Sunday, December 12, 2010

Elderly Inmates Tax Japan’s Prisons

It’s quite well known that Japan’s rapidly aging population is taking its toll on many facets of polite society. But what is the toll on not-so-polite society? According to a recent AP article, Japan’s population of elderly inmates is also growing fast.

And prison facilities and personnel have to adapt. One prison near Hiroshima has installed handrails in hallways and replaced staircases with ramps to accommodate old inmates with arthritis and bad knees. Provisions are made for bed wetting and other degrees of incontinence. The facility has also hired nurses with expertise in elderly care.

The saddest part of the article, though, is the revelation that it’s not old yakuza and other toughs convicted years ago who are filling up prisons. Most are new, non-violent offenders wrapped up in the throes of recession. With jobs scarce and money running out, they turn to shoplifting, petty theft, and more. When the short sentences (two or three years) end, they seemingly have nowhere to go. Japanese culture doesn’t embrace second chances. In a land where family honor means everything, many aging inmates fear their siblings and children will shun them upon release. However, it’s harder to get paroled if you don’t have a reliable “guardian” to look after you on the outside. A handful become repeat offenders because they simply have nowhere else to turn.

Though a prison official pointedly said prisons should not become de-facto retirement homes, the article almost paints a different picture. The facility is a far cry from the rough-and-tumble atmosphere you’d expect in an American penitentiary. It’s very Japanese in its orderliness. Inmates work six hours a day, even if they’re older than the standard retirement age. Talking is not permitted for most of the day, and bedtime is 9 p.m. when the lights are turned off. Sadly, for some inmates, the lights may never come back on.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Tokyo Lives Available in Multiple Formats

I just wanted to give everyone a quick update: Tokyo Lives is now available in several e-book formats, including on Kindle and the Sony Reader. In fact, the Amazon page even says you can start enjoying Tokyo Lives in a under a minute via Kindle! It’s only $7.99 on Kindle--a great deal for yourself or as a gift.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Reviewer Gives Tokyo Lives Two Thumbs Up

Esteemed reviewer Jennifer DeFoy has shared her thoughts on Tokyo Lives on her blog "Just Jennifer Reading." Her commentary starts off:

“This was a really good book. It had a bit of everything in it. There was a hint of a love story. There was a really good murder mystery. It had emotions. And it was just exciting to read. I really liked it.”

Visit Jennifer’s site to read more!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Tokyo Salarymen: Modern-day Samurai Fight Back

An interesting piece from CNNGo reveals that some salarymen, sick and tired of the daily grind, and are fighting back by eschewing the rigors of corporate life and adopting a more relaxed attitude.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Is Japan Finally Standing Up?

Earlier this summer, the revered Japanese sport of sumo made headlines worldwide for all the wrong reasons: High-level ties to the yakuza, including match-fixing, were finally exposed. It turns out that sumo and the yakuza went together like sushi and soy sauce. For the first time ever, broadcaster NHK cancelled airing a match. Later, signs at sumo arenas and stables sprung up specifically denying access to gangsters and other undesirables.

Could the sumo fiasco be the impetus to bring the yakuza out of the shadows and shine a bright, probing light on organized crime in Japan? Two articles I uncovered suggest the philosophy might be taking hold. First, yakuza-affiliated construction concerns are officially barred from work on the Tokyo Sky Tree project. (For years, the yakuza has called the shots in the construction industry.)

Second, the Hyogo Prefectural Assembly approved an ordinance Wednesday to ban gangster leaders from setting up offices or buying homes in neighborhoods and near schools. (To indicate just how little yakuza regulation there has been, most organized crime families set up traditional office spaces, proudly displaying their insignia and affiliation on the front door.)

These are both small steps, to be sure—but you’ve got to start somewhere!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Sumo Says “Sayonara” to Yakuza (But Does Anyone Believe It?)

In the wake of any great scandal comes a heavy-handed crackdown, and the Japan Sumo Association is falling in line. To recap, Japan’s most cherished sporting tradition has been rocked in recent months as investigators and the media unraveled deep ties to the yakuza that involved illegal gambling, nefarious sponsorships, and even the use of premium ring-side seats to send messages to incarcerated gangsters. Things got so bad that NHK decided not to air a live tournament for the first time in nearly 60 years.

