Books about crime bosses tend to be about how cunning and ruthless they have had to be in order to get to the top or at least survive. Confessions of a Yakuza is a little different. As you’d expect it’s about a man’s time in Japan’s underworld but also it tells us about social history of Japan in the early to mid twentieth century, about it’s people and how they lived. I heard about this book after Bob Dylan gave some attention to it (you an find articles about on the Internet)
The main protagonist an elderly Eiji tells a younger doctor about his life before and during joining the Yakuza. We hear about the chaos after an earthquake devastates a city, time served in prison and in the army, his loves and his losses. We hear about how the Yakuza worked and was structured and the relationship with the police at the time which I found equally as fascinating.
The part of the book stuck with me was a detail about the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake. Eiji recalls how they found some remains holding on to some money at a time when everyone is desperate (I’ll let you read about it in the book, it’s why I do these reviews and recommendations)
What I found interesting was that Eiji despite his life with the Yakuza is never portrayed as a horrible man. Yes he commits bad acts but he’s in no way awful or nasty. He would rather suffer severe punishment if it means loyalty to his gang. He does have some unfortunate relationships with women which also adds to the story. Eiji remembers a fair bit about the women he meets and never sees again and in another part of the book her forgets the name of someone he went to prison with.
As far as gang activity goes other than any acts of violence the main source of income is gambling which of course appears relatively tame when you consider what gangs get up to today.
Compared to the state that punishes Eiji (especially when you consider Japanese foreign policy before and during World War II especially the way they acted in Nanking) is a relative saint.
Although I thought the book focused too much on specific parts of Eiji’s life and did not give that much time to others (especially his later life which compared to the rest of the book is not given the same amount of detail), I thought it seemed a bit rushed at the end. I don’t know if that’s to do with an English translation or just the way it was written but compared to the rest of the book it just seemed a bit ‘chopped’ for want of a better word.
I liked how the book shows us a snapshot of a world of which someone like me from Wales in the twenty first century would never see. The past is a foreign country: They do things differently there (thank you LP Hartley for that one). It’s not too long but there could have been scope for much more.