Do you know D.C.?
Get our free newsletter to stay in the know about local D.C.
Pantheon, 372 pp, $27.50
Nonfiction books these days frequently sport overinflated titles that are tethered to earth only by more realistic subtitles. Robert Whiting’s Tokyo Underworld: The Fast Times and Hard Life of an American Gangster in Japan, however, reverses the pattern. The subtitle is altogether too cautious, while the title gives a better sense of the book’s scope. When Whiting, a longtime resident of Japan, says, “Tokyo underworld,” he doesn’t just mean the petty gangsters of the yakuza, the Japanese mob. He also means the CIA, Lockheed, Richard Nixon, Caesar’s Palace, Korean fixer Tong Sun Park, Indonesian President Sukarno, George Bush’s brother Prescott, and Japanese war-criminal-turned-influence-peddler Yoshio Kodama. And they’re not all in the book just because they liked Nick Zappetti’s pizza.
Zappetti is the American gangster of the title, an ex-Marine from New York who arrived in Tokyo shortly after World War II and managed to convince just about everyone that he was a member of the Mafia. Zappetti’s story is the thread that spans Whiting’s book, in part because the restaurateur was American, in part because he talked to the author at length, and in part because he’s safely dead. But Whiting’s book encompasses far more than one guy who sold pizza to Japanese mobsters and their American friends, even if that guy did become a millionaire in the process. Tokyo Underworld is nothing less than the street-level companion piece to Patrick Smith’s Japan: A Reinterpretation, the 1997 book that explains how U.S. policy designed postwar Japan to run on collusion and corruption.
The criminal networks that became central to the new Japan started on a modest scale, suitable for a country impoverished by war. The traditional caste system lost its meaning in the makeshift urban markets where everyone bartered in the desperate days of the late ’40s, and prostitution became one of the quickest and most reliable methods for transferring wealth from the occupying American troops to the starving locals. To prevent ugly incidents, the U.S. occupation authorities deliberately didn’t send soldiers who had actually fought the Japanese to occupy their country. Instead, they chose fresh young recruits, for whom Japan proved a lark—and a chance to make some easy cash. Whiting cites one informal study that found that 90 percent of the residents of one makeshift U.S. barracks were dealing liquor, cigarettes, and other black-market items from the PX. By 1946, GIs were sending roughly $8 million a month—more than the whole military payroll—back to the U.S.
Into this free-market free-for-all came Nick Zappetti, a sergeant who took a local discharge in Tokyo in 1946. His first coup was selling smuggled lighter flints; soon he was dealing black-market beer. By 1948, he had a Japanese wife—the first of three—and a newly built American-style house in the suburbs. Deported after the beer racket was busted, Zappetti used his paltry Mafia connections to get back to Tokyo. There he created a large criminal network, with the help of officials at the Soviet Embassy, who expected the black market to discredit Japanese capitalism. After a few more adventures, one of which led to jail, Zappetti opened Nicola’s, the first of what were to be many Italian restaurants. The location was Roppongi, then a quiet area whose principal advantage was its proximity to the headquarters of the U.S. 1st Cavalry. Thus Zappetti established what was to become Tokyo’s busiest nightlife district.
When I first visited Japan, in 1985, pizza had yet to reach American junior-high-cafeteria level (not surprising, really, when you consider that both bread and cheese are mysteries to traditional Japanese cuisine). So I was amazed to learn that Zappetti had successfully introduced the dish 30 years before. Not as amazed, however, as I was to encounter the other footing for Tokyo’s underworld: professional wrestling.
Japanese fans have long loved sumo, a form of wrestling whose appeal is generally lost on outsiders, but in the ’50s, they thrilled to a considerably less austere form of the sport. It all started when well-known retired sumo wrestler Rikidozan and his partner, Kimura, faced two American champions, Ben and Mike Sharpe, in an exhibition of puro-resu (Japlish for “pro wrestling”). The match was shown on both of Japan’s new TV networks, and mobs clogged prominent Tokyo parks and plazas where outside TV sets had been situated. It’s estimated that more than a third of the Japanese population watched with increasing excitement as Rikidozan pummeled his larger opponents. This was a moral struggle, and when Rikidozan and Kimura triumphed, it validated the war-scarred Japanese. Of course, the match was fixed.
