Friday, July 30, 2010


Like the title says, this is about the Japanese mob - the Yakuza. And what were the odds I'd actually find a rock and roll title to match it? Fifty/fifty actually... you find it or you don't. 

First, some history on the Yakuza. I'm going to direct you HERE for more information - it keeps my writing chore reasonably short - which is good as I sometimes don't know when to stop writing.

The origin of the name yakuza is obscure somewhere between fact and myth, but there is popular theory floating about that says the word originates with the lowest hand in a Japanese card game called hanafuda, withe said hand consisting of: 8 (ya - an old way of saying the number 8 - a more modern way is hachi), 9 (ku) 3 (za - also an old form, with the more modern term for 3 being san). Calling themselves after the worthless hand, the yakuza are also known as the hachi-kyu-san (893's) in Japan.
If you are in Japan and you want to perhaps stay away from the Yakuza, don't worry. Unlike the movies, samurai, ninja, geisha, yakuza and radiation-spewing monsters are not very common, if at all. Having said that, members of the Yakuza usually have tattoos - the higher the rank, the more ink you have. Tattooed gang members are smart. Their tattoos extend up and down the arm, but nowhere past a shirt cuff or the neck of a dress shirt. The same for legs, stopping at the pants cuff - just in case they are wearing sandals/geita and have to remove them. The point being regular joes like you and me will probably never see the tattoos of a Yakuza. So, what other features distinguish them from society? Check out the photo above... that's Hanazki-san on the left of me in the centre and Ohtawara Junior High School Principal Mimori having a laugh, with me showing off a "missing digit", as in Yakuza tradition it is well known for members who have failed to have half a finger cut off as a form of apology or penance. This is known as yubitsume. The offender slices off a knuckle from the pinky for each offense. This missing digit, like the amazing tattooing effectively removes the member from typical Japanese society.
And, although I am unsure if it's the same way today, but for sure back in the early 1990s, Yakuza members had perms. It makes sense. Everyone in Japan has straight black hair. If you see someone with a perm - Yakuza. Stay away or come and show respect.

One day in October of 1990, at the 4C (4 Carat) fancy bar five minutes from my apartment in Ohtawara, I walked up to the second-floor establishment by my lonesome, and said hello to Mark Donovan, the eye-candy New Zealand bartender hired by the owner to attract women to the place - and thus men.
Ordering a rum & coke, I sat at the bar. The entire place might have held no more than a maximum of 14 people at full capacity, as it was probably no more than 20' x 20' in size plus a bar and a bathroom - very cosy, very dim-lit, and very chic. Beats me why I was there, but Matthew found the place and on most weekends it became a place for us gaijin (foreigners) to have a drink without being gawked at.
There was a commotion behind me, as I felt the very air being sucked from the room as all but three Nihonjin (Japanese) had sucked massive quantities of air through their teeth in shock. There, about to take a seat at the newly vacated table and stools stood three Japanese men in their 50s - two wearing three-piece suits and one wearing a yukata - a light male kimono - see Hans and Franz aka Matthew and myself in the photo beside this for an example of the lovely robes.
I looked back at Mark, but he already had a bottle of whiskey in his hands with three glasses of ice and was walking beside me - he whispered, "Yakuza."
That was all I needed to hear and decided not to turn around and stare at them, but instead took a nice long gulp of my drink.
That's when I heard a growl: "An-do-ryu-sense dozo!" (Andrew teacher, please!)
I turned around quite quickly and saw who I correctly guessed to be the Yakuza boss of Ohtawara beckoning to me thusly: with his right arm raised in the air to his shoulder, palm down, he moved his fingers back and forth.You know how we beckon someone with our palms up and fingers moving towards us? Well, in Japan and China (and perhaps in other Asian countries too), they do the opposite with the hand - palm down. Got it?
I stood up and moved near him bowed and said "Konichiwa" (Hello) and bowed deeply enough to see that the floor was very clean.
The yukata clad man grunted (in approval, I hoped) and said in English: "Du-rinku"  - which obviosly meant "Drink".
Mark was back in a second with a glass and ice placing it quickly in front of the men before scurrying back behind the bar to watch what the heck was going on - and perhaps to duck under the bar should things go wrong.
The boss poured me a tall glass of whiskey and said "Dozo!" (Please!") The man's voice was gravely - and I mean really gravely - like he had just gargled with blocks of granite. I picked up my glass, moved it towards him and his compadres and said "Kanpai" (cheers). The boss clinked my glass with his, and his two "aides" did the same. I took a comfortable sip, swallowed it and said "smoothhhhhhh" as I exhaled a warm breath. That was my first ever taste of whiskey and I knew I never wanted to drink it again - but of course I had to finish my drink.
The boss began talking to me in Japanese for about a minute - in slow, carefully chosen words, and then asked a question. And then awaited my response.
I had absolutely no idea what he had said - not a single word of it. Still waiting for me to say something, I stood there for five seconds, shrugged my shoulders and said : "Iie?" (No?).
The boss stared at me for a second, scowled and then burst out laughing, slapping me on the back with what I hoped was just his palm and not a hand holding an ice pick. Still laughing, he howled: "Odokemono!" (Joker!), slapped me on the back again and said "Bai-bai" (bye-bye), dismissing me from his presence.
As I sat back at the bar, I downed the rest of the whiskey. Mark didn't say a word to me, but got me another rum and Coke.
While I pondered what the heck had just gone on, one of the three-piece suit men moved beside me and began talking in English English, that is to say he had a British accent - don't ask me to tell you which type of British accent, just know that it sure weren't no Canadian or American English accent, old chap.
Putting a meaty arm around my shoulder, I glanced at his hand and saw a flash of colour peeking out from under his long-sleeved shirt cuff.
"Do you know what he asked you?," asked Ni-ban (number two) - that's what I'm calling him.
"As you know, you teach his son English at Ohtawara Chu Gakko (Ohtawara Junior High School)..."
(Oh yeah... the only kid in my seven schools with a red dye-coloured perm! - I guess the teachers are too afraid to tell him that his hair colour is not acceptable.)
"... he asked you if you think his son's English language skills are very good. You said 'No'. You are lucky your reputation as a joker proceeds you. His son speaks very highly of you to him. Ganbatte (Good luck)."
With that he removed his arm, and moved back to the table. I turned to look at the three of them, but they were already walking out the door and heading down the stairs.
How about that? Even the mob knows I'm a joker. Apparently I'm also a lucky idiot, but let's just keep that between ourselves.
Over the next three years I only saw my new friend one other time - he smiled and bowed deeply to me much to the chagrin of Hanazaki-san and Kanemaru-san who fortunately had enough sense to bow so long that I actually pulled them upright as my friend had gone past us several minutes previous.

Somewhere counting fingers and my lucky stars,
Andrew Joseph
Today's title is respectfully played by the ska band Pilfers - RESPECT.
PS - I 've owed Matthew a better photo in this blog - so here you go! Handsome buggers... I'm still wearing that Seiko watch!

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