Eikaiwa Underworld: Lessons Taught, Lessons Learned

By Jason Gray

Early 2004.

When teaching conversational English, at least in Japan, fascinating students are a rarity. This isn’t necessarily because there aren’t interesting people who want to learn English, but perhaps because they don’t reveal themselves as such (it should be noted that most English teachers don’t come across as fascinating either). It could be due to the obvious barriers of language and culture, or the context and limited time frame in which teacher and student meet. Occasionally the trend is bucked.

My new student was late. I’d been told he was usually out “drinking and entertaining people into the wee hours” on Friday nights, often making his Saturday afternoon lessons a difficult proposition. On his profile sheet was listed “Hobbies: golfing, gambling (Vegas),” and the fact that he owned several nightclubs in Roppongi–Tokyo’s biggest and most famous nightlife district. He was also the father of three children. He’d canceled on me before, so I was doubly interested to meet him. We’ll call him Mr. Gosha.

About twenty minutes after the lesson was scheduled to begin he arrived in the reception area in search of his designated classroom. He was neither short nor tall, in his mid-40s, cropped black hair in a Caesar cut, wore a black button-down shirt and grey slacks, with sunglasses tinted a faint purple and evenly tanned skin. The way he carried himself was noticeably different than the hundreds of salarymen and government employees that filed in and out every day. The immediate feeling I got was that he was of a world apart from long, sweaty train commutes, cheap white work shirts, bad convenience store food and sterile relationships. Mr. Gosha shook my hand and said hello, emitting an unusually low, resonant voice from a throat that seemed like it had been marinated for many years in only the finest liquor.

I attempted to break the ice by telling him I worked in the film business and taught on the side, but he didn’t seem impressed. I asked if he was learning English for his nightclub work.

“No. My broken English is good enough for my business,” he said in confident and smooth language. Having met many hundreds of students over the years, not one had ever spoke about their own English ability this way.

“So why are you studying English?” I probed.

“My wife is from Canada. Vancouver.”

“Your three kids…”

“No, no, different mother,” he laughed. “We speak English at home. But she can speak Japanese and can write some difficult kanji!”

After more small talk we started into the lesson, focusing on grammatical structures. In most cases, an English teacher soldiers through the hour-or-so as best they can, one notch closer to dinner, a movie, or their significant other–like most people working a job they have little personal interest in. I could tell right off that this “student” had led an interesting life and had stories to tell, so I deftly detoured out of teaching and into simply talking.

He gave me the rundown on his establishments, which ranged from casual joints where men can go and drink with pretty university girls hired to guzzle with patrons, up to high-end private clubs with state-of-the-art interiors.

Continue reading Eikaiwa Underworld: Lessons Taught, Lessons Learned

Yakuza and Pushing Their Buttons

I was going to visit a former yakuza boss in the hospital a few weeks ago. He was dying of lung cancer and the doctor had given him only a few weeks left to live.  I called up “Mr. Greenriver,” still a mid-level gang boss, and we agreed to go visit him together since we both were friends with him. I decided I’d go to Mr. Greenriver’s place with Mochizuki-san, a former yakuza boss and my driver and bodyguard.

We drove to Mr. Greenriver’s condominium in a fancy part of Tokyo, parked the car, got past security, and took the elevator up to his place. Of course, Mr. Greenriver was in the middle of having crazy sex with one of his mistresses when we arrived, and we could hear it through the apartment door. So we knocked a couple of times, he grunted out a reply and we waited in the hall. He came out fifteen minutes later, looking very happy and smelling like a bottle of spilled Chanel No.5, sake and sweat.  He mumbled an apology, told a couple jokes, and we left.

The three of us got in the elevator and the door closed behind us.

And nothing happened.

Nobody moved.

Mochizuki-san had his back to the wall of the elevator.  I was to the left of the door, and Mr. Greenriver was standing close to the elevator button panel.

After about a minute, I cleared my throat.

Mochizuki-san perked up, as if he’d woken from his sleep, and said to Mr. Greenriver, “Hey, push the lobby floor button.”

Mr. Greenriver responded, “Oh, usually my bodyguard presses it for me. Forgot I’m on my own today.”

