Yakuza and the Gaijin, My Experience

-by Tyler McPeek

People have been asking me to write about some of my experience with the Japanese mafia (better known as the “yakuza” / ヤクザ / 893).  I came up in Japan in the Hokuriku Region, specifically Ishikawa-ken.  Since I know a lot of these people very well (and some of them are notorious in my area), you’ll excuse me for declining to mention people by name and leaving out a few other details of specificity.  This article, and anymore that I may write in the future on this subject, are more for learning purposes and public interest, and not at all to upset friends and acquaintances–for obvious reasons, if for not out of loyalty and respect alone.  The reader may consider this and all other articles in this series to be "fictionalized memoir" or just plain "fictional memoir."  The "I" in these articles can be regarded to be the first person character that I am creating for this work, no more autobiographical than any other character the writer might create and write about, utilizing real world experience of the writer, to the best of one's ability, to give the fictional world texture, grit, and accuracy.

The crowd that "I" knew well (I’ll not use the word “affiliated” with) was a group of people from the Yamguchi-gumi / 山口組, or the ‘Yamaguchi syndicate’ for lack of a better translation.  It should be noted that none of the people I knew/know ever referred to themselves as “Yamaguchi” anything, but rather only by their regional affiliation, which was in reality an arm of the Yamaguchi organization (the biggest and most powerful in Japan–Wikipedia puts it at 50% of all yakuza in Japan.  I would put it at more than that, but it is a difficult percentage to define, for reasons that have to do with how you define “yakuza” at the fringe, which I will explain in more detail in another post).  In fact, the word “yakuza” was a word that was used more outside the organization than in.  The Yamaguchi syndicate’s crest is pictured below.


My first brush with the yakuza was when I dated a girl who was on the periphery of the yakuza social circles.  Her best friend’s older brother was a man feared by the locals of his moderately-sized town and its surroundings.  This was early on in my time in Japan, and she was a girl with a crass mouth and wild friends, though pretty and very loyal as a friend, beyond any romantic relationship we shared.  She had known her friend’s older brother since she was a young girl of the same local village.  Of course, certain initial things I noticed right away were that when we would go out to “play” with her friends, some of them were sort of scary characters, with an especially blatant disregard for the law.  But since I’ve always been fascinated by the “demi monde” in the States and elsewhere, I felt at home.  I found them to be an earnest and loyal group, and far from the boring weekend gaijin parties and local bars and restaurants in my area that I’d known up to that point.  They were on another level.  The sister’s boyfriend was an ex-head of a motorcycle gang with extensive tattooing (though not full yakuza tattoo sleeves)  and loved to fight (fortunately not with me).  He worked construction, had a few side girls around town and at least one baby with one of the girls, that I knew of.  He liked drugs, partying, and driving around with a crew of locals in his tricked out van all night, drinking, listening to Japanese hip-hop and looking for girls and trouble.  Another girl was the third best friend in the triangle of girls that included my on-again off-again girlfriend and the yakuza’s sister.  This girl had the extensive full back dragon tattoo that is common to women vowed to the yakuza lifestyle and society for life.  She was sponsored for her bar business and life-style by the organization (though I didn’t fully understand that at first), and enjoyed a nice cocktail of illegalities that made her risky, exciting, and a true traditional Japanese kimono-type beauty that appeals to the organization in particular (since many of them still view themselves as chivalrous heirs of the samurai codes and bushido–and thus to the sexy kimono-clad women and the lifestyle surrounding them that the samurai enjoyed back before Japan became a different, modern place).  I won’t argue that logic, except to say that it is true that they are a very traditional / わびさび sort generally–very into ceremony and loyalty, though they contradict that side in a whole host of other, often ugly ways.

So, if you are still reading, and keeping track, this group of three girls and their extended circle became close friends.  Once that happened, and trust was formed between us through wild nights and shared experiences of all kinds, I came to understand things for what they were, in regards to the criminal organization that they were, to varying degrees, a part of.  I came to be close to the older brother of my girl’s best friend.  He was a business man who owned factories, bars, and illegal Mahjong gambling parlors.  He also had some other business of great interest, which I need to think about revealing in a later blog post.  His wife was one of the most elegant and seductive Japanese beauties that I’ve ever seen–she defied description, defied fiction, but I digress..  I came to be in business with this legitimate middle-level “yakuza.”  I should say that he was not tattooed, had all of his fingers, and was not fully immersed in the organization, though he paid in in certain ways and had at least one foot in the official pond (this gets into the area of what is and what is not official and unofficial “yakuza” –it’s complicated).  Mostly, he was a man that you didn’t ask questions to about such matters, though I’ve now filled in all the blanks after knowing him for years.  As I was in the bar and restaurant business at that time, I can tell you that it would have been difficult to be in that business without such a connection or partner in your pocket.  Moreover, apart from the business and commercial benefits, I used his name a few times to dispense with various problems, ranging from an annoying business rival to some powerful locals who didn’t appreciate a gaijin-run business to a full-out extortion attempt for protection money by another local yakuza.  My guy wasn’t the biggest, but he was big enough and feared enough that the mention of his name made all of those problems disappear instantly.  There are many stories about my time with this man that are well worth a tell, but I’ll save them for now and move on.

