Big Yak Attack: The Japanese Mafia and I
   by Mark Davis

B.C. & associated friends,
          You did ask for stories from abroad (so to speak) and here's one from me, a proud LBJ
Democrat forced into exile from Bush-occupied America. I've been teaching English here in Japan
for three years and I'm currently working in Osaka.
          Rather than the usual "day in the life" kind of story I thought I'd relate something a bit
more unique. My first year in Japan was spent in Numazu, a small city in the shadow of Mt. Fuji
one hour (via bullet train) from Tokyo. It was a pleasant place in many ways but had a few
"quirks" not uncommon to this country. This true story is about one such quirk.
                                            Chapter 1:Enter Masa
       My friend and I were enjoying a drink at Tony's, Numazu's primary hangout for internationals,
when somewhere in the thick Saturday-night crowd I spotted a cobra. I'm not really a professional
drinker so for me it was a little unusual to see snakes in a bar and it certainly arrested my attention. In
this case, however, the Cobra turned out to be merely a drawing etched on someone's arm. It was a
pretty good tattoo and I was in a friendly mood at the time, I guess, because I called out, "hey, nice
tat!" A male, Japanese face (not a pretty one) turned toward me and smiled. "Thank you!" said the face,
the presumed owner of both cobra and arm. The man sat down at our table, pointed at the muscular
painted limb and explained (loudly) that the size of the cobra directly corrosponded to the dimensions
of his primary sexual organ. My companion, a female co-worker, was so impressed that she excused
herself and left the bar entirely, leaving me with this dreadful company and a growing sense of panic.
       Cobraman then introduced himself as Masa and showed me an even more elaborate tattoo on his
other arm, this one of a dragon. My new friend was nearly a foot shorter than myself and he clearly
knew his way around a gym. He wore faded levis, motorcycle boots, and a white tanktop, the
international uniform of wifebeaters. A red bandana topped his apparently shaved head. He had a few
scars on his face and arms that were probably won in fights back in the day-perhaps yesterday. He
looked exactly like the kind of south Austin chicano low-rider I used to go out of my way to avoid
back in my Texas days. "These are good ones," he said of his tattoos, "but the best one is on my back.
Its a tengu. Do you know tengu?" I replied that yes, I had heard about this mythical Japanese creature,
part man and part hawk, reputed to be loud, boastful and generally frightening. "Want to see it?" he asked.
I declined.

Masa, smoking Marlboro reds and drinking whiskey, then asked me if I knew John, another American who
was one of the more frequent patrons of Tony's. I replied that yes, I knew him. He proceeded to tell me about
how John had lost his first teaching job because he was sleeping with his students, one of whom was Masa's
now ex-wife. "But its okay now," he said. The concept of cuckolding this man, who seemed to be the repository
for all the insane, dangerous masculinity that was missing in all the Japanese businessmen I had been teaching,
tickled the ridiculous for me. Masa asked me where I was from, said that he liked Elvis (somehow not surprising)
and launched into a tale about getting into a fight in New York with two guys who didn't like seeing him tip a stripper.
It was a most ribald tale, and upon its conclusion he excused himself to go to the toilet. This reminded me that
my own toilet brush was in desperate need a being properly sanded and buffed, so as soon as Masa
was out of sight, I paid my bill and left for home at an exaggerated pace.
     A couple of weeks later I was again at Tony's and John was there. He was with his wife so I opted
to hold my breath regarding the cuckolding incident his friend had mentioned, but I did tell him that I'd
met Masa. Upon hearing the tattooed one's name, John had a sudden change of mood.
      "Oh yeah, him," said the lanky Floridian, lowering his voice a little. "Don't get too close to him. His
family is all yakuza."
       Those last three syllables struck me like a rogue bus. Ya-ku-za. The Japanese mafia. Terror of the
Pacific rim. Extortion. Smuggling. Tattoos. Missing fingers.
       "Are you serious?" I asked. "Oh, yeah," said John. "His English is good because he got into some
trouble here (John placed special emphasis on the word "trouble" and raised his eyebrows when saying
it) and had to go into exile for a few years in New York." I though it somewhat unusual for someone to
come to America to avoid crime, but there was an issue unaddressed, so I addressed it.
