Friday, December 24, 2010

Japanese Firsts: Yakuza

I'm very excited to be able to contribute to the 2010 December Blog Matsuri. This is a first for me and coincidentally the topic of this month's Matsuri is Japanese Firsts. The Japanese First I'll be talking about is my run in with the Yakuza. I'm hoping this will be a Japanese Last as well. I'm going to give away the ending now and say I survived.

Everyone knows about the Yakuza. If you're an avid video game player or movie watcher and someone mentions Japan, you will picture the following things in this order: robots, ninja, samurai, and the Yakuza. And maybe also school girls. I'm not here to judge.

I knew very little about the Yakuza when I visited Tokyo with my friends a couple years ago. I knew that they still retained, or at least said they retained, the honor of the time of samurai. I knew they were famous for often missing part of their little finger, lost as punishment for some dishonor. I also heard that many have large tattoos across their back of carp and/or dragons. That was the extent of my knowledge. With just missing little fingers and back tattoos to go on, unless a Yakuza guy wanted to pinky swear or decided to walk around the streets of Tokyo without his shirt during the cold Japanese autumn, I'd never know he was Yakuza by just looking at him.

My friends and I had spent the night going to bars and singing karaoke in Tokyo's Shibuya district. I was having a great time, but my friends were falling asleep. Early in the AM they decided to catch the first train back to our hotel. This being my first time living it up in Tokyo I decided to see what sort of debauchery was going on very early on a Sunday morning. I wandered around trying to find someone else in the same state of mind as me, namely full of caffeine and alcohol. It seemed hopeless and I was preparing to catch the subway back when I spotted a group of about 7 or 8 young Japanese guys sitting in front of a convenience store drinking some beer. One of my favorite pastimes is randomly hanging out with strangers in Japan. I thought I might as well sit down and join them, though at this point I was new to Japan and my Japanese ability was nearly non-existent.

I walked up to the group, which caused them to stop talking and look at me. I smiled, and used the little Japanese I knew to say good morning and introduce myself. They seemed to think this was pretty funny. I struck up a conversation with two of the guys who were sitting a little outside of the group. Before they could introduce themselves some other guy said their names were Hotdog and Ketchup. I'm doubting that was their real names but from then on, that's what they were known as. I ended up sitting down near them. They were being friendly but kept nervously glancing at one guy in the center of everyone else. I didn't get his name, actually no one told me their real names, but for this story I'll call the guy in the center Yoshi. Yoshi was the smallest guy in the group but for some reason everyone seemed a bit afraid of him. He appeared upset at me joining them. He kept talking quietly to the people around him, who nodded whenever he talked, all the while stealing glances at me. It was then that I first thought that this didn't seem like a normal group of guys. It was also then that I remembered hearing Yakuza don't always take too kindly to foreigners in Japan. Due to my poor Japanese I didn't understand what he was saying, but I got the distinct impression that he was talking about how they were going to jump me in a minute. Hotdog and Ketchup looked nervous. I asked them what was going on. Hotdog looked at me and said, "It would be a good idea to buy him a drink. Like, right now." I decided to take Hotdog's advice and went into the convenience store and got the best beer they had, a Sapporo. While in there I wondered what the heck I just got myself into.

I came out of the convenience store and gave Yoshi the beer. He looked at it, looked at me, cracked it open and took a swig. He smiled, not a very friendly smile but enough to make me think my offer was sufficient. Yoshi turned to the guy next to him and told him to get everyone drinks. The guy immediately obeyed. Yoshi asked me a couple questions such as what I thought about Tokyo and Japan and Japanese food and the like. I just said that Japan is the best, I love Japan, every country should be like Japan. Yoshi seemed to think these were acceptable answers. The guy came back with drinks and handed them out. He gave Yoshi another beer and a bottle of whiskey. Yoshi handed the bottle of whiskey to me and said how he heard foreigners can really handle their alcohol. Oh crap, I thought, he's going to make me drink this whole thing. Yoshi said "Kanpai!" and everyone took a drink. I took a little sip. Yoshi looked at me and said "More, more!" OK, I thought. I took a real swig. He seemed pleased about this. I noticed other guys secretly pouring out their beers on the ground. Genius, I thought, and poured out discreet amounts of whiskey whenever Yoshi wasn't looking.

I went back to sitting with Hotdog and Ketchup. The mood was significantly lighter now, and I no longer felt like I was about to suffer bodily injury. We talked for awhile, sometimes some random other guys of the group would ask me a couple questions. I was a complete shutterbug on that trip, so I thought that since we all seemed to be getting along, I should get a picture with everyone. I pulled out my mobile phone and asked if it would be OK to take a picture. Everyone said at once, "No, no, not of him. Not of him” referring to Yoshi. They said it was OK to get a picture of me, Hotdog, and Ketchup though, who I guess were low on the totem pole or not Yakuza at all. Here's that picture.

Hotdog is the one wielding the hot dog in a threatening manner and I'm the non-blurry white guy.

After another 20 or so minutes talking with Hotdog and Ketchup some of the other guys brought me into their conversation. They kept asking me a question which I didn't understand. Hotdog translated and said to me, "Do you respect him?" gesturing to Yoshi. I said yes. The guys asked again and Hotdog said, "Do you REALLY respect him?" I said that of course I did.

After awhile Yoshi decided it was time for everyone to go. Everyone stood. I said my goodbyes. Yoshi faced me and everyone quietly watched. He gave me a small bow. Everyone looked at me for my response. I got the feeling I was expected to be humble about this so I bowed back and said “Doumo arigatou gozaimashita," which is 'thank you very much'. Yoshi seemed pleased with that so he waved everyone to follow him and they left. I headed in the opposite direction in a bit of a round-about way to the station.

And there ends my experience with the Yakuza. You might be wondering how I KNOW they were Yakuza. Well, it's true I didn't ask them. I didn't notice any fingers missing or see any tattoos. But my powerful deductive reasoning tells me they were. Also, this story would be far less interesting if they were just some guys and Yoshi was the birthday boy.


  1. Did you ever open the little box to see what was inside?

  2. I find it pretty cool that they were thinking about beating the crap out of you and then you gave them alcohol and respect and it was cool.