奇遇: Synchronicity & The Police Beat. An unpublished chapter of TOKYO VICE
奇遇 (Kigu) an unpublished chapter of Tokyo Vice: An American On The Police Beat in Japan
Today (October 14th) marks the 3rd anniversary of the publication of my first book. It also marks the fourth anniversary of former Yamaguchi-gumi mob boss, Goto Tadamasa’s expulsion from the Yamaguchi-gumi. Two important days in my short life. There was a lot of material that didn’t make the final cut of the book. This is one of my favorite chapters.
Sometimes–actually, many times–being a good reporter is just a matter of having good luck. It’s kind of like windsurfing successfully on the currents of fate and circumstance. You have to do your homework, but sometimes the best answers just come to you.
In May 10th, 2004, there appeared to have been a horrible murder about five minutes from my house. A Malaysian man had been found with his throat slit and stabbed over thirty-six times in the parking lot of an apartment building. Murder was not technically my beat, but geography made it my beat and I got the call. It was one of those offhand decisions that the Cap (the nickname for the senior reporter managing the other nine police beat reporters) would make and then forget about.
I got the call close to midnight. Unfortunately, I’d actually come home early for a change. I got up, got dressed, and rode my bicycle to the crime scene. For the next two days, I was stuck patrolling the area around my home and the parking lot for an eyewitness, for evidence, for anything that would shed light on the murder. It was boring, brain-numbing work and I was having no luck. I wasn’t even having luck in finding a good place to eat lunch. There wasn’t a lot of blood at the crime scene, and the cops figured he’d been killed elsewhere and dumped there, plus he was a worthless foreigner, so why the hell was I bothering anyway? I wanted to politely ask to be relieved of this duty but that would mean I would have to challenge the Cap’s judgment and I didn’t want to do that.
Prior to this case, I’d been having a dry season. I’d been striking out for a couple weeks, with no scoops or even a good feature article to justify my existence. I didn’t have the guts to test my luck. On the end of the second full day, I decided “to hell with the boss and this assignment” and headed to my favorite bar in Roppongi, Propaganda.
What did I like about this bar? It was the anti-pick-up bar. No one went there to get laid, find a person of the opposite sex, mate, or do any of the crap you do at meat market type bars in Japan. And it really is good to be in a place where people know your name.
It was almost always the same crew. There was Hiro, he had a little goatee, went to the gym every day, buff as hell and looked like a Japanese Popeye. Whenever I’d meet a foreign woman with a thing for Japanese guys, I’d steer them towards Hiro. He always delivered.
There was also Mami-chan, a great chick with a voice so husky you’d think she was a man. She had a tomboyish charm to match her voice, and could make good cocktails, as fast as some people would pour beer.
I got in and ordered a Corona. Yasu was tending bar; his hair dyed blonde and spiked in a Mohawk pattern. He had on a black sleeveless Misfits T-shirt. He looked so skinny that you would think he was on heroin but that’s not the case. As far as I know. He tried to get in the US Marines once but they couldn’t bend the rules enough to get over the citizenship thing, although they did let him train. He boxed as well. He could have been nineteen or twenty-nine. I had no idea.
I ordered a Corona, a second time, after Yasu seemed to blow me off.
Yasu handed me a bottle of Two Dogs rather than the Corona, saying, “You know this is what you really want. You’re not a Corona kind of guy.”
“I’ll take whatever you have. Thanks.”
Yasu polished the counter with a semi-white rag while talking to me; it was a slow night. I helped myself to some of the free cigarettes on the counter. They weren’t clove cigarettes; they were Mild Sevens. Mild, my ass. They made me cough. Yasu lit another one for me after my first.
“So, Jake, what have you been up to?”
“Aaaah, I’ve got this total crap case to work on. Some Malaysian guy with a name I can’t pronounce got whacked near my house and I’ve spent the last two days trying to find a goddamn witness. No luck.”
Yasu stopped polishing the counter and his face went white. “I saw him get killed.”
“No, it’s true. I wish I’d never seen it.”
Yasu put down the glass he was polishing and came around to my side of the bar. He sat down, one arm on the bar, facing me. I took out my pen and a notepad and began writing. This is what he had to say.
