My Very Brief Fight with a Yakuza

This is the story I don’t want to tell, about my fight with a Japanese gangster, because it’s so horrible.  But I’ve held onto it too long already, so I’ll just lay it out.

The night started out pretty much like every other, drinking with some random Japanese girl in Ikebukuro.  What can I say, everybody’s gotta have a hobby.  Now, I’ve heard people say that Japan’s expensive, but it’s really not.  Seriously.  Like I’ll tell you what Tony Robbins told me.  I’m sure you know him—he’s that dude about seven feet tall with hands like baseball gloves.  Sometimes I lie on the floor and watch him on YouTube when it’s two a.m. and I can’t stand any more Japanese TV.  I’m not saying I even like the guy all that much, but from a Japanese perspective, he’s amazing.  He occupies an opposite universe, where people are huge and loud and can accomplish whatever they put their minds to, like improving relationships and being healthy and successful.  And I’m like, Hell yeah!  I can take control of my life!  I’ll just finish this bottle of Sapporo and then I’m on it!

Japanese Snack Bars and Nomihodai

So lying there with my laptop on my stomach, Tony Robbins said to me, “If you do the right thing at the wrong time, you don’t get rewarded.  You get pain.”  And I was like, Dude, that is so true.  That’s like if you go to a “snack bar” with a cover charge and buy one beer and then leave.  That beer’s going to cost you thirty bucks.  See, that’s the kind of pain Tony Robbins and I know about.  People who do stuff like that think Japan’s expensive.  But . . . if you go to a nomihodai, you can drink all you want for two hours for only about fifteen bucks.  A couple of hours, are you kidding me?  I can power down a good twelve beers in that time, and that’s such a deal.  Japan’s cheap if you follow the right program.  Anyway, that’s what Tony Robbins and I think.

But where was I?  Oh yeah, so that night I went with a lady friend to this nomihodai, which by the way translates to “two hours during which you and everyone else will look way more attractive than you actually are.”  And we had a completely fantastic time, eating sliced tomato salad and octopus in wasabi and these mind-blowing shiso and plum sushi rolls.  But as it was Wednesday and we had to get up the next day for stupid work, we just said goodnight, bowed at each other, and went our separate ways.

The Descent into Ikebukuro

It was a hot night, and when I walked down the steps into the station, even hotter air rushed up to meet me.  Ikebukuro Station is a sweltering, foul-smelling place.  Then, near the ticket machines, is where it happened.  I heard a loud thud, like a soccer ball being punted.  I heard it again, then again.  To my left a crowd of Japanese people were ringed in a large circle, and in the middle, a skinny man in a purple shirt was lying face up, unconscious on the white tile floor.  Over him stood a huge guy with a shaved head in a cream-colored jacket.  The huge guy drew back his foot like he was going to kick a field goal—he had on these leather shoes—and booted the unconscious man as hard as he could in the ribs.  Then again in the neck.  He kept doing it over and over.  The sound was horrible.  Around him, nobody said a word.

I really couldn’t process what I was seeing.  Like, a couple of minutes ago I was having a bunch of nice drinks with this chick, and now it’s like, What the hell’s going on?  Why is nobody doing anything?  Where are the cops?  Ikebukuro has a ton of police.  People were just cringing, looking away, but not moving, screaming, or even speaking.  Now, I try not to impose American values on Japan.  It’s another culture, like I get that.  But if there’s one rule about fighting, it’s that you don’t kick a man when he’s down.  No matter where in the world you are, that would seem to make sense.  You certainly don’t keep pounding on someone after he’s unconscious.  And in the States, if someone’s being attacked, you’re supposed to help.  At least you’d call 911 on your iPhone.  Or take a video with your iPad.  Or chuck your MacBook Air at him like a Frisbee.  Jesus, you’d do something anyway.

The Yakuza Outside of my 7-11

Like I said, so the skinny guy on the tile floor isn’t moving and this massive dude is just kicking the shit out of him.  And I know immediately the big guy isn’t just an ordinary person.  He’s a yakuza.  I know these guys because they have a meeting every Tuesday morning in my town, in front of 7-11.  It sounds strange, I know, but maybe they just like the rice balls there or something.  They’re really good, actually.  All these black cars line up with little old gangster guys sitting in the back, while muscly men in black suits mill around outside looking like K-1 fighters, with shaved heads and pounded up faces.  This dude was one of them.

