January 11th, 2011


2010: Reading Review

Before I post a review of the last book I started in 2010, I wanted to give a brief overview of reading throughout the year.
2010 was a great year for my reading habits. I got enough time to read at work (especially in the spring, when there were long hours in the loading dock), and the habit got noticed by coworkers such that I've now loaned out a few books. Being able to pass things on and spread the habit is something I'm proud of.
Also, totaling up the page count from last year, I'm proud to announce in 2010 I read 5,690 pages, above my goal of 5000. I'm pleased, and I'm even more pleased that I discovered using this space to review books, and therefore organize my thoughts about them. It's been good for me, and hopefully some of you have enjoyed them as well.
In 2011 my reading habits may well change. For one thing, two of my christmas gifts were subscriptions to highbrow magazines, and once those subscriptions actually start I may find the more episodic nature of articles fits in better with my work reading habits than do full books. Still, I hope to get through at least a few as the year progresses. There are always more on the shelves, after all.
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To summarize this book in one word: de-pressing.
This is not because the book is badly researched, poorly written, or any other flaw stemming from the authors or their approach. Rather, it is depressing because the authors have done their job well, and pointed out how Japanese organized crime has survived and thrived by turn over the course of many years, and how that ultimately means that honest people have been intimidated, extorted, and otherwise robbed.
The book focuses on the 20th century, as records of underworld activity are functionally non-existant before that (the revised edition is circa 2002, so would not have had time to include data from this new millenium). Still, it's quite a story. The absolute nadir of the book is fairly early on, when the authors tell that many of the ultra-rightist gangster leaders, after making a killing in occupied China, were arrested by the US occupation, then released several years later without being brought to trial because their assistance was desired by certain occupation officials (and later CIA operatives) in strong-arming the Japanese left into submission. In other words, given the choice between ultra-rightist criminals and pacifistic democratic socialists, the Americans took the former.
That helped lead to decades of heavily influential mobsters, including some that played kingmaker for Prime Ministers. That part of the story, though it doesn't hit as close to home, was still shocking.
The book is not nearly as gruesome as I thought it might have been: there are no real descriptions of the violent beatings and the like that the Yakuza did some times inflict on their opponents.
The book ends, like so many true stories, with nothing resolved. The Yakuza have changed over time, becoming more violent and smarter, but in doing so they've lost a lot of their influence. Politicians once needed Yakuza support behind the scenes to do campaign work, but now the Yakuza's image and more thorough press and police investigations mean politicians can't afford to accept that kind of support if they want to win.
It's worth noting that the authors' background is as journalists and that does effect how they gather their information and put it together. Nothing that's a deal breaker, but something I was definitely aware of at several points, especially when they started talking about resources and methodology.
Overall, recommended. Not the best thing I've ever read, but a very good treatment of the subject, and helps frame some of the cultural exchange happening all around the Pacific Rim.