Because American civilians were rare in Japan, Zappetti was soon enlisted to wrestle. And, naturally, such roughneck celebrities as Rikidozan came to hang out at Nicola’s, which was also patronized in its early years by Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, and Harry Belafonte. In fact, Rikidozan and Zappetti had something in common: Although the former was a national hero and the latter was one of the few Westerners ever to become a Japanese citizen, both remained outsiders. Rikidozan was born in Korea—an embarrassment to Japanese racial pride that was carefully hidden.
One of the few people who knew the wrestler’s secret was Yoshio Kodama, a right-wing boss who was imprisoned by the Allies for his semi-official wartime role in looting China. After his release, in 1949, Kodama became a powerful fixer, just the sort of man American authorities found useful. In 1958, Whiting writes, Kodama became a CIA operative, creating a powerful link between U.S. foreign policy and the yakuza. When President Eisenhower visited Tokyo in 1960, Kodama organized a “security force” of 30,000 mobsters and rightists to protect him from leftist demonstrators. (Whiting doesn’t mention that Kodama was also a crucial ally of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, another man who exploited anti-communism for his own purposes.)
Understandably, Whiting knows more about Zappetti and Rikidozan than he does about the secretive Kodama, so he follows the pizza baron and wrestler throughout their picaresque careers. (Rikidozan died from the effects of a nightclub stabbing in 1963; Zappetti from a heart attack in 1992.) The restaurateur’s story is particularly telling, because his fortunes declined as the Japanese economy boomed, giving various gangsters and hustlers the confidence to coerce or cheat Americans more openly and flamboyantly.
Despite Zappetti’s and Rikidozan’s recurring roles, Tokyo Underworld is more than just some wild yarns about a few eccentrics who managed to thrive in a country where conformity is one of the greatest virtues. Whiting throws light on the many shadowy links between the U.S. government and American corporations and the Japanese rightists and racketeers (often the same thing) who collaborated with them. Thus we learn how nightclub hostesses spied on American aerospace executives, how Sukarno married a Japanese showgirl who had been hired (indirectly) by Kodama to keep an eye on the Indonesian tyrant, and how Kodama (with CIA approval) arranged the $1.5 million payoff that got Lockheed a contract to sell fighters to the Japanese government.
That payoff, on which Kodama got a 50 percent commission, happened in 1959 but didn’t become public knowledge until 1976, when Sen. Frank Church led an investigation into Lockheed’s activities. The revelations led to the downfall of Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka and a tax-evasion charge against Kodama. Kodama died in 1984, convinced that his lucrative career was a casualty of Watergate. After all, hadn’t Richard Nixon himself traveled to Hawaii to lobby Tanaka to buy U.S. aircraft? (That he pushed specifically for Lockheed is widely suspected but not confirmed.)
The American connection continues with tales of massive debts run up at Caesar’s Palace by Japanese gangsters; Koreagate mastermind Tong Sun Park’s ties to Kodama’s gang-based but quasi-legit corporation, TSK; and Prescott Bush’s role as a consultant for a mob-run real estate firm.
Whiting is a fine storyteller, if not an elegant writer. Still, Tokyo Underworld could have used a little more attention from an editor. The book repeatedly defines wa, Japanese for “group harmony,” while leaving other concepts unexplained. (Whiting’s previous book is You Gotta Have Wa.) In a glitch obviously produced through the wonders of word-processing software, one sentence directly follows another, slightly different version of the same sentence. And the book botches the name of the Yamanote Line, the commuter-rail loop that is more essential to Tokyo than the Red Line is to Washington.
These are minor irritants, however, in an entertaining book that is far more than an entertainment. The corrupt Japanese system that began as a collaboration between small-time mobsters and smaller-time GIs is now entrenched. For example, it’s estimated that the yakuza collect roughly 50 percent of all debts in Japan. As Whiting makes abundantly clear, civic-minded Japanese who want to understand how such arrangements came to be accepted can look to their ally across the Pacific. Nick Zappetti wasn’t the only American who helped make Tokyo’s underworld a boomtown. CP