That’s all a thing of the past, says the JSA. In typically overworded fashion, the JSA has issued a “Declaration of Rejection of Violent Groups.” As such, “violent groups or antisocial forces” are banned from training stables, matches, and other sumo facilities. Meanwhile, surveillance cameras are being installed to sniff out yakuza members who may have sneaked into matches.
Only time will tell, however, if the JSA lives up to its newfound sense of propriety…because you know the yakuza won’t willingly disappear.

Read more about the
yakuza in my book, Tokyo Lives, available in paperback from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Yakuza Weigh in on…Yakuza

One of the most popular video games on the market is called Yakuza, now in its third iteration. It covers…yep, you guessed it: Japan’s seemy underworld! Yakuza 3 is a “simulation” game in which players delve into the role of a real-life yakuza clan.

And who better to review the game than actual yakuza members? Such was the keen idea of Jake Adelstein, author of Tokyo Vice and the foremost American authority on the yakuza. He met up with some actual “yaks” (as he calls them) to test drive the game.

Turns out the folks at Sega are spot on in their rendering. Take, for example, their comments about the depiction of a red-light district: “You got your salaryman in there, the delinquent school girl and her sugar daddy, Chinese people, and even those Nigerian touts.”

The review goes on to cover what you’d expect—the authenticity of street fights—and what you wouldn’t—gangsters’ clothes, culinary preferences, and whether or not shabu (crystal meth) should be one of the game’s “power up” features.

Should you desire to learn more about this Japanese mafia milieu but aren’t a gamer, check out the short excerpt below of my book, Tokyo Lives, which describes the very neighborhood—kabuki-cho—that the yakuza commented on in the game review:

“Shinjuku pulses with radiant activity night and day. It is Japan’s neighborhood that never sleeps. There’s something for everyone: shopping, hotels, bars, restaurants, movie theaters, parks, galleries, shrines.

And sex. Lots of sex. Wind through the restaurants and department stores, past the giant screen above Studio Alta, cross Yasukuni Dori, and enter Kabuki-cho. By day, the neighborhood is tame and welcoming, the alleyways empty and uncluttered. But as day fades to night the neon flickers on and the neighborhood transforms itself. The signs glow red and pink. Fleshy images preside over each door front. Salarymen with loosened ties roam the alleys, with scantily-clad women interspersed to lure them to their lairs. Elicit desires are indulged in all forms: strip clubs, porn theaters, hostess bars, massage parlors, brothels, S&M studios. No fantasy goes unfulfilled. And the Chinese rule the neighborhood with an iron fist.

Simple economics drive neighborhood trade: a glut of women and gangsters willing to work harder for less. There is no planning; there is no tomorrow. The next customer is the only concern. Where the yakuza focus on reputation and survival, the Chinese have only three priorities: The first thing is money, the second thing is money, and the third thing is money."

Sunday, August 22, 2010

You Meet the Nicest People on a Honda

If you have any interest in Japanese culture and business history, then I hope you caught Sunday’s episode of Mad Men. In the episode the boys at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce have an opportunity to bid on the account for Honda motorcycles. To get everybody in the right frame of mind, all agency staffers are given a copy of The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, Ruth Benedict’s seminal book describing Japanese culture that was the authority on Japan for many, many years. Creative director Don Draper also takes in a meal at Benihana to further explore the mysteries of the Orient. The episode ends with the agency instead being awarded the account for Honda’s forthcoming car, which the gang ridicules as a “motorcycle with windows.” Well, I hope SCDP held on to the Honda car account because, in reality, it probably made a lot of people a lot of money!

And now it’s time to separate the “reel” story from the real story. As the end of the episode intimates, Honda was never serious about leaving Grey Advertising. And why would it be? By 1964, Honda had become the world leader in motorcycle sales.

