"Gaijin" biography strikes out

An American Japanese in Tokyo gangland

By William Wetherall

A review of
Tokyo Underworld
(The Fast Times and Hard Life of an American Gangster in Japan)
New York: Pantheon Books, 1999
372 pages, hardcover

A version of this article appeared as
"Doing the dirty on a gaijin gangland king" in
Mainichi Daily News, 22 May 1999, page 9

Show and tell

Hundreds of thousands of American GIs have been stationed in Japan since 1945. So one was bound to be as daring and dumb as Nicola Koizumi aka Zappetti. And baseball writer Robert Whiting -- The Chrysanthemum and the Bat, You Gotta Have Wa, and (assisting Warren Cromartie) Slugging It Out in Japan -- was destined to cross paths with Zappetti and some of his worldly and underworld cronies, and use the tragicomic life of this Italian-American Japanese as a foil for spinning his own yarn of postwar Tokyo low life.

Zappetti, a 22-year-old Marine sergeant from East Harlem, headed one of the first parties of American troops to occupy the main islands of defeated Japan. And from the moment he first set foot on Kyushu in 1945, to his death in Tokyo in 1992 (a decade after he became Japanese and adopted his wife's family name Koizumi), he was one of the thousands of professional "gaijin" that Robert Whiting aptly characterizes as "ex- Occupationnaires, carpetbaggers, drifters on the make."

Whiting's narrative greatly varies from punchy showing:

Each player had, Zappetti estimated, 20 million to 30 million yen on the table, in stacks of freshly minted 10,000-yen notes. Behind each player stood a bodyguard-coat opened and holstered handgun exposed. There were .45s, .38s, and .357s. At the door stood two nasty-looking wrestlers -- Rikidozan apprentices -- holding shotguns. Outside, lurking in the bushes, were more armed guards, Doberman pinschers and German shepherds at their sides.

To quasi-academic telling:

The quality of crosscultural decadence in the Roppongi-Akasaka area was further enhanced by the entirely new phenomenon of high-priced Caucasian prostitutes who exclusively solicited monied Japanese. They charged outlandish fees -- 50,000 yen for thirty minutes in a backstreet 'love hotel' called the Chante -- and had more business than they could possibly handle.

Sweeping interpretation:

As the money moved from East to West with a sense of gloomy inevitability, North Americans and Europeans who assumed they were born to rule were, for the first time in modern history, being forced to come to terms with an Asian culture from a position of weakness.

And, at times, misinformation:

The Japanese Nationalist Law was first and foremost based on bloodline, and it was generally acknowledged to be extremely difficult for a Caucasian foreigner to be naturalized.

Racial paranoia

Whiting's general tag for "Caucasians" in Japan is "gaijin". By using this tag so frequently and unnecessarily, always italicized and often with a gloss to remind the reader what he thinks it means, its racial consciousness seems more his own than that which he imputes to Japanese society.

Perhaps this is why he buys into the stereotype that Japan's Nationality Law (as it is actually called) and its bureaucratic administration are somehow racist. But contrary to what he writes, neither the law nor its administrators makes it difficult for foreigners of any particular race to obtain Japanese citizenship.

Not only is race not a factor in determining Japanese citizenship, natural or naturalized, but naturalization is relatively easy for foreigners who have settled in Japan. Whiting's remark that the justice minister "was not normally prone to granting such requests, especially where Caucasians were involved" is pure racialist myth.

Whiting's discussion of Rikidozan's "nationality" is not much better. The first-sumo then-professional wrestler was born a national of Japan. If, as a colonial subject registered in Korea, he was adopted into the family of a non-colonial subject registered in Kyushu, then he himself would have become a non-colonial subject registered in Kyushu, and his nationality would have remained Japanese after the war when colonial subjects lost their Japanese nationality and became Korean or Chinese. Hence it is quite possible that Rikidozan didn't have to "become Japanese" because he was Japanese by birth (regardless of his ethnic ancestry).

And how does Whiting know that Rikidozan's Korean ancestry would have mattered to most other Japanese who liked to watch him beat "gaijin" wrestlers twice his size? Or did he just take for granted the validity of Rikidozan's fear of being more open?

Another "Japan book"

Sadly, Whiting's book, though generally entertaining to read, has too many such problems to be called good history or good biography. On page 151, he states that Zappetti would never "endure the bitter frustration of those who discovered that gaijin always meant outsider, no matter how hard they tried to assimilate. Zappetti simply didn't care." Yet on page 281 he cites friends of Zappetti who thought he "died of a broken heart" or believed that "it was his rage at Japan that killed him".

Then, in his own notes on page 301, Whiting writes that "[Zappetti's] life was almost Shakespearean-filled with passion, intrigue, betrayal and revenge. At the end he was left nearly bankrupt, broken in spirit as well as body, and consumed with hatred for the Japanese-even though by then he was a naturalized citizen."

Why should a reader of a biography have to struggle with such schizoid contradictions in the main body, and then turn to the notes for the more inspired and powerful observations? Why, indeed, are there 50 pages of finely-printed notes, many of them more interesting and insightful than the 300 pages of main text?

A better editor would have made Whiting consolidate the main body and the notes into a shorter, more integrated and truthful story. Whiting could have told it all in 300 pages, inclusive of citation notes and index. And the book would have been more affordable.

Most of Whiting's introduction of Japanese words and phrases serve no purpose, a fault of many "Japan books" that fail to reach orbital speed and become real books. Ironically, so many Japanese expressions are systematically misspelled that anyone knowing Japanese will wonder where he learned it. And the captions of the photographs, which could have been better selected, were apparently not proofread.

Whiting lived and played in the Roppongi-Akasaka area, and he became personally acquainted with Koizumi and many of the other characters in the book. And he names some two-hundred informants, and lists six-pages of English and Japanese sources. Yet Tokyo Underworld turned out to be a mere quiltwork of gossipy anecdotes and bookish commentary that fail to reveal why "the only gaijin King of Roppongi" adopted Japan far less than it adopted him.