After the 60 Minutes broadcast in November of 2009, we got several emails from foreigners in Japan who had had unpleasant encounters with the worst of the tattooed tribe. We also received some stories that put the yakuza in a good light, but those were the exception. Some details in this account have been altered to protect the name of the author. Of course, I sincerely doubt there would be any repercussions if details of an event so long ago was brought up now — but then again, I’d really hate to be wrong. Better safe than sorry.
However, it was not until I arrived near Tokyo that I really saw the yakuza in action. Because the sponsors had set up a number of interviews, I had to be at a spot outside of Tokyo by a certain time. Quite literally running late, I was running into the night to get to where I needed to be. I often used the rest rooms at gas stations as pit stops, and it was no different on that night. The gas station I stopped at was one of the most modern I had ever seen!
A long line of cars were waiting for their chance to pump gas. In the one of the spotless open repair bays stood a man in a dark suit with a gray turtleneck sweater and highly polished shoes. In front of him was a man older than he, also dressed in black. Unlike the man in the suit who was bald, or had totally shaved his head, this man had a huge shock of hair. Two guys, one on either side of the man in the suit, were facing the older, very thin man in black.
The suited man would ask a question (I was out of ear shot so could not hear the tone, but he seemed very composed, steely quiet in his questioning) and the man in black would answer in a highly agitated and animated way. It was striking to me that so much could be understood from body language and stance. The bay was very, very brightly lit. All of this was going on in full view of everyone in line — maybe as many as 20 cars full of people.
When the agitated man apparently did not answer to the satisfaction of the man in the suit he would nod, and the two tough-looking muscular guys with him would haul off and hit the guy, generally in the head. His face was very bloody. My support car was parked on the outskirts of the parking lot. There was a sign on the car clearly stating what I was doing, and press coverage had made most people aware of who I was all over Japan. Still, I could not help myself.
I went to someone who seemed to work there and asked why this was going on, why no one stopped it or called the police. I was told one word, “yakuza,” and that they could not stop it. The beaten man had failed to repay his loan on time and he was being punished. I started to cry and stuck out like a sore thumb in the brightly lit area of the pumps, visible to those in the bay. I moved back out towards the perimeter, but did not want to call attention to my car… as if this foreign lady on foot in running gear could do anything but draw attention!
The whole group moved into the brightly lit gas station, and they gave the man a towel and water to clean up his face. He seemed to be talking to them in a begging manner… but at least it seemed to me he was out of danger.
Having finished what I stopped for before I even saw the incident, I returned to the road to kept on towards Tokyo. Unfortunately, my support vehicle got lost in a maze of new freeway connections and for over an hour I was alone, running in sheer terror thinking something could happen to me and no one would ever know. I thought at least they would be looking to see why I didn’t arrive in Tokyo the next day. But I did get there, and told my story to some of the sponsor reps who met me. They said I was very lucky. Now I know just how lucky.