        "I understand that you got on his bad side once," I said. John frowned and nodded.
    "Yeah," he said, "but I bought him some new tires for his motorcycle and he forgave me."
                                            Chapter 2: A Yakuza Primer
         If you take any 100 people from anywhere in the world and put them in a room together, give
them some drinks, turn up the music and hand out the party hats, at least five or six of them will no
doubt admit (after some modest grilling and a few rounds of sausage balls) to having committed a
crime or two at some point for economic gain. I'm not talking about dorks in suits skimming profits or
padding expense accounts either, I'm talking about honest crime here: robbery, extortion, smuggling,
prostitution, underground gambling, the narcotics trade, child pornography, supressing the
African-American vote in Florida...hmm, maybe that last one's not so honest. There have always been
criminals and there has always been crime. The up side to that is that most criminals appear to be
dumber than dead rock stars. After all, if they were intelligent, why wouldn't they just work at
McDonalds where they can get chewed out by a 17-year- old manager and go home with grease
burns every day for minimum wage and free Mcnuggets? But some of these folks are reasonably
intelligent and decide not only to steal but to do so in a methodical manner. Thus, organized crime.
      The Yakuza have probably been around for over 300 years, making them among the oldest crime
organizations in the world. The name means "twenty," or more specifically "8, 9, 3" as a score in the
game Oicho-kabu, a Japanese variation of blackjack. In this game 19 is the highest score, making 20 worthless.
Thus, those who were considered worthless outsiders by mainstream society, particularly those associated with
gambling, were referred to as "Yakuza." The word, by the way, is the same when used in both the singular and plural,
and it means both the organizations themselves and those involved in the life of crime. By the late 1700s, people who
ran gambling dens were thought to be involved in a variety of different crimes, including extortion and smuggling.
In the late 19th century, when Japan began to industrialize at a frentic pace, the Yakuza came to prominence by
gaining an influence over the building trades (not unlike their western counterparts) and with politicians (ditto).
They were instrumental in bringing the militaristic wartime government to power in the late 20's and early 30's
through intimidation and even assasination. Today, they still dominate the Japanese underground and operate
many legitimate businesses as well.
        The Yakuza ("Yaks" in the vernacular of the expatriate community) stand out in Japan. They wear
loud, flashy suits. The older and more prominent of the breed ride around in big cars with tinted windows;
the younger ones like bullet bikes and boom cars. They sport elaborate tattoos which are normally taboo here.
They  posess monster 'tudes that are nonexistant in the deferential and overly-polite world of salarymen and
office ladies that dominates mainstream Japanese society. In person, most appear to be perfect gentlemen
(as you might expect, it's pretty much an all-male world), but there's an air of brutal confidence about their
speech and manner that gives you pause-they WILL kill you, after all. Movies, TV shows and comic books
about them are a big part of the pop culture of this country. Young hipsters try to act like them but its pretty
easy to tell the posers from the real deal. They're loud. They're tough. They're criminally self-assured. They get
the best tables at restaurants, and the best seats at sumo matches (their favorite sport).They throw yen around
like it ain't no thang. They get all the really hot babes.
                                               Chapter 3: The Vans
     If there was a particular day of the week or time of day that the vans regularly appeared in
Numazu I never quite caught on to it. The only pattern I noticed was the fact that they appeared
during my classes or when I had a headache, or both. They came through the main streets whenever
they pleased, and you could hear them from miles away; big (usually black) vans with the wartime
Japanese flag  (you know, the one with the rays coming out of the sun) flying, and the Japanese national
anthem playing at full blast. And to make matters even more intolerable for those recovering from a sake
bender, there was always some guy screaming through another loudspeaker in an incomprehensible language
(possibly Japanese). More than a few times I had to stop in the middle of a lesson on how order a kiwi fruit
daqueri in English for a minute or so until the fascists were out of ear range.
          Michiko (not her real name), an office cutie who worked at my school told me that she knew a
few of the guys who drove the black vans. "The right-wing people," she called them. "They're Yakuza,
too. Some of them went to school with me." I asked them what kind of people they were. "They were
nice," she said. She thought everyone was nice. She'd have thought Ty Cobb was nice.
