by Anne Van
A day’s adventure through the Tokyo underground.
I’d been a college student in Japan for eight head-spinning months and never thought this day would come. I stood in front of the Jumbo Tron, an enormous two-story viewing screen suspended in front of the Shinjuku train station, waiting for my fun go-to guy, Ichiyo. He had been promising me a Tokyo underground adventure ever since I met him, and today he was going to deliver. My Japanese was finally good enough to carry on a conversation without embarrassing him.
A Suntory whiskey commercial staring Dustin Hoffman blazed across the giant viewing screen. His nose looked even larger than usual as he held a glass up to his face and said, “Suntory time.” The words echoed against the skyscrapers making the buzz of Shinjuku even louder.
Someone tapped on my shoulder. “Big nose.” Ichiyo always seemed to know what I was thinking. Sometimes even before I did.
We both laughed as we walked down the main drag that led into Kabuki–cho, the seedy section of Shinjuku, and one of Ichiyo’s favorite hangouts. Even with a man next to me, my guard was up. Ichiyo, with his slight build and bookish demeanor, wasn’t going to scare any bad guys away. This was yakuza territory a.k.a the Japanese mafia, and the police had little influence here. I’d heard rumors you could get shot unexpectedly in the crossfire of bullets—like the gang-ridden parts of my hometown, Los Angeles. Ichiyo stopped in front of a bright Pepto-pink building with a giant purple sign that declared, “Boom Boom Palace.” A porn shop. An impressive window display featured all kinds of erotic delights. The mannequins were stylishly dressed in the latest S&M fashion. This definitely wasn’t the kind of adventure I had in mind.
“Ichiyo, if you want to do a little shopping, I’ll wait here.”
He turned bright red. “Oh no! We are going in to meet my friend. His office is in the back.”
I heard these types of places had all kinds of unsavory characters lurking in tiny rooms, but as I breathed in the fragrances of strawberry and grape, the place seemed as threatening as a candy store. Then I got an eye full of the various sex paraphernalia displayed all over the shop. The shelves were crammed full of boxes of lollipop colored edible panties, whips, ball gags, and an impressive array of gyrating silicone body parts. I couldn’t help but stare when I passed a three-headed dildo.
My mind raced, thinking of the various uses when Ichiyo said, “My friend has bodyguards, so just keep your hands in front of you, okay?”
I felt like I was in a Quentin Tarantino movie and had suddenly turned into Uma Thurman. I wish. I was shorter and had brown hair streaked with highlights, but I did have Uma beat in the boob department. I kept my hands close to my waist as we snaked our way to the back of the shop. A man dressed in a black suit and sporting a skinny black tie stood in front of a door with a sign that said in English, “Enter at Your Own Life.” The Japanese loved English and usually butchered it with amusing results. What wasn’t so amusing were the two sumo-wrestler type bodyguards that stood on either side of the doorway.
Ichiyo approached the suited man and said in Japanese, “Nakashimasan, this is my friend Anne from America.”
The guy screamed Japanese mafia. His slicked-back hair accentuated his cheekbones that jetted out at right angles, and a dragon tattoo peaked out from underneath his shirtsleeve. Every yakuza I’d ever seen in the movies always wore a black suit no matter what the temperature. He was usually missing a few fingers as punishment for screwing up some hit. But from what I could tell, all of Nakashimasan’s digits were intact. My adrenaline surged at the thought of actually meeting my movie vision. Funny that innocent-looking Ichiyo would have such a diverse group of friends.
I bowed to my knees. You couldn’t go wrong bowing to someone older than you in Japan as long as you did it deep enough to show respect.
Nakashimasan stared directly at my breasts before moving up to my face. “Nice to meet you. Ichiyo tells me you are interested in all the different faces of Japan.”
Relieved that I could keep up with the conversation so far, I still thought I should choose my Japanese words carefully. “Yes, within reason.”
Nakashimasan laughed. “You don’t have to worry. I am small time. Just run this shop and produce pornographic movies.”
