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Yakuza: Japan's Criminal Underworld

3.89  ·  Rating details ·  665 ratings  ·  44 reviews
Known for their striking full-body tattoos and severed fingertips, Japan's gangsters comprise a criminal class eighty thousand strong—more than four times the size of the American Mafia. Despite their criminal nature, the yakuza are accepted by fellow Japanese to a degree guaranteed to shock most Westerners. Here is the first book to reveal the extraordinary reach of Japan ...more
Paperback, Expanded, 422 pages
Published February 1st 2003 by University of California Press (first published 1986)
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Average rating 3.89  · 
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Feb 28, 2017 rated it it was amazing
When it comes to Japan, people are often eager to point to low violent crime rates to make a case for a harmonious, conflict-less society. Even portrayals of the Yakuza often invoke them as chivalrious gangsters merely following some old traditions, with the Yakuza themselves trying to point to Edo-period romanticism or other PR gags to keep that image alive.

Naturally though, any organised crime is going to be much more seedy and sinister than that, and the scale and institutionalization of the
C.T. Phipps
May 24, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
The Yakuza are one of the most fascinating criminal organizations in the world. Authors David E. Kaplan and Alec Dubro work to sort the fact from the fiction. Separating the lies that they're the descendants of exiled samurai from their true origins as gambler groups working with street peddlers that became incredibly powerful post-Mejii Restoration.

The Yakuza have a shocking history that includes the fact they've militarized numerous time and become Far Right paramilitary organizations while s
Patrick McCoy
Sep 25, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, japan
I have to say that I found David E. Kaplan and Alec Dubro's book on the yakuza, Yakuza: Japan's Criminal Underworld, is a fascinating alternative modern history of Japan. The book is framed in relation to what was seen as a growing yakuza threat in America, which I suspect has faded as the bubble has burst and Japan has stagnated. It's fascinating to see how they evolved from professional gamblers who were trying to recoup salaries from landowners through gambling in the early days to running in ...more
Dec 15, 2012 rated it it was ok
As an intensive study on yakuza and their connections to politics and/or international trade, it's brilliant. It's loaded with thorough information and good investigative reporting. However, as a book, I could barely keep up with it. I often drifted away during the several chapters regarding Japanese rightist politics, because I'm not familiar with it in the least. However, I was deeply intrigued with the first 100 pages that detailed the historic beginnings of the Japanese yakuza and how they w ...more
Oct 17, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition

I readied a highlighter in the beginning before realizing I was going to have to highlight 90% of the book. This was an incredible piece of investigative work, and it's nothing short of a textbook on yakuza.


I was doing some lens-changing on the yakuza:

Yakuza - Japan's Criminal Underworld gives me an overall, general view.

Tokyo Vice gives me the media's perspective.

Confessions of a Yakuza gives me a yakuza's perspective.

I'm still missing the perspective of the police, though, if a
Dan R. Celhay
May 30, 2017 rated it it was ok
The book lays down the basics on the subject of Yakuza. The first chapters are the most interesting because it explains how these groups always took part in Japanese society. The importance of Giri and Ninjo: the social behaviour or mentality that binds Japanese culture together. Strong sense of duty and "saving face."

The author also delves into the apparent lack of crime in comparison to other countries. The importance of "saving face" or mantaining a reputation and apologies; resolving dispute
Jun 11, 2008 rated it really liked it
damn good book. a great primer on postwar japan, with the yakuza focus providing great narrative momentum for what really is a broader survey of contemporary japanese culture, economics, politics, and more. and it is telling of the book's accuracy+worth that, initially, the yakuza successfully had it blacklisted by japanese publishers, and that the ucal press eventually picked it up from a commercial house for the 2nd edition. ...more
Chris Doherty
Sep 16, 2009 rated it it was amazing
This book is amazing. The corruption in Japan is unfathomable! My view of Japan has changed after having read this book. Not finished yet, but the extent of the influence of the Yakuza is chillingly horrific! How can one of the world's leading economic powerhouses allow itself to be intimidated by criminals? ...more
Sarah Crawford
Jan 15, 2016 rated it really liked it
The Yakuza are involved in a number of areas such as prostitution, pornography, drugs, gambling, loan-sharking, trucking, smuggling, extortion, and the construction and entertainment industries. They are also not just in Japan, but have become involved in Hawaii and California. The Yakuza is also inter-twined with the right-wing movement in Japan.