On the creative side, Grey churned out the iconic campaign “You Meet the Nicest People on a Honda.” The campaign not only introduced Honda to American consumers, it started to re-brand the entire motorcycle industry, which had been taken over by leather-clad biker gangs and virtually ignored by respectable, suburban, middle class consumers. The “You Meet the Nicest People on a Honda Campaign” brought motorcycles back into the mainstream.

To wit, in 1964 the Beach Boys released “Little Honda,” and, with two short lyrics, did as well as any ad campaign in explaining the essence of Honda:

“It’s not a big motorcycle,
Just a groovy little motorbike.”

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Only in Japan: Slashing Pounds With Samurai Swords

No—you don’t literally cut out the fat, but you do incorporate traditional samurai swords into an aerobic workout. There’s not much more explaining to do….just watch the video!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Translation Fascination

The publishing industry is nothing if not unoriginal. From the “Chick Lit Craze” to the “Why [Insert Nationality] Women Don’t Get Fat” to a virtual vampire invasion, editors and publishers can’t help themselves when it comes to latching onto a hot idea and milking it for all it’s worth. In typical cases the craze virtually plays out the genre and kills it off via over-saturation.

The next wave, though, just might last—and benefit readers (a rare outcome of the copy-cat nature of publishing). Based on the stunning success currently being realized by the late Swedish author Stieg Larsson (he of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo fame), publishers are scouring the globe for the next irresistible import ingĂ©nue. “A lot of publishers are looking at this because they don't want to miss the next Stieg Larsson,” an editorial director confessed to The Wall Street Journal.
Intriguingly, Japanese authors are at the top of the list.

It makes sense, as Western readers have already embraced translated works from Haruki Murakami, Banana Yoshimoto, and other J-authors. Japan hosts a vibrant literary culture and I can’t wait to see what turns up on shelves next!

And of course, if you want a taste of Japanese crime fiction without waiting, I would humbly suggest my book, Tokyo Lives!

Monday, July 19, 2010

We Can Make a Better List Than CNN Travel!

CNN Travel recently published its list of “5 Tokyo experiences you won’t forget,” which are:

5. Tsukiji fish market

4. Karaoke in Roppongi

3. Sumo

2. Bullet trains

1. Food

It’s not a particularly inventive list, and it’s hard not to do “bullet trains” and “food”—just out of necessity. Plus, as I mentioned in a previous post, the sumo scene isn’t so hot these days in the wake of a major scandal (involving the yakuza, among others).

So, if you’ve made the trip, feel free to use the comments section to fill in your own top five list. Don’t hold anything back!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Sumo Wrestlers Would Bow in Shame (If They Could)

Due to their size, there are presumably many things a full-grown sumo wrestler can’t do effectively: drive a Mini Cooper, partake in a roller coaster ride, and clean certain body parts. Add a humble bow—the traditional Japanese act of contrition—to the list. Such repentant genuflections are in high demand these days as the sport of sumo has been rocked by one scandal after another.

And our friends in the yakuza are right in the middle of it! Would you expect anything less? There have always been whispers of a cushy relationship between sumo and the underworld, but verification emerged as many top fighters were alleged to have bet on other sports with yakuza as go betweens. News reports also indicate that the yakuza sponsor wrestlers who aren’t quite good enough to attract major corporate benefactors.

My favorite anecdote, however, is that 55 members of the Yamaguchi-gumi clan—
the mob family in Japan—sat front row at a tournament last year. They did so as an act of solidarity with their imprisoned brethren. The gangsters knew they would be on T.V., and they knew the jail birds would be eagerly watching one of the few T.V. broadcasts they are allowed to see.

yakuza chronicler Jake Adelstein told the A.P.: “Sumo is involved in organized crime because they've had a symbiotic relationship for years. The wrestlers and the yakuza have a macho admiration for each other. The yakuza by being seen with the sumo wrestlers, acquire `status' and the sumo wrestlers get money, booze, food, and women.” In the wake of the myriad scandals—which you can read about here—NHK has dropped coverage, arenas are half full, prizes are being withheld, and competitions are adorned with signs reading “Gangsters Keep Out.”

