The Japanese mafia, known globally as The Yakuza, is a funny beast. For example, they don’t hide themselves away from the prying eyes of law enforcement. In fact, you can usually look their local office up in the yellow pages. They have a sign outside. When you go inside, some nice lady in some sort of “office worker” uniform will greet you, seat you, and scurry about to bring you tea or a cup of coffee (one stick of sugar, one packet of creamer) while you wait. Not unlike going to see the mayor, or making a business call to some corporate office.
That’s what the Japanese call the omote –the surface, or facade. The demeanor. The “front.” Everything you see, and everyone you meet, in Japan, has this omote. Knowing it quickly sets you up to be better informed about whatever or whoever it is you are dealing with. Much the same as everywhere else on the planet. Only here, it’s more like religion…and pervades and dictates every single interaction in which you will ever engage. And everyone respects that.
Behind that front office, where you’re drinking that coffee, lie other offices. And any number of various and sundry deals and deeds are prosecuted from those offices. Drugs, guns, gambling, prostitution, slavery, import/export, shipping, used car sales, public works, charities, youth basketball tournaments. That backroom shit is what the Japanese call the ura — the undercurrent, or back. The nature. The “actual.” This balances the omote, and is balanced by it. And everything in Japan has this, too. Knowing it is no less important for your situational awareness and preparedness, but much fucking harder to get a hold on. And everyone respects that, as well.
You’ve just been given your first lesson in engaging Japan, and the Japanese.
Several years ago — I had been in-country a year or so — I was out with a Japanese friend. We were in a small town near the village where I lived. A hot spring resort town. An onsen town. I had learned previously that these spa towns had a large number of “men’s clubs,” also known as Soap Land. Basically, brothels. But legal ones, despite the fact that prostitution is completely *il*legal in Japan. These establishments are all run by the Yakuza. Where there are spas, there are men’s clubs — so, working girls. Where there are working girls, there are Yakuza. So, spa towns are mob towns. Basic equation. My math is generally pretty shitty, but I figured that one out pretty fast. Got a solid hold on that ura.
My friend wanted to take me to one of his favorite restaurants. It was famous for its okonomiyaki. The Japanese will tell you that okonomiyaki is a “Japanese pancake.” Which is fucked. First off, it’s more like hash browns. But instead of potatoes, they use noodles. And instead of cheese or onions, that shit is smothered and covered with things like squid chunks, dried fish flakes, cabbage, and whatever else the shop you’re eating in is famous for putting in it. In this case, some kind of “special sauce.” In any case, the shit ain’t a pancake. And I was in this place with my buddy shooting the shit and trying to make sense of this thing as a food.
We exchanged some pleasantries with the guy behind the bar, and his wife — who was clearly not Japanese, but still Asian. I asked my buddy about that, he said she was Filipina. He said the bar man’s ex-wife is married to the shop owner, who lives upstairs. Interesting…the plot thickens.
As we kicked off our shoes and settled into our table, the bar man’s teenage daughter brought over the ingredients and some beers. You cook this stuff yourself on a flat grill set into the table. You sit on the floor, J-style. Shoes, obviously, off. She tried some English on me. Everyone knows: I’m the Eigo-jin. The English Speaker. So, people always want to try their “Herro” and “Fock” and “Sheet” on me. I do my part to correct them.
Once the daughter got the stuff on the table, she headed back behind the bar and the bar man came over. He knew my friend, so there was an introduction. (Another very important part of J-culture.) He had brought over more ingredients, and I noticed as he put them on the table that he was missing sections of fingers on his left hand. As I stood to bow and do my introduction stuff, he hid his left hand behind him and held out his right hand for the semi-Western bow-shake. Told me I was welcome, and the beers were free. No such thing as a free beer in Japan.
After he left, I asked my buddy about the missing fingers. He laughed. Confirmed the bar man had once been Yakuza, and though you’re never really “out,” all this guy did now was run this shop. After a few more questions, I learned that the owner upstairs was also Yakuza, and that the bar man owed the owner a life debt. So, that life debt got paid in part by the bar man’s first wife, who was now the owner’s wife. The rest of the life debt meant that the bar man worked his ass off, for pennies…until he died. Not really all that different from the rest of Japanese work life, if you look at it. I started pounding these free beers, so my friend would do the same. As he got drunker, and I didn’t, I started to ask more questions.
Drinking with the Japanese is part gut-check, part strategy game. Even with your friends. Watch closely for their red cheeks. That’s usually your telegraph that shit’s gonna start getting weird, and that omote’s gonna get shaky.
