• Thu. Jul 18th, 2024

Japan Subculture Research Center

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

Little Mermaids & Little Fingers: An illustrated yakuza tale

Shira, an Israeli hostess I knew in Osaka, asked if I’d be willing to teach English to her boyfriend, allegedly a Japanese dentist. She told me I could teach him in her one-room mansion while she was out working so, after agreeing to a rate, we began our weekly lessons. Shin was from Nagoya but had set up his own practice in south Osaka, he told me. Work kept him busy and he often had to make business trips to Tokyo so he frequently cancelled our lesson. Nevertheless, Shin was a jovial sort, pleasant to teach and Shira appreciated me taking care of her boyfriend.

After more than a year however, Shin began to cancel more frequently and at longer intervals. Sometimes his reasons sounded suspect, but I never probed. Eventually, he always came back. One day, however, Shin called to say he had fallen ill and needed to rest in Tokyo. “Hataraki sugi (overwork),” he said, offering the Japanese default excuse. Mata, denwa shimasu… He agreed to call me at later at some undefined point.

The next time I ran into Shira she told me I shouldn’t expect to see Shin again. He probably wasn’t coming back. “Not coming back?” I asked puzzled. “You don’t know about Shin and the yakuza?” she replied, and then her voice trailed off, the discussion dead on the vine. But after several months I received a call unexpectedly from Shin who told me he was still in Tokyo but his health had improved and most of his work was finished. He asked if we could restart our weekly English lesson two weeks later.

By this point we had long switched our lessons to my own 2LDK. Shin was something of a tough guy but always very kind to me and not in the least threatening. Still, I knew there was something going on more than “tax work” and “falling ill” in Tokyo. When Shin arrived at my door, he stepped into the genkan (entrance way)  and I immediately noticed an oversized white bandage on his hand, covering his little finger. Automatically I asked, “Shin, what happened to your” – oops! ― I’d spit the question out but the answer was already obvious.


Seated in a six mat room Shin asked, “Do you know the Japanese yakuza?” Oh god.. I thought. “A long time ago,” he began. “Long ago, for a short time…” His story involved a business deal gone wrong, a large sum that couldn’t be repaid, and yes, the finger. Everything was okay now though, Shin reassured me, wanting to change the subject. He asked if we could do an English lesson. There was a book he wanted to go over with me so that he could read it to his daughter and there, from his bag, Shin pulled a copy of The Little Mermaid.

contributed by Jon Letman

The JSRC would humbly like to thank Mr. Letman for his contribution to our blog and the education of a little girl. Kudos. 


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6 thoughts on “Little Mermaids & Little Fingers: An illustrated yakuza tale”
  1. True life experiences are always more amazing than stories created for entertainment. The reality of the situation must have shaken you up a bit. I know it would have left me somewhat apprehensive. I’d have been thinking about all the others around me that I had questions about and wonder if they also had some big secrets to hide.

  2. Enjoyed the tale (and the illustrations)!

    That’s the thing about the Japanese: seemingly conventional, normal, almost boring, but in reality dealing with drama and craziness.

  3. This is the type of story that speaks volumes about life in Japan.
    I bet you sale your artwork, as note cards and or a calendar.


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