Based on the research I conducted for my book,
Tokyo Lives, it’s no surprise to me that the yakuza are waist-deep in sumo. It’s only a surprise that it took so long to be exposed.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Blue Samurai Left Kicking Themselves

Who would have thought that Japan, master of the set piece and tamer of the Jabulani ball, would be done in by penalty kicks? So it transpired Tuesday after 2 hours of scoreless soccer as Japan exited the 2010 World Cup at the hands of Paraguay.

It wasn’t much of a match. Both defenses were just good enough, and both offenses were just bad enough. Neither team felt it was quite good enough to win it, so they played not to lose and were content to hand over their fate to penalty kicks, which (for everyone but the English) is a no different than a coin flip. To its credit, Paraguay made all five penalty kicks and thus advanced.

The Blue Samurai will receive a warm welcome when they arrive back home. Of course, it’s easy to exceed expectations when you have none going in. This was a team that performed so poorly over the past few months that it was booed off the pitch once and was best known for breaking Didier Drogba’s arm. Yet this side with no major international stars used just enough wit, guile, and style to win two games and come with a whisker of advancing to the final eight.

The secret lies in wa, or harmony. The Japanese used teamwork and unity to make up for a skill deficiency, and perhaps provided a lesson to some fractious, star-laden European sides.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Japan Takes “Free”way into Knockout Stage

The plucky Blue Samurai showed amazing fighting spirit and just enough wa to route Denmark and advance to the knockout stage of the World Cup. It’s a tournament of firsts so far for the Japanese team, as it won its first World Cup game ever outside Japan and by extension advanced beyond the group stage for the first time on foreign soil.

The boys in blue wasted little time seizing the advantage over the Northern Europeans. In the 17th minute breakout star Keisuke Honda lined up a long free kick and sent a powerful left-footed boot just beyond the reach of the diving Danish goalkeeper. In the 30th minute Yasuhito Endo presided over a free kick from the top of the penalty box and hammered it home.

Denmark controlled most of the second half and had several shots that challenged the Japanese goalkeeper, and one quality strike that banged off the woodwork. The Danes finally entered the scoring column in the 81st minute as Jon Dahl Tomasson converted the rebound of his own missed penalty kick.

But it was too little too late, and the Blue Samurai weren’t done scoring. In the 87th minute the magical Honda accepted a pass at the top of the box, outwitted a defender, then laid off a perfect pass for Shinji Okazaki to finish into an open net.

In a tournament that’s practically bereft of free quick goals, it’s somewhat amazing the Japanese pulled it off twice in a half. Additionally, in the second half, Endo’s right foot launched another free quick that the goalkeeper deflected off the crossbar. The infamous Jabulani ball is the culprit. Some have gone so far as to say it’s cursed--that it simply behaves on its own whims. The truth is that it’s airy and light and therefore tends to sail. No one’s tamed it yet--except the Japanese. Expect that to be a key factor in their favor against Paraguay next Tuesday.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Blue Samurai Best Indomitable Lions

The 2010 World Cup has its first upset!

On the American broadcast, the commentators went out of their way to inform viewers just how good the Cameroonian side was. They are bigger and more athletic; 22 of 23 team members play professionally in Europe. Samuel Eto’o is regarded as one of the top five players in the world. And, Cameroon was playing a virtual home game.

Meanwhile, Japan had a problem of giving up too many goals and scoring too many. The team was criticized for passing too much. Most team members played domestically in the J-League; they had no world-class players.

All of this was true, but none of it mattered. On the stroke of the 38th minute, Keisuke Honda, the only noteworthy Japanese player the commentators mentioned before the game, found himself alone in front of the goal with the ball at his feet. He calmly flicked it past the keeper, and Japan took a one nil lead it would never relinquish.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Five Stars for Tokyo Lives

A fan of mine recently took time to review Tokyo Lives on Goodreads. She gave it five stars (thanks!)…now find out why by reading her review.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Yakuza Branch Out to Weather Recession

I caught an interesting note in the Mainichi Shinbun recently. The article reports that Tokyo yakuza have moved into the Viagra trade in order to extend their influence in local communities. The punchline is that the Viagra is grossly overpriced, but the markup considered a form of protection money.