“Well, I’m not your bodyguard,” said Mochizuki.

“But I’m a yakuza boss and you’re not. Am I supposed to press the button?”

“That’s right, I’m not a yakuza boss. I’m a civilian, now,  so you should press the button.”

Mr. Greenriver frowned. “But you used to be a yakuza boss. So isn’t that different?”

“When I was a boss, I out-ranked you. And I’m older than you.”

Mr. Greenriver folded his arms and pondered the statement. The elevator still hadn’t moved.

So I pushed the button.

They both look a little shocked.  I had been totally forgotten.

“It’s okay,” I said, “I’m a gaijin. That makes me the lowest ranking person here.”

“Yeah, that’s right!” Mr. Greenriver seemed enormously relieved that the problem had been solved.

Most yakuza groups are very hierarchical  societies. Reach a certain level and you never drive your own car, never press the elevator button,  never open your own umbrella or carry your own belongings. You don’t even open the car door. So when a yakuza boss is left alone, there’s a tendency for him to just sort of stand there waiting for someone else to do what we would all do normally ourselves.

Here’s a way to understand the state of mind of a big boss: If you’ve lived in Japan long enough, you get used to taxi drivers automatically opening and closing the door for you, as is common here, with a push of the button near the driver’s wheel. In Japan, you almost never open the taxi door yourself or close it yourself. However, when you go back to the United States and get out of a taxi without bothering to close the door after you pay, you’ll find that taxi drivers get very angry. That’s probably the closest we’ll get to experience what it’s like to have been a yakuza boss and then no longer be one.  The things you expect others to do for you are not done and it can take some adjusting.

Yakuza bosses don’t retire very well.  Maybe, it’s very hard to get used to being ordinary again. The standard retirement plan still seems to be a bullet in the head, self-administered. Or at least made to look that way.  Pulling the trigger may be the last thing a yakuza boss is ever expected to do for themselves. Personally, I think I’d rather prefer to learn how to press buttons for myself but then again, I’m not a yakuza boss nor have ever been one.

Addendum to the Elevator Story:

All three of us got out the elevator together. Mochizuki-san, got out first, then Mr. Greenriver, then myself. However, Mr. Greenriver soon took the lead and walked at a brisk pace right into the glass door of the lobby, bumping into it, and almost falling over. He wasn’t upset; he just laughed. “Usually,” he said, “the foot-soliders open the door for me. Forgot about that.” At this point I was laughing and Mochizuki was laughing at him as well.

Of course, Mr. Greenriver then did not proceed to open the door. So I did. And then the car door for him and I got in last. It’s important to know your place in the vertical society.

The Invisible Yakuza And Those That See Them

Maybe it seems like we glorify the yakuza on this website, and perhaps we do a little. But they are called 暴力団 (boryoku-dan –violent groups) by the police for a reason–violence is the source of their power and wealth and they do not hesitate to use it.  The following letter was sent from Sam P, who did an exchange program in Nagoya several years ago, about his encounter with the yakuza as they are. Nagoya is not only home to Toyota, it’s also home to the Kodokai (弘道会), roughly 4,000 members, and the ruling party of the Yamaguchi-gumi with 40,000 members. They are the most violent and belligerent of all the remaining factions.  The yakuza Sam P. witnessed may or may not have been Kodokai members, but it’s highly likely that they were.  More about the Kodokai follows after the letter.

Tonight I suddenly understood a mystery which had been eating at me for the last four years.

As a high school exchange student in Nagoya I witnessed an event which left me rattled.  I was returning from a field trip with my class. We were across the street from Nagoya-station, waiting to cross to the station’s entrance when all of a sudden a burly man came, and for lack of any artistic phrase, literally kidnapped a middle aged salary man standing in front of me, grabbing him and pulling him away. Nobody did anything. Everyone stood where they were. Mind you, there were at least 30 people watching all of  this; high school students and adults on their way to work.

