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An engaging expose of U.S.-Japanese corruption.
on October 19, 1999
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.