In my book, Tokyo Lives, The Snake and Pig Face don’t have this problem. Until Megumi’s murder unravels everything, they simply show up at neighborhood businesses monthly and, without even asking, expect an envelope full of money to be handed over. However, I would love to incorporate this new marketing channel into any sequel that comes out!

Visit the Tokyo Lives Web site for excerpts and more on the story!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Gangster Beat

With the presentation of the coveted Palme d’Or just a few days a way, the focus of the cinematic world turns to the legendary Cannes Film Festival. The event is a showcase for established actors and directors, and a proving ground for the next generation.

A man who’s proven himself time and time again is Takeshi “Beat” Kitano, star and director of numerous Japanese hits over the past several decades. Noted for his trademark black sunglasses, Beat established his early name in yakuza-themed films. His Cannes entry, Outrage, is his first yakuza vehicle since Brother in 2000.

I share two interesting notes about Brother, which starred Beat as a tough gangster who took over the Los Angeles crime scene after being expelled from his gang family in Japan. Point one is that a young Omar Epps, currently known as Dr. Foreman on House (a show I adore), played a supporting role of a friend of Beat’s American half-brother. In a classic Kitano scene, Beat stabs Epps in the eye with a broken liquor bottle. (Violently shoving chopsticks into eyes and noses is another Beat method of torture.)

More relevant to our discussion, however, is that I drew on several elements from Brother as inspiration for Tokyo Lives. A prominent instance is Chapter 4, in which the gang convenes a formal ceremony to hear an address from the Governor. I borrowed quite liberally the ritual of the monk blessing the fish. Later in the meeting, Shark Tooth stabs himself as a show of toughness after being challenged by Ice. This is also pulled from a later scene in Brother. Below you’ll find passages from Tokyo Lives, and the corresponding clip from Brother.

The men file into an elegant conference room and sit cross-legged on the tatami floor. A black-robed monk arrives and kneels at the head of the assembly. Before him lies a pure white plate with ceremonial chopsticks resting horizontally. Clutching the chopsticks with both hands, the monk stabs at the air several times to bless the room, then waves the chopsticks over a stuffed fish to christen the meal. A recited prayer ensues, after which the seated men bow in unison.

A commotion among the gangsters interrupts the repartee as The Snake and the hostess turn to see Ice and Shark Tooth standing toe-to-toe locked in argument. “You’ve never been reliable,” Ice challenges.
“I’ve been through the wars!” Shark Tooth retaliates.
“With such a pretty face and no scars?” Ice begins to caress Shark Tooth’s face before Shark Tooth slaps away his hand.
“Do you challenge my loyalty?”
“You would have to have loyalty for me to challenge it,” Ice chides.
Shark Tooth steps toward Ice but fellow gangsters restrain him. “I bleed for our family!”
“But you’ve never shed blood.”
“Bring me a knife,” Shark Tooth turns and shouts at a junior gangster. “Now!”
A fresh-faced recruit scampers off and returns with the sushi paring blade.
Shark Took throws his jacket to the floor and rips open his dress shirt. He seizes the knife and stabs his stomach, tearing through his abs. He remains silent until the pain overtakes him and emits gurgles of agony; blood streams onto the tatami. Staring Ice in the eyes, Shark Tooth clings to his adversary to support himself. Ice pushes him away and Shark Tooth crumples to the floor. Ice takes a step backward and orders, “Get me a towel.” He peels the blood-stained shirt from his body and throws it on the floor.

(Jump to about the 2:35 mark for the stabbing scene)

Sunday, May 16, 2010

It’s Never too Late to Graduate

In a touching gesture that is many, many years overdue, several West Coast universities have begun awarding honorary degrees to Japanese-American students from the 1940s whose educations were interrupted when they were sent to internment camps. My two alma maters, UCLA and SDSU, recently conducted ceremonies honoring the former students. Read about UCLA here and SDSU here; below is a video clip detailing how SDSU went to great lengths to identify who was involved.

Thursday, April 1, 2010


Anyone who’s spent time in Japan knows that the TV variety shows are a rollicking collection of hilarity. Typically, a TV personality or comedian plays host to a revolving cadre of celebrities, who serve as "peanut gallery" commentators. Feats of unparalleled human achievement are favored topics.