The Part you Really Don’t Want to Read

Everything happened really fast.  I don’t think I’d even been there five seconds.  I was still trying to make sense of the whole scene.  Plus I’d had a few cocktails.  Then the yakuza dude did something I still can’t deal with.  He reached down and grabbed the unconscious man by the hair and lifted him up with one hand, until he was like a marionette dangling in the air.  I just remember that purple shirt.  Then with the speed of a baseball pitcher, he drove forward and whipped the man’s skull onto the tile floor as hard as he could.  It was like an explosion.  Jesus.  There was blood everywhere.  It wasn’t anything like a fight; it was like something from a war movie.  I was like, Holy crap, this is an actual murder.  The man in the purple shirt lay there lifeless with his eyes rolled back in his head, not even breathing, while all his dark blood poured out onto the white tile.

If you think about it,  you probably don’t see a lot of blood very much.  Like maybe emergency room workers or soldiers do, but ordinary folks just don’t see massive amounts of blood in everyday life.  It’s surprisingly dark red.  Yet somehow, the yakuza still wasn’t finished.  He leaned over and once more picked the man up by the hair, like a lifeless doll.  Nobody moved.  The entire Ikebukuro station went deathly silent.  And then he hurled his head onto the tile again, as hard as he could.  The sound was awful, just bone on rock.  More blood came gushing out.  I couldn’t believe it.  Then he reached down for him again.  I stepped forward and shoved the yakuza in the chest.

My Very Stupid Move

Now, I’m not a particularly brave dude.  Like if your baby’s on fire, count on me to be the first guy to take off running down the street for the fire department.  Those guys are professionals; let them deal with it.  They’ve got big trucks and water hoses and oxygen masks and stuff.  Police have guns and clubs and handcuffs.  Only right then, in Ikebukuro, there weren’t any police.  There wasn’t even a lousy JR station attendant.  Just hundreds of people watching and nobody was going to do jack shit.  I stepped next to the unconscious man in the purple shirt, put my palm in the middle of the yakuza’s chest, and shoved him back hard, without a word, mostly because I couldn’t come up with anything to say.  And until that point, I guess I didn’t really realize just how big he was.

His eyes were wild with anger and I knew he was going to take my head off.  The moment he looked at me, realized I’d gotten into something I couldn’t talk my way out of.  Still, I couldn’t help but wonder, What Japanese phrase would be appropriate at this juncture?  Like I can make a dentist’s appointment or book a room at a hotel, but somehow this particular situation had never come up in my studies.  I hate when that happens.  He moved forward until we were standing about six inches apart, and I understood one thing:  backing down was no longer an option.  I pulled my hand back from his chest.  I saw a look flash in his eyes that said, I’m gonna kill you.  And then he did something I totally didn’t expect.  He lowered his gaze, nodded slightly, and raised his hand vertically; the Japanese version of “sorry to trouble you.”   Like he’d just stepped on my foot in the train.  Then he walked past me, up the steps, and out of the station.  Just like that.

The Japanese Police, to Protect and to Serve

Suddenly everybody was on the phone with someone, but for ten long minutes, nobody came.  No police, no ambulance, nothing.   I stood next to the lifeless man and counted the time on my watch.  I knew there was a police box near the top of the stairs, but jeez, did I have to do everything myself?  The crowd mostly hung around watching, in a loose circle around this dude and all his blood, except for two ladies and a man who knelt beside him and patted him like a dead puppy.  Finally an ambulance crew arrived.  When they strapped him to the stretcher, to my surprise, he let out a faint groan and I noticed he was breathing.  The human body is remarkably resilient.  As he was being carted off, the police finally arrived.

People started drifting away.  One policeman asked a few casual questions of a couple people from the crowd, and jotted some notes in a notebook.  I walked up.

“I saw the whole thing,” I said.

The cop looked at me.  “That’s okay,” he said, and turned away.

“I can identify the man who did this,” I insisted.

“We’ll take care of it.

“He’s wearing a cream colored jacket, and he went that way.  I know where you can find him on Tuesday morning.

“That’s okay,” said the cop firmly.  “We’ll handle this.”  He turned his back and strode away.

