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The author of the best-selling “Memories of Silk and Straw” brings the same documentary approach to bear in “Confessions of a Yakuza,” a study of an aging gangster by the name of Eiji Ijichi.

Confessions of a Yakuza, by Junichi Saga.
272 pages
KODANSHA INTERNATIONAL, Memoir.

Ijichi was a patient of Saga, who was a doctor with his own Tokyo practice. Cognizant of being in the last coherent days of his life, Ijichi offered to tell the writer his story, which proves intimate and fascinating.

A natural raconteur, Ijichi unburdens himself in weekly taped sessions, describing stints as a Tokyo street peddler and a frontier guard in Korea during the war. He also details his involvement in gambling, an abortive elopement, work in a copper mine, black-marketeering and serving time in jail.

There is nothing quite like oral history for a dose of unalloyed reality. In this refreshingly unflattering account, we encounter a Tokyo of spiteful commercial rivalries, unsanitary fish markets, flophouses, raw sewage and superannuated prostitutes, who “went on selling their bodies till they rotted.”

But there are also hints of grace in the lives of oppressed drudgery being led around him: Ijichi describes a converted barge tied to a riverside jetty in the downtown district of Fukagawa, where boatmen have fixed up a bathtub in which their families could soak, using driftwood for fuel.

He tells of naked women and children languishing in the hot water, towels on their heads, watching the moon reflected on the surface of the river.

Read archived reviews of Japanese classics at jtimes.jp/essential.

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