We used to visit my grandparents every weekend when I was a child. One of my uncles lived with my grandmother and I used to be daunted by his stern demeanour.

Because of the hot humid weather in Singapore, he rarely wore a shirt around the apartment, revealing the impressive tattoo of dragons dancing amongst clouds that covered his entire back. I found this fascinating and wondered about the story behind it.

Confessions of a Yakuza by Junichi Saga opens with the author describing his first encounter with his new patient, Eiji Ijichi.

An elderly man, tall and solid-shouldered, turned up at my clinic in Tsuchiura, a town about an hour away from Tokyo by train… I got him to strip to the waist. His whole back was covered with a tattoo – a dragon-and-peony design, though the colors had faded with the years, leaving the dragon’s scales pale, like stylized clouds, and its whiskers almost at vanishing point. Even so, the design was striking and, in its way, oddly attractive… I would have liked to photograph it if possible, but I’d never seen the man before in my life, and something about his air of absolute assurance made me hesitate, so in the end I never got around to making the suggestion.

Originally published in Japanese under the title of Asakusa bakuto ichidai in 1991, this memoir is based on a series of stories told to Saga by Ijichi, a former yakuza boss. Translated into English by John Bester, this was initially published as The Gambler’s Tale: A Life in Japan’s Underworld.

Ijichi was in his seventies and dying when he went to see Saga to help relieve his pain (not to treat his illness). I suppose he had nothing to lose or hide when he recounted his stories to his doctor.

Confessions of a Yakuza provides a candid and vivid account of Ijichi’s life after he arrived in Tokyo in the 1920s and worked for an uncle who was a coal merchant, his initiation into the Dewaya gang which controlled the gambling dens in Asakusa, his military stint in occupied Korea, his experiences in prisons – including a terrifying confinement in the military for planning to desert the army, and the women he got entangled with.

It was fascinating to read about the lives of the yakuza in the early to mid-twentieth century. Back then, the main business of the yakuza was illegal gambling. They were not involved in prostitution, drug trafficking, construction or blackmail, unlike some of the groups in modern-day Japan.

What I appreciated even more about this book was to learn about the lives of those who were poor and outcast, who led downtrodden lives, in Japan.

The descriptions are brutally vivid. Take this memory of a “skid row” in Tokyo in 1920s and the desperate people who stayed in the flophouses:

Don’t get the idea that all the people living there were men: there were women, too. Whores, every one of them – women who used to work in the brothels… then got old or caught the clap and lost their jobs and drifted down the scale till they landed up there. They’d latch onto some man who’d found work and was a bit flush, and sell themselves on a straw mat spread out behind the lumber down by the river. They couldn’t take time off just because they were a bit sick, or they’d got a temperature, or some skin trouble. Nobody helped them. So they went on selling their bodies till they rotted on them.

I enjoyed reading Confessions of a Yakuza and am glad that I picked up this book at a secondhand bookshop. It is not often that one gets such an intimate insight into the world of the yakuza, shedding some light on the code of honour and sense of integrity in these organised crime syndicates.

If you are interested to learn more about the yakuza, Confessions of a Yakuza will be a good start. Odo Yakuza Tokyo photo book by Belgian photographer, Anton Kusters, looks like it would be another interesting reference to these organisations. Is there any other noteworthy literature or film on the yakuza that you would suggest?

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