And just like that, it was over.  I looked around.  There were a couple of girls hugging each other and crying.  A large puddle of dark blood was still on the white tile.  I stood there stunned for a few minutes.  Then I left.  I didn’t know where else to go, so I went I went to the convenience store and bought a tallboy of grapefruit chu-hi.  Then I rode the crowded train home and watched another Anthony Robbins video on the floor of my tiny apartment, but it didn’t make me feel as good as before.  I guess I still think of Japan as a safe place.  I just won’t be walking in front of that 7-11 any more.


73 Replies to “My Very Brief Fight with a Yakuza”

    1. Thank God somebody invented Wikipedia, cause I had no idea what that was.

      “The move is achieved by the character thrusting their palms forward, sending a surge of spirit energy (or ki) flying towards the opponent.”

      Now that I know, yeah, next time such a situation arises, I’m definitely busting out the ol’ spirit energy.

      1. The hadouken is a move which was popularised in Western media by the Street Fighter franchise. Kenneth Tjendra is comparing yakuza culture or rather its interpretation within modern-era Western media, including your own accounts of yakuza interaction, to the unrealistic, glamourised representation of martial arts and the behaviours of those who persue them within videogame pop culture.

  1. That’s noble Ken, noble and ballsy, you rock! It’s a pity the Japanese are like that, like “I’m just gonna watch in
    horror and do nothing” and the cops not getting involved with the Yakuza, but they’ve been like that since they carried swords, so that’ll probably never change…

    1. It was a situation in which getting involved was the only option. I think any Westerner, anyone, for sure, would have done something to intercede.

      From a Japanese perspective, I can kind of understand why no one reacted. Life in Japan requires a bland acceptance in the face of often calamitous situations. When there’s an earthquake, landslide, or tsunami, you just pick up and go back to work. Even the daily commute, with people pushing onto trains and walking into each other in crowded stations, demands a kind of non-reaction. In school and at work too, when decisions need to be reached, people don’t argue openly back and forth. Daily life mostly goes smoothly and without confrontation. Japanese people are frequently praised for their zen-like calm, but the flip side is that they’re conditioned to be passive rather than active.

      The police, the other hand . . . to me, that’s just unconscionable.

      1. Thanks much. I mean about the writing, really. You’re no doubt right about the bystander effect, although I have a feeling it’s more pronounced in Japan than, say, Russia, but I don’t know. It sounds like you’ve got quite a story of your own as well.

  2. As expected from a fellow American. I had a similar situation in Japan, but it ended in no violence.

    My friend and I were on the train when we heard a women obviously in some discomfort nearby. Apparently a ‘chikan’ was doing what they do best: feeling an innocent chick up. And as usual, the Japanese did what they do best: nada.

    So I strolled up to him, grabbed the back of his shirt and looked him dead in the eye and, sarcastically, laughed while saying “Ano saa, nani shitendayo”. I thought it was going to be a fight, but he was terrified and just dropped on bowed to me. No thank you from the girl. No claps from the crowd. This isn’t what the movies said it would be.

    I think at that moment I developed the same feeling you did for Japan at that moment. Not so much the ‘is it really safe?’ feeling, but moreso the ‘why don’t they help their own’ kind of feeling. Is everything mendokusai to them?

  3. It’s good that you helped out. Some strange things sure do happen on trains at times.

    It seems like more than just mendokusai, doesn’t it? More like people have been conditioned to accept whatever comes along with grim resignation. You can really see it in the school system, where obedience is highly valued.

    The lack of reaction is partly what keeps everything running so smoothly in Japan. Cars don’t honk and people don’t yell (very much). But on the rare occasions when swift action is required, most people are terribly unprepared.

  4. I think that thus far I never ran into Yakuza … or if I did, I didn’t notice.
    I guess they’re usually in bigger citites and not in the boonies anyways.

    This sounds like a scene out of a movie and I don’t even want to imagine it …..

    I find it very interesting to see that there seems to be a “natural limit” when Japanese people stop doing something and just keep watching or pretending to ignore things.

    I have the feeling if it’s something that feels like it’s not their job … or it’s not something where they feel capable of helping, they just stand and watch.

    When I was completely soaked after I was hit by a typhoon being outside traveling all day, I was sitting, freezing and shivering, waiting for the train to come (that was back in April, so it was quite cold), several Japanese people approached me asking if they could offer me their coat, shirt, whatever and asked if I was ok.

    That situation wasn’t too extreme or something that they’ve never seen before. It was easy for them to do something about it and although I was a foreigner, they offered their help immediately.