The book goes into the very early origins of the Yakuza movement, going all the way back to samurai who became bandits. There were also groups in towns
Michael Blackmer
Nov 16, 2014 rated it really liked it
Yakuza is basically written as a textbook. It surveys the last three hundred years of the Japanese underworld groups known as the Yakuza. It is amazing to see how, for a good portion of their history, the Yakuza have been an accepted part of doing business in Japanese culture. At times they have worked alongside of sitting political leaders to help accomplish the goals of government. Many of the participants in the 1940's were actually war criminals, yet the US government occupation forces made ...more
Jan 25, 2015 rated it it was amazing
That was one of the most comprehensive, thorough studies on the topic, and although it took me ~15 hours to finish, I do not regret a second of it. A real eye-opener when it comes to Japanese political and economic corruption. Read this, and yakuza will no longer be "funny men" with missing pinkies: these "funny" men are a dangerous force to face even in this century. ...more
Sep 08, 2007 rated it liked it
Shelves: japan, nonfiction
A bit dry for a book about the Yakuza, which I think would make for fascinating reading. Alas, the fault is mine, I believe. What I would have found exciting would have been a book drawing heavily on the field of cultural anthropology, and a quick perusal of the authors' qualifications would have told me that they are investigative journalists - good ones even, with a lot of research - but that doesn't change the fact that we are interested in two different things. This book focused a lot (so it ...more
Oct 16, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Really interesting look at the yakuza's history and the cultural milieu above and below ground in which they thrive. The book shows shows the weaknesses of modern society in general and Japanese society in particular to organized crime. Over-legislation with murky enforcement and an abiding obsession with "saving face" make contemporary Japanese society ripe for blackmail and exploitation on a titanic scale which this book documents clearly. I think the US connection occupies a disproportionatel ...more
Andrew S.
Aug 25, 2007 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: lost
I read most of it -- it's great and fascinating -- how, post-WWII, America rather shittily made it easier for right-wing anti-communists (and with them the Yakuza) to have their way with a battered occupied nation seeking re-birth. I also liked the tattoos and the decriptions of Western-style excess on the part of oyabuns and their subordinates -- huge cars, giant steaks, etc. But, it was a lot of information about a subject in which I have only a passing interest. SO, I put it aside momentarily ...more
Sarah Laurence
May 03, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
An excellent historical overview of the yakuza by two journalists that gives insights into Japanese politics, economy, and culture. I'd recommend it to anyone interested in organized crime and Japan. Although Yakuza was updated when republished in 2003, the examples stop in 1993. I wish there had been a 21st century update since I was reading this book to research a contemporary novel set in Japan. The book was recommended by my husband who is a professor of Japanese Politics. ...more
Jeff Becker
Mar 01, 2013 rated it did not like it
This book is so slow and painful to read. I'm mining for interesting bits and haven't really found anything outside of how pervasive the yakuza are within Japanese society. This book is long-winded and repetitive. I got to the point of no return and and finished it as a matter of self-discipline. I skimmed large sections of chapters and don't feel like I've missed a thing. ...more
Nov 09, 2008 rated it liked it
An in-depth look at the development of organized crime in Japan from feudal to modern times. When I lived in Japan we kids used to joke around about yakuza but I had no idea just how ingrained they were in politics and Japan Inc.
Tom Menner
Exhaustive and a bit dry, though it was very interesting to read the historical roots of the yakuza and their ties to right wing political elements, and also how they shake down major corporations by disrupting stockholder meetings.
Jul 15, 2018 rated it it was ok
Honestly, I couldn’t finish this one. It’s a textbook on the yakuza, and as such, incredibly dry. If a reader is interested in specific scandals attributed to the yakuza, id suggest this one. But if someone is interested in the culture of the yakuza, I wouldn’t recommend this book.
Aug 27, 2018 rated it really liked it
Out of date but gives a good description of the history and the workings of the yakuza in Japan and aboard.
Jan Brabec
Feb 02, 2019 rated it liked it
Not a bad book, but probably not the kind of book I was looking for. A lot of names and facts, which I unfortunatelly tend to forget really quickly.
This book provides an OK overview of the (known) Yakuza history, growth, and coming-to-modern days. I mark it as 3* ("It's OK") as it is quite dry in its presentation...although it may be due to the essence of how Yakuza grows and spreads in general.

