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.