    Just recently the thing where you put your stuff on in trains came loose and bumped into my nose with full strength.
    I held my nose, screaming “itai, itai!” (that’s my normal reaction when something hurts, I guess I’ve been here for too long?) …. it became worse so I ran off to the bathroom and cooled my nose.
    It turned red and was a bit swollen. At that time I wasn’t sure if it was broken.

    After some time I returned to my seat, still holding my nose, looking miserable.
    NOBODY said anything, nobody asked if I was okay or if there was anything they could do.

    I guess that situation was already beyond that “natural border”.

    (btw. x-ray showed that my nose wasn’t broken and everything is ok again …) ^-^;;; ….

    1. Glad your nose is okay. いたい! That sounds really painful.

      I agree that Japanese people are generally quite helpful. You said “although I was a foreigner,” but I’ve always felt it was more “because” I was a foreigner. When I’ve paused to look at a map or a schedule in a station people have approached me to help on several occasions, which they probably wouldn’t do if I looked like a local. I don’t think that’s just a Japanese thing though; people in other nations are also quick to assist people that look out of place. It’s not entirely altruistic, of course, since the person helping gets to demonstrate superior knowledge and come away with a feeling of accomplishment.

      So it’s not helpfulness that Japanese people are lacking. It’s the ability to take quick action. Nobody’s going to throw off their jacket and spring into action. In a nation where a two-minute train delay constitutes a crisis, people don’t get much practice dealing with real contingencies.

  5. Ironically, this uninvolved and non-aggressive mindset most Japanese people have is what makes Japan such a peaceful place.

    1. Absolutely. I feel that most descriptions I’ve read about Japan come across as too one-sided. They either rave about the peace and harmony of the nation, or rant about how conformist and lacking in motivation everyone is. The reality is that the two are intertwined; you can’t have one without the other. The things I dislike about this country are, ironically, the same things I like the most. Actually, that’s true of the U.S. as well. Thus proving that no place is perfect. Or that I’m schizophrenic, I’m not sure which.

    1. Thought about it? Only every waking moment.

      I love the costume idea, since I look great in spandex, but it’s more of a transportation issue. You know, like what good is it to have a kick-ass suit if you can’t fly, or swing on a web, or descend with your cape from the darkness? You’ve got all this carbon fiber armor and a bitchin’ cape, and then you gotta ride the train with your lunch box on your lap? Kind of takes all the drama out of it.

      1. “Japan’s cheap if you follow the right program.”

        Sounds like you could write a book about how to live or visit cheap in Japlandia!

        1. Thanks. Yeah, and I’ll double-down on that. I know there’s a lot of information on the net about Japan being such an expensive place, but I just don’t see it. It’s far cheaper than the U.S., from my perspective. True, if you compare, say, the price per square foot of a hotel room, Japan comes out more expensive. But if you compare quality, Japan kills it. I’ve stayed in a number of hotels that, while small, were clean and safe for under $50 a night, including in Tokyo. In the U.S., I’d be terrified to stay in a hotel for that price. The same goes for food and drinks. You’re right, I need to get busy on that book.

  6. Good job, mate. You did the right thing, hope the guy you help appreciate it. Hope that this incident won’t bite you from past.

    1. My general policy is not to interfere in the affairs of others. I certainly wouldn’t get in the middle of a fight between two
      guys. They can punch the hell out of each other for all I care.

      This, however, wasn’t a fight, since one of the parties was already unconscious. To me, it was more in the realm of watching a helpless animal or child being beaten. Maybe there are just some things that, regardless of the consequences, demand a response.

  7. This post is really something out of a movie. I listened to the Halo theme “Arrival” which made it even more epic!

    I wonder what goes through their minds as they’re watching a unconscious guy slowly get beaten to so death. Another thing that fascinated me; was how the yakuza-dude just decided to walk away.

    I usually don’t comment on people’s blogs, but I felt obligated to do so this time (the music encouraged me). Bravely done and I hope you’re staying safe out of the yakuzas’ way.

    Greetings from Sweden

    1. Thanks for the comment. Funny you should mention it, but I was drinking shochu with this old yakuza guy last night. He said he spent three years in prison. We made plans (sort of, we were loaded) to go drinking again, so maybe I’ll have some stories about that soon. Anyway, apparently I’m not doing a good job of staying out of trouble. But I never have, so why start now, I guess.