Two things to notice: 1) the book is mostly a research work (thus the dry presentation) & 2) it covers the period till the mid-'90s. So it is an excellent base-read, but it will not show much about nowadays issues caused by the notorious Japanese cri
Benjamin Brasford
A very well written and researched work on the various gangs that make up the Yakuza. The Yakuza operated/operates very much like corporations that manage gangs underneath them. They were very much public in Japan and would even display their symbolism on their buildings. The people of Japan had a social contract with the gangs where there was a time where common folk wouldn't be touched. Later the new generations of gang members decided to not follow the old rules. Particularly interesting is t ...more
Jun 08, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Absolutely fascinating to read such in depth research done on the Yakuza. I must admit at times I found my attention wandering and it took me abnormally long to get through this book - but I still find the experience to be enriching. Probably not for people who simply want a light overview of the organization.
Oct 19, 2019 rated it really liked it
Extremely informative and thorough work. Pretty much the whole 20th century history of Japan. It is a pity I will not be able to remember most of the names in a week!
Rich Uncle Pennybags
For starters, this is a serious historical book and it is rather long and detailed. I think some of the people complaining about being "bored" by this book would have been better off reading something like Tokyo Vice, which moves faster and does't bother with as much background (although its veracity has also been called into question... anyway that's a different issue).

The degree to which the yakuza is entrenched in Japanese business and society is really incredible and here is a book to give y
Jun 25, 2013 rated it it was amazing
fascinating. best nonfiction i have read so far.

the book divides into three. the first section will only be appealing to history/anthropology buffs as it intricately details the evolution of the yakuza from two distinct sectors of feudal japan and its deep interpenetration with Japanese politics and the LDP (Japan's ruling party since 1955). the second section is probably most fascinating from a cultural perspective, as it explains Japanese-style corruption with interviews, case studies, etc. wh
Ellis Amdur
Jan 16, 2015 rated it liked it
An excellent history of not only the yakuza, but also Japan’s right wing. The latter, true successors to the samurai, have been inextricably intertwined with the gangster underground. At one time, the right wing “ran” the yakuza – now it seems to be the reverse. A startling book – one may be aware that the yakuza are a large criminal element in Japan, but this book establishes that they are not only internationally influential in the criminal world, but hold both enormous economic and political ...more
Dan  Logue
An in-depth look at the Japanese underworld focusing on their emergence during the American occupation under MacArthur after WWII. With the development of the worldwide communist threat all hesitance to deal the Japanese right wing element, which had created the nationalistic society that had effectively led to Japan's involvement in WWII, is forgotten as the government uses every and all, organized crime included, to battle left wing elements. Not very well written but an interesting topic. ...more
Shawn Buckle
Sep 26, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Kaplan has to be the leading authority on the yakuza in Japan. His book looks at the evolvement of yakuza from the tekiya and the bakuto through postwar japan and their profiteering on the black market to modern day scandals like Lockheed. Their pervasiveness yet taciturn in Japan is astonishing which makes the yakuza so interesting a study.
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David E. Kaplan is an investigative reporter and former director of the Center for Public Integrity's International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. Before this post, he worked for the American newsweekly U.S. News & World Report. David E. Kaplan commonly writes about terrorism, organized crime, and intelligence. ...more

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46 likes · 10 comments
“A complete back tattoo, stretching from the collar of the neck down to the tailbone can take one hundred hours. Such extensive tattooing, then, became a test of strength, and the gamblers eagerly adopted the practice to show the world their courage, toughness, and masculinity. It showed, at the same time, another, more humble purpose - as a self-inflicted wound that would permanently distinguish the outcasts from the rest of the world. The tattooing marks the yakuza as misfits, forever unable or unwilling to adapt themselves to Japanese society.” 0 likes
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