After awhile, I learned that the owner was also the town’s Yakuza boss. And was known for being brutal. Ran a lot of foreign girls through the local spa towns for whatever creep-ass sex shit was going down. That could have been anything from rape fetishes on imitation trains, to vulva mini-golf. My buddy knew more, but wasn’t talking. He changed the subject. He’s into Harleys. So we talked Harleys. I know exactly three things about Harleys: 1) they are a motorcycle, 2) jack, and 3) shit.
A few minutes later, I heard a door open upstairs and heavy feet coming down the stairs. The stairs were in the back part of this shop, at the far end of the bar. The owner and his wife came down. There was an exchange between the owner and the bar man. The women stayed quiet. The bar man kept his head down. Japanese kinesics might as well be neon signs. The bar man motioned over to me and my friend. The owner turned, smiled, said something to the bar man, and came over. I stood up again, bowed, bullshitted through another intro, and shook his hand. Or, what was left of it.
I was pretty surprised. This guy had about as many fingers — total — as a jack-o-lantern had teeth. Which means that this guy had been around awhile, and fucked up a lot. See, you lose one section (tip to first knuckle, knuckle to next knuckle, then on to the next finger; left pinky, working toward thumb, then right hand) for fucking up. This is called yubitsume, or “finger cutting.” This guy was bulging out of his sweet powderblue Member’s Only jacket. Used to be cut, you could see. Still moved like he was fit, though he wasn’t. Could’ve been a wrestler back in the days when Japan’s economy worked. This helped explain why he was known as being brutal. He was *physical*.
He said something to his wife and then again to the bar man. The wife bowed and headed back upstairs, though she was clearly dressed for a night out. The bar man brought over a bottle of sake, and some eda-mame (fresh soy beans, in the pod; salted), while Tanaka Two-fingers kicked his shoes off and made himself comfortable at our table, across from me, leering like a retard. My friend was smoking, and nervous, but there was no submission in his body language. That was telling.
So, we drank and I got to know my local mob boss. I don’t remember it exactly, but I think the rhyme goes a little something like this, “Beer before sake, is this technically a liquor?” Or some shit. But we were hitting it pretty heavy. There’re some rules to drinking in Japan, like I said. Even more rules if you’re drinking with someone “above” you. I make it an effort to not ever really abide by those rules. I ain’t nobody’s boy. But one of those rules is that you pour the drink for the person who is above you. Boss, husband…whatever. So, no one poured sake for like five fucking minutes, and then the daughter came over to do it and the boss man got all pissy. So he poured it. It struck me as weird that he could even hold the fucking bottle.
We cleaned that bottle and started another. My buddy was eyeballing me for us to get the fuck out. But there was no real easy way to do that, in this case. And I had more questions to ask. I learned all kinds of crazy shit from this guy. Stuff I’d use later to make certain connections, understand certain networks. Stuff I’d wish I’d never found out, in some cases.
The Yakuza boasts about half the workforce numbers of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, or Jieitai. “Officially” over the 100k mark. Officially. They don’t count the street-level lackies, who dress like roadies from some bad 80s movie, in that number. They don’t count the fall guys, who take the rap for the higher ups, and do their jail time. They don’t count the people who run their front businesses — like the bar man in the restaurant I was in. So, those number, just like the rapes, murders, trafficked humans, and suicides, are streamlined before they ever hit the light for public consumption.
The news — and polite society — refers to the Yakuza as a bōryokudan, or “violent group.” They refer to themselves openly as a ninkyō dantai, or “chivalrous group.” Neither of these is entirely untrue. As mentioned above, they do all kinds of shit. Including search and rescue, and disaster relief. (Check out the Kobe earthquake of 1995, and the Tohoku earthquake/tsunami of 2011.) If you go by those raw public numbers, the Yakuza is the largest criminal organization in the world. They have offices, or at least “representatives,” in any town with more than about 10,000 citizens. Or, if there are spas. And again, that’s only going off the public numbers.
So, we drank and talked and exchanged questions. Turns out he was a boxer. Into high school girls (some of my high school students worked in his men’s clubs). Never been anywhere but Korea…and he actually spit on the floor when he mentioned Korea. And got into the Yakuza in the 80s to pay off some debts.