      1. Wow, does this story has continuation?
        Anyway, as several others have said above, you’re very brave. I don’t think I would have been able to do something like that.

        1. Sadly or fortunately, it doesn’t. It’s just one of those random things that happened, and then it was over. I guess there’ve been a lot of nights like that, really.

  8. Woah dude. That’s heavy. You’re one lucky man.

    I saw a video of an American guy breaking up a fight, some guy was beating on his woman, and thought that was pretty brave. What you did is waaaaaaaay beyond that.


    1. Yeah thanks. I mean, I generally believe in minding my own business. Breaking up fights, saving drowning people, rescuing cats from burning buildings—they all seem like great ways to get killed, something I’d prefer avoid. But you know, sometimes life puts you in a situation where, if it’s not you, it’s nobody. If I weighed it out logically, it’s a terrible idea to get in the middle of a fight in a foreign country. But that’s not how things work. You see someone being killed and, on the spot, you’ve either got to turn away or do something. Maybe this was just my time.

  9. My experience with the yakuza wasn’t just as nerve-wrecking as yours, but the reaction of the police was the same. The police arrived at the scene with the guy present, they let him leave unmolested and asked me not to indicate him because he’s yakuza. Which cost me 10.000 Yen in insurance as the damage he caused to my rental car was only insured if the culprit is known.

    The yakuza is still something you quite clearly stay away from.

    1. That sucks, but I guess it doesn’t surprise me. I saw a Yakuza in Kyoto get in a fender-bender with another driver, and he immediately jumped out of the car and started screaming at the guy. I mean, the U.S. has road rage, but this guy was going off like he was ready to cannibalize the other dude. I certainly don’t think it’s all yakuza (since I’ve met a few who seemed quite normal), but clearly there are some just looking for the chance to go nuts on someone.

  10. Ken: It was a situation in which getting involved was the only option. I think any Westerner, anyone, for sure, would have done something to intercede.

    Me: Living in Japan, I have agreed with your comment until today, where I came upon the social psychological phenomenon called bystander effect where big groups of people witness a victim in a helpless situation but no one came forth to help. The cause of this phenomenon could be coming from uncertainty of the situation, lack of unity in the group, and no one willing to be involved with the matter or thinking someone would help instead of themselves. Research studies have shown that the intervention of this phenomenon requires someone to step up in the crowd. So kudos to Ken!

    Unfortunately, this phenomenon happens a lot. The most famous case which led to the research of this phenomenon was about Kitty Genovese’s murder Other more recent cases – the little Chinese baby girl who got ran over a truck several times, and the young Indian woman that was raped by 30 men on a bus.

    Can’t always blame the Japanese culture in this case! 🙂

    1. I know what you’re saying. I’ve read that after an airline crash, people tend to remain frozen in their seats rather than heading for the exit. Everyone’s waiting for instructions from someone in charge.

      I’ve certainly seen similar things in the West, so this can’t be attributed solely to Japanese culture. On the other hand, it’s probably true that Japanese people have a tendency to get involved less in the affairs of others, for better or worse. And because they grew up in a country that’s very predictable, it’s probably safe to say they’re less experienced at dealing with situations out of the ordinary than, say, the average New Yorker. I mean, here in Japan, you could go years without a stranger even speaking to you. How you gonna deal with an assault situation?

      But that’s what we don’t have to worry about. Which is one really good thing about living here, most of the time.

  11. Ken, I’ve had my own run-in with yakuza, but it was a rather delicate situation that required me to do absolutely nothing. You see, I was walking with my 1 year old daughter to her nursery, and I came to an intersection where I started crossing on the crosswalk after checking for traffic. Then, a big car with tinted windows came down the street from behind me, then rapidly turned in front of me, nearly hitting me and my daughter. He was only a metre away from hitting us. I had a very good view of his face. Tinted glasses with gold rims, gold jewelry, and slicked-back hair. He did not signal to turn, but who does that in Japan? I was so tempted to give him the middle finger, and thought better of it. I just kept walking. No need to get beaten up while carrying my daughter.

    1. Man, that’s terrible. Glad you both were all right. Yeah, something about driving makes even decent people act like idiots, and criminals even more so.