This one combines two of Japan’s great passions: Samurai swordplay for the traditionalists, and baseball for the modernists. As you’ll bear witness in the clip below, the swordsman bisects a pitched baseball. (Check out the reaction of the host in the red blazer!)

baseball samurai
Uploaded by tanaka223. - More video blogs and vloggers.

Monday, March 29, 2010

“You Only Live Twice”: A Review

You Only Live Twice, the fifth movie in the James Bond series, has been showing up on T.V. lately, so I figured it was time to offer a proper review and some commentary on mid-1960s Japan. The plot, mind you, really has nothing to do with Japan--it just happens to be the location from which arch-enemy Ernst Stavro Blofeld is launching ships into space that gobble up American and Soviet spacecraft in the hopes of provoking the two super powers into another world war.

Plot aside, it’s also clear the producers wanted to explore some of the mystery and intrigue of the Land of the Rising Sun. Released in 1967, You Only Live Twice is the first Bond film with an Asia-centric setting. A 27-year remove from World War II provided enough historical distance for old wounds to heal. Unbeknownst to the rest of the world, a game-changing revolution was underfoot. Viewers were introduced to brands like Toyota, Sony, and Toshiba that, within 10 years, would come to dominate the consumer landscape...and never really look back.

The producers also did everything possible to play up cultural peculiarities. Sumo wrestling and ninjas are both featured prominently (though not in direct combat!), and there seems to be an overabundance of kimono and yukata wearing among females.

Here are some of my favorite moments, followed by the original theatrical trailer.

  • John Barry’s beautiful soundtrack and title song (by Nancy Sinatra--enjoy here). Even better is the way Barry mixes the melody into the movie soundtrack.

  • Bond asksing Ling, his first love interest, “Why do Chinese girls taste different from all other girls,” followed by, “Peking Duck is different from Russian caviar, but I love them both.”

  • Yukata-clad spies, priceless scenes of mid-1960s Tokyo, a genuine sumo match, and Aki’s Toyota 2000GT “Bond Model”—one of only two built as a convertible

  • Henderson, Mi-6’s man in Tokyo, getting stabbed to death through a paper wall. Shouldn’t a man of such high profile live in more secure environs?

  • Tiger Tanaka, head of the Japanese intelligence agency, shuttling under Tokyo in a private subway car and assuming that M has similar accommodations in London. When Bond says he prefers his sake served at the correct temperature--98.4 degrees Fahrenehit--Tiger compliments, “For a European, you are exceptionally cultivated.”

  • Tiger stating, “In Japan, men always come first. Women come second,” and Bond replying, “I might just retire here.”

  • Aki saying to Bond, “I think I will enjoy very much serving under you.”

  • The Hotel New Otani being retrofitted to serve as Osato Chemicals HQ.

  • Ninjas! Tiger’s showpiece agents train at classical swordplay and the art of deception, while the modern ninjas practice indoors with guns and other Q-branch inspired gadgets.

  • Bond-san getting plastic surgery so he can go undercover as a local in a small fishing village. An all-female surgical team (conveniently dressed in swimsuits) performs the procedure.

  • Aki getting poisoned, which I guess proves that you only live once, after all.

  • Tiger saying that Bond’s new wife has “the face of a pig.”

  • Kissy Suzuki, Bond’s new Japanese wife. (In the pantheon of ridiculous Bond Girl names, this is an all-timer, but I still give the nod to Chu Mi, who Bond encounters seven years later in Thailand in The Man With the Golden Gun).

  • Bond refusing a plate of oysters once Kissy informs him their mock marriage will be all business, including separate beds. (Don’t worry, they’re sucking face by the next morning.)

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Penned In

ESPN’s Outside the Lines examines Japanese-American internment through the sports prism: Santa Anita Park near Los Angeles was used as a sort of way station where internees were housed before being dispatched to points East. To add to the indignity of being rounded up like criminals and losing their homes, businesses, and property, the internees were forced to sleep in the Santa Anita stables. However, to prove that everything comes full circle, the piece concludes with a mention of jockey Corey Nakatani, whose grandfather passed through Santa Anita in 1942. Corey has won more than 900 races at Santa Anita. In addition to watching Corey race, many former internees conduct period reunions at Santa Anita.