          Like La Cosa Nostra, which purports to be the last vestige of medireview Sicilian chivalry, the
Yakuza world has always been a decidedly reactionary culture. In a Japan that loves to imitate the
west, they fancy themselves the guardians of traditional Japanese values and the living embodiment of
the samurai spirit. That this boast is being made by people engaged in extortion, arms smuggling and
the drug trade is an irony that's apparently lost on them.
           For over a century Japan's criminal organizations have been major patrons of, and activists for,
Japan's most conservative political forces. Today the far right parties, who appear to favor a return to
the glory days of Japan's military fascist period, are largely ignored by most Japanese. Except, of
course, for the yakuza, who see them as comrades in the struggle to maintain their sentimental fiction of
the Japanese national character. In order not to be completely ignored they take their causes to the
streets with the black vans and the loudspeakers, imposing themselves on a society more interested in
conspicuous consumption than imperialist glory. The relationship between the far right and the mob is
so tight that its difficult to tell the two apart. Yakuza money buys those black vans, and young yaks
drive them around as a duty to their bosses.
          During our lunch break one day Michiko and I went to an udon noodle restaurant not far from
the school. We turned a corner and right smack in front of us was one of those big honkin' black noise
pollution machines. As we passed by we saw two young men sitting in the front of the van. From what
we could here through the rolled-down window, they seemed to be arguing. Loudly. They wore suits
that were also quite loud. Michiko was a little disturbed and started moving quicker down the street.
She ducked into the Udon shop and I followed her. "Is something wrong?" I asked.
       "I went to school with the guy behind the wheel," she said. "Toshiro. I didn't want him to see me."
       "I thought you told me those guys were nice," I said, ever the wiseguy.
       "Toshiro WAS nice," said Michiko, "but he got kicked out of school for cutting in class."
        I thought she had said, "cutting class," but I couldn't be sure. "Kicked out for what?" I asked.
        "Cutting." she said. "Cutting a teacher. In class. With a knife."
                                              Chapter 4: Masa Redux
         A new teacher had just arrived at our school to take the place of the abominable Matt, who had
flaked out and run off to Tokyo. We both liked to eat out for lunch and one day we left the school to
do just that when along strode Masa, who recognized me before I could disguise myself as a penguin.
                              "Hey, Mark!" said Masa none too softly.
       Not wanting to be rude, I stopped, introduced the new teacher, and asked how he'd been.
"Not so good," he said. He lifted up his hand and showed me some fresh scars.
         "I got into a fight last night with five guys over near the railroad tracks," he said, pointing toward the station.
"They beat me bad, man. Of course, there were five of them, you know," he said with a knowing look to me.
"Five against one's not such good odds," I said, thinking he wanted to hear the obvious. "Yeah," he said,
"but one of them was the son of a gang leader. If I'd hurt him I'd be in some serious trouble."
         Well, now, how does one reply to a comment like that? I gave it a stab."Maybe you shouldn't do
that kind of thing. Mighty dangerous." He smiled and nodded very deeply. It was almost a bow.
"Yeah, I guess so," he said. I then managed to find some sort of excuse for us to part company and
we headed off in the opposite direction that Masa appeared to be going. Once he was out of range,
the new teacher asked, a little nervously, "Uh, so that's a friend of yours?" "That," I replied, "is the only
man in Japan that I'm afraid of."
                                       Chapter 5: I Dated A Gun Moll
            Nanako (not her real name) was 23 years old. She stood about five feet tall and had big black eyes.
Her lips that were a bit thicker than average for a Japanese woman. Her whole body, actually, was a bit thicker
than average for a Japanese woman-in a good way. Her hair was dyed a strange shade of dirty blond and she
favored that most ridiculous of fashions followed by young Japanese women, platform sneakers. She wore a lot
of makeup and sported "hello, kitty" and "tare panda" accessories. She worked in a bar. She chain-smoked
some serious lung-clogging coffin nails. She loved hip-hop. She could barely speak any English. I was in love.
It didn't last very long.
           Nanako is the only woman I've ever dated in Japan who actually owns a car-and quite a car it was.
