I found this book lurking in a charity shop and as it doesn’t seem well-known I though I’d devote a few words to it. Ostensibly the memories of an old Yakuza boss, Confessions of a Yakuza is a grim yet eerily enchanting window into Japanese society in the decades of the rise and fall of the imperial sun.

Eiji Ijichi, now a dying man aged 73, recounts his story to his doctor, Junichi Saga, who is the author of book. He began his adulthood, he claims, working for his rich and heartless uncle but left his family to labour in a series of rotten jobs before dabbling in crime and, showing talent, joining the Yakuza. Various crimes land him in jail sentences; a call-up to the army forces him to serve in occupied Korea and he eventually becomes the leader of his crime syndicate.

These events are narrated in a matter-of-fact tone that conveys the daunting extent to which people in rotten circumstances have convinced themselves that they have no choice other than to keep buggering on. For Ijichi and the souls he moves among it almost seems as if enduring hardship is its own reward. Saga writes, of the period in which he was jailed and forced to cut down timber in Hokkaido…

It’s funny, you know – while we were doing that kind of work, we’d forget all about being prisoners, we’d get so wrapped up in it. The men really put their backs into it, sweating like pigs, and whenever a great big stump suddenly tilted over and slipped out of the ground, their faces lit up like kids…

It is an unsentimental book – one gets the sense that if such people stopped to think about their lives they’d become harder to live – and such observations, offered almost in passing, are all the more poignant for the fact.

The notion of loyalty – loyalty, that is, as an actual obligation rather than a feeling – pervades the book. Ijichi’s loyalty is to the gang that protects him but he also speaks to a soldier who had been one of few survivors in his unit. Leaving the bodies had been out of the question but nor was it practical to carry them to safety. The survivors decided to slice their arms off; burn them and take the ashes to their families…

The only problem was, they’d have to hand over the right ashes to the right families. So, as they were cutting off each arm, they’d tie a rag around it with the man’s name on it; later, when they laid it on the brushwood, one by one, the corporal wrote the name down in a notebook before the things went up in smoke.

Given the period, it’s tempting to psychoanalyse the nation through the book. This temptation should not be indulged heedlessly. (Imagine if somebody read a tome by Martin Amis or Will Self and presumed that they now understood the English.) One can’t help but sense the toughness, and the pride in toughness, and the woundedness that lurked within it, that energised Ijichi and his contemporaries in their different pursuits, though. He endured the hardships that he faced but he never forgot them.

Despite the title, by the way (changed from A Gambler’s Tale in what must have been good for business and bad for integrity) there isn’t a great deal of insight into the workings of the Yakuza. After the Second World War, indeed, when their fortunes began to soar, Ijichi becomes much vaguer. He does lop off a finger or two, though. So there’s that.

You’ll have doubtless seen articles on the Japanese people who injected saline into their heads and then made shapes out of the swellings. Interesting stuff. It never struck me that “the Worf” might become desirable. Media coverage implied that there was actually a trend for this kind of thing but, as Japan Pulse reported, this was a distortion…

La Carmina [a well-known subculture blogger] takes issue with how it ended up being exaggerated…“It is not a trend even among the most hardcore body modification types,” she said. “It’s expensive. It takes specialized equipment. Most Japanese people don’t even know about it.”

Now, reading  Oddity Central, I discover that…

In an article titled “The Ultimate Form of Slob“, Japanese magazine SPA describes the hottest trend in the Land of the Rising Sun…women who wear diapers to avoid using the toilet.

The journalists spoke to a single woman who claims to do this. (By which I mean there was only one of her, of course. I don’t know if she has a partner, though you’d think not.) If one person is evidence of a hot new trend then it’s also become fashionable for Japanese people to cook and serve their genitals in restaurants. In New York it’s become trendy to paint with your own blood; in Denver it’s faddish to drink beer made out of bull’s gonads; in Britain, believe it or not, defying arrests for public nudity is all the rage.

Japan is undoubtedly a source of loads of weird stuff but let’s not allow what is many ways a reserved, conservative society to be painted as a commune for deranged futurists.