I hoped he wasn’t going to offer me a job. Thankfully, I wore one of my usual student outfits, jeans and a faded UCLA T-shirt. Looking unattractive was a definite plus in this situation. If I didn’t know Ichiyo better, I would think he set me up.
“Actually, I would like you to see the movie I am working on. I want to take it to America.”
Oh, great. Now I had to watch some hard-core porno out of politeness. Thanks a lot, Ichiyo.
Ichiyo once again seemed to read my mind. “Don’t worry, Anne, it is an art movie.”
Art movie? Who were they kidding?
We followed Nakashimasan down a small hallway filled with the pungent smell of sweat that led to another section of the store. He opened the door into a closet-like room used to view XXX rated films. I sat down on a chair covered with stains and tried to keep from gagging. As I shifted nervously in my well-worn seat, I knew the first thing I was going to do when I got home—burn my clothes!
Nakashimasan snapped his fingers and the screen lit up. The scene opened with a yakuza staggering across a street obviously wounded. Another mafia guy chased him through a series of smaller and smaller alleys until the injured man was cornered. As I watched the rough cut, I began to realize that this was an art film after all. The storyline was about a yakuza who had tried to retire from his gang because he just couldn’t kill people any more. It had the makings of a good movie, and with a running time of only an hour and twenty minutes, giving fast-paced a new meaning.
Nakashimasan turned the lights back up. “What do you think? Will they like this in America?”
Grateful the film actually did have some possibilities, I said, “I really liked your film. People in the US are very interested in the yakuza. They’re much like our mafia, but with a longer history.”
Nakashimasan nodded. “Yes, we have been around a long time. Some think we were started from the Samurai who were left to fend for themselves after the Shoguns lost power. Others say we were like your Robin Hood, protectors of the villagers.” He smiled. “I pick Robin Hood.”
A serious expression spread across Ichiyo’s face. “I agree. Japan needs the yakuza. They keep our government in line.”
I had somehow touched a nerve. Ichiyo felt compelled to defend the mafia. He must have sought Nakashimasan’s help. But I decided I didn’t want to know what business the two men had between each other.
Ichiyo sprung up from his seat. “Now let’s get lunch.”
My stomach was too scared to think of lunch, even though I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast.
Nakashimasan got up from his chair. “Can I join you?”
Great. Now I was going to be seen in public with a yakuza and his bodyguards. People were going to think I was a prostitute who worked for him. Not that I hadn’t been accused of being one several times already. I never failed to get stopped by the police every time I hung out with a group of male friends. They assumed a lone white woman with a bunch of Japanese men meant she was a hostess, a.k.a hooker. But I couldn’t refuse Nakashimasan’s offer, so I dutifully followed behind the men.
Ichiyo and I climbed into the back seat of a slick black Mercedes sedan that reeked of cigarette smoke, and we were quickly sandwiched between the two bodyguards. The car sped away from Kabuki-cho toward the trendy part of Shinjuku. Barely able to breath due to the smoke and the overpowering fragrance of cheap men’s cologne, I was grateful when after only a few minutes, the car stopped in front of a cute little café called, “The Dollar Monkey.” I hoped Nakashimasan’s favorite spot to dine didn’t dish up its namesake. I’d heard of restaurants that had live monkey on the menu, a Chinese delicacy. I let out a sigh of relief when we walked inside the café and the air smelled like fresh baked bread and the menu listed sandwiches and noodle dishes.
I felt like a celebrity walking in with an entourage. Everyone hurried about preparing Nakashimasan’s favorite table in the corner. They put on a fresh yellow and white-checkered tablecloth and dusted off the black wrought iron bistro chairs.
The waiter ran back to the kitchen to warn the chef. I could see why Ichiyo might enjoy hanging out with a yakuza. All the attention certainly made you feel important. I figured while we were waiting for our lunch to arrive I might as well find out more about the gangster life. I’d always been fascinated by the Japanese underworld and devoured what little I could find on the subject. “Can I ask you how long you’ve been in the organization?”
