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Sunday, Jan. 22, 2006


When notoriety helps sell books

TOPPAMONO: Outlaw. Radical. Suspect. My Life in Japan's Underworld, by Manabu Miyazaki. Tokyo: Kotan Publishing, 2005, 460 pp., $26.95 (cloth).
THE APPRENTICE by Lewis Libby. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, St. Martin edition, 2005, 265 pp., $12.95 (paper).

Japan's student movement ended with a whimper instead of a bang. Activists shed their fighting sticks and helmets for briefcases and suits, and everyone went back to the business of Japan Inc. But while it lasted, radicals and leftists of various stripes wreaked havoc on academia.

One such person was a scrappy lad from Kyoto, son of a building demolition subcontractor who employed workers from the lowest rungs of society, which meant it also had close ties to criminal syndicates. Unlike most of his peers, however, Manabu Miyazaki had an intellectual bent and -- as somewhat of an exception among children of such backgrounds -- gained admittance to prestigious Waseda University. This was the 1960s, when "radical student" was an oxymoron.

A dedicated member of the Japan Communist Party, Miyazaki spent most of his time networking, organizing, campaigning and demonstrating. The movement was rife with factionalism, and battles frequently flared between rival organizations. In one such battle, he writes, "we lifted [one rival] onto our shoulders and banged him against the wall of the student union a few times to quiet him down. We then took him to . . . Ome, where we beat him till he fainted. But after that, all we did was force . . . whiskey down his throat and then, when he was good and drunk, strip his clothes and set him loose."

This, observes Miyazaki, was "common behavior at the time." "As activists carrying the flag for our respective factions, we accepted that sometimes we would beat up our enemies and sometimes they would do the same to us."

Chapter 5, titled "Secret Combat Unit," highlights five months of bitter struggles between radical student groups during autumn 1968, centered at the University of Tokyo in Hongo, Bunkyo Ward. University authorities were initially reluctant to call in the riot police, and campus buildings became a bivouac for rival factions. In mid-January 1969, this culminated in the siege of Yasuda Auditorium, a 72-hour free-for-all between students and police.

Having spent all his time engaged in radical activities, Miyazaki never earned a single course credit, but nonetheless had the chutzpah to insist on taking the stage and speaking at Waseda's graduation commencement. (He was vociferously shouted down by the students and their parents.)

After putting in several years as an investigative journalist for a weekly magazine, Miyazaki returned to the construction business in Kyoto, and by the mid-1980s found himself under suspicion in a series of corporate extortion cases now known as the Glico-Morinaga incident. Miyazaki denies involvement, but the statute of limitations had not yet expired at the time of the book's publication in 1996.

A toppamono, explains Miyazaki, is "a person with a devil-may-care attitude who pushes ahead regardless." Miyazaki emerges by turns as feisty, unapologetic, open, curious, an individualist and outspoken, which surely help to explain why this well-translated autobiography has sold over 600,000 copies in the vernacular.

Unfulfilled romance

First published in 1996, "The Apprentice" was re-issued last year after its author, the former chief of staff to U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, made news headlines when he was indicted for fudging on testimony to a Washington grand jury probing the outing of a female CIA agent. But anyone who reads this novel in the hope of obtaining insights into the mind-set of neoconservative Republicans is likely to be disappointed.

The story, set at an isolated inn somewhere along the Sea of Japan coast in 1903, features an apprentice at the inn -- referred to in the first several chapters only as "the youth" -- as the main protagonist. Eventually the youth, whose name is Setsuo, is drawn into an inexplicable murder that takes place during a blizzard. He becomes complicit by removing money from the victim; but the story fails to explain who the victim was or why he was killed.

In the sub-plot, Setsuo plays a Charlie Brown unable to convey his romantic feelings to a little red-haired girl, in this case a young woman named Yukiko who belongs to a grotesque troupe of traveling performers. The two exchange longing glances over much of the book, but their adolescent urgings remain unfulfilled.

Except for the epilogue, the story takes place over a span of two or three days and is confined to a radius of perhaps a few hundred meters -- making it impossible to glean to what extent "Scooter" Libby researched Japan. The killings were done with bows and arrows and swords, which I suppose would have still been possible in 1903, although criminals at the time would have had access to firearms.

Libby may have been influenced by Kobo Abe (1924-1993), whose Kafkaesque works, such as "Woman in the Dunes," also feature moody characters in bizarre predicaments. While the book's descriptive passages draw the reader into the narrative, the plot is too incoherent, characterizations much too diluted and the sexual imagery -- Republican neocon affiliation aside -- is not so much erotic as simply weird.

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