On Barry Eisler’s A Clean Kill in Tokyo

A Clean Kill in Tokyo Cover

I bought Barry Eisler’s A Clean Kill in Tokyo on a whim when it was recently on sale at Audible as part of the “Series Sale”, where they put on sale the first two or three books that part of a series. (Not a bad idea to hook people into eventually buying or using their credits on the remaining books.) I had never heard of Eisler, and at the risk of exposing my innate snobbery, I would normally never give these books the time of day, but the Tokyo setting and the “half-Japanese, half-American” protagonist had me intrigued. I was also not sufficiently put off by the quality of the narration afforded me by Audible’s sample, and seeing as they were priced at around $6 each, ended up buying the first three books in the series.

Eisler turned out to be more than competent in reading his own work, playing up the hard-boiled nature of his prose to good effect. I do admit to Googling Eisler before I hit the “Buy” button, and reading the phrase “…worked in Japan for Matsushita” on his Wikipedia page was enough to give me hope he wouldn’t be making some cringe-worthy pronunciation mistakes or “Japan is so weird”-ing Japan.

I instantly found the book a very likable experience. The book is written in the first person, and the main character (assassin for hire John Rain) is sufficiently jaded and heartless for my liking, wracked by demons caused by his upbringing — being bullied as a kid out of his element in small-town America after his father was killed when he was a child — or the Vietnam War, where he did appropriately nasty covert shit. (According to Eisler’s bio, he spent three years with the CIA training in covert activities before after university.) Yet he also has his assassin’s code (no hits on women or children, for example), loves jazz, and lets himself get involved with the daughter of one of his targets whose assassination on the Yamanote Line opens the novel.

The book’s narration is suffused with Rain’s inner thoughts and a running commentary on anything and everything seemingly. It feels a bit like Holden in A Catcher in the Rye, or Max Payne in the Rockstar video game series. The scene where he’s angling to accidentally run into jazz pianist Midori so that she doesn’t become wise to the fact that he’s been following her all this time, and their subsequent conversation, is one that particularly stands out. 

The book also goes fairly deep into the arcane politics of post-war LDP-dominated Japan, the rampant corruption and back-room dealing, and the intertwining of industry, mainly construction, the government, and the yakuza. While I understand the rough outlines of all that to know that Eisler knows of what he writes, a lot of it is so convoluted that it was hard to follow (the audiobook format is a bit to blame here I think). Eisler also delves far more into the shadier parts of American and CIA involvement in Vietnam that I would have expected, and having read my fair share of Vietnam War histories, this too felt spot on. 

The book is so well grounded in this political and historical milieu that it makes you start to wonder if what ought to be just plot points so the book stays in genre — that is, assassinations of government ministers meant to look like natural deaths, or the murdering of American print journalists so they can’t reveal any of the corruption (which of course the Japanese press wouldn’t touch) —  could actually be going on in today’s Tokyo. (On his website Eisler points to a New York Times story about devices that attack a target’s pacemaker so that the death looks natural. Yikes!)

Eisler ends the book with an audiobook-exclusive “author’s note” of sorts, and it’s delightful and not something I’ve ever heard before. He acknowledges that in two instances he took license with the location of a place, and directs us to his website for more ephemera about Tokyo and his books. His site is one of the better author sites I’ve seen, I have to say, with extras like “John Rain’s Top Ten Jazz Albums You Might Not Have Heard Of” and “Personal Safety Tips from Assassin John Rain”, as well as photos of Eisler from his Tokyo days. He also has a very in-depth page of errata which warms my heart for some unexplained reason. 

Highly recommended. I’m looking forward to starting the next John Rain book in the series soon.

Travels near and far

Cover of New Yorker Issue No. 3680Yesterday at Book Off I somewhat fortuitously — for I hadn’t even noticed the “foreign books” shelves until I was in the checkout line — picked up for 100 yen an old (2 years ago) edition of The New Yorker — the “Winter Fiction” edition. My commute is a series of short train rides not really conducive to anything more than staring out the various windows — not a bad thing of course, but I’m getting to the point where new visual discoveries are infrequent. As a consequence of my commuting pattern, my reading activity has gone way down. I thought this winter fiction would be sufficiently bite-sized to fill the reading void a bit.

On the way to work I read “The Bible” by Marguerite Duras. I don’t have much intelligent to say about the story itself except that I liked it, and I marveled that I could feel as if I knew the female character completely in the space of two pages (the male character less so, but he was more a symbol of something, a foil for a shoe store clerk). I mentally dragged my highlighting pen over this passage:

In a sense, she was lucky; she told herself that she learned things when she was with him. But those things brought her no pleasure. It was as if she had already known them, so small was her need to learn them.

But more than the story itself I found myself thinking about the short story, and how much I love the form. Short stories are like traveling on a puddle-jumping airplane: when the journey is over, you think “wow that was quick” but all the same, you are in a different place than when you started.

Short stories appeal to my sense that it is impossible to tell the whole story, so why even try.

On the way home I read (or rather started — I finished it at home) “My Father’s Suitcase,” by Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish novelist. This isn’t a short story but rather the text of a 2006 Nobel Lecture (available online here). Though a speech, it reads like an essay — another beloved form.

