Q. When you wrote your book, what period of your life gave you the most pleasure to recall?
A. 1968. This was the time during the Vietnam War when throughout the world there were anti-war demonstrations and movements by students. I think that was the most pleasurable time of my life when I look back on it.
Self-professed outlaw and rebel Manabu Miyazaki died on 30 March, aged seventy-six. His death generated the expected raft of obituaries in the Japanese press but, despite the relative fanfare that greeted the English-language publication of his memoir in the mid-2000s, his death seems to have gone largely unnoticed in the anglophone world.
Miyazaki is often regarded as an archetypal countercultural figure in Japan, as a rebel and rogue. This reputation is, at least in part or even in whole, the result of his own savvy self-marketing (or that of his publishers). He proved himself adept at aggrandizing and his romantic views on the yakuza also slot easily into mainstream discourse (cemented by cinema) about the Japanese mafia. In his view, the yakuza were, at least originally, honourable people whose role complemented that of the police, and the lack of secrecy about the yakuza — such as maintaining offices — remains important to understanding its place in Japanese society. A crime committed by a true “outlaw”, Miyazaki believed, is not something horrific, like an arbitrary murder. “When outlaws commit a crime, they look for a very clear purpose. It is either for honour or for money,” he remarked in 2005. And the political rebel, another kind of outlaw with which Miyazaki was well acquainted, also had a “purpose”.
In this respect, Miyazaki might be positioned as a flashy version of the social bandit that Eric Hobsbawn famously identified (or perhaps, that manner of Robin Hood figure is how Miyazaki himself wanted us to think of him — though not giving to the poor but at least taking the rich and powerful down a peg or two). As Hosbawn wrote in Bandits, “bandits, by definition, resist obedience, are outside the range of power, are potential exercisers of power themselves, and therefore potential rebels.”
Miyazaki’s memoir, Toppamono: Outlaw. Radical. Suspect—My Life in Japan’s Underworld, published in Japanese in 1996 and in English (with a foreword by Robert Whiting, himself a noted author and memoirist) in 2006, was not only a popular book, it has been widely cited by scholars as an account of the Long Sixties, though Miyazaki’s experiences and trajectory were far from typical. (In fact, it should arguably be referenced more because of what made Miyazaki so unusual, as an outsider’s perspective.) Zenkyōtō memoirs are a veritable cottage industry, yet Miyazaki’s bestseller (600,000 copies) stands out amid the welter of standard leftist accounts (and also by default because it has been translated, while whole shelves of similar books remain obscure beyond the shores of Japan). Miyazaki belies standard dualisms of left and right, nor does he easily conform even to what we might expect from a countercultural and anti-establishment figure, someone who (in the words his publisher) “has spent a lifetime in conflict with authority”. For a start, he was a wealthy celebrity by the end. So what kind of rebel was Miyazaki? A clue is there in the title of his memoir, which derives from a Kansai dialect word meaning someone with a devil-may-care attitude.
Like all memoirs, however, his should be treated with kid gloves. Issues of credibility always cling to life writing and Toppamono is no exception. It is a slick, fun read, and Miyazaki is possibly playing to the gallery at times in his happy-go-lucky portrayal of a scrappy life akin to a picaresque adventure. As the English translation’s publicity blurb puts it: “Shot, stabbed, and beaten, Manabu Miyazaki somehow emerged intact from his first fifty years to put his astonishing life story down on paper.”
The basic facts don’t dispute this per se. Miyazaki was born to a yakuza father in Kyoto and his underworld background meant he was at odds with polite society from the get-go. After failing to get into the prestigious Waseda University in the mid-1960s, he joined the Japanese Community Party. When he finally passed the entrance exam for Waseda, he became a leading member of the JCP’s “foot soldiers” on the campus, the Akatsuki Kōdōtai fighting corps (though the JCP was officially opposed to violence and nominally avoided direct clashes with New Left factions).
Miyazaki claims to have been attracted to student politics by the violence, by the illicit chance to fight ultra-nationalists, sports students and other radical leftists. “I felt that being a Communist was a lot cooler than being a yakuza,” he enthuses in his memoir. This recalls what Akira Asada later said about the Long Sixties in Japan: that the chauvinism and romanticism attracted men but this appeal was also one of the forces that subsequently warped the movement. “The romanticism of the movement was more martial and male-chauvinist,” Asada remarked in 2000. “So when its impetus was frustrated, it turned more quickly and disastrously to internal violence.”