      You did the right thing by not reacting. Japan’s generally a safe country, but the yakuza have nothing to reign them in. They can literally get away with murder. They’re people to steer clear of, especially if they don’t.

      1. You should keep a hidden camera and then record it, and then give it to the police and then threaten that if they don’t do anything about the yakuza you’ll give the video to the UN.

  12. it’s been commented but anyway : you did the right thing, defended justice and maybe you saved a life, so I really admire you + yeah it takes courage so it’s really cool of you. I’d been planning a one year trip to Japan then heard that the yakuzas were not just an urban legend or a mere remant from the past, they were actually active, powerfull and to my astonishment : in the open! So I began looking into it. So thanks for the story it gives a glimpse of what they are in present Tokyo.

    1. Yeah thanks. It was a situation where doing nothing was not an option.

      I hope this and other stories about the yakuza don’t deter you from coming to Japan. It really is a very safe place, in general. The yakuza are easy to spot in certain parts of town, but they usually have little to do with ordinary folks, and especially foreigners, except perhaps in rare circumstances.

  13. That is a horrendous story!!

    Clearly you save the purple shirt mans life!! From your description the Yakuza was prepared to continue his beating until you stopped him.

    To save the mans life by intervention was clearly the right thing to do. The only humane thing!! As humans who have evolved from animals isn’t preservation of life a moral thing to do? Not just a Western cultural thing!!

    So this incident begs the question! Did the Japanese bystanders not stop it because of fear of the Yakuza or would it have happened if it was two drunk dudes beating the shit out of each other??

    And the feedback from others indicates this might be the same in other life threatening situations. Like you have jokingly commented on! but seriously, if there is a hose fire would no one go in? Ditto drowning or other accidents?? Is the logical conclusion (from a Western perspective) that ther are no heros in Japan?

    Why stand around and watch?? Surely if it as shocking as you have described people should just walk away from it??

    Maybe it is a serious case of cultural indoctrination that the Japanese have simply not moved from, but for me it is a sad indictment of the morals of a very beautiful people.

    Great blog, you are a great writer and a very funny bugger to boot!!.

    1. Thanks very much. I really appreciate it. To answer your question, I don’t think this was a “Yakuza thing.” In general, Japanese people don’t involve themselves in the affairs of others. They almost never even speak to strangers. Compared to the West, everything is very low-key. This is often a good thing, of course, since you don’t hear a lot of honking horns or people yelling.

      I think it partly stems from the fact that Japan is a very safe country. There are also a lot of things that are taken care of for you. Trains run on time, taxis are honest, nobody is likely to rob you at the ATM. If it rains, you can buy an umbrella on every corner. If you’re hungry there’s a restaurant open, and if you need a bathroom, you can find one. You don’t have to worry too much, and you don’t have to solve too many problems.

      As a result, when a crisis happens, Japanese people tend to poorly prepared and to vastly under-react. When faced with a situation that requires action, they either ignore it or stand on the sidelines. There may be a few heroes in Japan, but there aren’t damn many, that’s for sure.

  14. Great story but I want to clear up some details,
    So how many Yakuza people did you see just one or many? You said they were ringed around that skinny dude, then I’m wondering all of a sudden how did you get to interfere with the big guy in that ring of yakuza?

    Unless the ring of people are just regular people just watching, One Big Yakuza guy pound on the unconscious guy and you play Foreigner Asian Hero. The Yakuza gave you a stare down and did the gesture of sorry.

    Who got height and weight advantage? You or Yakuza Baldy? Story wise, I assume Yakuza Baldy would have tossed you into the train tracks. (Luck and/or he let you go cause your American Asian LOL.)

    Hey I’m from Oakland, Cali and I understand that it’s right to help the person who can’t defend himself to break up the fight. If it was a one to one fine break it up, but what if the numbers were against you? Would you still help that person even if it costs your life?

    In America we got 911 and Police personnel to call for help, Good Samaritans. Japan got cops and bystanders doing nothing.

    Finally, would you do this again saving a Japanese citizen? How about if it were a group of Yakuza and you witness the beatdown of a person? Intervene or not?

    1. Okay, let me see if I can clear up some of your questions.

      So first, the people ringed around were just normal Japanese folks. There was only one Yakuza dude. I probably should have written that more clearly, in retrospect. Sorry about that. Also, we weren’t near the tracks; we were up by the ticket machines, so at least there was no danger of being run over by a train. I guess that’s one good thing.

