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Tuesday, May 1, 2012
THE ZEIT GIST
Blood, beatings and the cage: the bouncer
An interview with Thomas, the night security manager at Nagoya's biggest club, iD Cafe
By STEPHEN CARR
Before The Japan Times was invited inside Nagoya's iD Cafe to speak to Thomas, the nightclub's security manager, we stopped to chat to a uniformed policeman near the club. He told us there were as many as 50 fights in a nearby park on Friday and Saturday nights. This busy area of the city, Sakae, known to most residents for its shopping and restaurants during the day, changes dramatically in character late at night.
What first brought you to Japan?
Eighteen years ago I was working as a model in L.A. and Las Vegas when my agency called and said a Japanese lady, in town scouting for dancers, had seen my picture and thought I would be a hit in Japan.
I knew nothing about the country, just that my grandfather had fought in the war there. I thought, "Why not?" signed a contract and flew to Tokyo. I joined a troupe of six male strippers and we toured the country.
What was the job like?
It was pretty rough. We were treated no differently to the female Russian, Romanian, Filipina and Brazilian dancers and hostesses you see in (Tokyo's) Roppongi and (Nagoya's) Nishiki. We had our passports locked away and our movements were restricted.
We'd dance four or five one-hour shows a night. Money was stuffed in our G-strings. We used to strip everything off except for a "tea bag." It was a humiliating job. Once offstage we were told to get in the van and were driven back to the hotel.
You felt like a change?
Yes, and luckily it came after only three months. I got a job in Nagoya at the iD Bar, as it was then, one of the Nagoya strip clubs we'd performed in. I had neutralized a violent situation there, which impressed the management, and was offered work as one of the door security team.
How was life outside work?
In Nagoya I was able to go out more. I got lots of propositions from Japanese women, which surprised me. There'd be beautiful women in my hotel room saying, "I like you. You like me. I make tea for you." This would not have happened in America.
Women were all over me. It was like having a free pass in a candy store. But mainly I was here to work, to make money. So the girls who had money, who'd take me to dinner, I'd rather be with them, to get ahead.
Eventually I met someone special, we got married and stayed together six years. But she wanted to live at her mother's all the time. We got divorced, but we're still the best of friends. I considered going home but I carried on working and got permanent residency.
Did you branch out from the door security work?
Yes, I got lots of work doing commercials, shooting beauty campaigns and car advertisements. There were TV shows and magazine stories about me.
I was seduced by this world — for about 10 minutes. But I was more interested in martial arts and was a very powerful karate fighter. A K1 (kickboxing) magazine came to my house and shot me breaking blocks and bats. I got into the karate business and entered the K1 world.
How did you first become interested in the martial arts?
It was my nature. I grew up around it. My parents separated when I was 5 or 6 and I lived with my dad until I was about 9. I was hyperactive and he put me in judo class to deal with it.
Then I grew up with my mother — who didn't have much money — in Los Angeles, Monterey, Big Sur. We lived in rough areas.
In San Diego there were lots of Mexican gangs. They were very dangerous and I was scared. On the way to school people would fight all the time. They would kick you, choke you out, dropkick you. I got punched in the face many times.
Once I went to a house party in San Diego where I didn't know anyone. I picked a fight with a Mexican and beat him up. All his friends jumped me and I had my teeth knocked out. That was where I learned a lesson, that you cannot take on more than one or two guys.
I needed a way to deal with the constant threats of violence. I have long legs, good for kicking. So I got into tae kwon do.
Did you do this off the streets?
Yes, I entered a tae kwon do tournament in America. I was scared. My legs were shaking.
Then later in Japan I learned full contact karate at the hardest karate dojo in the country, where I was the only foreigner. I did this for my first 10 years here and it gave me the ability and discipline to fight professionally.
If I hadn't gone through those hard-core karate tournaments with no supporters, bone to bone, with opponents trying to break my kneecaps, I could not have done cage fighting (mixed martial arts or extreme boxing, using feet, fists and floor wrestling).
The last time I fought in the cage, I couldn't eat, couldn't sleep, had to take sleeping pills. A normal person would die in the cage.
