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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
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.
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on July 24, 2001
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
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
on December 4, 2001
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 amazon.com 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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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
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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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on October 19, 1999
An extremely engrossing look at a side of history most Japanese--and Americans--don't like to talk about. This book is not your usual take on the U.S.-Japan relationship and that's all for the better; it is so entertaining, you don't realize you are learning something as well. I can personally vouch for its accuracy as I knew many of the characters written about in this book. Robert Whiting has done a first rate job in describing the many seedy operators who inhabit Tokyo's underside. This is history the way it should be written and I highly recommend it.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on August 17, 1999
A wonderfully gripping book. As a gaijin who grew up in post-Occupation Japan and witnessed the scene which the author describes so vividly--and having had an encounter (thankfully, a positive one!) with Nick Zapetti, the King of Roppongi--I'd say Robert Whiting has captured the time and place and wooly cast of characters perfectly. A huge plus is the excellent commentary and cogent explanation of the backstage politics and the righteous criminal mentality of Japan, Inc. I give this book five stars and a haramaki.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on January 20, 2005
The sub-title of Robert Whiting's fine book is a bit misleading. The American gangster in question often disappears from the narrative for long stretches while Whiting explains the long history of collusion between Japanese politicians and the yakuza. Nevertheless, the result is a fascinating social history with plenty of entertaining anecdotes and colorful character profiles. Chief among the latter are Nick Zapetti himself, the "gangster" who made a fortune with pizza parlors that became the hangout of choice for expatriates, entertainers, and, most significantly, those who make their living on the wrong side of the law, and then lost that fortune through a combination of stubbornness, bad luck, and ignorance. Another highlight is the career of Rikidozan, the former sumo wrestler who became a national hero and single-handedly established professional wrestling in Japan by defeating foreign wrestlers in scripted bouts, all the while hiding his Korean heritage. Often very funny, this book appeals to both a taste for the prurient and seamy and the desire for a serious, even-handed analysis of the role of organized crime, political selfishness, and short-sighted anti-Communism in Japan's rise to power and wealth.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on March 13, 2004
This book is a hoot to read. The author got sidetracked on his expose of the yakuza and ended up focusing on the life and times of a second-rate US dimwit who made and lost a fortune in post war Japan through a string of pizza parlors. His fortune rode high on the money spent by the expanding criminal expansion of Japan's underworld, only to as quickly be lost due to his inept understanding of Japanese divorce laws. A real enjoyable book, the story was so amusing that I actually visited the locale while in Japan while on business. If you are looking for a compilation of the rise of Japan following the war, the expansion of the criminal underworld, and a personal touch from an American viewpoint, you will enjoy this book immensely.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on March 26, 2000
The author draws convincing connections between the US occupation and the corruption in the Japanese business/political world. Some of the things that the author discusses are crucial to a full understanding of modern Japanese history, but you will not find them in "official" American or Japanese sources. Examples: US occupation rationing system giving yakuza their black market niche in all goods; Americans getting wealthy by illegal means during the occupation; and much info on minority-status Koreans in Japan and their relations with both North and South Korea. This is an excellent book.
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