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.
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.