Dealing with fear is a big part of professional fighting. You can control it by training hard. There is a lot of pressure at cage fights from television cameras, customers, doctors taking blood tests before the bout.
Once a Korean cage opponent, Lee Cham Pong, knocked me out. He beat me pretty good.
I've also done a couple of kickboxing matches in Japan and one in Thailand, where I did five rounds in front of 250 people at the Pattaya stadium. As we were kicking each other, bone to bone, the Thai mafia were running around, betting and screaming. I fought a really tough guy and loved every minute of it. When I came back on the plane my stomach and legs were all blue.
Is a lot of fighting ability mental?
It's 80 percent mental, man. You panic if you're not mentally in control and that takes experience.
I have a very tough challenge coming up in Gifu on May 6, fighting Minowaman, a very famous champion. I'm privileged to fight such a star, a legendary opponent.
I'm the underdog in this contest. I did ask his people why they chose me, although I suspect I know why. I'm a little bit popular, not so bad looking and I can sell tickets. Maybe they want to see a Japanese beat up on a white guy. (Laughs)
Are you worried about this fight and how long will you continue cage fighting?
The worst that can happen is I get knocked out or possibly break a bone. But I don't dwell on those negatives. I'll do my best and hope I don't get hurt. I want to go safely back to work and keep my job.
I'm taking this fight to have a great experience. I know I'm a little crazy and my father worries about me. I shouldn't have told him about it. He's nervous and doesn't like me fighting in the cage. He's watched my opponent on the Internet and says he's ruthless. He's famous for his flying dropkicks.
I've just turned 48, an unusual age to be doing this. People can't believe it. This will be my last cage fight. If I make it through and survive, it will give older people more heart, to see me do something a younger man cannot do.
A lot of older fans come to my tournaments and I fight with their courage, too. I'm taking this fight for the challenge, to have a great experience. It's my hobby!
Very different from the night manager's job, I imagine.
Yes, very. The reason I was offered the job of security manager was because lots of foreigners were coming into the country. There were Pakistanis, Brazilians, Africans, Afghans, Americans, English. They all come to the club. I don't care. I'm not a racialist.
The Japanese nightclub owners needed a foreign manager to control some of these people, who can be very rough. The club has five floors and on busy nights can attract as many as 5,000.
It's hard keeping the peace. There are always drunks, people doing drugs, men looking for women, women looking for men. Some don't speak English, others don't speak Japanese. I let them all in and try to make sure they have a good time.
But mixing a bunch of drunks together is always going to result in trouble. I have to make sure they don't touch women who don't want to be touched, don't rape women, don't bring drugs into the club, don't drag drunk people who can't control themselves outside. I must also stop them beating up on people who are weak and innocent. If they want to do that, they can beat up on me and my security.
Sometimes there are knives, stabbings, bottle-breakings. I need to know who is coming into the club and going out of it, what's happening outside the building, who's taking a piss on the corner of the club. Sometimes there have been as many as 20 or 30 Brazilians with baseball bats pounding on people in front of my club.
How do you deal with the violence?
Most street fights are very easy. I have had 500 to 600 street fights. I have so many martial arts techniques for controlling drunks.
Let's say a guy who's had three or four
shots of tequila has slapped or thrown a bottle at somebody. His body is weak from drinking alcohol, yet he wants to challenge 25 guys standing there. We're all over 100 kilos, pro fighters and we're not drinking.
He throws a right punch. We block it, take him down, put him in a lock or a choke and he'll settle down. We can hit him in the liver or knee him in the spleen or solar plexus, pressure his stomach.
We've got him down, pinning his arms. It's better to try and relax him, get him to understand that we're giving him a chance. Sometimes when we let him up, he takes a swing at us again and we take him back down.
If a drunk punches a security guard, bartender or customer in the face, or tries to bite his ear, spits on him or pisses on his leg, (the victims) feel very bad. They want to beat the guy, but they can't. The customer's like, "Oh no, I don't want any trouble," but (the victim) is furious, and now he wants to fight our security guys.
We can fight these people, we can bloody them up, break their teeth, break their jaws, put them in surgery for a year. But this is a problem. It's not barbarians at the Coliseum. We have a business to run. We don't want blood, nor problems with the police at the hospital.
