A Japanese Birthday Party for the Yakuza Boss

If there’s a rattier bar in Japan, I’ve yet to find it. But I give the place points for being somewhere that patrons can shuffle to in sweatpants and get a cup of shochu with hot water for 100 yen.

So last Saturday, I got up at noon, threw on my best Adidas sweatpants, and shuffled down to the rattiest bar in the nation for a 250-yen beer. Hey, I like to treat myself.

The yakuza boss was already there, sitting at the head of the table as usual. That’s if you can call a sheet of plywood atop plastic crates a table.

“It’s my 81st birthday,” he announced proudly.

“I know,” I said. “That’s why I dressed up.”

Soon, all the usual suspects appeared. There was the guy who frequently pees himself, the girl with the Gucci handbag who looks perpetually pregnant but is actually just fat, the skinny dude with the tiger-print fanny pack and matching platform shoes who smokes a pipe, as well as the guy who’s 88 years old and says, “I’m 88 years old, you know” at five-minute intervals.

Soon, massive plastic platters of conveyor-belt sushi arrived, accompanied by more plastic platters containing traditional Japanese food: fried chicken, French fries, and meatballs.

“Eat,” said the Yakuza boss, “it’s all on me,” before adding, “but you gotta buy your own beer.” He was wearing a gray, double-breasted suit two sizes too large, a gold Rolex, a gold chain, and white Velcro shoes. He looked like a schoolkid who’d raided his father’s closet.

“Happy birthday,” I said in English. Then in Japanese, “Here, I brought you a bottle of potato shochu.”

“Thank you, Phil,” he said in English. Then in Japanese, “Have some fried chicken and edamame.”

“My favorites,” I replied, despite the fact I don’t eat meat. “And let me get some of that dried squid while you’re at it.” There’s no word in Japanese for pescatarian.

Of course, every time I walk in, everybody exclaims “Phil!” This has been going on for several years. I’ve repeatedly tried saying, “Yeah, actually it’s ‘Ken,’” but that’s been about as effective as teaching cats to sing the alphabet. Focus! It’s not just all M’s, E’s, and W’s for Chrissakes.

Soon, a few younger—well, 40-ish—yakuza members showed up, also bearing bottles of potato shochu. One great thing about Japan is the simplicity of picking out birthday presents for old men. Yakuza bosses don’t need your crummy happy birthday song and Costco cakes; just bring on the booze.

The Truth About The Yakuza

I’ve known quite a few yakuza over the years, and the number who fit the stereotype portrayed in movies hovers around zero. The U.S. equivalent would be members of the Teamster’s Union. Rather than being fearsome, katana-wielding gangsters, they’re simply hard-working, blue-collar men and women engaged in construction, road repair, dog fighting, and prostitution. See, just like you and me. Their common theme is having joined a yakuza group because of poverty, life circumstances, or simply a lack of aptitude for school and sitting in a crowded office staring at a screen all day.

The Yakuza Boss on His Birthday

On the wall were a dozen pictures of some of the same crew posing around a table twenty or thirty years ago, looking much younger. I kept trying to match up the faces from then and now, but it wasn’t long before we were all three sheets to the wind and the plywood table became a swamp of spilled drinks, smoldering cigarettes, half-eaten sushi, and scattered chopsticks. The attendees grew to a solid twenty men and women, and most of the conversation centered around who was still capable of having sex. Someone started singing an old Japanese folk melody and everybody joined in.

Then the yakuza boss stood unsteadily and said, “Allow me to say a few words.” Naturally, everyone completely ignored him. That’s a peculiar thing about Japanese folks—whether at a wedding, funeral, or work party, whenever someone gets up to make a speech, everybody just keeps on talking. Such a polite bunch, the Japanese. As best I could make out over the din, the yakuza boss was attempting to thank the old lady who runs the place, along with something about the pictures on the wall and how everyone now looked like they were about to die.

“I’m eight-eight years old, you know” said the guy next to me.

“Is that so?” I replied.

“Japan lost the war, but now we’re friends,” he continued, grabbing my hand. “When the U.S. army came through, I learned how to say, ‘Give me chocolate, please. Give me chocolate.’”

“Mighty good English,” I said, helpfully.

“We ate rats and roaches,” he replied.

“Well, have a couple meatballs,” I said. He picked them up with one hand and pushed them into his mouth. He was missing several front teeth, but I assume the molars still worked.

Heading out in Japan

And then, as days do, this one slowly turned into night, while everybody floated away on a sea of booze. I put on my coat and said goodbye to the yakuza boss and the 88 year-old guy. They both shook my hand like they might not ever see me again. Then the boss gave me a small, hundred-yen bottle of shochu and a clear plastic bag full of oranges. The 88 year-old guy reached into a knapsack and produced four packs of analgesic patches, which he insisted I take. I thanked them both profusely, said goodbye to the old lady who runs the place, and stepped into the night.

It seemed a shame to waste a good buzz, so I decided to head to town for one more beer. It was a cool night and a half-moon was out as I slowly made my way to the station, past the izakayas, Indian curry restaurants, and vegetable stands. Then I boarded the express train to sit amongst the crowd of ordinary men and women in dark suits and skirts. Everybody heading home to their ordinary families, to eat ordinary dinners, while outside, the world rolled by in shadows. It’s hard to know where I fit into this society, but at least I’ve got a bag of fruit, some booze, and patches to ease the pain.

32 Replies to “A Japanese Birthday Party for the Yakuza Boss”

    1. Yup. You, me, and everybody else in this country. I’m pretty sure the Island of Misfit Toys is part of the Japanese archipelago.

  1. This sounds eerily like new years at my in laws . Where do you or I or any of the many learned readers of this blog fit in in this society? Well, I have been here 28 years and am no closer in knowing the answer. I do know that being able to bust out your best adidas to hobknob with some good ole boys isn’t a bad place to be.