As this was four years ago, I was not yet fluent and felt incapable of expressing my disbelief in anything but English. I am ashamed that I was also one of the people momentarily paralyzed. But thankfully the shock wore off within seconds. Unfortunately, by that time the man was hauling off that salary man down the sidewalk to an alleyway. A fellow student and I quickly yelled at our teacher (sensei)  to do something. She refused.  Just then we remembered there was a koban (police box) across the street in Nagoya station. We ran to the koban and tried to give as coherent an explanation as possible recounting what we had witnessed. The policewoman thanked us, but we never learned what happened.

Back at school  I was furious no one had done anything. I yelled at people and expressed my disgust at all that had transpired that morning. I then turned to my sensei and asked her why she did nothing. She said, “He was probably yakuza. I don’t want to get involved!” At that time I knew nothing other then yakuza were Japan’s equivilent of the mob. Moreover, I did not know just how powerful the yakuza were and what the roles they played in Japanese society were. I was ignorant at best. Therefore I could not comprehend her answer. I could only see her and the other adults at the crime scene as having failed as ethical people.  And even though I read your book back in December, my realization that my sensei had true fears of all too real consequences for getting involved did not occur to me until tonight when I read your January 27th blog entry.  To this day I am still rattled by these memories.

I never told my parents what had happened. What was I supposed to say? “Oh, the day was good, but by the way a man standing next to me was abducted, and no one did anything to stop it.” I suppose it is because I felt guilty of not having done more at the time. It’s a shame that has bored a hole into me which I do not know what to do with.

Personally, I think that Sam did far more than most people would do in a similar situation. It’s not a bright idea to play hero when a yakuza is beating the crap out of someone but going to the police or calling 110 (the Japanese equivalent of 911) is certainly worth doing.  Whether the police will do anything is another issue.

Continue reading The Invisible Yakuza And Those That See Them

We take bullets very seriously. Even the fake ones. Part 1.

A few weeks ago, I had to go apologize to a yakuza boss. Always a scary thing, especially when you’re in the wrong.
He had agreed to help out with a story I was working on, and through some mishaps he ended up getting chewed out by his own boss because of it. I flew back to Japan immediately and made bows much deeper than Toyoda of Toyota could ever make. While we were talking later, after I had made amends (I still have all my fingers if you’re curious), I gave him as a present a nifty lighter that looks just like a bullet. He, of course, appreciated the irony.
Three weeks ago, he was pulled over by the police–as yakuza often are–and his car was searched. The young detective who found the lighter was incredibly excited and called for back-up. The gang boss was telling him the whole time, “It’s not a bullet, it’s a lighter. ほら!Give it back to me and I’ll show you,”  while waving his unlit cigarette in the air. The cop refused to give it back.

You can light a cigarette with this bullet or just cause a heap of trouble.
You can light a cigarette with this bullet or just cause a heap of trouble.

20 minutes and five police cars later–a detective came up to the car, motioned the gang boss to get out. The detective had on white gloves and had the bullet in his hand.
“Mr. X, is this your bullet?”
“It’s not a bullet; it’s a lighter.”
“So you say.”
Mr. X noticed the white gloves the detective had on, which are usually only for crime scenes.
“What’s with the gloves?”

“Evidence. We don’t want to obscure your fingerprints on this bullet. You’re going down for violations of the Firearms and Ammunitions Law, pal…understand? Some serious jail time.”
Mr. X, says he was getting a little bit worried. The cop stared him in the face, and then the cop took a pack of Lark cigarettes out of his coat and handed a cigarette to Mr. X. Mr. X took the cigarette and put it in his mouth and the cop lit it with the bullet shaped lighter, laughing.
“Mr. X, pretty cool! I’ve never seen a lighter like this. Do you know where I can get one?”
“I could ask.”
“Yeah, let me know. By the way, you know we’re still going to seize this. Just to be sure. Gonna have to have forensics look at it.”
“Be my guest.”
And with that, Mr. X got back in his car and was allowed to leave.
Guns and weapons are taken very seriously in Japan, and bullet-shaped lighters are probably not a source of levity. When I heard this story, I thought I was going to have to go prostate myself in front of Mr. X again and was hoping not to hit my forehead too hard on the ground, but he told me he was more amused than upset. And he asked me to get him two more of the bullet-shaped lighters.