One can’t escape the authors of travel books. Fiction writers lurk behind their characters while essayists on academic subjects prowl behind their data. Travel writers, though, can offer little but their own perceptions and their readers’ enjoyment is at least in part reliant on their feelings towards them. An author may write beautifully yet leave one cold because they come across like an asshole. This means it’s a particularly subjective medium and, thus, that all I can say about Will Ferguson’s Hokkaido Highway Blues is that I like the guy.

There’s a lot I can imagine readers disliking. He’s disrespectful to the point of outright rudeness to some of the people he encounters and cynical towards much of the culture of his subject. He doesn’t have the stubborn unwillingness to be impressed that’s a feature of other authors – he gets on with other people and likes much of the place – but has a fairly grim perspective. Still, I liked his humour; the breadth of his interests; his eye for that beneath the superficial and, indeed, his mixed opinions on a land I’ve thought of in romantic terms.

Anyway, the question I was pondering is – why do Westerners like Japan? Or, to be specific, why do loads of young, middle-class Westerners have such a great affection for Japan? It’s only matched by Palestine and, perhaps, Tibet among the lands English kids idealise. It’s even among the archives of Stuff White People Like. To some extent it’s due to its production of culture phenomena that are original enough to appear esoteric yet sufficiently accessible to be widely enjoyed. Hipster fodder. Yet I’m not a fan of manga and don’t much like sushi. There has to be more to it than this.

One factor – not unrelated to its art, cuisine and so on – is that despite the encroachment of consumerism many of its people maintain an aesthetic sensitivity. Their designs, for example, appear to be created not with cold utilitarian efficiency or modish opportunism but an awareness of the subliminal implications of surroundings. This is symptomatic of a mild independence that distinguishes the Japanese. To the outside world they’re as close as entire peoples come to an enigma: neither the cultural exhibitionists of Western capitalism or the hostile puritans of theocratic tyrannies but a nation that calmly gets on with its business and can sometimes be glimpsed in an appealing style or with a fantastic product that makes access to its inner sanctum all the more tempting.

There are, of course, multifarious other factors that might attract different people: its traditional ideals; its art; its countryside; its paradoxes. (With regards to the latter, I’d like to get more of an insight into how a people that have elevated “cute” to the position of a national ideal also boast figures like Kazuki Sakuraba, Takashi Miike and Jun Kasai.) For many, though, I suspect the more general attraction is the fact that it has a fairly distinctive image. That, of course, is less for show than for maintaining its internal cohesiveness – hipsters, for obvious reasons, can identify with that.

A book I’ve mentioned on a couple of occasions is Alec Dubro and David Kaplan’s Yakuza – a study of the tattooed terrors of the Japanese underworld. I’ve only recently procured a copy, though, and wanted to revisit a theme I’ve touched upon but never covered fully: the U.S. armed forces’ covert tactics inside post-war Japan. (Why, you ask? Well – why not.)

…Americans were hiring mobsters in Japan…in a secret war against the left that began as early as 1946. At its helm stood Major General Charles Willoughby…Willoughby and his trusted aides in G-2 [MacArthur's intelligence arm] served both to directly repress the left, as did G-2′s Counter Intelligence Corps, and indirectly, by aiding and financing rightist thugs and yakuza to do the job. To help run his covert operations, the general followed another pattern similar to that which U.S. officials were then secretly employing in Europe: recruiting for intelligence use key members of the enemy who probably should have been tried as war criminals. Willoughby succeeded in freeing from the purge in Japan certain well-placed officers from the Imperial Army and Navy. Many of these held extreme right-wing views, and their attitudes towards communism would be put to good use.

Willoughby was a far-right thug MacArthur fondly knew as “my pet fascist”. (I wrote of his life here.) The war criminals he set about releasing included the architects of the notorious Unit 731 – whose research into biological weaponry was thought to be of use in the struggle against communism. Not only were their victims deprived of justice; the failure to investigate one of the conflict’s darkest episodes means it’s been neglected and our knowledge of it remains patchy.

