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Wednesday, June 2, 1999
WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST
Wham bam, no thanks ma'am
Now it can be told. When I first came to Japan, I didn't believe in yakuza.
Yes, I had seen Robert Mitchum and Ken Takakura wipe out a whole nest of them in their 1975 action film "The Yakuza," but left the theater that night trembling more with laughter than fear. Truncated pinkies? Full-body tattoos? C'mon! It sounded like some screenwriter was wearing his hat too tight.
So in my mind I banished Japanese gangsters to the same never-never land as other fabulous but fabled creatures, like mermaids, winged monkeys and truthful politicians. This despite the warnings of my Japanese bride, who persistently told me, "The yakuza will get you if you don't watch out!"
"Yeah, right," I thought.
But sure enough . . . They got me. Or at least they got my attention.
My first encounter with the yakuza occurred in a hospital. I was there with a dislocated shoulder, an injury received not from the mob, but rather from a Sunday school child. Playing follow the leader, I tripped trying to hurdle a hedge, only to have the boy trailing from behind do the same and bounce off my arm.
In the emergency room, the doctor asked, "Ever heard of Japanese yakuza?"
"Of course," I snickered. "But it's all Hollywood hype, right?"
He flashed me one of those "My, aren't you stupid" looks, and motioned to my rear.
There, puffing on a cigarette, sat a ratty little man with bright blood dripping down one arm. His little finger had just been chopped off and the severed bone showed through like a stick of chalk.
The rat man and I exchanged startled glances: me shocked at discovering yakuza were real and he perhaps likewise stunned to see a silly foreigner.
I later discovered men of the underworld are much more attractive minus their underwear. Yet, as naked guys don't like to be gawked at by other naked guys, at our local public bath I always strove to ignore even the most colorful of tattoos. Though I can't say the same for my boys.
"Wow, Dad! Look at his!" is a statement my kids have made too many times in the wrong language.
But my most intense contact with the yakuza came when the leader of a local syndicate volunteered to have an American college boy homestay at his house.
At the time, it was my job to write welcoming letters to new foreign students. I wrote this particular boy the same thing I wrote everybody -- a brief explanation of what to expect in Japan and the suggestion that he bring photos of home to show to his new Japanese family.
When the day came, I met the student at the airport and accompanied him to his homestay, where we both met his family for the first time.
His Japanese brothers proved cute and his Japanese mother pleasant. The father? He was missing both pinkies and had tattoos peeking out from his sleeves. He also had a prison record that he held proud enough to brag about. After some breezy small talk about larceny and murder, I somewhat anxiously left the young man there alone.
What happened next, I heard about in the morning.
"Now we go drink," the father ordered. So the yakuza king and his new "son" went out on the town, skipping from bar to bar. The student noted the father was greeted with jackknifed bows everywhere. And no matter where they went or how much they drank, the man never paid.
Conversation was spotty, but the father seemed eager to please.
At one club he asked if the student thought Japanese girls were pretty. Sure, said the boy. The father motioned to the room. Who? The student eyed an attractive girl filling drinks across the way. "That one," he said.
The father whispered a command to the waiter and in one minute that girl had moved to their table -- to sit almost on the young man's lap. The beauty tagged along to the next bar and the next and then, to the student's wonder of wonders, came back home with them.
By now it was 3 a.m. and when the student excused himself to go to bed, the girl tripped up the stairs behind him and entered his room. He tried to tell her he was going to sleep now, but she couldn't understand English. Yet, when she stripped off her clothes, she communicated perfectly.
The student was perplexed. For I had not introduced such situations in my letter. Being a gentlemen, he begged the naked girl to go. Instead, she pulled out his bedding and reclined.
So, still referring to my letter, the student popped open his suitcase and fished out his stack of photographs. He then plunked down beside his goose-fleshed guest and grinned.
"Here's my grandma!" he began. "See the doilies! She made those herself!"
The girl sat there, shifting her bare legs and staring at the pictures, as the boy gabbed on and on. After about an hour, she developed a facial tick, slipped on her dress and drifted from the room in a daze.
The student was never plied with such a "gift" again. The yakuza father later told me, "This young man is pure in heart! Just the sort of influence I want for my children!"
I felt like saying his was just the sort of family most boys would want for their homestay, but at the moment the man was making me an offer that I couldn't refuse -- a glass of beer.
Not as exciting as a naked lady perhaps, but definitely easier to get rid of.