It was a big, black sedan with tinted windows, chock full of stuffed animals, rap CDs, and cigarette smoke.
I cherished the contradictions that swirled around this voluptuous young woman. She drove a prototypical mafia
land yacht around town while listening to Ice Cube and Tupac, and she filled it with adorable stuffed bunnies,
kitties and pandas that would look more at home in the bedroom of an elementary school lass. She may have been
a bad girl, but she was definitly a girl. "Why do you drive such  a big car?" I asked. "My  family uses it sometimes,"
she said. I didn't see any room in the car for a family of more than two, what with all the girlie shlock and all.
"Why the tinted windows?" I asked. She smiled her biggest and most adorable smile. "It is just fashion."
           Because of the language difficulties it was a while before we got around to talking about things
such as past romances. One late evening after a pizza and some wine at my place, however, Nanako
and I did find ourselves on the topic of previous amours. Of my life, I shared stories of youthful joys
(Sandra, Heather), learning experiences (Victoria), moonlight walks through the valley of the shadow
of death (Karen, Juliette), wistful regrets (Kerry), and the great heartbreaker (Danica). I left out a
number of strange interludes (if you don't know, you don't need to), but there was no need for her
to know everything. For her part, she shared very little, and then only with great urging. She was far
more interested in hearing about me than with sharing her own mysterious past.
        I brought up the subject of her most recent main fellow. She was  little uncomfortable about it at first
but did answer my questions. "Have you broken up with him?" I asked. She didn't seem to want to answer,
finally saying something to the effect of, "We haven't talked about it, but I probably won't see him again."
          "Why not?" I inquired.
          "He's in prison," she said. Hmm. Somehow I expected something like this.
         "What for?" I asked.
"Racketeering," she said. She actually used the English word, "racketeering." This young woman, who
could barely speak an intelligible sentence in English on her best day, somehow felt a need to know the
proper English phrase for this crime. I was clearly stepping into some snakey waters.
          "So he was a yakuza?"
         "Yes," she said. "I didn't know it when I met him."
         "When did you figiure it out?"
         "When he took his shirt off," she said most seriously, "and I saw the tattoos."
         At this point I was tempted to ask why she continued the relationship knowing he was a criminal,
but I suppose that when you get to the point of removing clothing the relationship is pretty much a lock.
Well, maybe not, but I thought it might be rude to assume otherwise.
                                    Chapter 6: Petty Crimes and Petty People
          There are bosses you don't like and there are bosses that cannot be liked. After that there are
bosses about which there is no choice-you simply have to hate them. Then there are those bosses that
inspire fantasies of complex, Agatha Christie-style murder plots. Then again, there are those bosses
that inspire fantasies of screaming, operatic, Peckinpah-style bloodbaths in the workplace. After that is
the kind of boss that makes you think nuclear armageddeon may not be such a bad idea after all.
And then there is Tanaka.
         I cannot begin to describe the morbid depths of misery that was the fact of my life under the Tanaka regime.
Imagine a kintergarten bully, female of the species, pushing 40 and dressed like the world's oldest Cure groupie.
Add an addiction to pachinko and a voice that strongly resembles what Minnie Mouse would sound like after a
healthy pipeful of crack. Remove all human traits generally perceived to be positive. Drop the I.Q. a bit.
Add a simply astonishing degree of rudeness-especially for Japan-and make her thin and as bony as what's left
of the Thanksgiving turkey on Dec. 1. All in all she was a truly blasphemous imitation of homo sapiens and while
I was at work, I had to obey the twisted little sack. But there was that one day that almost made it worth the burden.
The day Tanaka cried.
