1.2 x 7 x 9.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #829,937 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

21 of 22 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on October 19, 1999
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.
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Marco Polo on July 24, 2001
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!
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By James R. Hoadley on May 13, 2001
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.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By m_noland on December 4, 2001
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.
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