Homes and hotels during the recession

The talented Hiroko Tabuchi of the New York Times published an article recently focusing on a group of Japanese people who have been forced out of their homes and into capsule hotels due to the recession.

For Atsushi Nakanishi, jobless since Christmas, home is a cubicle barely bigger than a coffin — one of dozens of berths stacked two units high in one of central Tokyo’s decrepit “capsule” hotels.

“It’s just a place to crawl into and sleep,” he said, rolling his neck and stroking his black suit — one of just two he owns after discarding the rest of his wardrobe for lack of space. “You get used to it.”

When Capsule Hotel Shinjuku 510 opened nearly two decades ago, Japan was just beginning to pull back from its bubble economy, and the hotel’s tiny plastic cubicles offered a night’s refuge to salarymen who had missed the last train home.

Now, Hotel Shinjuku 510’s capsules, no larger than 6 1/2 feet long by 5 feet wide, and not tall enough to stand up in, have become an affordable option for some people with nowhere else to go as Japan endures its worst recession since World War II.

Read “For Some in Japan, Home Is a Tiny Plastic Bunk” [via The New York Times]

This looks to be a continuation of the ‘net cafe refugees‘ that the media picked up on in 2007 and early 2008, before the recession had even hit Japan. It’s undeniable now, walking around places like Shinjuku Station and Ueno Park, that the number of homeless have very apparently increased. During the day, rather normal looking, if not slightly disheveled, middle age and older men can be seen loitering about public spaces, while more and more folded-up cardboard boxes and carts wrapped in tarps — presumably holding belongings — can be spotted in the cracks and crevices between light posts, fences and buildings.

As cited in Tabuchi’s article, Prime Minister Hatoyama published a public service announcement on the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare’s YouTube channel, calling out for those who have found themselves in precarious living situations over the New Years holiday to call a special hotline to help the jobless make use of Hello Work and social welfare programs.

On the other hand, this trend of living in capsule hotels may be good for the businesses that may be finding themselves with new competition from neighboring love hotels, as the latter begin to strategically push themselves as inexpensive and convenient places to stay for businessmen and tourists.

Thank You For The Kind Letters About TOKYO VICE (from Jake)

I’ve been heartened by a huge number of letters I’ve received in the last three weeks from people who read the book and were moved by it, inspired by it, appalled by it, and/or who felt they were wiser for reading it. I’ve tried to answer every letter I’ve gotten. If I haven’t answered yours, my apologies.

I also feel that I should say I am not a hero. I’ve also apparently broken most of the major rules of journalism that most journalists in the west follow so please don’t see me as an example to emulate, to all you budding journalists out there.

However, personally, I still feel that really the four most important things in journalism are 1) get the the story anyway you can 2) write the truth 3) try to write something that makes the world a better place 4) protect your sources and your friends. I’ve always considered the fourth one to be the most important of them all. I have not always been able to keep that rule.

I appreciate the compliments but I’m deeply flawed as a person, I’ve been a lousy husband, and I could be a better father to my children. I’ve made moral compromises that I’m not proud of but in my defense I’ve tried to do what’s right and protect my sources, my family and my friends and innocent people victimized by the predators of our society. I’ve done some dark things to make sure those people were protected. I’d hate to see my karma score.

A number of people who read the book have pledged money and/or time to the Polaris Project and Polaris Project Japan, both of which fight modern day slavery, and I’m very grateful for their efforts. Thank you. It’s nice to see some good come out of the book.

Below is one letter that particularly moved me and made me contemplate a lot about what has happened in the last two years. It’s representative of many of the letters I’ve gotten and I think it’s good food for thought.

どうもありがとうございました。

非常に感謝しております。

NOTE: PLEASE DO NOT READ THIS LETTER IF YOU HAVEN’T FINISHED THE BOOK YET.

Jake-san, (Though after finishing your book, perhaps sama would be
more appropriate)

You certainly weren’t exaggerating when you said the book got progressively darker. Here I was initially thanking you for the entertainment and information your story provided me, but then… at the end…the death of Sekiguchi, Helena’s disappearance, the strains placed on your friends and family… I found myself skipping ahead just because I wanted to know that everything would be okay. I guess it should be expected though that in a story filled with questions of the ends justifying the means and the gray area between the moral and immoral that there’s no such thing as a truly happy ending.