“I was home sick that day. I live in Ayase, not too far from you. I had a fever and couldn’t get out of bed that day. I was home lying around, when at about six in the evening, I hear a car pull into the little alley in front of our house. The driver or someone is cranking the horn.
“Noisy as hell. ‘What the fuck is going on?’– I think to myself, and go look out the window. There’s a blue station wagon with four doors parked in the alley. In the driver’s seat, there’s what looks like a Chinese guy. His arms are tied up with a rope or plastic string. Behind him or next to him, there’s one more guy holding a big butcher knife. Maybe there’s someone in back too. The guy with the knife, he’s trying to stab the Chinese guy. The victim, he’s trying like hell to avoid getting stabbed but there’s no room to maneuver, and he’s getting nicked. The killer is stabbing like crazy, the knife hits the window a couple times, I think I can hear the clink, too.
In about thirty seconds, the killer really stabs him hard, once in the throat. A fountain of blood shoots out of his neck, like a geyser. It’s a blood fountain. It practically blocks out half the window. He keeps stabbing. The victim, he’s not resisting much now. I don’t know what the hell to do. I can’t just watch someone get killed. I’ve got to try and save this guy. I try to run of the house, but my family stops me—‘If that guy gets out of the car, you’ll be stabbed, too!’– My mom is screaming at me. I yell at her, ‘Call the cops.’ Somebody calls the police and I run downstairs. I run to the car; I try and open the door. It’s locked.
For just a second, my eyes and the victim’s eyes lock. He’s sending me this look, like, please save me. I wanted to do something. I’m looking for something to wrap my hand in so I can break the window. Maybe, there’s something nearby. . But while I’m trying to figure out what the hell to do–the killer backs the car out of the alley, knocking over trashcans and garbage bins at tremendous speed and pulls into the road, floors it and drives away. The whole thing takes maybe four or five minutes. The cops came ten minutes later. They grilled me for hours but I didn’t get a glimpse of the killer. I got a good look at the dead guy.”
If he was bullshitting me, he was doing a great job. But who makes up a story like this? I asked him who’d spoken to him and he pulled out the business card of one of the international crime squad guys. Yeah, you could make up the story but making the fake detective calling card wouldn’t be doable. I was secretly grinning—I found the only eyewitness out of pure dumb luck. I knew I was thinking like a jackal but I couldn’t help myself.
I took the chance to get all I could out of him, his home address, how many times he’d spoken to the police, and I pumped him for anything that the police had told him that revealed information about how the investigation was progressing. He said that one of the cops had mentioned finding like a thousand blank credit cards in the victim’s luggage left behind or seized at Narita airport. You didn’t have to be Encyclopedia Brown to hear that and conclude that the guy must have been killed for complications in a fake credit card scam gone bad.
I had a couple more drinks and bought Yasu a round of drinks, too. He was shaken. He couldn’t forget the helpless look in the guy’s eyes; the plea for help that he was unable to answer.
Well, I’ve never seen that look in a human being. I’ve seen that look in my dog’s eyes when we had to put her to sleep. Maybe, it’s the same thing. I probably shouldn’t equate humans to dogs, but they’re both mammals. The feeling has to be the same. No living thing wants to die.
I gave Yasu the proper condolences.
There was nothing you could have done. You were heroic for making the attempt to save him. You called the police. You acted fast. The victim was probably a criminal anyway. The victim was dead after the first jab into the jugular.
I maintained the basic rules of human decency that you forget when you’re a reporter and get a good lead on a story—even a story that no one gives a shit about.
Later, I snuck off to a Starbucks (yes, they have them in Japan. All over the place) and I wrote down everything. I strolled back in to the KC office around midnight to give my boss a report.
“Cap, I found an eyewitness.”
He was trying to pry open the nudie part of a weekly magazine and didn’t seem very interested.
“An eyewitness to what?”
“The murder of the Malaysian.”
“You’re still working on that?” He put down the magazine slightly embarrassed.
“Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you. Let the homicide guys handle that one.”
“Okay, So what do I do with this information?”
“Well, tell me.”