G-2 and their recruits were largely devoted to infiltrating and undermining the Japanese left. Cautiousness towards the Commies was, of course, entirely understandable in that time and place. Their tactics of subversion, however, did a lot of harm to Japan.  Their extent, and the extent of this ugliness, is cloaked in mystery. In the late 1940s a string of murders and acts of sabotage were blamed on the Japanese Communist Party and its comrades in the unions. They were never proved to be guilty, though, and fingers have been pointed at the Russians, the Americans and their ultranationalist allies. Dubro and Kaplan write…


So, I’ve been digging into one of many seams of information in the vast mine of our history: that which concerns an intriguing man named General Charles Willoughby. A brave yet cold and reckless soldier, he was born in Germany but moved to the U.S. quickly enrolled with army. He worked up throughout the ranks and, via WW1, became a colonel and eventually a general, serving under Douglas MacArthur in the Pacific.

One brilliant source for amateur historians is the Google archive. Key in search terms that intrigue you and you’ll be lost for hours. I shoved in the General’s name and found a veritable goldmine.

He was, it seems, in many ways, a satirist’s (or Stanley Kubrick’s) idea of a general: marked by a bellicosity suggestive of both arrogance and neuroticism. There are, for example, reports of a screed he penned against journalists reporting on the Korean War. In a diatribe that’s very reminiscent of attacks on dissidents before and after Iraq he claimed the reports were “often innacurate, biased [and] prejudiced”, had “furnished aid and comfort to the enemy” and served to “confuse an unhappy public”. This, from a 1951 edition of the Toledo Blade, is an amusing view of how reporters came to see the man…

Willoughby was no mere a braggart, though. Firstly as unlike today’s chickenhawks he was a brave, capable soldier who’d led men throughout various battles. He was also a fanatic. His appreciation of the hard-nosed military caste wasn’t limited to his devotion to MacArthur; it was displayed in the esteem in which he held their supposed enemies. Not for nothing did his General dub him “my pet fascist”. Willoughby lauded Franco, saluted Mussolini and, as this gossipy titbit from the Spokane Chronicle implies, made no secret of it…

(His loyalty to MacArthur was very real. Franco may have been the second best but Dugout Doug would have been top.)

What’s intriguing, and disturbing, is the influence Willoughby bore. After the Japanese surrender he was placed in charge of G-2 – Douglas MacArthur’s intelligence arm. His decisions at its helm suggest that far from wrapping up the Second World War he’d fixed his gaze upon a third one.

Unit 731 had been the centre of the Japanese programme of human experimentation. Evidence suggests that hundreds were tortured and killed in a series of grotesque trials. When the U.S. captured the scientists behind it, though, they were excited by suggestions that they harboured data which “could not [have been] obtained in [U.S.]…laboratories because of scruples attached to human experimentation”. With the spectre of the Russians looming in his mind, General Willoughby decided to bargain with the veritable Asian Mengeles. As Christopher Reed has written

On my desk are two documents previously marked Top Secret and dated July 1947. They show not only full U.S. participation in allowing the Japanese medical torturers who escaped to Tokyo to go free in exchange for information, but that the Pentagon actually paid them. As General Charles Willoughby…gleefully noted to his headquarters, these pay-offs were “a mere pittance… netting the U.S. the fruit of 20 years’ laboratory tests and research” in this “critically serious form of warfare.”

He told Arisue Seizo, a one-time officer in the Imperial armed forces, to establish a secret communications group. This, historian Michael Petersen has written, was intended to “target communist elements in Japan”. It included criminals like Kodama Yoshio, a gangster and opiate smuggler, and Colonel Tsuji Masanobu, a rabid killer who’d engineered the notorious Bataan Death March.

In Yakuza: Japan’s Criminal Underworld, David Kaplan and Alex Dubro wrote of how this motley assortment of gangsters and war criminals went on to build the Japanese criminal far-right. Kodama particularly “created a powerful rightist bloc inside and outside…government“, and “tried to foment internal strife” with the help of ultranationalist yakuza gangs. The G-2’s employees “sp[ied] on and disrupt[ed] the left in Japan”. The extent of their activities, however, shall remain unknown because, as the authors inform us, “Willoughby was a burner”.

At this stage in his career, power and prejudice had turned the General into a tactical wrecking ball, swinging violently from campaign to campaign. In Korea he remained MacArthur’s intelligence chief. As the U.S. drove towards the Yalu river, smelling victory against the North Korean forces, thousands of soldiers of the Chinese People’s Army hared across the border, taking Western forces by surprise and, in the Battle of the Ch’ongch’on River, inflicting a grave defeat that prolonged the war considerably.

