Television images of Japanese CEOs tearfully apologizing for poor business decisions bolster the notion that the Japanese business culture is an environment full of eccentric customs and unique traditions. So what happens when a group of motivated, young, and somewhat reckless Americans try to break into this culture and infuse a some Western bravado into the East? Ugly Americans, the intriguing book written by Ben Mezrich, chronicles the true story of a group of brazen American traders who simultaneously cash in on the Japanese financial markets, challenge what is considered legal, and tangle with the Japanese Mafia, the Yakuza.
Ugly Americans begins with John Malcolm fresh out of Princeton and without the slightest bit of an idea of what to do with his Ivy League degree. Out of the blue, he gets a phone call from a stock trader he met while in Japan playing an exhibition football game there. Three days after the call, Malcolm is on a plane flying to Japan, leaving the U.S. for only the second time in his life. Before he even exits Itami Airport in Japan, Malcolm experiences the differences in cultures. But despite not fitting in with Japanese culture, Malcolm has few problems getting comfortable trading on the Nekkei, the Japanese stock market. His first job in Japan is nothing more than a key-puncher in Osaka, but eventually he earns a position in the epicenter of Japanese trading: Tokyo. It’s in Tokyo where the big sharks swim, and Malcolm is soon introduced to the high risks, high rewards, and the dark underbelly of the Japanese trading culture. Malcolm’s success is aided by his powerful boss, John Carney, who manages to have the right information, instinct, talent, and guts to make successful hundred million-dollar bets on the Nekkei.
But Malcolm quickly learns that the Japanese Mafia, the Yakuza, has access and influence that makes Carney look like a small fish. Try as he may, Malcolm cannot ignore the rising conflict of interest between the Western and Eastern ways of doing business and the collision course Malcolm and John Carney’s business is on with the Yakuza. Just as soon as Malcolm is able to enjoy the spoils of being a successful trader in Japan, he must deal with the inexorable sense of an impending showdown with the Yakuza. How this Jersey kid manages to make it out of Japan with his money, his girl, and all ten fingers requires skill and tact not taught in the Ivy League classrooms.
It’s easy to imagine Mezrich's book as a movie, with the story of the man attaining the American dream (albeit in Japan), the forbidden love, loyalties tested, and the happy ending. With complicated technical trade terms and concepts held to a minimum, the story relies more on shock value, be it dollar amounts or fleeting peeks into the Japanese sex industry, to keep the reader’s attention. But keep the reader's attention this book does, and there’s no denying that Mezrich has chronicled a remarkable story of a world of money and opportunity few people in this world experience that makes the book very hard to put down. If you’re headed to the beach or plan on logging some miles on a treadmill, then grab Ugly Americans, as this entertaining book will make the hours go by quickly and will have you shaking your head in bewilderment at the risks and the rewards these people experienced.