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Japan Subculture Research Center

A guide to the Japanese underworld, Japanese pop-culture, yakuza and everything dark under the sun.

A Yakuza Encounter


Nov 19, 2009

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.

To put things in perspective, in 1986, there were still no anti-organized crime laws (暴対法) on the books, and the yakuza had a very free reign to do pretty much what they wanted. I sincerely doubt they would beat up a “nosy foreign woman” but I don’t doubt that the woman writing this felt terrified at the time.  Nothing amazing happens in the story, but her description of the yakuza at work is very well-described and a reminder that when you take away the fancy trappings, the tattoos, and the “samurai references,” most yakuza are vicious bullies and common thugs. It’s important to remember that. This is her story.

In 1986, about two years before you [Jake] arrived in Japan, I had the great privilege of becoming the first person, and of course also the first American, to run the length of Japan from tip of the north to tip of the south. I suspect that being on foot all day, every day, one sees even more than those who live in one area and walk and drive to various places. I saw that everyone read the comics (manga),  and that they were extremely popular with the truck drivers and delivery people. Those comics are everywhere. I didn’t see a lot of yakuza but I did see them depicted in the comics.

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.

5 thoughts on “A Yakuza Encounter”
  1. Wow! That was such a non-threating situation for this lady. She must be an American. It is always the Americans that have these stories. The ones where if 5 things were different I would have been on one of the planes that was used in the Twin Towers attack. You know the I flew on that same flight 2 weeks prior. I am so glad to be alive BS. I live in LA and see a lack of civil behavior everyday perpetrated by people that could hurt me, but they don’t because I am mind my own business and move on.

  2. I’d expect a little more toughness from someone running the length of Japan. The guy borrowed money from a criminal who was part of an underground organization and didn’t pay it back, the outcome shouldn’t surprise or shock anyone. And then the paranoia about being alone for an hour in Tokyo…give me a break. People in organized crime don’t go around looking for randoms to rough up. Petty thieves and muggers might, but this is Japan and those elements are pretty rare.

    1. James,
      Well, the outcome doesn’t surprise me but it does surprise me that the yakuza would beat him up in plain sight of everyone and that no one would do anything about it. That’s how it used to be in Japan. Nowadays, I think someone would call the police and the police would come and arrest the yakuza. Loan sharking used to be considered a civil problem and not a police matter for years and years in Japan–that’s not been the case since 2002. I think her reaction was understandable—if you see criminals operating in the open with impunity and you try to stop them or ask the wrong question–it might be reasonable to assume that their anger could become directed towards you as well. You’re speaking from the perspective of someone who obviously knows a lot about Japan–please be a little forgiving of those who don’t or didn’t at the time.

  3. I think what is scary to the writer of this is that it happens in public view and no one does a thing. When people are afraid of the criminal element and so are the cops so that bad guys can act with impunity–that’s frightening.
    I didn’t grow up in LA. So maybe I’m a wimp. But her story captures the surreal qualities of open brutality in a supposedly civil society.
    If I had been new to the country and in her shoes, I would have been frightened as well. There’s nothing wrong about admitting fear.

  4. Jake I was told that there are areas that the police simply leave to the Yakuza. I was a missionary from 1978-1980. Just before leaving Fukuoka in the Spring of 1980, I was at the Mission Home, which was located in a building next to the Zoo. The Pandas were arriving from China and this was a big event for Fukuoka. The Mission Home had a rather large garden area next to the parking lot in front of the Zoo. The morning of the event I was on the front porch watching a large group of policemen (aprox. 50) marching in formation. I have never seen policemen in the U.S. march in formation like this, so it caught my attention. The Mission President had given permission to several vendors to set up their tents on the front lawn of the Mission Home. As I watched the policemen march, I noticed two Yakuza move from booth to booth, collecting their 20%. The police obviously saw them and did nothing. Likewise, not one vendor raised his voice to ask the police for help. It seemed to be understood that the police would not interfere with the extortion taking place in front of them. Apparently one of the vendors must have mentioned that the property belonged to the Mission Home. After visiting all of the vendors, the Yakuza came to the front door of the Mission Home and demanded to see the Mission President. When he came to the door, they demanded 20% of what the Mission was receiving from the vendors. It was really very funny, the Mission President told them that he was not receiving any money, but that one of the vendors had given him stickers of the mission logo as payment, so he would be happy to give the Yakuza 20% of the stickers. They quickly declined and took off. It was after witnessing this and telling the story that someone told me that there were certain activities conducted by the Yakuza, where it is simply understood that the police will not interfere.

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