Months later, in 1951, Willoughby denied that the Chinese attack was a “monumental surprise”…

This was an odd denial considering that the important question was whether the Chinese meant business. And, thanks in no small measure to the General, the realisation that they did was a monumental surprise. Justin M. Haynes has written, in a thesis on the subject

Despite multiple public statements that indicated that China would commit forces if UN troops crossed the 38th parallel, and despite reporting from the field that supported these indications, Willoughby failed to predict that the Communists would conduct a decisive counteroffensive.

This crippled the planning of the Western troops, as they relied on the intelligence that he’d “virtual[ly] monopol[ised]”. His prejudices – a colleague spoke of his “disdain of the capabilities of the Chinese” – and authoritarianism – he “espoused [a] philosophy on centralised control over intelligence activities” – helped to ensure that he was, in Haynes’ words, “the officer most responsible for the failure”.

Willoughby left his post after the failure at the Ch’ongch’on River and promptly retired. He launched spirited defences of MacArthur’s – and, therefore, his own – behaviour in Korea and – apparently resentful of their spectical reception – a violent salvo against critical reporters. (This affront, it seems, dealt a graver blow to his reputation than the Chinese victory.)  He’d have been an awkward fit among the glib political classes and drifted towards the fringe, writing for the journal of the oddball anti-communist Billy James Hargis. His quiet involvement with the web of monied rightists who conducted a subversive war against supposed infiltrators has spawned numerous theories (see, for example, Dick Russell’s The Man Who Knew Too Much). Occasionally he cropped up in the mainstream press, issuing bellicose suggestions to the architects of brave new wars. Here, in 1964, we find him offering advice to the commanders of the U.S. war in Vietnam. His sentiment? ‘Nuke the gooks!’

If I can’t weave some kind of fiction round this man’s life then, by God, someone’s going to have to. He’s a fascinating character.

He was an extraordinary soldier. Not merely because of his achievements and position but as soldiership was so clearly integral to him. He’d joined up about as soon as he’d reached America, and it must have been entangled with his new identity. It’s tempting to think the army may have served to bridge the country with his motherland – neither Germany or the U.S. had or have been shy about their military traditions. Naturally, it would be presumptuous of me to try and psychoanalyse the man with a few essays as my only source material (oh, and a few pop psych books as my general knowledge) but it seems clear that his identity as a soldier and his admiration for the military class per se ensured he was a total warrior: someone whose affinity lay with nothing more than the tribe he fought with.

His work is evidence that human eccentricities can still be damnedly effective within massive institutions. Still, I reckon that extremities of his behaviour revealed less obvious habits of the military caste. A desire to triumph, for example, could be perceived as hard-nosed effectiveness but what’s interesting about Willoughby is that his triumphs moved seamlessly into new conflicts. As soon as victory had been achieved over Japan he was preparing for the real fight against the Soviets. As the U.S. battled the Chinese he’d convinced himself that Mao’s forces were mere pawns for the Russians. Officers need war for their positions to be meaningful and they can perhaps be tempted to move in cycles of conflict. There’s a danger, in other words, that military men will fight for victory in an eternal war; a pursuit that is, of course, as futile as it is destructive.

Monty Python fans might remember this sketch, which lauded the virtues of “one healthy man beating the living daylights out of a little schoolgirl”…

Now, in Japan, it seems the kids are taking their revenge…

I’ll bet there was one guy in the audience looking on and saying, “You know it’s fake, right?”

Allow me to introduce you to these little fellers, some of whom I met at the Ashmolean this week…

They’re called netsuke – tiny sculptures the Japanese would use to fix belongings onto their kiminos. They transcended their functional role, spawning a range of finely crafted figurines that showed emotions, flaunted status and reflected cultural trends. Once I’d got over imagining some kind of ancient Oriental game of Warhammer – something about universities brings out my puerile side – I became fascinated. Such miniature items, which suggested everything from the serene to the grotesque, amusing and, yes, erotic, were clearly of tremendous significance.