This romanticism also shapes legacy. In an obituary of Miyazaki published in the summer 2022 issue of Jōkyō, a periodical with deep roots in the Japanese New Left, the critic and former Bund activist Osamu Mikami emphasises Miyazaki’s exploits in the Akatsuki Kōdōtai and has apparently little time or inclination for other aspects of Miyazaki’s life and career.
In discussions of the Long Sixties in Japan and beyond, it is common to frame the era around oppositional politics and, unless one is inclined to brave the complex and often murky waters of the various factions’ ideological nuances in detail, discourse quickly descends into enumerations of spectacular incidents, strung together to form a rough, easy-to-digest narrative (and some of my own efforts over the years have unwittingly fallen into this trap). Miyazaki’s later popularity possibly stems from how he played up to that mindset, that in the 1960s it didn’t matter what you were fighting for or who you were fighting, as long as you were fighting.
After his time as a student rebel, Miyazki left the JCP. Mikami suggests that Miyazaki only joined the party by chance and had misgivings from the start. In this sense, his departure represents not the familiar kind of “conversion” — often called tenkō, in reference to pre-war JCP apostasy — that many of his generation underwent once the barricades had come down, but simply the inevitable corollary of someone who was more attracted to the JCP as an extension of an innate anti-authoritarianism instead of a belief in Marxist ideology.
Miyazaki became a journalist in the 1970s and then ran his family’s demolition business in Kyoto. The latter would land him in trouble with police, when he was accused of extortion. He was eventually arrested and released without charge, though his business went bankrupt. In the following decade, he became a kind of outlaw figure involved with shady land deals and the yakuza in the Wild West of Japan’s Bubble era. His reputation was such that he was for a time a prime suspect in the infamous Glico–Morinaga kidnapping and blackmail case, one whose perpetrators was known as the “fox-eyed man”.
He even had political aspirations in late 1990s and early 2000s, though his “party” name — Dennō Toppatō, roughly Cyberbrain Toppa Party, but known in English as the Internet Breakthrough Party of Japan — suggests these were only half-serious, a quasi-parodic gesture cashing in on his notoriety soon after publishing his popular memoir in 1996.
The party was formed by Miyazaki essentially to campaign on a single issue: the new wiretapping law passed in August 1999 that gave the police increased surveillance powers. The party supported candidates from other parties who opposed the wiretapping law, such as Shin’ichirō Kurimoto, a judge on the TV show Iron Chef as well as an academic and member of the House of Representatives. When Miyazaki failed to win a seat in the 2001 House of Councillors election’s national proportional representation block, his party disbanded (as planned). The effectiveness of this campaigning is questionable and in hindsight may seem merely a stunt by a savvy author keen to stay in the limelight that he appeared to crave. Miyazaki’s election poster, instead of disguising his dubious past, highlighted his time as prime suspect in the Glico–Morinaga case: “with the fox-eyed man’s ‘poison’, get the better of the ‘poison’ of the corrupt bureaucracy.”
The wiretapping law was a cause that united yakuza (usually associated with ultra-nationalism) and the Left, since it enabled police tactics that could be utilized effectively against both. It is, then, a characteristic example of Miyazaki’s status and identity: operating in a sphere that didn’t adhere to classic political boundaries, positing himself as an anti-government figure with wide appeal. Miyazaki was a “bipartisan” radical, able to court figures from other sides of the political spectrum (and reap the rewards in terms of publishing contracts and media appearances). At a jocular 2005 press conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan to promote the translation of his memoir, for instance, Miyazaki expressed admiration for the words of the anarchist Shūsui Kōtoku — a strange match with his pro-yakuza stance. His wealth, about which he was very open, if not boastful, further sits uneasily with quotations from executed anarchists. Bipartisan, then, but also contradictory.
After his successful memoir, Miyazaki wrote numerous other books about such topics as the buraku and yakuza. He remained a noisy thorn in the side of the establishment, penning a book critical of the police handling of a crime. In 2010, he even sued the Fukuoka police for asking convenience stores to remove yakuza-themed manga and books from its shelves. He argued it was a violation of freedom of expression, though it was personal too, since his own publications were targeted. The lawsuit was eventually thrown out. It surely provoked little surprise when Miyazaki was one of the most prominent people to speak out against anti-yakuza legislation in 2012.
Yakuza advocate (or even apologist). Communist. Criminal. Suspect. Contrarian. Provocateur. Bestselling author. Celebrity. All of that and more, but perhaps one word encapsulates Miyazaki best of all: toppamono.