This piece is wonderful and beautiful in so many nuanced ways — about father and son, and about writing, and books. A paragraph toward the end about why he writes, too long to quote in full here, could easily stand in for my own sentiments, with the change of a few words here and there:

I write to be alone. Perhaps I write because I hope to understand why I am so very, very angry at all of you, so very, very angry at everyone….I write not to tell a story, but to compose a story. I write because I wish to escape from the foreboding that there is a place I must go but – just as in a dream – I can’t quite get there. I write because I have never managed to be happy. I write to be happy.

Earlier, Pamuk writes about journeys and traveling:

The writer who shuts himself up in a room and first goes on a journey inside himself will, over the years, discover literature’s eternal rule: he must have the artistry to tell his own stories as if they were other people’s stories, and to tell other people’s stories as if they were his own, for this is what literature is. But we must first travel through other people’s stories and books.

Physically I traveled there and back. My material self was grateful for the security of the home I left in the morning and returned to in the evening, and for the salary earned in between.

Spiritually I got on a one-way train this morning and for this I’m grateful to the writers in question, and for coming to them via an American magazine found in a Japanese bookstore and costing less than a dollar.

Yakuza reads

I recently read two books about organized crime in Japan, which of course means books about the yakuza. I will summarize my thoughts briefly below.

Yakuza: Japan's Criminal Underworld, Expanded Edition

Yakuza: Japan’s Criminal Underworld, Expanded Edition
David E. Kaplan, Alec Dubro
(University of California Press, 2003)

Originally published in 1986, this “expanded edition” was published a few years ago, and it’s hard to imagine there’s a more comprehensive book in English on the subject of Japan organized crime. It’s also hard to imagine, given the intimidation and threats the yakuza bring to bear related to anything negative published about them in Japan, that such a comprehensive book exists in Japanese.

Indeed, one of the main themes running through the book, eye-opening and depressing at the same time, is how entrenched organized crime is within Japan’s social and political fabric. It’s not just the tattooed, pinkie-less punch-permed toughs that one usually associates with the syndicates, but the suited racketeers shutting down stockholder’s meetings (sokaiya), or the politicians relying on yakuza money (or muscle) to get elected, or the “respectable businessmen” laundering yen, that make up today’s yakuza. You begin to wonder if there’s anyone not “associated” in some way with them.

Kaplan and Dubro do a great job tracing the yakuza from their beginnings as master-less samurai up to their present-day manifestation. The book is very detailed (almost dizzyingly so) about all the various “rackets” the crime groups are in, their attempts to expand overseas, and their relationships with other crime syndicates like the Mafia or The Triads. But where the book really shined for me was in unravelling all the ties amongst convicted Class-A war criminals like Yoshio Kodama and Ryoichi Sasakawa, their cooperation with US intelligence during the American occupation (to fight Communism), and how their tainted money helped not only create the Liberal Democratic Party but also the modern yakuza. Reading all this, you soon begin to realize why there probably will never be a Rudy Giuliani style take-down of the yakuza. There are just too many people in important positions profiting from their associations with crime figures.



Tokyo Underworld: The Fast Times and Hard Life of an American Gangster in Japan

Tokyo Underworld: The Fast Times and Hard Life of an American Gangster in Japan
Robert Whiting
(Vintage, 2000)

This book is ostensibly the life story of one Nick Zapetti, who lived in Japan for almost 50 years, and made his fortune with a series of Italian restaurants named Nicola’s. I’d never heard of the guy before (he passed away in 1992), but author Robert Whiting sure knew he was sitting on a gold mine of a story: an Italian-American from New York with relatives in the Mafia, involved in all sorts of shady and illegal activities in Occupation Japan, owner of a restaurant that was the place to be for celebrities and Japanese yakuza, more than passing acquaintances with the hugely popular (and secretly Korean) pro wrestler Rikidozan and his Korean patron and gangland boss Hisayuki Machii, several times jailed, four times married, many times sued, and one time naturalized Japanese citizen, and at one time the richest foreigner in Japan. Whiting must have been licking his chops as he bided his time before publishing his book, needing to try to confirm or corroborate all the amazing stories Zapetti had told him before he passed away. (He might have also considered it prudent to let some of the other folks he wrote about, like Machii, pass away.)

But while a great story in and of itself, Whiting doesn’t just give us Zapetti’s biography but rather uses it as the glue to hold together a myriad of stories related to post-war Japan and Tokyo’s underworld, and Whiting does such a good job weaving back and forth from Zapetti’s life to the larger picture that at first, I hadn’t even realized Zapetti was the main character (to be honest, I only realized the book’s subtitle — “The Fast Times and Hard Life of an American Gangster in Japan” — about half-way through the book). It’s the popular, cultural history to Kaplan/Dubro’s drier, almost academic look.

One thing I also appreciated about the book was the very detailed notes section at the back. Ostensibly to note the source(s) of what Whiting was writing about, in reality the notes section is so full of supplemental information that it becomes in effect an extra chapter. It also goes a long way toward showing the depth and breadth of the research Whiting put into writing the book.



I’m really glad that I read these books back to back, and in the order I did (Kaplan/Dubro’s Yakuza first). While one certainly doesn’t need a detailed history of the yakuza to appreciate Whiting’s more popular social history, it does help put a lot of the important figures like Kodama and Machii into context, and makes Whiting’s book a nicer, breezier read. The books really complement each other, and it was really serendipitous that I found the Whiting book on sale as I was reading the Kaplan/Dubro one. In a way, I needed something to breathe a bit more life into the more academic account, and Whiting’s book was just the ticket.