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Junichi Saga Details the Untold Life of a Yakuza Boss in Gripping Memoir: "Confessions of a Yakuza"

A genre of novel that never ceases to amaze is an untold tale. True stories that reach into a period of history and society that I would be unable to fathom otherwise. I recently dove into a fascinating book titled, “Confessions of a Yakuza,” by a Japanese doctor by the name of Junichi Saga. This is a tale that came together by sheer luck and chance. Saga opens the novel by providing some context as to how he ended up in a position to hear the life story of an early 20th-century Yakuza boss.

Saga was existing as he had been for years, conducting his practice from within his home, tending to a variety of illnesses and injuries in mainland Japan when a man nearly on his last legs comes to him and the two build a repertoire. It comes to be known that this elderly man is named Eiji, and he had spent the majority of his life in the throes of the early days of Japanese organized crime. After this brief dive into how Saga and Eiji’s relationship was established, Saga lends the majority of the book's length to a direct translation of the stories Eiji told him in his final months of life.

“Confessions of a Yakuza,” is a fascinating story due to the intricate nature in which Japan is described and established in the early-mid 1900s. Before World War II, Japan was an incredibly primitive and feudal society, one that was not designed for the faint of heart or the dishonorable. Even in the underground world of the Yakuza, honesty, valor, and trust are held to the highest standards imaginable, and the society is completely tier-based surrounding the extent of those qualities that one expresses.

Eiji outlines a fascinating tale because these early days of organized crime in Japan are the polar opposite of the prohibition-fueled rampages of violence and intoxication that marked the beginnings of mafia activity in the United States. Instead, the entirety of Yakuza activity in Japan until the late 50s was completely encompassed by gambling rings. Gambling was incredibly frowned upon in Japan for the first half of the century due to how unappealing and grim it often was to make a living in the country. Making money off luck was written off as cowardly and easy as opposed to the honorable professions of fishing, umbrella repair, or sales. Violence was also to be avoided as often as possible within the Yakuza, though if a situation did come down to such an extent, the Yakuza were meant to protect their honor and avoid losing at all costs; they would rather die than be seen as weak.

Throughout the course of “Confessions of a Yakuza,” Eiji is an incredibly gifted and colorful storyteller that makes this novel an incredibly fast and entertaining read. Eiji tells vivid tales of red light districts in Japan and the striking grasp of poverty that a large majority of Japanese citizens were clutched within at this time. The perspective this provides is enthralling as it gives a unique concept of how rapidly Tokyo and surrounding areas developed into an incredibly developed and technologically advanced society after the ruin that was laid to them in the air strikes of the Second World War.


A shocking element of Eiji’s tale in this novel lies in his description of prison in Japan at this time in history. Eiji was constantly bouncing in and out of prison due to his criminal lifestyle; at this time regular civilians who committed a crime were treated much differently by prison wardens and interrogators than known Yakuza were treated. This was simply due to the fact that the police knew that the Yakuza were meant to never break under pressure and protect their honor at all costs, which included never snitching on their organization. Eiji details the torturous methods the police and military police inflicted upon him, including whipping him with rubber hoses, standing on top of his legs while he lay on top of barbed poles, and using the harsh, freezing cold climate in northern Japan to try to break his spirits.


If nothing else, Eiji was a man who protected his honor wholeheartedly and never folded against pain or pressure from the law. This is an incredibly fascinating mindset that the book establishes as nearly universal across Japanese citizens at this time in history. Their ability to stay steadfast in the wake of horrific disasters like the Great Earthquake of 1921, relentless bombings in the 40s, famine, disease, and freezing conditions with very little shelter is prolific to be so widespread and shared as a mindset.


“Confessions of a Yakuza,” is a fascinating read that can be completed within a weekend. It opens a portal to another time and another society that was previously wholly unfamiliar to me. That is often the beauty of literature, the ability to preserve incredible and unique moments in time that would otherwise be forgotten is something we can never take for granted. Dr. Junichi Saga achieved this very purpose with his transcription of the feudal crime boss’ life story.

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