After working the night life in a larger city for some time, I came to know the boss.  I was out one night with a friend at a popular local eatery that is open all night and popular with hostesses, bar owners, and other local color after hours.  They serve traditional Japanese dinners of rice, miso, and fish, along with other dishes.  A very old-style place with sliding wooden doors, paper-shoji window shades, and tatami flooring in the dining rooms.  It was old school and local to the extreme, hard to find, and run by an unassuming and very astute Tokyo University graduate local.  When I first met the boss, he called me over to his table and announced “this is an international table, I’m international, and I even know the local gaijin.”  He sat at the head of the table, with two bodyguards to either side, and lots of pretty hostesses in attendance, a few of whom I knew or recognized.  They said, “yeah, we know Tyler, blah blah” and the old man looked impressed.  He asked me what I did, who I knew, etc.  I knew what he was even before he said “You must have a lot of women, huh!”  While he said it, he made the gesture for woman or girlfriend in Japanese, a fist with your little finger extended upward.  The only problem was…. he had no little finger!  It was chopped off at the knuckle.  He laughed loudly, and I chuckled as well, if only to show that I understood who he was and that I could hold my own.  I already knew by this point that while humility is a virtue in Japan, and one can almost never have enough, it only gets you so far with yakuza.  With them, you need more, you need street smarts, balls, and you need to show them gratitude for opportunities mixed with a display of grit that shows them you know how to make your own opportunities as well and are not intimidated by anyone.  If not, you are either just another schmo for temporary entertainment, or worse yet–a play toy for them to piss on and exploit.

This man turned out to be the head of the biggest group in Hokuriku, who ran Kanazawa among other important cities in the area.  On that night, he gestured to his bodyguard, who then distributed a 10,000 yen bill to each of about 15 or so people at the table.  He loved to throw money around, often paying me hundreds of dollars as a kind of tip for sitting with him at ring-kissing type functions for an hour or two, letting the underlings guess who this new gaijin bodyguard might be.  Our relationship grew over the years, and I spent a lot of time drinking with him and socializing with his bodyguards (one of whom used to be a nationally-known sumo wrestler), heads of smaller groups in the area, and witnessing some fascinating and in turn, disturbing things.  I spent nights at his house, drinking thousand dollar a bottle Napoleon brandy and talking with him and one of his young wives about this and that.  He had several children, one a little boy, one a middle-aged man, in line to take over the group.  He was missing both of his little fingers (which are cut off by a yakuza in a ceremony to apologize for a mistake to a boss).  Sometimes, yakuza slam their finger in a door to severe it, in lieu of the more formal and traditional method of using a tanto knife (watch the movie “Black Rain” with Michael Douglas if you don’t know what I’m talking about).  The picture above is not him, he was older guy, but just to give you an idea.  His underlings had the tattoos, but he did not.  In the old days (and sometimes now), leaving the organization, if allowed, might require one to cut of their index finger, since losing the trigger finger would mean you could no longer use a gun very well, or going back even farther, to grip a sword properly, but again, I digress..  The boss was Oyabun to his men and Mr. X to me.  When asking for him or talked about him in any way to his friends I was to address him as Oyabun.  The first time I went to his house, the bodyguard let us out of a black SUV with tinted windows (yakuza vehicles are almost always black with tinted windows, Cadillacs used to be popular, these days it’s Mercedes–driving a very conspicuous car gives them a wide-berth when driving in traffic, since everyone knows whose inside, also they seem to like to watch the scared reactions–people bowing their heads as they drive by, etc.) in front of one of his local houses.  We went through a traditional gate and inside was a large, but not overly-so house surrounded by a tall stone wall, with neatly kept gravel all around the house for a significant distance in all directions.  On the inside of the wall was a thin cement walkway, where two German Shepherds walked in a circular patrol.  Their dog houses were located near opposing corners of the wall.  The gravel yard is an old Japanese castle trick.  Any approaching intruder can be heard from a distance walking on the gravel in the silence of the night.  That would have been irrelevant though, even if they got over the wall and through the razor wire, because, as it was explained to me, “don’t leave the house during the night for any reason, the dogs are trained to attack and kill anyone who walks outside the house, from inside or out.”

Apart from fiction, I’ve gotten the closest to these people on a personal level of any outsider I know of.  It’s an exciting and riveting world to me, and I’d like to discuss it more in later posts–maybe.  There are more chapters in my story, so stay tuned.  If you are interested in Yakuza speech (they have their own way of speaking, specific to their culture and place in society), you can download an abstract on some linguistic work I did on hyper-masculine speech and rude speech (presented at the Sorbonne in Paris at the HPSG linguistics conference in the summer of 2010) on the Florida LInguistics site at the following link (titled “The Case for the Existence of Japanese Rudeness Morpheme”):


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