The bodyguards leaned forward, their shoulders forming a protective barrier around Nakashimasan. They relaxed a bit when a slight grin spread across their boss’s face. “If you weren’t so pretty I’d have you killed for asking me such a question.”
Sweat trickled down the back of my neck as I waited for a move from the bodyguards. Nakashimasan let out a robust laugh. “I was making a joke. I joined when I was just out of high school. They recruited me from a street gang—I was the leader. I had a very romantic view of the yakuza and thought it was a honor.”
“Thank you for being so honest. I’m interested in how you had to prove your loyalty?”
“That is a good question. I went to a special ceremony where I drank a cup of fish scales and shared it with the Boss. This bound me to him.”
“Fish scales? I guess drinking something that disgusting proves at least you have a strong stomach.” The bodyguards sat stoned faced, but thankfully Nakashimasan laughed. Intrigued, I asked another question. “What about the tradition of cutting the little finger?”
Ichiyo’s furrowed brow looked like two angry bats fighting. “Anne, let Nakashimasan eat his lunch.”
Nakashimasan ignored Ichiyo’s outburst and took a sip of his beer. “No. It is fine. I like that she is interested in my world.”
The waitress rushed over to see if there was a problem but Nakashimasan ignored her. “To answer your question, when someone offends the Boss by breaking a yakuza code, he must show regret. He does this by cutting off the top joint of his little finger. If he makes another error he cuts the next section. Once that digit is gone they move onto the ring finger. But usually there is no need.”
I knew what he meant. If a guy screwed up that much he was probably killed long before he got to move on to the next digit. I didn’t want to push my luck but was dying to know why. “Is there a reason they cut the little finger?”
Ichiyo shifted nervously in his chair while Nakashimasan ran his fingers through his slicked back hair. No doubt about it—he had all ten. He must be very good at his job.
He leaned forward, forcing the bodyguards to follow suit. “Another good question. In the days of the Samurai, the little finger was important in holding the large katana sword. If the Samurai disobeyed his Shogun, he was punished by having his little finger cut off. This made him a weaker swordsman and dependant on his master for protection.”
Now that made a lot of sense. I knew there had to be a logical reason. I guess the yakuza really were tied to the codes of the Samurai after all. I knew I shouldn’t ask another question, but Nakashimasan seemed to be a good sport. Or maybe he just enjoyed staring at my boobs. But I really wanted to know if another myth I’d heard was true. “Do the yakuza sell foreign women?”
All the color drained from Ichiyo’s face as the bodyguards stood up and moved toward me. Nakashimasan waved them away and took a swig of beer. “Are you implying we deal in sex slavery?”
What the hell was I thinking? My curiosity could get me killed. “No sir. Sorry…bad joke.”
Ichiyo’s legs fidgeted, causing the table to shake. “Look at the time. We should be going.”
Nakashimasan held up his hand like a stop sign. “But Anne hasn’t finished eating.”
With all the excitement of being with a real live yakuza, I had barely touched my sandwich.
Ichiyo kicked me under the table.
I grabbed my veggie special, and in three big bites it vanished. Swallowing hard, I managed to squeak out, “Very delicious.” Thank God I wasn’t fibbing. With his piercing gaze, Nakashimasan was like a human lie detector. “And thank you so much for lunch and answering my questions.”
Nakashimasan got up from his chair and the bodyguards rose in unison like a military drill team. “So nice to meet you. Thank you for watching my movie. And if you ever need help while you are in Tokyo, you know where to find me.”
The bodyguards formed a shield around him, as he got ready to head back to his car. Then a curious smile flashed across Nakashimasan’s face.
“Oh, and to answer your question, Anne, I think you might be worth a quarter of a million dollars.”
Anne Van’s “Close Encounter of the Yakuza Kind” was the Culture and Ideas Gold Award winner in the Fifth Annual Solas Awards.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.