I don’t know if i could ever do what you did in writing about all this. You put everything on the line for a cause you believed in and there’s no telling the amount of good you did just in tearing down the Goto-gumi let alone your continued work in the Polaris Project as noted on the book flap. I get the sense that if I were to call you a hero, or define your actions as heroic, you’d likely point out the ambiguity of some actions you had to take, as noted in one of your latter conversations with “Alien Cop”. But risking your life for the greater good…God bless you man.

Though questions come to mind about some of your cases, I won’t take up your time with them. I did however want to offer up two thoughts. Firstly, in your epilogue when one of Goto’s mistresses compared you to Goto himself. I reflected back to a moment recently in my life. A couple months ago there was the national news story about the “Craigslist Killer” who mugged three women and killing one of them in the Massachusetts area. The alleged killer, Phil Markoff was a friend of mine through high school, and we were both very similar in personality. For a while I questioned what separates him from me, under what circumstances could I have become what he allegedly is? It took a good friend to remind me that I could never find happiness in hurting others, I’d only find guilt. And if the chips were really down, I’d rather suffer myself than inflict it upon others. So regardless of whatever you had to do, you apparently stuck to your efforts, and the world is a better place because of you. Thank you.

Second, and finally, in reading your epilogue, I too don’t know how much I believe in karma and reincarnation, (raised Baptist, now more spiritual than anything) but I do believe in the immortality of the human soul. From the experiences in my life and my studying of various religions I don’t believe the departed ever leave us entirely. So for what it’s worth, from one amateur theologian’s perspective, wherever Sekiguchi and Helena are, I’m sure they’re proud of what you have accomplished for the betterment of others. Keep on fighting the good fight; I’m already planning my donation to the Polaris Project.

Be Nice to the Yakuza, Or Else

Another amusing educational lesson by jake Adelstein for Publishing Perspectives, this time about the vital (literally) rules of being a yakuza reporter!

So, you want to become a Gokudokisha 極道記者, or rather, a journalist who writes about the yakuza? Then you should now there are some unwritten rules you will be expected to follow. (Read more about yazuka fan magazines here.)

1) No writing about ongoing criminal ventures or front companies.

2) When writing about yakuza arrested for extortion, assault and other crimes, the tone must be neutral.

3) Yakuza who are arrested for crimes such as theft and armed robbery should be treated as heretics, since those are, presumably, two crimes yakuza don’t commit. Street crimes, such as muggings, are off limits as well.

Read the rest here: Bonus Material: Be Nice to the Yakuza, Or Else!

The Strange World of Yakuza Fan Magazines

It figures that something like this would be coming, since he is such an avid collector of the things, but Jake has written a detailed rundown of magazines published by fans of the Yakuza for Publishing Perspectives.

The Japanese mafia, better known as the yakuza, has been the subject of fan magazines for decades. These magazines serve as de-facto trade periodicals for a world of vicious, autocratic thugs, men who are handy with swords and guns, sport full-body tattoos, deal in illegal contraband and laundered money, and rip off the general public; all the while funneling money and power to their families and kigyoshatei (corporate blood brothers). What may be even more surprising is how easy the yakuza fan magazines are to find: they are readily available at newsstands, convenience stores, bookstores, public libraries and even some government offices.

It isn’t a shock that this happens in Japan, where yakuza are viewed as legal entities, and they operate under the cover of being fraternal organizations “dedicated to the preservation of traditional values,” much like the Rotary Club or the Boy Scouts are in the United States. According to the National Police Agency, there are 22 such recognized yakuza groups, claiming a total of 86,000 members. They have their own office buildings or, in the case of the Yamaguchi-gumi, which has emerged as the largest yakuza group in the country and claims 50,000 members and affiliates, a compound/headquarters in Kobe that takes up almost an entire city block.

Many Japanese people, including some police officers, have great awe and admiration for these tattooed gangsters. They are seen by some as lovable outlaws, a necessary evil (必要悪) keeping the streets safe from “evil foreign criminals.” And in the eyes of the middle-aged salaryman, the yakuza are real men living the ideal life, one filled with an excess of money, booze, excitement, and beautiful women (as well as retirement packages that are better than those of Japan’s leading automakers).  It is little wonder, then, that the beaten down office worker turns to the yakuza fan magazines as a way to escape and fantasize about a better, more glamorous life.