If we hurt the customer, even if he's drunk and out of control, under Japanese law we are wrong. If I don't have any cuts or bruises, except for a little kitty scratch on my face, and the other guy has a broken jaw and broken ribs, then for sure I'm going to lose. It's easy to beat people. It's not easy not to beat people.
What about people with weapons ?
Japan is nothing like America because gun ownership is not allowed among the public, which is phenomenal. If the Japanese, as drunk as they get, were allowed guns, my God it would be dangerous. There'd be so much killing. The lack of guns is the only reason why I've kept the job so long and reached this age without being hurt.
I used to be famous for whipping out a sword and slicing troublemakers. But that's was a nightmare. I'd go home, couldn't sleep at night, asking myself, "Why did I do that? The guy was stupid, he was drunk, he didn't ask for it. I got scared." I'm not perfect now, but in the last seven years I've learned to control my fears a lot better, in order to protect people, not hurt them.
Are there ever incidents outside your control?
The worst thing I ever saw began with a man who was making trouble with a couple of Japanese mobsters. We threw them all out of the club. The two yakuza left and the man was all upset, yelling, "Where are they?" They came right back in a car, took out a samurai sword and attacked him from behind, slicing him in half like a piece of meat, all the way from neck to buttocks.
Do you have to deal with gangsters?
The Japanese mob will always be here. It will not die, even though the police are getting a lot tougher with them, putting the big guys in jail all the time now.
The yakuza have changed. They're camouflaged now, smarter and more intelligent about their business, more international, going into the car business, tearing down buildings and doing jobs other people don't want to do.
My club is not yakuza-run, other places maybe are. The Japanese mobsters and foreign gangsters have their jobs and I have mine. The biggest mobsters can come into the club if they want to. I can't stop them. They can enjoy themselves with their girlfriends, whatever, and then get out.
They can say they're going to kill me. I don't care. We know who's dangerous and who's not, who has the power and who doesn't. We give respect to those with power because you don't want to start slapping gangsters around. It's like putting gasoline on fire.
My company is good, strong and powerful. They've been here over 70 years. They know I can deal with a lot of maniac people and they don't want me socializing with mobsters. They can trust me.
Do mobsters ever try to cozy up to you?
Sometimes, but I don't need bribes. I won't take a gold Rolex or a bag of crystal meth or a woman. I take my salary only.
With dangerous people, the more they offer you, the closer you get to them, the more you fall into their trap. Somebody might look like the nicest guy in the world, he treats you so well, he just wants to have dinner. But then he asks for or offers a favor, the ball starts rolling, we think we're friends and now he's mixing business with friendship.
So, he comes into the club and hurts someone. To get out of trouble he then says, "Hey, Thomas, I helped you out. Now it's time for you to help me."
Everybody in that gangsterish world is the same. If you buy into that, then you'd better expect to pay for it.
Do you get much attention from the police?
We've got a deal with the police that they don't carry out arrests inside the club. It would be very dangerous if they tried to arrest some mobster in there. Innocent people could get hurt.
Anyway, the Japanese police are not stupid. They don't arrest people on a Saturday night. They knock on the door and take them away on Monday mornings.
Undercover police sometimes go into the club looking for drug sellers, buyers who've just done deals for hundreds of thousands in crystal meth, guys who've stolen 50 or 60 cars, people shipping wrecked cars to Africa, guys with guns, people who've shot someone.
I need to know who these cops are and what they're doing. If they are tracking someone inside the club, I just let them do their job. I don't ask them if they're marking people. I'm not a rat. It's just not my style.
Leaving the iD Cafe before midnight, a scuffle was starting among a group of men 20 meters from the door, which we crossed the street to avoid. Your reporter asked Thomas if he was expecting any fights inside the club that night. "Not really", he said. "Thursdays are fairly quiet. But there could be six or seven tomorrow and the same on Saturday."
Thomas then spotted a man and a young woman walking towards the nightclub door. "He's an undercover detective on an investigation," he explained, one of the routine matters he'd be dealing with until the end of his shift at 3 a.m.
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