English Conversation (Eikaiwa) a con game? Engrish lessons from Yakuza 3

The critically acclaimed game, Yakuza 3 (龍が如く3) had a lot cut out of the American version. One of the more interesting scenarios scrubbed was the lead character, ex-yakuza boss, Kiryu’s experience learning English conversation (英会話/eikaiwa). It turns out to be a badger game/a set-up/a con and an attempt at extortion, that ends with Kiryu beating the crap out of the thugs running the so-called English Conversation school. I can imagine several reasons why it was cut from the US version, one of them being that the english subtitles are horrific, the other being that Kiryu kicks the stuffing out of the americans running the con game.

Yakuza student Kiryu tells the head of the Eikaiwa school, "Of course, I won't pay your fees. You guys are running a pyramid scheme."

I don’t imagine it would go over well with advocates of the JET program or English teachers in Japan either. The sequence basically portrays the English Conversation schools and their teachers as ruthless, manipulative predators. Most English conversation schools in Japan are legitimate and their underpaid (or overpaid) teachers decent people. But that’s not always the case.

While many of our readers probably know this, for the sake of some that don’t I’ll explain a little bit of the background to this sub-story. In Japan, English is a compulsory part of education but due to the emphasis on grammar and reading ability, many Japanese find that even after years of English they are unable to speak it or understand it when it’s spoken to them. This created the cottage industry of “English Conversation” or Eikaiwa as it’s known colloquially. These schools are supposed to teach the Japanese how to actually use spoken english in real-life interaction with non-Japanese.

What’s not well known is that a number of english conversation schools were and are still run by anti-social forces, some of them essentially being yakuza front companies. There are numerous ways these schools can be used as a semi-legal con-game. One is the use of attractive women/handsome guys who approach the Japanese mark and encourage them to believe that by joining the school that he/she will be able to date the person who solicits him. The other approach is to browbeat the student into paying a huge initial registration fee up front and then refusing to return the money if the student decides to quit. Others make the “victim” part of the game by embroiling them in a pyramid scheme, after they’ve paid a ridiculous amount of money for their “contract”, by offering them a percentage of the fees for anyone else they can get to enroll in the school.

The most famous incident of an eikaiwa chain being exposed for fraudulent practices was the disciplining of the megalithic Nova Group in 2007. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) in June of 2007, suspended part of Nova’s business operations. After receiving numerous complaints, they concluded that Nova had deliberately deceived many of their students, and had committed multiple violations of the specified commercial transaction law, including providing false explanations to get students to register for lessons and coercing them to pay huge fees. They also illegally refused to refund fees to students unhappy with their services. Nova was allegedly connected to the Yamaguchi-gumi and in the past had used yakuza thugs to violently break-up attempts by the english teachers to unionize. The scandal resulted in Nova’s bankruptcy and the loss of hundreds of jobs. Many teachers were recruited while the company was clearly going under, and not paid, as were many of  those hired before the scandal.

On August 26, 2009, the former CEO was found guilty of embezzlement and sentenced to three and a half years in prison. He claims to have been using taking out funds to pay back refunds to disgruntled students and keep the company afloat but police sources suspect that a great deal of the missing money went to yakuza backers who wanted their cut before the company went belly-up. There’s more to the story than that and if you’re really curious you should check out 実録アングラマネー 日本経済を喰いちるヤクザたち(Underground Money–The Yakuza (Dark Powers) Eating Up Japan’s Economy) for more details. It also covers in depth NOVA’s attempts to stay in business through complicated financial dealings with a yakuza business associate and stock manipulator.

The english conversation school has been and will probably always be a good business for the yakuza. The same principles used to get men and women into hostess clubs/host clubs are applied to recruit students. Just like a hostess club there is the possibility of actually dating one of the teachers dangled out as bait to keep the customer coming back. Many companies portray their schools as place where Japanese men and women can have a chance to date an attractive foreigner. The foreign workers brought in are usually under stringent contracts that allow them to be easily replaced if they become problematic and bind them to their jobs. In some cases, their apartments and travel expenses are loaned to them in advance, essentially indenturing them to the company before they even began to work. Often the apartments provided are owned by the company as well.

I don’t expect realism from a video game but the cut sequence detailing Kiryu’s bad experiences with an English conversation school scam has elements of truth that make it interesting. Check it out for yourself, because if you have the US version of the game, you’ll never get to experience the joys of learning English conversation as a yakuza. I’m sure there are a number of former employees and students of NOVA who wish they could solve their problems with the company the way Kiryu did: by battering the the executives running the place with a wide-screen TV and any other blunt weapons laying around the office.

Yakuza 3/The Missing English Textbook Solicitor Adventure (英会話の勧誘編)

UPDATE: Kotaku, The Gamer’s Guide posted an excellent follow-up to this article, The Japanese Mob Wants You To Learn English, which brings up some valid reasons why the English Conversation adventure might have been cut from the US release of Yakuza 3. Brian Ashcraft explains it in detail, while adding some more information about NOVA’s CEO, the infamous Saruhashi. The comments section of the Kotaku piece are also highly interesting. I would hope that this article doesn’t scare people away from the JET program, which has been a useful gateway to Japan for many and offers some excellent experience. If you force yourself to study Japanese while doing the JET program, it can be very rewarding and I know a number of journalists and scholars of Japan who started as a JET and then stuck around to deepen their knowledge of Japan. Also, please see some of the emails that have been sent in by readers–they are illuminating as well. If I get permission to post them, I will.

KOTAKU, THE GAMER'S GUIDE does an excellent follow-up to this piece adding some useful information and insight. Check it out.
Ex-yakuza boss Kiryu politely asks for a refund for his english conversation lessons. He gets it.

How to speak dramatic death and destruction: yakuza lingo

Film buffs and Japanophiles delight: The Japan Times ran a great article by film reviewer Mark Schilling about lines in various yakuza flicks, using some solid classics like the Jingi series and Tokyo Drifter as fuel:

Another immortal Takakura line was one he delivered just before he and Ryo Ikebe were about to 殴りこみ(nagurikomi, invade the headquarters of a rival gang) in Kosaku Yamashita’s 「緋牡丹博徒」 (“Hibotan Bakuto,” “Red Peony Gambler,” 1968): 「所詮、俺達の行く先は赤い着物か、白い着物」 (“Shosen, oretachi no ikusaki wa akai kimono ka, shiroi kimono ka“; “After all, we’re bound for either a red kimono [worn by prisoners] or a white kimono [worn by the dead].”)

This stoic view of life extended to affairs of the heart. In Seijun Suzuki’s 「東京流れ者」 (“Tokyo Nagaremono,” “Tokyo Drifter,” 1966), Tetsuya Watari, whose character has become a hunted outcast after killing his duplicitous boss, must say farewell to his nightclub singer girlfriend, played by Chieko Matsubara. Before departing, he tells her 「流れ者に女はいらない、女がいちゃ歩けない」 (“Nagaremono ni onna wa iranai, onna ga icha arukenai“; “A drifter doesn’t need a woman. If a woman’s around he can’t walk”).

Read the full article here.

Besides being awesome, yakuza films are, like mafia movies, massively important in defining how the Tanaka Taros imagine their country’s underbelly–right down to the trill of growled Hiroshima-ben. While there’s not a huge opportunity to fit something like “死んでもらいます” (shinde moraimasu–“Excuse me, I will now have you die”) into a chat with the local combini staff, it makes for great party chit chat… amongst your yakuza movie-obsessed friends. Or if anyone’s in the NYC area during March and wants to try out a few lines on Jake at the Onibi screening, I’m sure he’d appreciate it. 😉

Jake: The yakuza movies have great lines. The 1970s classic, The Yakuza with Takakura Ken and Robert Mitchum, had a great tag line: “A man never forgets. A man pays his debts.”  It beautifully captures the emphasis on reciprocity in yakuza society.

The yakuza have some pithy words and phrases in daily life as well. 「お礼参りさせていただます」 (o-rei-mairi sasete itadakimsu-“Allow me to pay my respects.” That’s actually polite shorthand for  “I’m coming to extract vengeance.” It’s so polite and yet so menacing and hard to classify as a threat. Or the famous words of one Inagawa-kai boss to his soldiers. 「浚われた時は、命がないと思え」(sarawareta toki wa, inochi ga nai to omoe) “If you get kidnapped, think of yourself as already dead.” It’s the yakuza version of  “we don’t deal with terrorists” . In practical terms it meant that when one of his soldiers got kidnapped in a gang war, they wouldn’t pay ransom for him or negotiate but they’d extract three times the damage in revenge to the opposite side.

And finally, of course, one of my favorites which I’ve found to be personally true: 「窮地で初めて男の真価がわかる」(”kyuchi de hajimete otoko no shinka ga wakaru”; “It is when a man is placed in a tough situation that we first know his real worth.”) And of course, the motto of the old school yakuza that are fading out very quickly. 「裏切られるのも耐えろ。人を裏切っちゃいけない。人を裏切ったら誰も信用できなくなり、ヤクザとして勤まらん」(“uragirareru no mo taero. hito wo uragicha ikenai. hito wo uragichattara dare mo shinyo dekinaku nari, yakuza to shite tsutomaran” ; “If you’re betrayed, endure. Never betray others. If you do, you won’t be able to trust anyone and you can’t live as a yakuza.”)