Read the rest here: The Strange World of Yakuza Fan Magazines

Ozawa's Angels — will they kick ass or pour tea?

A much-talked-about article with a slightly misleading headline about some lucky young ladies who were hand-picked by former DPJ president Ichiro Ozawa and ushered into seats of power.

Kumiko Hayakawa - House of Representatives Incumbent

NAGOYA, Japan — When Kayoko Isogai got the call from high-ranking officials at the Democratic Party of Japan asking her to stand for a seat in the national parliament, she was shocked.

It was just two weeks before the Aug. 30 election; she had spent most of the previous five years unemployed and taking care of her terminally ill parents; and she had no political or governing experience whatsoever.

“Impossible, impossible, impossible, impossible, impossible,” Isogai said recently, recalling her reaction to the offer. “I said it five times.”

But Isogai, 43, reconsidered and put her name on the DPJ ticket. Then, she watched in surprise as the party’s historic, landslide victory over the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party swept her into the House of Representatives of the Japanese Diet.

Politics meets porn in Japan [via Global Post]

Marijuana (大麻) in Japan:Don't Smoke More Than You Can Eat

Japan has always had a fairly lax attitude towards marijuana and probably only criminalized it because of pressure from America. Unlike speed (覚醒剤)it’s not a crime to use it, only to possess it. Basically,  the implication in the law is that smoking marijuana probably doesn’t do much to a person and is unlikely to turn them into a menace to society.  I’m not really sure why the law was written this way but it sort of makes sense. Often the prosecution won’t charge someone caught possessing a small amount of marijuana but then again, you can still get arrested for having it.

I was drinking with a retired cop from the drug enforcement division a week ago and he had an interesting story about one perp who knew the flaw in the law almost well-enough to avoid arrest.  Detective X was questioning the suspect when he found a plastic bag of marijuana in the man’s backpack–he showed it to the perp, who immediately grabbed the bag, and stuffed the contents into his mouth.  Detective X relays the rest of the story like this.

“I was kind of pissed. Personally, I think marijuana is a benign drug but the law is the law and it’s my job to enforce it. But I’ve got this guy, who by eating the dope, now suddenly doesn’t possess it any more.  Once it is in his gut–it’s gone.   I’ve been outsmarted. But I’m looking at the face of the perp and his cheeks are full of marijuana and I can see he’s having trouble swallowing it. So I shrug my shoulders, and turn around and walk away and as soon as I do that, he walks a few steps and spits it on the ground–at which point I run back and say, ‘Hey, I saw you spit that out and that’s your dope! You’re under arrest for violations of the marijuana control laws, pal’.  Admittedly scooping up the half-chewed marijuana and putting it in the plastic bag was a little nasty but I got my man and made my case. I think the perp got fined and that was that.  So, I guess if you do think you’re going to get caught with marijuana the best things you can do is eat it if you don’t have time to flush it down the toilet. Of course, that also means you should probably never have more to smoke than you can eat at any given time.  If you’re a foreigner, a really bad idea–probably get kicked out of the country even if you don’t go to jail. By the way, also if  you fail to eat all  the stuff–you could also be arrested or charged for obstruction of justice and/or destroying evidence–so if you really want to smoke the stuff, best to go to Holland.”

I also have to say, I’m also not advocating getting stoned in Japan either.  Not worth the risk . However, it is kind of curious that it isn’t a crime to use marijuana to get high, but only to possess it. It ranks among other mysterious laws in Japan such as the Prostitution Prevention Law which makes prostitution illegal but sets no punishments for the prostitute or the customer.

Personally, as I struggle with nicotine cravings I’ve found the only thing I want to smoke are Orion’s Cocoa Cigarettes–such chocolately goodness and in a convenient neo-cigarette shape. Mmmm…..almost as good as the real thing. If only they’d add a little nicotine to the mix, I’d be completely happy.

cocoa-cigarettes