     At the end of an otherwise banal workday I walked into the lobby to find my satanic boss
possessed by a wholly different demon than normal. She was on the phone, speaking loudly and
frantically in some incomprehensible tongue (possibly Japanese) and she was crying. Normally I find
crying a bit uncomfortable but since it was the queen of the damned releasing her stream of dragon
tears I was intrigued. Several other school employees were standing around in the lobby whispering. I
went up to Rapunzel (not her real name), one of the Japanese teachers, and asked what was troubling
La Diabla. "She was sending coupons out to some former students," Rapy whispered, "and one of the
students she sent them to had died. His father got the coupon with the son's name on it and he said that
it upset him. Apparantly the father is a local Yakuza boss and now he wants Tanaka to pay him as an
apology." Interesting development. "she's talking to the police now," Rapunzel continued. "She's
worried that they'll do something to the school property." As awful as this may sound, I was actually
amused that the dragon lady had some yaks on her trail. It seemed to be a kind of poetic justice. I
watched Tanaka's histrionics for a while longer, savoring the evil one's breakdown at the hands
of the mob. Finally she got off the phone, still sniffling and wiping her eyes, and she started talking to
the assistant manager with no lessening of the mortified behavior. Then Tanaka went to the toilet for a
minute and the assistant manager (lets call her Aliyah) asked me to help her bring in the school's sign,
which the manager feared would be a target for the naughty people.
      The sign is vertical, about five feet tall, a thick rectangular steel box that is a lot heavier than it looks.
It lights up with the name of the school in big letters and it stands on the sidewalk outside the door of the
building the school is located in. It really is quite heavy and normally stays outdoors in any weather, coming
inside only right before the long holidays. It took Rapunzel, the assistant manager whom we're calling Aliyah,
a male student who happened to be loitering after class and I to get the gargantuan eyesore off of the sidewalk
and just inside the doors of the building. We were lucky enough to have the dragon lady around to supervise.
After that we all went our seperate ways feeling a tad on edge. I waited until I was a good half-mile away
from the school before I started giggling.
        The next morning another teacher and I brought the big sign back out. Tanaka didn't seem any
worse than normal that day, though she was a little quiet. The yak attack was the major topic of
discussion among teachers all day. That evening the sign was still outside when we all left.
    I arrived early the next day and found the big sign tipped over. Having moved the cursed thing twice
in two days, I knew for a fact that this could simply not happen by accident. It would take a major
typhoon or earthquake,  a rogue bus or a herd of rampaging water buffalo to turn the vertical into the
horizontal. There weren't any spells cast by mother nature during the night to my knowledge, the
sidewalk was too blocked off for an automotive assault and water buffalo generally confine their
rampages to the late morning and around teatime. Me, I blamed this mysterious godfather of Numazu.
After we raised the sign again (the only damage was superficial), this incident struck me as a rather
weak way in which to get a point across; more of a locker-room prank than the act of professional
badmen. Now, the man may indeed have been upset to see his son's name on a coupon for our
school, but to think that he was so angry that he....knocked over a street sign? I guess it qualifies
as a crime but its not quite enough to put the fear of Godzilla in me.
                                          Chapter 7: Masa Yet Again
      The last time I saw Masa was where I first saw him-at Tony's, on a Saturday night. I was
having dinner there with some friends and in comes captain cobra, this time with a young boy of about
10 in tow. They passed us without notice and headed in the general direction of the toilet. I didn't think
much of it. After l'affaire Tanaka I was largely past my earlier paranoias and had accepted a small
degree of danger as a fact of life, just as I had to back home. Later, though, Masa was headed back
toward the door and we made eye contact briefly, which I guess meant I had to talk to him, and I did.
He seemed to be in a slight rush but did have something to say.
         "Hey, you know, what you said to me that day I saw you on the street was true," he said, apparently
referring to our only daytime encounter. "I got to stop acting like that. I got my kid with me today ( he pointed
toward the toilet, from which the young lad was emerging) and I gotta start being a good role model, you know?"
        I agreed that it was important to set a good example for the youth of today.
       "I mean, hell," Masa said, "I can't teach him how to be if his father's out getting into fights
and knocking over signs and stuff, you know?"
         I said that I agreed with him. The tattooed one's young progeny then came up to his father and
took his hand. Masa said goodbye and they left.
                                                    THE END.
       Incidently, B.C., I highly recommend that you give that Senate race a try, and I don't want to
hear about how dumb you think you are. If you can outsmart your own left nut you're brighter than
any Repug in Washington today, and if you have any at all you're ahead of most of our party's delegation.
Either way, keep it coming. America-in-exile is paying attention.
                                                       Mark Davis
                       I can be reached by one and all at:

Privacy Policy
. .