All Yakuza groups, and there are several, are very nationalistic. Most of them are counted among the most “ultra-nationalist” organizations in the country. You can spot them driving around town in black cars and vans, with loud-speakers condemning foreign-friendly policy, and flying the old-school Japanese flag with the outreaching sun rays. This boss was apparently right on script. The largest minority in Japan is the ethnic Koreans. Some of them are 5th and 6th generation citizens of Japan…but they’re not really citizens. And they are definitely not Japanese.
He started to get pretty belligerent. He stopped talking to me, and started talking to my friend about me. I mean, we all knew I was sitting there, but as I was a foreigner — and from a nation that actually subjugated his — I was now balls-deep this guy’s ura. (Pun intended.) So, he would ask questions about me, and my friend would answer, or ask me, or I’d answer (in Japanese)…which my friend would then repeat. He was losing control, and pretty quickly. I don’t wear a watch, so I asked the bar man for the time.
Throughout all this, he’d occasionally bark something at the bar man. No one else was in the shop. In a moment of silence, my friend added that I was “into” Japanese martial arts, and had served in the U.S. Army. Thanks, buddy. The boss man laughed. I understood the word “pig” in Japanese, by that point. As a bacon lover, why wouldn’t I? Then he asked my friend if I thought I was a tough guy. My friend said he didn’t think that I thought so, but he (my friend) thought so. This was getting sketchy real fucking fast.
At this point, the boss man turned to me, drank the rest of his sake, and laughed again. That was bottle number two, with intermittent beers. He moved to stand up, and the bar man’s wife hurried over to get his shoes ready for him. We all stood. As we did, I asked the boss man if he needed help getting up. My friend shot me the “oh fuck” look. So did the boss man. We all slid off the little step and into our shoes. I said salamat po to the Filipina. The bar man edged toward the door, with the daughter and wife, to tell us all goodbye with that noisy series of bows. I bowed back and shook the bar man’s hand again. The boss man called toward the ceiling to his wife. She started down the stairs.
We all moved out into the entryway — Japanese houses and businesses have these little airlock areas, the genkan. The boss man was drunk, and pretty unstable on his feet. His wife kept close enough to help out, but far enough not to get hit. The boss man was rummaging around in his pocket for something, while my friend gave the bar man some cash, which he did not take.
Once outside, we all — the boss man, his wife, my friend, and I — just sort of hovered there in the night air. I mentally calculated my way home again. Then reached out to shake his wife’s hand and say goodnight, in English. The boss man let out this noise that junior high kids love to imitate when they are surprised or disgusted, “Ehhhhhhhhhhh?!” And he yelled something to my friend.
He then put his right nub on my chest and pushed me back. Spitting as he yelled whatever he was yelling in my face. I did hear gaijin…”outsider.” I stood there as he moved closer to me, big as he was he was shorter than me. And I’m short. (But I am pretty big in Japan.) We were then face to face like some kind of schoolyard dickheads about to start talking shit about each other’s mother. His right “forefinger” was in my chest. My friend was asking me to leave. I would have been happy to do so.
The boss man then offered me a challenge. I didn’t understand what he said, so — still face to face — I asked my friend to translate. He did, but was clearly shitting bricks by this point. The boss man’s wife was just standing there staring at her drunk husband, patiently smiling. I was wondering where the tattooed guys in shades and old Cadillacs were. I clearly did not understand what was going on.
My friend was repeating, “We need to go.” But he never said anything to the boss man. Never apologized, or excused the situation. So, I trapped the boss man’s right nub and deflected it off my chest, stepping backward as I did. I pivoted — a very nicely executed half-right face, I hope — bowed to the boss man’s wife, said goodnight and apologized in proper Japanese. The boss man was screaming at this point. As I turned toward my friend, the boss man called me a coward and yelled, “What about our challenge?”
I stopped, yelled back in Japanese, for the neighborhood, “Fine, let’s play piano together sometime, buddy.”
The Japanese don’t really have a word for fuck, but he used the closest one they have.
On the drive home, as my friend was yammering about that being dangerous and a close call, I formulated what became my collection plan. By that same time the following year, I had buried myself so fucking deep in the seedy underbelly of the Land of the Rising Sun that I was teaching English privately in the homes of other bosses, drinking with and tracking several “agents” (the men who import girls, then keep their passport until their “debt” is paid), paying for time with those women…and building the cover I’ve been working under ever since: Crazy Eigo-jin into freaky shit.
I’m not sure where the “wire” is here, but I am way the fuck outside it by now…
Eyes on, and balls deep in the dragon,
(Featured Image Courtesy: Anton Kusters/BBC)