Several other sources offer more perspective on Japanese-American internment. There is of course the standard Farewell to Manzanar, which most Californians read in school sometime between seventh and ninth grade. For a fictionalized account of one family’s experience, there is Julie Otsukua’s stirring and moving When the Emperor was Divine. (The title alone caught my interest.) Finally, if you’re ever in Washington, DC, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has a comprehensive internment exhibit within “The Price of Freedom: Americans at War” wing. If you can’t make it to DC, take this virtual tour.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

How Much Is a Liver Worth?

This story first broke a few years ago—I read it in the L.A. Times in 2008. But last fall 60 Minutes decided to hop in with a feature story. The synopsis is that a yakuza boss, Tadamasa Goto
• Paid about a million bucks for a liver transplant at UCLA
• Jumped to the front of the transplant queue because of his financial largess
• Avoided pesky visa problems by becoming an FBI informant.

Needless to say, the story created much outrage and consternation—especially among those awaiting liver transplants. Can’t say that I blame them. And, to no one’s surprise, Goto didn’t provide the inside dirt he promised.

The clip below gives some neat insights into the yakuza and suggests it’s just as prominent and thriving as ever.

And, finally, this story, and other accounts, make it clear that the yakuza have a hit order out on Jake Adelstein, the journalist who essentially broke this story. CBS reports that Adelstein lives under virtual police protection in Japan. Well, Adelstein should be the first to realize that if he’s relying on the Japanese police to stand up to the yakuza and protect him, then he should be very, very worried!

Watch CBS News Videos Online

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Is Our Daughter at Auntie Norie’s This Weekend?

My new novel, Tokyo Lives, features a teenage runaway-turned-prostitute named Megumi. She’s introduced in chapter one—but don’t get attached because she’s dead by chapter two.

Young Megumi plies her trade in the dark alleys of Shibuya. She’s left home, but we’re not sure why. At this point, it doesn’t really matter. As rain falls and the weather turns, she’s cold, hungry, and desperate for a sanctuary for the night. Along comes a familiar John, and things are looking up.

Never mind that she gets murdered; Tokyo Lives is fiction. But in reality, there are thousands of girls just like Megumi prowling the streets of Tokyo. They’ve alighted from the doldrums of their (mostly) bucolic upbringings in search of excitement and money in the big city. A strong distaste for overbearing or abusive parents is the most common precipitator.

Nobody knows for sure how many runaways there are, or how many end up as prostitutes (though this helpful article includes some stats). The Japanese only grudgingly admit such imperfections exist.

Cultural burdens play a role. The parents are so ashamed that they don’t admit their daughter has run away. With a wink and a nod, people in town whisper stories of visiting relatives or attending boarding school. In Jane Austen’s day, such tales covered up unplanned pregnancies. In modern Japan, they mask crumbling family units. And the smaller the town, the worse the indignity for the family.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

8-9-3 Deconstructed

Let’s start with the basics: The numbers 8-9-3 essentially mean yakuza. Like so much in Japanese language, it derives from word play. In the card game oicho-kabu (similar to the Western blackjack), the object is to amass three cards that add up to a number ending in nine. Therefore, 19 is the best score, while 20 is the worst possible score.

So do the math. An unfortunate hand consisting of an eight (ya), nine (ku), and three (za) adds up to 20. Yakuza members have always considered themselves losers, or outcasts, and thus the name stuck.

In my book Tokyo Lives, the meaning is elucidated in this passage:

“Ice deals a round to the contestants, including Pig Face. Cards shuffle and pass through sweaty palms, but finally the players showcase their hands. Pig Face busts with a 20, displaying a hand of 8-9-3, or ya-ku-za in slang. Chewing on his cigarette, Ice reveals a sum of 19, and roars with laughter as he collects money from the others. ‘How fitting,’ he snarls as he makes a show of raking in Pig Face’s money. ‘A worthless score from a worthless human. You were meant to be a gangster!’”