I wonder if, in a society of ordered restraint, netsuke offered people an ingenious chance for self-expression. In the hectic medley of symbolism that’s our culture, figurines are the stuff of Christmas crackers. In the soberer surroundings of ancient Japan they might express your individuality. A toggle could speak of your inheritance; a brooch evinced your self-concept; an irreverent portrayal of an authority would make your clasp a vehicle for satire.

It’s a lovely way of documenting history.

This is a curious tale…

Iwata Ryuzo, a 75-year-old Japanese monk who also is called “the lonely apologizer,” came to the Exhibition Hall of Crime Evidence of Japanese Germ Plant in Harbin alone again and started his apologizing trip once again on April 25.

In the Exhibition Hall, Iwata Ryuzo stood between two walls full of names of victims died out of 731 Unit’s germ warfare and confessed Japanese crimes during the World War II. He said: “I didn’t go through that period of history, but when I come here I can hear the voices of telling their miserable experiences from the victims. I can feel that pain just like I’d been there. It’s the most miserable heart pain of all my life.”

When you’re trying to apologise on behalf of a nation being a “lonely apologizer” can’t be fun. Still, I’m not a fan of mea culpas for crimes that me, uh, you are not culpable for. Expressions of regret are noble. Recognising sins with the determination to resist them is admirable. But shouldering blame for crimes you had no part in? Well, perhaps Christ could bring me round to the idea but it seems hollow.

On the other hand, I suppose there’s worth in seeing a decent man from a tribe you’re wary of. The Chinese willingness to help survivors of the earthquake shows that – in large part, at least – they’re above petty bitterness. More noble than a certain class of English bloviator.

It would be remiss of me to ignore this detail…

Iwata Ryuzo was born in 1936 and worked in a bank after graduation. He became a monk when he was 45 years old

I’d have loved to see the dinner where he told his family that.

Anyone who tells you they’re not fascinated by the mob is either lying or a rival of Martin Scorcese. That doesn’t mean we like the guys – or have some kind of fetish for the hypermasculine – there’s just tremendous intrigue in the notion of an outfit that transcend the culture they’re situated in; that escape the boundaries the state throws up around a people. That’s not to romanticise them (in theory or practice) as they’re generally leeching from one or the other. If this piece is accurate, however, it’s intriguing to see how the different entities can work to stave of a crisis that threatens them all…

The worst of times sometimes brings out the best in people, even in Japan’s “losers” a.k.a. the Japanese mafia, the yakuza. Hours after the first shock waves hit, two of the largest crime groups went into action, opening their offices to those stranded in Tokyo, and shipping food, water, and blankets to the devastated areas in two-ton trucks and whatever vehicles they could get moving…

There is an unwritten agreement amongst the police and the yakuza groups that is acceptable for them to perform volunteer activities during a crisis but not to seek publicity for it. Before the crisis the police were cracking down severely on the yakuza and any activity placing them in a heroic light might make the police look foolish. So they have been very quietly doing their part. It is not that the yakuza are not PR savvy, as is evidenced by their careful control and limited appearances in six fan magazines (three monthly, three weekly) that write of their exploits; it is that right now they care more about getting the job done than getting credit for it. As one members said, “There are no yakuza or katagi (ordinary citizens) or gaijin (foreigners) in Japan right now. We are all Japanese. We all need to help each other.”

Give that man a Guardian column!

Friend-of-the-blog Julia Smith lives in Tokyo and writes movingly of the earthquake and its consequences.

Flicking through reactions to the tragedy I wonder if “debate” has become a comfort mechanism for us. Rather than endure the contemplation of our own reactions or beliefs we criticise the views and attitudes of other people. What’s wrong is easier to deal with than what’s real. It makes me appreciate the minute’s silence (just a bit). It’s not merely so we’ve got the peace to ruminate, it’s so we don’t start arguing about the tactical virtues of French’s leadership at Ypres.

I’ve been reading Kawataba’s Snow Country of late and found this passage quite affecting. It evokes the Japanese concept of mono no aware but with a sense of striking horror at the consequence of life and death…

Each day, as the autumn grew colder, insects died on the floor of his room.  Stiff-winged insects fell on their backs and were unable to get to their feet again.  A bee walked a little and collapsed, walked a little and collapsed.  It was a quiet death that came with the change of seasons.  Looking closely, however, Shimamura could see that the legs and feelers were trembling in the struggle to live.

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