exercises in compound storytelling

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

McMafia: whence the yakuza?

I needed three weeks or so to finish Misha Glenny's book McMafia, partly because I got really busy and partly because it didn't make the trip to Seoul. I'm an Accidental Tourist kind of traveler; I prefer to take just a carry-on (a cheap shapeless twenty-four-inch duffle bag from Target) and a laptop bag, so very little goes with me, and I tend to abandon anything I finish reading while on the road. I paid for McMafia in GBP, so it was really expensive, and I wasn't about to dump it.

Anyway, McMafia is just packed; it goes places I've never been, and it's not just a chronicle of mindless violence: Glenny occasionally tries to identify proximate causes for particular crime waves; because he's mostly a tourist himself, these analyses typically come from other published sources.

His explanation of the origins of the yakuza is fascinating: in the postwar period the Japanese government restricted the number of lawyers; I don't recall how they did this, but the result was that the concentration of lawyers in the general population was roughly one-third that of the United States or the European Union. Nearly all of them went to work in Tokyo for large corporations (according to this New York Times article, half the lawyers are in Tokyo, leaving one per thirty thousand in the rest of Japan), leaving a shortage of qualified workers to handle legal tasks across Japan. Some of these tasks fell to notary publics and accountants, but others, such as debt collection, fell to other people.

And that's where the yakuza came in; they served as collection agencies in a culture where saving face (one's own and one's debtors') necessarily required an intermediary.

In a part of the book where Glenny deals with Russia and Eastern Europe he suggests that organized crime often fills a gap in an economy during large-scale changes; in Russia's case, between the planned economy of the Soviet Union and the market economy of the future. I'd be willing to bet that the average perpetrator doesn't see himself that way.

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