Book: Confessions of a Yakuza by Junichi Saga

A remarkable story told very well

Junichi Saga
Confessions of a Yakuza
Kodansha, 1991
ISBN: 4-7700-1948-3
253 pages

Junichi Saga was born in 1941 and worked (indeed he probably is still working) as a doctor in the Japanese town of Tsuchiura. That area was pretty rural when he started working there, though it's not any longer. As far as I can tell, some time in the 1970s, he realized that his older patients had seen in their youths a Japan that didn't exist any longer and he set about to record their recollections.

One result of that is the very excellent book Memories of Silk and Straw: A Self-Portrait of Small-Town Japan. It's an oral history told by various of Dr Saga's older patients. Confessions of a Yakuza is another. It's also an oral history, but it's told by only one man, a retired gangster named Ijichi Eiji, who describes his life from the time he was fifteen until well after the second world war. (I imagine that the name is a pseudonym.)

(Giving Japanese people's names when writing in English sometimes presents a dilemma. In Japanese, names are given family-name first, but when writing in English, Japanese people generally accommodate to Western style and give their given-name first. That would be simple enough. But sometimes, especially when people want to be particularly authentic, they preserve the Japanese order. That's the case in the text of this book. So, Junichi Saga is Dr Saga, but Ijichi Eiji's family name is Ijichi.)

Mr Ijichi was born in 1904 and meets Dr Saga after he retires to the country in 1977 with what he is pretty sure is a terminal illness. It seems that he sees Dr Saga both professionally and to tell him stories about his past. Mr Ijichi's life is fascinating and the Japan that he was born into is unlike any image anyone has of modern Japan.

At the start of the book, Mr Ijichi talks about various jobs that he had and, incidentally, the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923. Then, in 1924, Mr Ijichi joins a yakuza gang. "Yakusa" is generally rendered in English as "gangster", but in those days, we find out, yakuza made money only from gambling and a bit of "protection". As the lowest-ranking member of his gang, Mr Ijichi gets the least glamorous jobs. Since the gang didn't have servants and wouldn't take women, he becomes a gangster cook and laundry-person. It seems that he shows aptitude and he rises in the organization. Along the way, we hear fascinating stories that you'd never expect to hear and certainly wouldn't hear anywhere else. Mr Ijichi goes to prison several times; he's conscripted and spends some time in the late 1920s in what's now North Korea; and, just as yakusa are said to do, he cuts off one of his fingers as penance. Twice.

There's hardly a page that goes by in which the reader doesn't see something that's interesting, surprising, or even shocking. As an example of the last, Mr Ijichi says:

    There's a line in an old song: "Using the money he sold
    his missus for." Well, there really were men who'd sell
    their wife to a brothel so they could gamble with the
    money. (p. 200, emphasis in original)

In general, I don't much like oral histories. They seem to me to leave the historian's job half done. Editing primary sources into a coherent whole is part of what a historian ought to do. Confessions of a Yakuza is an exception. The stories Mr Ijichi tells are immediate and compelling, and the reader gets a vivid feel for his daily life. That's what an oral history can do at its best. But the book also holds together as an organic whole, which many oral histories don't. Dr Saga editorial hand is not much in evidence, but I'm sure it's there. Of course, that's an indication that he has done his job very well indeed.

The book is ably translated by John Bester, though someone should have let him or his editor know that the singular of "dice" is "die" (p. 156 and p. 199).

Posted: Fri - December 2, 2005 at 07:07   Main   Category: