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.

“One of my places has a naked girl swimming around in an aquarium, like a mermaid. You should check it out. Personally I’m not into strippers and things like that, but it’s popular.” I awkwardly segued into his interest in Las Vegas. I asked if he likes to gamble, he said no. I mentioned it’s listed as his hobby on his profile card. It felt like I was reading him his rap sheet.

“I play sometimes. I used to do work there a long time ago. My English was a lot better then.” He’s worked in Vegas–another student first, with many more to come, I sensed. “I started an oshibori business in the casino.” An oshibori is a rolled, steaming hot towel that’s provided to patrons at Japanese restaurants for wiping their hands and face before a meal. “For blackjack players and other gamblers to refresh themselves…wipe off the sweat. I hired beautiful women to deliver the towels and paid them a hundred bucks a night. I ended up losing a lot of money on that business.” He rambled off big numbers as if they had no meaning.

“I used to go to New York once a month.”

“You liked going there to relax?”

“No, to meet Carlo Gambino!” he blurted. The name hung in the air, one of the most famous in American mob lore. Model for Mario Puzo’s Sicilian-born Vito Corleone. The Gambino crime family is one of the five running organized crime in New York, with tentacles that stretch across America. John Gotti would later rise and fall through its ranks. “I had to negotiate with [Gambino] to run the oshibori business in the casino.” Images flashed in my mind of the man sitting in front of me thirty years younger, wearing who knows what kind of 1970s threads, shaking hands with the “boss of bosses”. I realized Mr. Gosha couldn’t be in his 40s, and was likely a good ten years older.

“Negotiate?” I repeated, starting to sound like the English students who just mimic when they can’t do anything else.

“I handed him an envelope with five hundred thousand yen (about five thousand US dollars) and apologized it was so small. ‘What’s this?’ Gambino says and I told him ‘This is Tokyo style!’ I was paying for his time. He loved it and said ‘Okay, I like this guy!’ ”

I brought up a favourite film of mine, Martin Scorsese’s Casino. “Were you in Vegas around that time?” I ask.

“Yeah, I met the real guys.”

“You met Anthony Spilotro?” I gawked.

“Yeah, he was crazy! You know, he was killed and buried in a corn field, just like in the movie. True story.”

“In the movie, they talk about whales, the really high rollers, one of whom is Japanese.”

“Yeah, Kashiwage, he’s a friend of mine!”

“Is it true that when he won big, they stopped him from leaving Vegas so the house could win some back?”

“Well, he was playing poker. He won a huge amount and tried to leave. They told him some story about his private plane having mechanical problems…” He told me that he and Kashiwage still both went to Vegas to gamble. “I gamble once or twice a year, for fun. If I break even, that’s good enough. I go to the MGM Grand…Kirk Kerkorian knows me.” He was on a roll.

“Paul Anka, he liked to play baccarat. He liked to do coke, too. Right there on the table. He wouldn’t even go to the bathroom to do it. He was too lazy!” The etiquette of doing drugs seemed more of a sticking point for Mr. Gosha than doing the drugs themselves. In Japan, illegal narcotics are still considered taboo (a recent news item about a high school girl selling pot in the school washroom became national news), but like everything else, things are changing. There has been an increase in drug-related deaths in Roppongi in recent years. Mr. Gosha told me he did his best to keep it out of his clubs. My mind flashed back to the image of the girl in the tank.

His mobile phone rang during the lesson. Most students register extreme embarrassment at not having turned off their phone prior; Mr. Gosha casually asked if he could take the call. I could catch most of his Japanese conversation, which concerned a recent incident of some kind and one of his employees spending several days in jail. He hung and up laughed.

“Just a little problem! A few days ago one of my employees, a young guy, was arrested for trying to solicit customers away from club property.”

Kurofuku?” (literally, “black clothes”) I asked. These are young men in black suits with feathered dyed-brown hair and tanned skin that solicit people on the street, usually offering young women various “entertainment-related” jobs.

“Oh, you know!” What I didn’t know was that these guys can only operate in the sidewalk area in front of the club itself, and not down the street, where it becomes a misdemeanor.

With the talk of his dealings with the mob in the US and his clubs in Tokyo, a well-known name came to mind: Nicholas Zappetti. Chronicled in Robert Whiting’s book Tokyo Underworld, Zappetti was a low-level criminal who moved to Tokyo in the post-war period, involving himself in a variety of underworld activities, and famously introduced the pizza pie to Japan. The ‘M’ word had been invariably linked with his name over the years, in no small part due to the fact that he loved being called the “Mafia boss of Tokyo.” A cousin of the Luchese crime family, Zappetti was never a made man himself, though he did end up following the second of the three mob “destinies”–Detained, Destitute, Dead. I thought I’d confirm it with Mr. Gosha.

“He wasn’t made, was he?” I asked without knowing if he understood the English term “made”. Unsurprisingly, he did.

“Ah, Nicholas. He wasn’t a made guy, but he was connected,” was all he offered. I considered writing “an associate” on the board, but instead went back to the book, and we actually got through some structures. Something was distracting him, though; a desire to confess something amidst my overactive interest in his business activities.

“I’m embarrassed about what I do,” he said, sounding sincere. He knew I’d ask why, and was ready with an interesting answer. “I create nothing. It’s just money.” He was having difficulty expressing himself now, but not because of his English proficiency. The opera of the mob and all its interconnected enterprises is really played out backstage on the most banal of sets–the money counting room.

After the dizzying array of names and history thrown my way, I finally had to ask. “How did you survive this long?” After I said it, I realized the question might imply that he’d crossed people in the course of doing illegal business. But on the surface it seemed that, although he’d done business with underworld figures, it had been in the context of nightclubs and entertainment, not activities listed in the criminal code. There was a long pause.

“I’m not afraid of anybody. Never be afraid of anyone…”

Soon after, the lesson bell chimed. All of this in eighty minutes, with allowance made for study of grammatical structures such as “past perfect conditional” and the difference between “purpose” and “reason.” His life offered better examples of these constructs than I could ever teach.

This was one case where the teacher was definitely the student.

Jason Gray has been based in Japan for ten years and works as a journalist, translator and consultant in the film industry. He is the Japan correspondent for UK-based film business publication Screen International and provides translation for movies, directors and film festivals. He lives in Tokyo.

24 thoughts on “Eikaiwa Underworld: Lessons Taught, Lessons Learned”

    1. @Gakuranman (Mike) It is a great little vignette. Thanks for checking it out. 50 bonus points to whoever can identify the yakuza boss in the post. I have an idea. (It’s not my favorite autobiography writing ex-yakuza boss turned buddhist monk either.)

  1. When I was a teacher in Washington I had a lot of Japanese bureaucrats for students. I was an awful English teacher so I would always ask them about their jobs to the detriment of their toefl studies. I got a lot out of it but the students probably did not benefit much. Asking about their jobs just lets them stay in their comfort zone. You seem to have done a better job of balancing your fascination with what the student actually came to do.

    1. @Adamu Well, if they talk about their jobs they probably are learning something as well. Usage is important in learning. You may have been teaching them more than you thought in a better way than just doing TOEFL drills.

  2. great read, held my interest very well. and thats difficult. much of my book, black passenger yellow cabs, is derived from my experiences with my students in japan over the last 10 years. only mine is erotic

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  4. Thanks to those who’ve complimented the piece and to JSRC for running it. @21yearsintokyo — I take it we’ve met? (you don’t have to answer that).

    Some of the commenters over at reddit have questioned the essay’s veracity, “embellishments,” and how I remembered quotes verbatim. I post my response here for reference:

    I simply jotted down what we talked about, with verbatim quotes, right after the lesson. It was incredibly easy to remember what he said because it was so unique (and I had a personal interest). I filed the notes away and wrote the piece in September 2004. The sequence of the original conversation is intact and it’s not condensed from multiple lessons. What’s there covers everything talked about in 80 minutes (actually less because he was late), minus verbatim quotes from the actual grammar/vocab parts of the lesson. The only “embellishment” is the commentary I’ve added to give it structure, naturally. Thanks for reading.

  5. Gondo-san’s wife was from Burnaby BC, Canada, pretty darn close to Vancouver, actually it borders Vancouver.

    What ever happened to Gondo-san? Jake any clue?

  6. Great read. I wish you had shared this story (and other if you have them) back when we worked together. It would of made Saturday mornings fly by.

  7. There is often an element of psychodrama in the ESL class, particularly when the number of students is small – people working together, as well – and the Instructor manages to create an open, easy, free forum.

    I’ve been told astonishing things about the Indonesian banking system, the excesses of the ravenous Suharto clan, and numerous stories I’d never have heard (or been able to cajole out of an executive) in a formal business or social situation.

    It is true that people often have a strong need to spill their stories, either to a medical man, a priest, a close friend – or, I’ve found, a foreign English teacher, who “doesn’t count” in the order of things, and who one may never run into again.

    1. Byron, I think you’ve hit on something that’s very true. People need someone to confess to, to unburden themselves, to tell their stories and sometimes “the outsider” seems like the best bet. In some ways, I benefitted from that as the only foreigner on the police beat. It was important for them to understand as well that while I might use their information in a story that I wouldn’t name them. I think you’re observation on ESL teachers is dead on.

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  9. Yeah I’ll second that. I’m often amazed at the things students will confide in me.
    Anywhere from cheating on their wife/husband, marital disputes, to how they take advantage of their workplace situations to get a few extra bucks on the side.

    Often times I honestly don’t know how to react to what I’m being told. It usually descends into “people are no different in my home country, you have nothing to be ashamed of.”

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