Book: Toppamono by Miyazaki Manabu

Very interesting autobiography of a Japanese outsider

Miyazaki Manabu
Toppamono: Outlaw, Radical, Suspect. My Life in Japan's Underworld
Kotan Publishing, 2005 (originally published in Japanese in 1996)
ISBN: 0-9701716-2-5
438 pages

Miyazaki Manabu* was born on October 25, 1945 in Kyoto. His first 50 years, which he chronicles in Toppamono, coincide with Japan's post-war experience. But Mr Miyazaki is no dutiful salaryman, working long hours to build Japan's post-war economic miracle. Indeed, he's quite the opposite.

In Japanese, "toppamono" refers to someone who pushes ahead regardless. Such single-mindedness can be admirable, but it's also very close to recklessness. That describes Mr Miyazaki pretty well.

Mr Miyazlki's father was a yakuza (organized-crime) boss and ran a small construction company. In the interesting life that he describes in the book, Mr Miyazaki begins as a juvenile delinquent, goes on to be a campus revolutionary and brawler at Waseda University in Tokyo (the reader is not surprised to learn that he hardly went to a class), a journalist for an edgy newsweekly, the unscrupulous manager of his family's firm, a sort of freelance gangster, and finally a semi-ethical bubble-era real-estate fixer.

In a culture in which a person's identity is closely related to the groups they belong to, Mr Miyazaki has belonged to few groups. And he is sometimes pretty casual about leaving the ones he joins. And not only is Mr Miyazaki on the margin of Japanese society, the people he relates to and identifies with are as well.

There are plenty of histories of postwar Japan. But this is one from the point of view of a very intelligent man who was always on the outside of the mainstream culture. Though he was an outsider, the things Mr Miyazaki did were always intimately connected with the mainstream culture. Increasingly-prosperous Japan couldn't have built the buildings it did in the way that it did without numerous small construction subcontractors such as Mr Miyazaki's family firm. Japan wouldn't be the kind of democracy it is if there hadn't been leftist students protesting in the 1960s and journalists working outside the conservative newspaper-publishing companies. And Japan's real-estate bubble wouldn't have had the shape it did without semi-ethical fixers. It's possible to be an outsider in many ways, but Mr Miyazaki was an outsider who was always in the thick of things.

So this is a book written from a fascinating and unusual point of view. And it has the potential to inform the reader quite a lot about how post-war Japanese culture worked and works in practice. I just wish that parts of it were a bit more interesting. If you think that following the factional competition in Japan's Liberal Democratic Party is a bit tedious, they've got nothing on the byzantine set competing factions that the leftist college students of the 1960s organized themselves into. And, apart from identifying with other outsiders and having a sense of honor and duty, Mr Miyazaki doesn't tell us much about his motivations. That's probably not surprising. A person who describes himself as toppamono is probably not going to spend a lot of time on introspection. Mr Miyazaki also doesn't discuss much of his personal life. So there's little in the book to humanize him or make his character seem approachable. But I suppose that's to be expected as well. Indeed, I suspect that if Mr Miyazaki heard that some foreign book reviewer on the internet thought that his character should seem more human and approachable, he would probably laugh and say, "Who does that guy think he is? Only an idiot would say that a gangster should be more approachable!"

But anyone who has an interest in modern Japanese culture should treat those limitations as part of the price of admission. There are remarkable insights and observations here that won't be found elsewhere. Take, for example:

    From the viewpoint of ordinary citizens, yakuza are
    bad. But it is a fact that certain people live this way
    because they don't have a choice. That is why the
    yakuza problem isn't easily solved. Moreover, in
    addition to discrimination and poverty, other issues
    are deeply bound up with this -- primordial traits of
    violence, pleasure-seeking, and dissipation, as well
    as traditional concepts of manhood. What I am
    saying is that any society includes its share of
    people who are extreme from the outset and others
    whom circumstances force down that path. This is the
    reality of the human condition and is seen over and
    over again.

    In addition, within Japan's ever more heavily
    regulated society, the yakuza world is one of the few
    realms where it is possible to get on and see one's
    dreams come true. You will always find young people
    willing to risk their lives against heavy odds to be a
    success, so long as they feel they have a chance. This
    has been going on over thousands of years of human
    history. (p. 421)

You're not going to find anything like that in most histories of post-war Japan. There are also more than a few other characters that won't be found in most books about Japan.

Mr Miyazaki on only moderately well served by his un-named translator. The prose doesn't flow as well as it might and there are some unusual stylistic choices. For example, I have some difficulty imagining a juvenile delinquent saying, "Something was definitely afoot" (p. 53). There are also a few errors. There's "principle" where "principal" is wanted (p. 28), "another thing coming" (p. 280), "logic or pretense" which should be something more like "calculation or pretense" (p. 296), and "principal" where "principle" is wanted (p. 303).

* In Japan, names are given family-name first. But when communicating with Westerners, Japanese people usually reverse the order of their names to accommodate Westerners' expectations. Sometimes, because of a desire to be extra authentic, or for some other reason, the family-name first order is retained. Such is the case in Toppamono and I have followed Mr Miyazaki's style here.

Posted: Thu - August 20, 2009 at 08:18 PM   Main   Category: