Born the son of a yakuza boss in Kyoto, Manabu Miyazaki is now a best-selling author. His life may read like fiction, but he raises social, political and media facts in a manner that’s as frank as it is hard-hitting

Manabu Miyazaki is a man with multiple faces. To many Japanese, he is even thought to bear an uncanny resemblance to the “fox-eyed man” depicted in a police sketch as a suspect in a series of bizarre corporate extortion cases in the 1980s — including one in 1984 in which a company president was kidnapped, naked, by two armed men while taking a bath at home in Kobe.

The victim later escaped from his abductors, who had intended to hold him for ransom, but Miyazaki was questioned by police investigators, though he was never arrested as he had a solid alibi.

In fact, Miyazaki shrewdly turned this episode and his newfound celebrity to his advantage, using it as an opportunity to publish a book about his roller-coaster life. Indeed, he says now he is “extremely grateful” for that notoriety — and that he “made ¥100 million” through his book.

Titled “Toppamono: Outlaw, Radical, Suspect — My Life in Japan’s Underworld,” the 1996 book — in which toppamono means “someone who pushes ahead” — was, significantly, published before the statue of limitations on the extortion cases ran out in 2000. Not only has it sold 600,000 copies in Japan, and been translated into English, Chinese, Korean and French, but at home it also won Miyazaki a cultlike following widely referred to as “the fox-eyed bunch.”

Now aged 63, Miyazaki’s life, as he tells it in his book, has been nothing if not exceptional and eventful. Born as the second son of a yakuza boss in Kyoto, he grew up interacting with reckless but warmhearted members of the extended underworld “family,” which also ran a demolition business.

Then, influenced by his left-leaning private tutor, he was won over to Marxism while in high school, and soon after he entered the prestigious Waseda University in Tokyo in 1965, he was busy networking, organizing and demonstrating as a member of the Japanese Communist Party in that decade’s numerous, and often violent, student protests against “injustices,” such as tuition-fee hikes and issues such as Japan’s postwar treatment of its Korean residents.

However, like many others who were deeply involved in that movement, Miyazaki ended up dropping out of college. Then, after a brief stint as a reporter at a weekly magazine, he went back to Kyoto to take over the troubled family business, trying to meet one bank debt obligation after another.

Along the way, he says, desperation drove him to start getting involved in riskier business deals. The debts, though, kept growing, and the demolition company finally went bankrupt owing ¥2.5 billion on Oct. 25, 1980 — Miyazaki’s 35th birthday. Persuading angry creditors to write off the debts exasperated him further, especially when some took to threatening him personally with swords and pistols. Then, in an unrelated incident, on one occasion in 1986 two gunmen stormed into a Kyoto cafe and shot him and the two men he was with. Though he recovered from the bullet that went through his stomach, his companions both died on the spot.

But Miyazaki’s drama-packed life wasn’t all bad during that decade in which Japan’s asset-inflated bubble was growing at its most heady rate. In fact, he rode the wave in style, amassing huge sums — and spending lavishly — by landing one real-estate deal after another as a jiageya (land shark), whose job it is to nudge or intimidate individual owners of small parcels of land to sell them and make way for major property developers to move in.

Now single after twice marrying and being divorced from the same woman, Miyazaki, who is the father of three children with her (and several more out of wedlock, he says) spends much of his time and effort these days expounding his views on social issues — including what he sees as the sorry state of journalism in Japan. Especially critical of those in the media he blames for too often “just copying and pasting things they find on the Internet,” in 2006 — along with several prominent figures including TV anchor Soichiro Tahara and the indicted Foreign Ministry official turned award-winning writer, Masaru Sato — he cofounded the nonprofit group Forum Jinbocho, named after its venue in Tokyo’s Jinbocho district. As well as openly challenging the mainstream media through workshops and symposiums, Forum Jinbocho has also recently launched the independent Tahara Soichiro Nonfiction Award to honor the best up-and-coming nonfiction creators, either in print or broadcast media. (Applications are being accepted, in Japanese only, at www.forum-j.com/bana024.html through July 31.)

Miyazaki recently sat down at a Tokyo hotel to talk through a haze of cigarette smoke about his life, the yakuza, world politics and the police, including how yakuza members arrested in one prefecture in western Japan must be prepared to lose all of their teeth during interrogations. Apparently, smart- thinking yakuza on the wanted list of that infamous prefectural police force flee to a neighboring prefecture to be arrested in order to avoid physical abuse by investigators.

Soft-spoken and reflective, he has the cultured manner of a best-selling writer — most of the time. His demeanor changed suddenly when a waitress came around offering to refill his glass of water. ‘No,” he said sharply, causing the waitress to flinch visibly before fleeing after a few quick words of apology. Shortly afterward, as he fielded a phone call from what sounded like an old acquaintance, his voice changed again. “Oh no, I’m soooo sorry about that,” he whispered sympathetically, switching to the Kyoto dialect. “Don’t get too depressed, all right? Call me when the funeral date is confirmed.”

It’s been 13 years since you made your best-selling debut as a writer with “Toppamono,” and about three years since it was published in English. What reactions have you had to the book?

What I found interesting was that people from non-English-speaking countries responded to the English version, with journalists from Switzerland, Italy and France asking for interviews. And of course there have been ones from the United States, too, and the FT (Financial Times).

What were they most interested in?

They were most interested in my background and particularly in the existence of the yakuza in Japan. They were also curious about the philosophical and religious backgrounds of the yakuza, though a lot of the interest was purely legal. In other words, in Japan the yakuza is not illegal just for existing, whereas many countries in the West outlaw their yakuza (organized-crime gangs). In Japan, being a yakuza group or member in itself is not illegal.

Why do you think it is that, in a modern society such as Japan’s, a yakuza group involved in such things as prostitution, drug-dealing and human trafficking is legally allowed to openly set up offices, put their name plates on the wall outside and register those offices with the government?

Strictly speaking, they don’t register themselves with the government; it’s that the government acknowledges them as yakuza. In Japanese law, there is nothing that says the yakuza themselves are illegal, so it’s perfectly OK for them to have their offices. Another point is that prostitution, drug-dealing and violence exist all around the world, not just in Japan. Such activities are indeed illegal, but if you ask me who’s the world’s biggest inflicter of violence, I would say it’s the United States. Without question. The (U.S.) government is in fact the biggest gangster group. That’s why they are engaged in acts of torture at Abu Ghraib prison (in Iraq) and confinement (at the Guatanamo Bay detention center in Cuba). Compared to the level of atrocities committed in these places, acts committed by Japanese gangs probably rate only about one 100-millionth.

I don’t believe that the world has a certain level of peace and human rights running through societies. I’ll give you three examples of countries in history in which the yakuza have been eradicated: Germany under Hitler, Cambodia under the Pol Pot dictatorship and North Korea.

You mean the regimes in those countries are more scary than the yakuza?

If you allow me to be paradoxical, I think the yakuza show the maturity of a country’s democracy. I think a society with the yakuza is a sound society.

Laws are like a double-edge sword; they terminate the one (bad) side while terminating the other (good). So drugs, murders and prostitution have existed throughout human history, and the yakuza have just been an agent of such things. Where the yakuza aren’t involved, nations are. That does not mean I tolerate such acts, and if they break laws, they should be heavily penalized.

So you do think the yakuza should be punished.

Yes — give them penalties when they break laws. My point is, it’s wrong to penalize them when they are breaking no laws. The modern law says everyone is equal before the law — without a clause that says, “except those who are yakuza.”

Are many people driven into yakuza groups due to economic circumstances?

The root cause of people joining gangster groups is poverty and discrimination. I think it’s the same everywhere in the world. Today, the number of people becoming Islamic fundamentalists is growing rapidly, for example. I often go to southern Thailand, and I get the feeling that the gangs are growing there exponentially, and that absolute poverty is behind that trend. When you are in absolute poverty, and when you face absolute discrimination, you sometimes have no other choice but to break a law — simply to survive. Also, people who are discriminated against grow up with anger, so you can’t expect them to turn into ideal gentlemen. That’s often why people enter the underworld.

Recent National Police Agency statistics show that killings of children by their parents, and vice versa, are increasing. That means that families, which are the smallest social unit, are falling apart. A family is something that protects you from society, but that kind of mutual support network is being eroded. People in the yakuza do bad things at times, like killing people and selling drugs, but they do maintain a mutual support network, whether it’s used for good or bad purposes. In a yakuza community, you feel the warmth of people that present-day society has lost. The coldness of society today is not there, so it’s often more comfortable to live in a yakuza society.

Has the 1992 Law for the Prevention of Wrongful Acts by Members of Organized Crime Groups made the yakuza’s coexistence with society difficult?

Very difficult. Since that law, the Yamaguchi-gumi (Japan’s biggest yakuza group) has grown. That’s because large organizations have the knowhow, such as how to contact a lawyer when you are investigated by police, or how to support your family when you are arrested. Groups that didn’t have such knowhow have disappeared, and people belonging to those groups have joined the Yamaguchi-gumi. That law was intended to attack the Yamaguchi-gumi, but ironically it has ended up making the group grow. This kind of thing happens often; when the United States introduced Prohibition (1920-33), it made Al Capone rich.

Let me change the subject. At university you were very active in student protests as a radical member of the Japanese Communist Party. Today, the public’s interest in politics is very low. Why do you think the student movement grew so large in Japan in the 1960s?

It was a global trend. I call it the 1968 Generation. Many things happened and culminated in 1968. First, there was the Prague Spring (the liberalization reforms in Czechoslovakia), followed by the “Strawberry Statement” generation in the United States (named after a nonfiction book by James Simon Kunen, who chronicled student protests at Columbia University in New York). And in Paris, the students were also getting active. There are many reasons for all these movements, but I believe the biggest issue was the Vietnam War. I could not help but feel indignant after learning what was happening in the war through news reports. The United States got smart afterward and decided not to disclose what was really happening on the battlefields when it waged the Gulf War (of 1991).

At the core of these movements was the sense of justice shared by the young people — and in Japan these events made us wonder if Japan was heading in the right direction. These events had so much impact that they gave us opportunities to think about society in general.

You have experienced a lot in your life. I suspect you have exceptional abilities to see through people. What do you think of U.S. President Barack Obama?

My impression is that he is very similar to (former Prime Minister Junichiro) Koizumi.

In terms of his presentation style?

Yes, and the way people are responding to him. Obama is a product of populism. How did this populism come about? It was in response to cynicism against President (George W.) Bush, who, toward the end of his term, even had a shoe thrown at him! Everyone scoffed at Bush. Because people were so cynical about Bush, they are now so passionately in support of Obama. And I’m skeptical of populism. If 100 out of 100 people say something is right, I would question it, and I think that questioning such a premise is an intelligent thing to do.

Obama reminds me of (former U.S. President John F.) Kennedy. But it was Kennedy’s populism that propelled the country into the Vietnam War. Kennedy was also from an ethnic minority; he came from an Irish, Catholic family. Populism peaks in times of war; so I’m worried that Obama will be forced to fight a war and, as a result, Afghanistan will suffer horrific consequences. Afghanistan, however, could not even be conquered by the Soviet Union, so there is no way it will be by the weak-kneed United States today. Then the war could turn into a quagmire.

You recently cofounded a new literary prize, the Tahara Soichiro Nonfiction Award, along with some other noted writers and commentators. I understand one purpose of the award is to give a push to the publishing industry at a time when many magazines have recently shut. However, the decline of traditional print media is a global trend, and I wonder if you think you can counter that.

I think we can. The media have relied heavily on advertising revenue because a large part of newspapers’ revenue from subscribers goes to pay distributors’ costs. So the costs of operation at newspaper headquarters are actually covered by advertising. That’s a structural problem.

Book publishers, on the other hand, rely on support from readers for revenue.

So what is at stake is the quality of information. You can’t compete with the Internet for speed, so the depth, detail and logic will be important for the print media. Readers will pay for quality, I think. Creating nonfiction involves incredible amounts of reporting — and that costs enormous amounts of money. Only a handful of nonfiction writers can have the costs of their reporting covered by publishers, so more and more works are based on what writers find through Internet searches. Copying and pasting of information on the Internet is becoming more common. But information gathered through real reporting — going out in the field, meeting and talking with people — will still be powerful and will still be valued.

Shinsuke Hashida, a freelance journalist killed by gunmen while reporting from Iraq, was an old friend of mine, and the video footage he sent over was full of a sense of reality — something the Japanese corporate media could never deliver. The role of journalists or writers is to tell people how things really are, instead of rewriting government news releases at press clubs. That’s why we set up Forum Jinbocho and have been criticizing the media. A week before he was killed, I tried to stop Hashida from going to Iraq. I told him it was too dangerous. But he said, “Well, I’m a pro. War is what I make a living out of. There is not a greater opportunity than this.” That was the pride he had in his job.

Let me ask about a current prosecution of which you have been notably critical. After a secretary of the (main opposition) Democratic Party of Japan leader Ichiro Ozawa was arrested recently (concerning alleged irregularities with political donations), you called an urgent symposium, titled “Special Investigative Squad at the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors’ Office Turning into Seinen Shoko,” referring to the name of young naval officers in the 1930s whose coup attempts pushed Japan into militarism). Why did you give it that title?

I didn’t give much thought to the title (laughs). A question lingers over whether it was right to arrest Ozawa’s secretary when an election is imminent. The arrest itself has not breached any law, because police authorities are given the right to arrest people at any time. But some acts are wrong even when they are not illegal — if they go against customs, traditions, habits or common sense. There are many things in society that laws cannot cover. Such things I call okite. What is okite? I would say it is a set of rules within a community. There are rules for journalists, students or housewives, so the question is whether the prosecution broke the okite in the prosecutorial community.

Investigative authorities became too powerful and Japan turned into a police state after the Peace Preservation Law of 1925. Many wartime structures were disbanded after the war, such as zaibatsu conglomerates and the military, but the former Home Affairs Ministry, whose bureaucrats supported Japan’s prewar militaristic regime, was left alone and survived after the war. Prosecutors were also a part of that regime. So the institution still has an old mentality, which is: “None other than us protect this country.”