I gave it to him, concealing Yasu’s name of course. He was quite happy to hear it and the intel went straight back to Umenaka and the other guys on the death beat. It wasn’t a major scoop but the boss was impressed with my diligence and persistence in finding the one eyewitness. I’d already checked with Maeda in the Special Organized Crimes Task Force, over the phone, and he confirmed the credit card information. The man had come into Japan to provide fake credit cards for a credit card fraud ring but things must have gone very badly. Everything checked out.
If all coverage was that easy, I’d never even need to go to a crime scene.
The case was eventually solved but no one was caught.
For what it’s worth, here’s what apparently happened. The victim was a spice shipper and trader from Malaysia, named Wi Tiansen, age 45. He and two other men, one of them Chinese, had been involved in forging credit cards and using them for fraudulent activity for at least a year. They would use the fake credit cards to buy computers and other products and turn around and sell them to smaller retail stores or pawn shops, for cash. Wi’s job was partly to re-sell the fraudulently purchased objects. Sometimes, they used the cards at businesses set up by Japanese accomplices to rack up fictional purchases. There were a lot of ways to make money with fake credit cards.
On the day of the 10th, Wi and his accomplices met at Komagome station in Toshima ward, and Win had taken twenty to thirty million yen in cash from the two others for use in funding a large-scale credit card fraud they were planning. They were all spotted getting into a car together.
However, something went wrong. On the same evening, inside a parking lot in Taito-ward (right next to where Yasu lived), the two men trussed up Win, and stabbed him in the face and chest a total of sixty-five times, with a carving knife, until he bled to death.
They dumped the body in the parking lot close to my house and abandoned the car in Edogawa-Ward, after setting it on fire.
The TMPD (Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department) announced on the 27th of December 2004, that they had eyewitness testimony to the stabbing and killing and that tests conducted on the car found in Edogawa Ward revealed that that there was no mistake that Win had been inside the car.
The two suspects had long since left Japan, so the Japanese police had decided to put out an international arrest warrant with Interpol.
Yasu never forgot about this incident. Even almost two years after the crime, he still asked whether the police have made any progress. I didn’t have the heart to tell him the case has long since been closed. It only exists as a nebulous entity, no one is devoting any manpower to it. There are probably only two people who still care about it; Yasu and the victim himself, assuming the spirit of the deceased is still floating around these realms.
I think that while Yasu liked me, every time I showed up at the bar, I gave him a flashback to that day. It can’t have been a pleasant thing for him. If I was more sensitive and considerate, I might have quit going to the bar altogether but I didn’t. However, I didn’t go as often.
Yasu, it later turned out, had a heart condition and had to retire from being a bartender. I certainly didn’t give him the heart condition but maybe witnessing the murder didn’t help him much either.
Every time I have a drink there, I think about death. But I still go. It’s hard to find a good, clean, and reasonably well-lighted place to drink in Tokyo.
I wonder, sometimes, if there is a moral to this story? Some deeper meaning to the series of coincidences? There is a saying in Japan, that even the stone you trip over is a piece of your karma. (Obscure saying but it exists). Perhaps, I was meant to find Yasu so that the Yomiuri could give the story proper coverage and the police would pursue the case. Don’t know.
Luck definitely has a hand in things. If Ecclesiastes had been a journalist in Japan, he would have written, “I returned, and saw in the land of the rising sun, that the scoop is not to the swift, nor the battle to the informed, neither yet the front page to the important stories, nor yet promotions to reporters of understanding, nor respect given to the accurate and skilled, but time and chance happeneth to them all”.
Maybe it just means, as my father always says, “Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than to be good.”
I know this much at least: Wi Tiansen was not a very lucky fellow. It would be nice if the people who killed him shared his bad luck, sooner or later, but that may never happen. Lady Luck is a capricious mistress. I try to stay on her good side.
Note: A few weeks ago (2012), I was eating a solitary lunch at a café in Roppongi when I heard a familiar voice call my name. It was Yasu He was working there as a waiter. We caught up on things and I couldn’t resist asking him, “By any chance, did you witness that killing at Flower a few weeks ago?” He hadn’t.
Well, it never hurts to ask.