    1. I’d be surprised if every expat in Japan didn’t have an eerily similar experience. Unless one lives in a gaijin bubble, days like that are par for the course.

  2. How considerate that the 88-guy gave you analgesic patches. Now whenever your hand aches from writing too long on your next book (wink wink), you have an instant cure ready – at hand so to say.

  3. Mr Tambourine would sound just right to me. But also Lenny could work, on a rainy day. Or Mr Bond.. fancy that. Meaning pls come hang out downtown Tokyo coz it’s too flat and not just the water. Yakuza gaijins and salarymen need an upgrade!

    1. Ah, thanks Craig. Glad you enjoyed it. I clearly need to spend more time drinking in Japanese dive bars. Sounds like a good 2023 New Year’s resolution.

    2. On the subject of yakuza and your sub heading in the above article
      “The truth about the yakuza” you may be oversimplifying reality. Maybe. Of course we in the west think only of extreme hardcore gangsters. There is a HBO mini-series called Tokyo Vice which was released in USA in May this year and has just made it to Australia. I wonder if you know of it? The New York Times do a fair review at the following URL….


      Of course this series just reinforces our established stereotypes. No gentile teamsters here. And it is “based loosely”on the exploits in the “factual book” shown at Amazon URL….


      I wonder if you have seen it or read the book ? Thanks Ken, I hope you had a pleasant Christmas and best wishes to you for the New Year.

      1. I did read the book, years ago. It depicts Japan with the same level of accuracy that The Lone Ranger portrays the American West. A tapestry woven from fantasies and lies. This write-up is worth a gander:


        Japan’s such a normal place. I don’t know why it’s consistently painted as some wacky, exotic, Oriental land. Of course, I’ve been guilty of that as well, particularly during my first few years. But the longer you’re here, and the more you speak Japanese, you see what a supremely vanilla place it really is. Out of every country in the world, Japan might be the standard for “ordinary.” Well, maybe tied with Switzerland.

        Thanks for the good wishes. I had a nice Christmas, and I hope you have a great holiday season as well. Merry New Year to everyone.

  4. I’m glad you’re back posting awesome stories again, Ken. There’s something about your writing style that keeps me coming back again and again waiting for some of Ken’s cool adventures. I’ve been following your blog for years now and I will continue – keep up your fantastic work!
    Greetings from Germany,

    1. Thanks much, derhard.

      Sometimes I wonder if it’s not the height of the awesomeness bar that keeps me from writing more. Or if it’s just pure laziness and the desire to lay on the couch drinking beer. Yeah, that’s probably more likely. But either way, thanks for the encouragement. I really appreciate it.

      1. Dang, I hadn’t thought about the awesomeness bar as a barrier. But I suspect our definitions of awesomeness may be slightly different. I don’t think we readers are here for the high comic art and cultural insight, though you serve it. I think what keeps us coming back is the comfort food on the menu. Descriptions of daily stuff are very satisfying, so long as it’s in your voice, which is the awesome bit. Your genius is to make it feel like we’re listening to a friend. I would read your translation of the phone book if you hit the tone right.

  5. Once in a while in the sea of somewhat depressing internet, I remembered an author named Ken seeroi and decided to pay your blog a visit. It felt like an old bookstore that contains musty but truly enjoyable quirky short stories. As unhinged as the stories may sound, the way it was presented kinda make me feel nostalgic and anchored for some odd reason. Glad that’s the store is still open after all these years. Cheers!

  6. Another good one Ken!

    And honestly, after a decade here, the biggest surprise for me in this one is that you don’t eat meat. Really, how you get away with that in a land where a ‘vegetarian’ salad is likely to have bits of processed ham in it is beyond me.

    Hope your New Years is a good one!

    1. Thanks for the props.

      Yeah, Japan’s a pretty meat-centric country. When I first got here, I really fretted over those tiny bits of ham in my salad and the ground-up chicken in the odd tofu burger. Since then, I’ve been forced to relax my rules, due to the virtual impossibility of avoiding all meat. Now if there’s a bit of pork in my gyoza or a wee bit of, well, pork again, in my miso soup, I try not to worry about it. Folks here sure do love their pig products.

      All together, in a year I figure I probably eat about one McDonald’s hamburger-worth of random animals. It’s not ideal, but it’s all I can do to get along in this meaty country.

      Happy New Year’s to everyone!

        1. I don’t believe many folks in Japan would make the connection between Buddhist and not eating meat. I dunno, maybe if you were a monk or something. Anyway, it seems an obscure way to communicate, considering that the word for “vegetarian” in Japanese is literally “vegetarian.”

          1. Looking like one of those days people don’t do much except waiting for New Year vibes to pass? Probably time to work on an another piece. If so then should make it a long lasting one. Oh and what’s the difference between a Buddhist and a Vegetarian? That the V wants to live. And between a Buddhist and Paleo dude? Probably the same as Bud vs Pale Ale, or buddy vs pal. Here is what’s really good about Japan: they really don’t care. But they appear stressed. So that’s the big secret to happiness for Japanese: do nothing and look tired.

  7. I am reading your post, but unlike everyone else that has posted so far I reading your post from the future. Yes, if you haven’t already guessed (and you have of course) I am writing from sometime way too early in 2023. Ken thank you for another humorous post! I look forward to reading more of your posts in the future. Happy New Year!

    1. Happy New Year to one and all!

      Yeah, it’s great living in the future. Now where’s my self-driving car and robot butler?

      1. The future I am living in is more one lines of something Orson Welles might have imagined plus maybe a little bit of mad max and the matrix mixed in for good measure. By the way Happy Chinese New Years!

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