I think that the prosecutors, with this arrest, had judged whether it’s OK for (the opposition) party to take over the reins of the country. They have a clear political intention — or historically speaking, it is highly likely that they do. That’s why their move is such a big problem.

What are your views on the lay-judge system that will be introduced this month?

It’s impossible for laypeople to judge. Can you hand out a death sentence? It’s like asking a tofu shop owner to fillet a fish. You are to make a judgment about a person’s life or death. It’s like hiring a grocery store owner to preside over an operation, making them decide which organ to remove or not, saying it’s all about making operations more open to the public.

A democratic nation is run by specialist bureaucrats, and citizen participation is not always good. Specialists can often make efficient and fair decisions.

But you often cite the statistic that the judicial system, which is currently run by specialists, has a conviction rate of well over 90 percent. The system has been criticized for lacking the citizens’ point of view.

Having citizens participate in the judicial process does not change the payment structure of legal professionals (under which both judges and prosecutors are paid through the Justice Ministry). So the fundamental structure is not changing at all. To avoid public criticism, they used such fine-sounding phrases as “citizen participation.”

But can’t we make the judicial process more transparent to the public?

Videotaping police interrogations would be one thing. Human rights abuses in Japanese prisons are notorious, with prison officials also paid by the Justice Ministry. Japanese prisons are said to be worse than Abu Ghraib in the treatment of inmates.

Anyway, I’m convinced that the lay-judge system will fail.

Why are you so sure it will fail?

The lay judges will be expected to honor confidentiality agreements, but what if that duty conflicts with their rights to free expression? And what if someone who opposes the death penalty on principle is involved in a lay panel that decides to hand down a death sentence? That person might have opposed the death penalty, but nevertheless participated in the process of meting out the sentence. I think the lay-judge system and the death- penalty issue are inseparable.

To what extent would you say that the shooting incident in a Kyoto cafe in 1986 affected your outlook on life?

It didn’t change my outlook on life; it reinforced it. In other words, I became even more convinced that people do betray others — and that its a fact that people die when they are shot by a pistol. It might sound ordinary, but few people realize that firsthand. I reconfirmed my conviction that death is close to me.

Did you realize you couldn’t trust anyone?

I’ve never trusted anyone. In the shooting, I saw what kind of action people take when they are in a crisis. The man sitting to my right was targeted from the beginning and was killed. The man to my left tried to stop the killing and was shot to death himself. I tried to stop it, too. In fact, there was someone else at the scene — next to the man who was sitting to my left. That man ducked under a table and fled. So one man tried to stop it, while another tried to save his own life only. The second man’s reaction is only natural, yet the moment I received a shot in my stomach, I thought to myself, “I don’t want to be like that man under the table.” So I yelled “Stop it!” and threw an ashtray at the gunman. But I’m glad I was shot. If I had ducked under the table myself, I would not have been able to live (laughs).

You often go to China. Why is that?

I’m writing a critical biography of the boss of a major Taiwanese triad group, the Bamboo Union gang. His name is Chang An-lo. He was born in 1947. I’ve met him more than 10 times.

Why did you become interested in him?

In fact, Chang An-lo is a second- generation leader. The former boss was Chen Chi-li, who was born in 1943 and died the year before last. The Bamboo Union gang was formed around 1960, mostly by college students in Taiwan.

Both Chen and Chang were children of mainlanders (who moved to Taiwan after Japan’s colonial rule ended in 1945). They got to know each other in college and ran the gang together. In 2003 or 2004, I met Chen for the first time in Phnom Penh. Both men had been expelled from Taiwan by then, and Chang was in Shenzhen (in Guangdong Province, China).

Anyway, I met Chen because a Japanese writer approached him offering to write a book about him. Chen and Chang were both well-educated intellectuals, so Chen met the Japanese writer and read his books through a translator. He concluded that the quality of his works was good enough. But then he got interested in the idea of having another Japanese writer write about him, and asked for some ideas from a Phnom Penh correspondent of the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper, who he happened to know.

Chen — who served as a bodyguard for the former King of Cambodia Norodom Sihanouk — read one of my books, titled “Ketsuzoku (Blood Relationship),” which is about the Asian mafia, and contacted me through the correspondent. Then he died from pancreatic cancer in 2007. I went to his funeral, but I didn’t feel I had done enough reporting to write a book. Then Chang said that I could interview him and write about Chen through Chang. That’s why I’ve been visiting Chang in Shenzhen.

Finally, I’d like to ask if you have any regrets in life? If you were born again, would you live your life differently?

Put simply, if I were born again, I would do exactly the same things all over again.

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