      As far as any fight advantage, I think it’s safe to say that I wouldn’t have stood a chance. The guy was built like a cage fighter, and I’m more of like a marathon runner. But I’m pretty sure if he’d spontaneously challenged me to a 5K I’d have kicked his ass.

      The thing I most want to convey is how horrible this scene was. I’ve seen plenty of fights in my life, and this was nothing like them. This was like watching somebody being murdered, ripped open by hand. It was the worst thing I’ve ever seen. It was just blood and horror, like watching somebody being burned alive.

      So what do you do in a situation like that? Hell, I don’t know. I only had a second to think about it, and just did what seemed to be the only reasonable thing. So would I have done it if there were more Yakuza, or if the guy had had a gun? What if the train station was on fire? Yeah, I’ve no idea. There’s certainly some point at which I wouldn’t intercede. I hope I don’t have to find out what that is.

      So would I do it again? Yeah, probably. The fact that they were Japanese had no bearing on the situation. It could have been a man whipping a dog to death, and I’d have done the same thing. And honestly, I think many, many Americans would. But apparently not so many Japanese folks.

      1. Nice Ken,
        Thanks for clarification. Yeah, the Japanese people conform to the rules and never go against hierarchy. Oh well your example can’t change the way they live.

        Here is a worst scenario you were laid out there next to the dude, Cops and witnesses wouldn’t testify for you and change the story to benefit Yakuza. Seeing how the Japanese are described in your story, I bet they wouldn’t do squat and protect their own. I mean it can happen and that be terrible doing something good just to get screwed over.

        In the end it didn’t backfire on you.

  15. Hi Ken!

    What you did was really admirable.

    As someone who has lived and worked in a different country, I’ve come to understand the importance of respecting other cultures. However, when a life is at stake, I think certain cultural expectations/rules can be broken.

    It’s so hard to imagine that people just stood there and did nothing even when that meant letting a helpless guy die. But the good thing is, you did what you could and there would be no regrets.

    1. Thanks, Sarah. I’ve never really thought about it in terms of having regrets, but yeah, you’re right. If I hadn’t done something, I’m sure this would bother me every day. Occasionally even I do the right thing, it seems.

  16. The experience you had and the mans reaction isn’t as strange as you might think, I used to work for Interpol and the first assignment i got was heavily based in Japan. It wasn’t related to yakuza however we were filled in about the situation and how the various affiliated organizations work, it’s very uncommon for them to engage with foreigners for various reasons the most important of which is self preservation, although this sounds harsh them targeting a local doesn’t cause them much in the way of consequences as you unfortunately bore witness to however if lets for instance use your experience as an example the man decided to take offence and cause you serious harm then there would be consequences, at the very least it would result in an increased amount of media attention towards them at the very worst your home country would take grievous offence and demand that this be investigated at the federal level which puts the entire organization in danger including all the complicit local officials and employees. When I was there (this was 30 years ago when organized crime was much more prevalent) we even heard stories of businesses that had issues with various factions clashing nearby going to incredible lengths to get white tourists to visit them because it acted as such a big deterrent and would result in them taking their conflicts elsewhere.

    For anyone reading this if you do encounter a situation like this I would heavily recommend reporting the crime to the national police agency and also reporting the reaction of the police officer. You don’t have to give specific details about anyone involved however the NPA monitors and controls police activity and distribution throughout Japan, reporting incidents like this allows them to identify and isolate areas where there is increased gang activity and corruption. Also although in my personal opinion your actions were brave, right and commendable it’s important that no one takes away the idea that being foreign means you are safe from organized crime or that you are untouchable, these people have a fearsome reputation that they have more than earned and should be avoided.

    1. I completely realize that. See, it is good being white, once in a while.

      On a slightly different note, I have over the years revised my opinion of Japan as a “safe” nation. I mean, no one’s likely to hold up a liquor store for 20 bucks. It’s not the U.S., after all. But like everything else, Japan has its own version of things, and crime is no exception.