Also, don’t forget to check out our growing Yakuza Dictionary, and make your own suggestions!

In Battle For King of the Bugs: Saw Beetle Kicks Miyama Beetle Butt New Research Reveals; SEGA Silent on Video Game Repercussions

Nobody expects realism in video games but someday they might. The popular King of Bugs (ムシキング) video games series is one in which players select their bug and fight off arthropod opponents to see who can knock the other out of the ring first. You can play against the computer or you can play against a friend. Real life bug matches between stag beetles (鍬形虫/kuwagatamushi) were a popular games for children in the day before video games and when Japan still hadn’t managed to decimate it’s natural environment.  Generally speaking, when it came to stag beetles, it was thought that all beetles had pretty much the same chance. Well, apparently that’s not the case. And that could have serious repercussions on the pereived accuracy of this gaming classic. (No plans have been announced to revise the board game version or issue a recall.)

Questions have been raised as the accuracy of the Japanese Saw Stag Beetle depiction in the popular King of Bugs (ムシキング)series. Will future editions reflect recent scientific findings?

According the January 18th, 2011 edition of the Asahi Elementary School Newspaper (朝日小学生新聞), Yoshihito Hongo (本郷儀人研究員)a researcher at Kyoto University Graduate School– the Japanese Saw Stag Beetle (ノコギリクワガタ/nokogirikuwagata)is much more likely to win over the Miyama Japanese Stag Beetle in an even fight. This is surprising when you consider that the average Saw Beetle (3.8 centimenter) is smaller than the Miyama Beetle (4.1 centimeters). The secret: the Saw Beetle’s devestating underhand throw (下手投げ/shitatenage).  The two male beetles often fight over women and food.

Hongo-san who was an old school stag beetle fan noticed that in the Kyoto area that the number of Saw Beetles seemed to be growing in recent years. In 2008, he began to study why. After extensive experimentation and fairly staged fights, he was able to determine that out of 224 battles the Saw Beetle won 145 fights and the Miyama Beetle only 99 fights. In most cases, the deciding factor was the underhand throw. The Saw Beetle would crawl under the Miyama Beetle, sandwiching it between its huge jaws and then and toss it into the air, off the playing grid. The Saw Beetle was also able to perform an effective overhand throw as well.

Researcher Hongo’s conclusion: “The Miyama Beetle may be bigger and better looking but it’s all show. When it comes down to it, the underdog wins in this case.” At the time of publication of this article, Sega was unavailable for comment on to whether future editions of the Mushi King series would reflect the latest scientific data which should techinically give players who chose the Saw Beetle an advantage in fights with Miyama Beetles, especially if they utilize the underhand throwing sequence. Memo: I seriously doubt SEGA will even answer my inquiry on this one but can’t hurt to ask. 😀

Bet on the Japanese Saw Stag Beetle!

Tale of the celebrity cannibal

The Korean custom of eating dogs is something that on occasion mistakenly gets loaded on to the Japanese. To the French and Dutch in the summer of 1981, mention of the Japanese likely brought to mind one individual who ate a completely different type of meat–human.

Issei Sagawa had just completed a semester of study at the Sorbonne Academy in Paris, France, when he invited his Dutch classmate Renée Hartevelt to dinner. Sagawa shot and killer her, then spent the next three days eating her body. He was caught trying to dump her remains in a lake, and investigators discovered further remains still in Sagawa’s fridge. According to his testimony, Sagawa had found Hartevelt to be incredibly beautiful and he wanted to “absorb her energy” in order to compensate for his own “weak, ugly, and small” stature.

Sagawa was found to be legally insane, but was released into the hands of the Japanese authorities. After being examined by psychologists, who found him to be sane but “evil”, he was released.

The folks over at VBS TV have just released a short documentary on Sagawa (part 1 and 2). For those unfamiliar with Vice Mag and VBS TV, I warn you that it’s not for the faint of heart and NSFW.

Perhaps as an unfortunate testament to the Japanese penchant for the unusual, Sagawa now lives as a minor celebrity. He’s also a painter according to this macabre YouTube clip, and he tries to persuade potential clients that he has better and more delicate taste than Hannibal Lecter. Somehow his blood-red shirt doesn’t put us at ease.

Yakuza Review The Sega Video Game "Yakuza 3"

The Yakuza video game series from Sega has been tremendously popular in the United States and in Japan but what do the yakuza themselves think of the game? I asked. It took forever to finally finish this piece but thanks to great patience amongst some underworld acquaintances and the magical editing ability of @tokyomango aka  Lisa Katayama, the article made its appearance today on BoingBoing.

Our honorable yakuza hero wondering the virtual streets of Kabukicho

The game itself is very impressive and not too far off the mark in depicting the yakuza. The attention to details is amazing–they’ve recreated the sleazy red-light district known as Kabukicho in all its former glory. It isn’t that way anymore. The mobsters reviewing the game gave it high ranks on environmental authenticity.

Environment

M: I’ve never been to Okinawa, but Kabukicho is dead on.
S: You mean the old Kabukicho. Governor Ishihara’s totally ruined the place. It’s like a ghost town.
K: It’s like going back in time. Koma Theater is there, the pink salons, the Pronto Coffee shops, the Shinjuku Batting center, the love hotels.
S: You got your salaryman in there, the delinquent school girl and her sugar daddy, Chinese people, and even those Nigerian touts. What’s with all the fucking gaijin (foreigners) in the area anyway? It used to be just Japanese, Koreans and Chinese.
M: Don’t say gaijin. Say Gaikokujin. It’s more polite. Jake’s a gaijin.
S: Yeah, I forget sometimes. What’s with all the fucking gaikokujin in Kabukicho anyway?
K: Internationalization. The world’s a smaller place. The Nigerians? They marry Japanese chicks. They get a permanent visa. They stay. The cops can’t get rid of them and they’re good at steering customers into shady places. The young Japanese punks we hire, they give up, they don’t browbeat drunks into bringing business to our establishments. They got no backbone. The Nigerians are aggressive. They can make good touts. By the way, Adelstein, usually when we say gaijin we mean non-Asian foreigners like you and the Nigerians. Not the Chinese or the Koreans.
S: Yeah, Koreans are chosenjin, not gaijin.
M: I like the fact that you power up by eating real food. Shio ramen gives you a lot of power — CC Lemon, not as much. It all makes sense.
S: The breaded pork cutlet bento box is like mega power. More than ramen. That’s accurate.
K: If they had shabu (crystal meth) as a power-up item, that would be realistic. It’s a yakuza game.
S: They have sake!
M: Kiryu is an executive, right? We all know the guys at the top don’t drink or do speed.
S: Yeah, not anymore.
M: Can you smoke in the game? I forget. That should be a power-up.
S: Cigarettes and shabu should be in every yakuza game.

The top yakuza have nicely tailored suits and the platinum badges as well.

There is a lot of attention to detail in the game and the top bosses are all snazzily dressed, as they should be, with the yakuza group emblem emblazoned badge on their lapel. In most groups, platinum badges are for the highest rank. However, these days, even wearing the organization badge is a no-no in most yakuza groups, many low-ranking members are no longer allowed to carry business cards with the yakuza organization crest printed on them.. The era when the yakuza flaunted their existence may be coming to a close, in which case, this game is almost like a historical document. Except for the CIA stuff. And the huge fights where nobody dies.  For the rest of the article see Yakuza 3: Played, reviewed, and fact-checked. With the Yakuza.

All eyes on Hatoyama–his fashion, at least

At a charity fashion show in December, 2009 (via Mainichi)
At a charity fashion show in Dec. 2009 (via Mainichi)

While Prime Minister Hatoyama’s approval ratings continue to sink, it seems attention paid to his sense of style is at an all-time high, as most recently pointed out by this article by CNN correspondent Kyung Lah.

Hatoyama, whose wife garnered almost more attention than he did during the election last year with her “Venus” and “eating the sun” statements, has always dressed a little unusually–though we have to wonder if Miyuki is the one choosing his clothes. The madness seemed to surface little-by-little, starting with Yukio’s gothy shirt during a Fuji TV visit to the Hatoyama residence in July of last year (click here for Japan Probe coverage–unfortunately the YouTube videos seem to be gone), but his latest checkered getup seems to have been the final straw before the media pounced.

Continue reading All eyes on Hatoyama–his fashion, at least

The Otaku Sex Industry: sometimes, the real thing is better?

by John Pakarnian (writing for Japan Subculture Research Center)

Moe Tokyo (Welcome to a brave new world)

Taku Hachiro is probably the most unlikely sex symbol in the world. A talento known for his personification of the ultimate otaku stereotype, this Shizuoka native’s long stringy hair, portly figure and gopher-like posture might make him better suited for the back corner of a video arcade than ads for the sex industry. But for over a year he has been promoting deai [hook-up] sites in manga magazines. In today’s poor economy, peddlers of pleasure will do anything to attract new customers, including taking on an otaku image.

Otaku have been booming in the popular consciousness since 2005, when Fuji TV aired its prime time drama Densha Otoko, a beauty and the beast romance starring an otaku. Women’s magazines raved about how the show championed otaku as new potential partners for middle-aged career women, but otaku remained incredulous. That same year, Toru Honda wrote Dempa Otoko, a manifesto calling for otaku to abandon “love” for human females and embrace “moe” for two-dimensional characters. His book sold 33,000 copies in three months, and fans planted signs in Akihabara reading, “Real Otaku Don’t Desire Real Women.”

But Honda is the voice of an extreme minority.

Continue reading The Otaku Sex Industry: sometimes, the real thing is better?

Now for something completely different: Visual Kei

A link via Mutantfrog Travelogue:

And we thought Johnny’s Jimusho was dodgy; Tokyo Damage Report gives the lowdown on the grime in the Visual Kei industry, from lack of contracts and “band rules” to money laundering. It’s not only the political world that takes cues from the yakuza:

In the beginning there was some – how do you say? – rivalry? between them, but they soon became friends, when they realized they could make more by working together. And of course that’s the exact system used by the Yakuza: controlling different parts of the country, but working together for maximum profit: “I’ll handle your businesses in my territory if you look after my businesses in yours!”

It’s a long interview, but definitely recommended reading for a look at a different side to a different subculture.

Read Tokyo Damage Report’s Interview with an ex-Visual Kei record executive

Jello shots hit Japan–finally!

Almost any American who went to a few parties during their university days will be slightly familiar with the ubiquitous Jello shot, and Wikipedia tells me they exist in a few Commonwealth nations too, albeit under a different name. During my school days, I remember preparing endless trays of these for Japanese exchange students, most of whom remarked with slurred words what an amazing creation they were.

Hopefully they’ve got a few fond memories of the drink. But a new product known as “Tequila Balls,” born in Kabukicho and rising in popularity at Tokyo’s clubs and karaoke boxes, will likely drum up a few twinges of regret that they didn’t think of commercializing them first.

What are Tequila Balls?

According to Shukan Bunshun, which reported on the product in January, Tequila Balls are the brainchild of an ex-host working at Kabukicho bar “NASUKA.” Although they look suspiciously like the jelly candies that hit the news a few years ago both in Japan and abroad after a series of choking accidents, these little bombs are 20% alcohol and contain 1/3 of a shot glass worth of tequila each. Website J-cast quotes the marketing manager as saying, “These were created for men who are looking to get women drunk with something that’s stylish and easy to drink.”

The venue unleashed their creation in 2008, and the balls were met with rave reviews from what is arguably a bar in Kabukicho’s largest clientele: hosts and hostesses. Things stayed relatively local until a NASUKA regular–who happened to be a model for the massively popular cabaret-style fashion magazine, Koakuma Ageha–posted on her blog about the party goodies. Calls suddenly started flooding in from around the country.

Momoka Eri and Tequila Balls

NASUKA had been creating Tequila Balls themselves and selling them to local cabaret and host clubs, wrote Shukan Bunshun. With the attention that came through the high-profile blog posting, however, they could no longer keep up with orders, eventually branching out into a production and mail-order service that sells the items starting at ¥2,205 for a set of 10. The brand has stuck to its roots as well, choosing ageha diva, fashion model and entrepreneur Momoka Eri as the face of Tequila Balls.

The Tequila Balls Web site says they’re currently available in orange, blueberry, yogurt, cassis and strawberry, but we’re hoping they’ll branch out into “berry blue” and “strawberry-kiwi.” Tequila jigglers, anyone?

From historic tales to the morning news: Manga for everyone

There’s likely very few students who haven’t at least paged through one of the manga versions of the classics, like Essays in Idleness or the great Genji Monogatari, to prepare for their university exams. Indeed, probably number of Japanese people have never even seen classic Japanese literature in any form except for a comic book. And when these tales are typically composed of volumes and volumes of nearly incoherently archaic Japanese script–something akin to Beowulf in English–who could really blame them?

For a generation of manga readers who are accustomed to getting the meat and potatoes of a story from easy-to-understand illustrated dialog, there is apparently also News Manga. While the number of headlines available on a daily basis is as abbreviated as the stories themselves, the slightly satirical roundups do give an amusing rehash of recent events. Check out:

Hatoyama on TwitterHatoyama on Twitter

Kamei's controversial comments to the EmperorKamei’s controversial comments to the Emperor

And even

"Do-it-yourself testament kitsThe recent popularity of do-it-yourself testament kits