The Chicago Syndicate: Tokyo Joe: The Man Who Brought Down the Chicago Mob (Mafia o Utta Otoko)

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Tokyo Joe: The Man Who Brought Down the Chicago Mob (Mafia o Utta Otoko)

The yakuza, Japan's homegrown mobsters, are favorites of local filmmakers but not documentarians, for reasons entirely understandable. A documentary that seeks to delve into the inner workings of the Yamaguchi-gumi might find an audience, but the hurdles to making it, such as scouting subjects willing to dish openly (and possibly suicidally) on camera, would be formidable. Better to make another TV-friendly program on tuna fishermen.

Documentarian Ken'ichi Oguri, backed by uber-producers Kazuyoshi Okuyama and Chihiro Kameyama, has finessed this difficulty by focusing his new film, "Tokyo Joe: The Man Who Brought Down the Chicago Mob (Mafia o Utta Otoko)," on Ken Eto — a Japanese-American FBI informant who put 15 Chicago mobsters and mob associates behind bars in the 1980s.

Chicago Mobster Ken Eto AKA Tokyo Joe

Eto was no ordinary snitch. Born in California in 1919 and raised by a harshly disciplinarian father, Eto was a wild, scrappy and highly intelligent kid. He found his true metier in a World War II detention camp, where he fleeced fellow detainees in poker games. After the war, he settled in Chicago, where he honed his skills in card sharping while insinuating himself into the mob-run gambling business.

In 1983, Mafia capo Vincent Solano feared that Eto, recently busted for running a massive numbers operation and out on bail, was going to spill to the cops. He ordered a hit, carried out by two henchmen, who drilled three bullets into Eto's skull in a parked car. Incredibly, Eto survived, and, while recovering in the hospital, decided that Solano's betrayal trumped his loyalty to his Mafia bosses. He entered the FBI's witness protection program and spent the next several years giving testimony that delivered a body blow to the Chicago mob.

Oguri tells this story through interviews, mostly notably with Elaine Smith, the former FBI agent who put Eto behind bars (and later wrote a book about him), Jeremy Margolis, the former federal prosecutor who persuaded Eto to turn snitch, and Steven Eto, Eto's son by his second wife.

These talking heads are fascinating characters in their own right. Smith, who joined the Bureau at the late age of 34 when it was still a mostly male preserve, comes across as a salty, wised-up type, spinning anecdote after engaging anecdote about Eto, his case and the ways of the Chicago mob. Of more than 1,000 victims of mob hits, she claims, Eto was the only one to survive. Steven Eto pungently humanizes his father, who ran numbers out of a coffee shop near home and once memorably told his young son, "If you bring a weapon to a fight, be prepared to kill the guy, because if you don't, you'll have an enemy for the rest of your life."

Eto himself appears only fleetingly on the screen, being badgered by the media after his arrest and testifying as a witness for the prosecution, but he is a riveting presence whose hooded eyes see all but tell nothing. Oguri's film about his exploits is, for anyone interested in Mafia lore, pure manna from wise-guy heaven.

Thanks to Mark Schilling


  1. Elaine Smith who gave the information was delusional at best. Like all good FBI agents is self serving and outright a lie. Joe Eto was involved in a major drug conspiracy. The main investigator would later become the Chief of police for the Chicago Police Department, Phil Cline. Who himself was being investigated for alleged misconduct. The powers to be found out that Eto was involved in a major cocaine business which would have put him in prison forever. Stop taking for granted FBI agents tell the truth.

    1. Joe hated drugs and you do not know what you're talking about.

    2. It is you who has no idea what you are talking about. The man would sell his mom or kids on the street for money

    3. Ken Eto was a COKE freak, and used his designer drug of cocaine to lure your boys. That is fact.

  2. I worked and supervised the O/C and work gambling on Chicago's and south and west side, Eto was a good between the mob and the black and latin underworld in chicago from the 1950 to eary 1880. They were other Raymond Tom and Charlie Oda, Ervin Potter(black policy boss), Ashton "Sonny" Thomas ( number Boss)that were his assistances, and they were others.... I do recall ETO being investigate for drugs, but I he was never charged.

  3. I went to school with his kids at Trumbull on Foster and Ashland ave. He was a quite and modest guy that drew noo attention to himself...

  4. Anonymous it is you who does not know what your talking about. He was deeply involved in a multimillion dollar coke ring. A man name Sam and a former policemen were his partners. A message went to the capos that Eto was involved and soon be indicted. The government down played his role as to not dirty him. Eto sell his mom on the street if he could profit.

  5. From a guy who knows!!!! Ken Eto was a weasel, he hid behind his associates and screwed every person that he dealt with. When he became a RAT, the FBI turned him into a hero/saint. In reality, Ken Eto, was extensively involved in the cocaine business, for which he was never charged with because the government needed his testimony to put other O.C. members in prison. The FBI couldn' afford to dirty up their STAR RAT. Despite praises from former FBI AGENTS, and prosecutors Eto was a liar, a psychopath,and a degenerate who liked little boys. Quit turning individuals like Eto into folk heros, he was responsible for the deaths of individuals, directly or indirectly. He ruined the lives of family members of his victims. So PLEASE do not comment on an individual unless you truly know him. He never even took care of his own family, Joe the Jap (not Tokyo Joe as he is referred to) was for Joe the Jap.

  6. I know too much. I've worked with his son. STEVE

  7. Never heard him called Tokyo Joe
    Joe the Jap as I knew him