The Japanese mafia, a.k.a the Yakuza, has drawn the attention of many writers. Few have been able to penetrate this secretive organization and remain alive to report their findings. Most of the movies made about the Yakuza paint a Hollywoodian picture that is only partly reflective of the real nature of “the people who walk in the sun”. Professor Ya’akov Raz, until recently head of the East Asia studies department at Tel Aviv university, seems to have done the impossible: penetrate the Yakuza and study it from within. This book is his account of this ten-year journey.
Raz tried to make inroads into the real Yakuza for a very long time. He pursued countless leads only to be let down and warned about his efforts. Eventually, he met a member of the Kyokuto-kai, one of the leading Yakuza families in Japan, who agreed to introduce him to the Oyama Oyabun, head of the Oyama branch of the family. The Oyabun gave Raz his blessing for conducting his research of the Yakuza using his family as a case study, saying that “just like you Jews” we are wanderers and outcasts.
Raz is very modest about his success in getting so intimate with the Yakuza. He claims, over and over, that he was very lucky and has no idea why he, of all people, has managed to win their confidence and they had warmed up to him.
The book is fascinating. Contrary to what one might expect, the account is not dramatic. Raz’s story is mild, almost pastoral, to the point that half way through the book I found myself warming up to the characters and had to stop and remind myself these are criminals who work for one of the world’s most violent organizations. I think this is to Raz’s credit, succeeding to expose the personalities behind the facade and show that deep inside these are outcasts that perhaps had little or no choice but end up as a Yakuza. Some of these people were born as outcasts, as the infamous burakumin, the “non-touchables” of Japanese society that nobody speaks about but everybody knows of. The name of the organization symbolises this outcast status: Ya means 8, Ku means 9 and Za means 3, the total being 20, the losing number in Black Jack.
I learnt a lot about Japan reading this book. Many customs and codes of behaviour are explained through the story of the Yakuza. I suspect that many Japanese would also learn some things about their society by reading this book. Hopefully it will be translated into Japanese some day.