  17. You very likely saved a life. I’m in awe. Life is such a precious gift and you stood up to a man who could have killed you and caused him to spare a life.
    Ken Seeroi you are a good man. I hope you realise what a remarkable thing it was for you to drunkenly shove a member of the mafia. I hope i can meet you one day just to shake your hand

  18. Seeing this years after you wrote it but thought I’d add an anecdote of my own. I was crossing from Kabuki-cho towards Shinuku station at that always packed crossing next to Don-don-don, Don Ki-hou-oh-te one sunny afternoon when I was bumped into unusually hard by a pedestrian going the opposite way. I looked up to see this skinny thuggish-looking guy who was already behind me, shoving everyone he could hard in the chest with both hands as he crossed toward Kabuki-cho. He was with a fireplug-shaped buddy who was just observing and I suppose enjoying it all. No one was reacting, just taking it–like the guy he’d shoved into me. So I stopped and shouted “hey a–h-l-, knock it off!” at him. He turned, glared at me for a second, and started running full speed at me. I had a pretty big bag over my shoulder, but I got into a slight forward stance ready to meet him head on.
    When he got right up to me he stopped, and for some inexplicable reason put his left hand on my right shoulder. If you know even a little jujitsu this is like a gift from heaven. It was one of the first moves I ever learned and I remember thinking “as if that will ever happen in real life.” So I was actually frozen in astonishment for a moment, but then came to and a moment later had him half-kneeling in a wrist/elbow lock and definitely no longer feeling like a badass. I was tempted to break both but knew that would not bode well for me, so I just told him to chill out and applied enough pressure on both joints to make it clear the pain he was experiencing could get magnitudes worse very quickly.
    Stupidly, though, I forgot about his friend, who had a cast on one hand, and who came up behind me and hit me with it hard enough in the ribs to crack two of them. Surprisingly in another moment the cops were right on and all around us, so I just repeated in English “I’m a tourist, these guys attacked me!” a few times and started to walk away quickly. I knew that otherwise we were all going to the cop shop and I had much better things to do at that point, like go get my ribs x-rayed. Fortunately the skinny guy came after me again and tried to kick me but I dodged it and kept going, and the cops detained him. I didn’t look back after that.
    I am glad I did what I did, especially since I doubt neither of those two was a killer like your guy. I do wish I could have indulged my curiosity as to whether it does just take about 40 ft/lbs of pressure to break an elbow, I can’t think of a better guy to have tested that out on. It kind of shows though how even the thugs in Japan (hard-core yakuza bangers aside) are pretty innocuous compared to most places, where I might well have ended up in an ambulance or worse.
    Same with you; what you did was foolhardy but brave, and I agree, you had to do it. As Confucious said, “do be aware of what is righteous and yet do nothing is cowardice.” Words to live by.

    1. Wow, that’s an amazing story. Having talked with many Japanese over the years (and a few foreigners), I’ve come to understand that Japan’s not that safe of a place. Much of the crime is simply contained within the Japanese community, rarely impacts Westerners, and doesn’t make the news. (Although some does.) The sort of thing that the U.S. refers to as “black on black crime.” Here I guess that’s yellow on yellow.

      And the yakuza—they’re probably the most overrated bunch of high school dropouts in history. Still, it pays to avoid trouble with them. Glad you’re okay. And wow, the Japanese police actually did something. Now that’s news.

    2. I think he ran into a hard core soldier for the yaks, a borokudan (an enforcer of violence). You ran into your garden variety chimpura (do they still acll them that?) Id of hauled as well. Ive read about people who have experienced and did the same as you, but the police charged them and they all were blamed. This makes sense because in Japan both who fight are blamed. The “Im a tourist” was a good call as well )

  19. So, this is the infamous yakuza encounter that was being referred to by the comments in your other blog posts. This was indeed a very disturbing story. I know that the yakuza is real and that they’re dangerous and all that but I never really gave them much thought before. Prior to reading this, I had a nonchalant attitude about their existence. I now realize that the depictions from the manga, anime, movies, drama that I consumed were greatly romanticized. What naivete. This account made me realize that the yakuza is no joke and that it would be to one’s benefit to not have anything to do with them as much as possible. I never expected that they could be this out in the open. I hope the guy beaten to a pulp fully recovered and did not have to suffer permanent neurological damage. I feel really bad about the whole thing. No one deserves to be treated like that.

    Ken Seeroi, you were very brave back there. I’m glad you weren’t physically harmed. You are an admirable human being. My level of respect just went higher. Hats off to you, sir. I’ll come find you when I go to Japan. I’ll shake your hand, give you a kiss and hug, take a selfie, and buy you your favorite Calbee chips. (Forgive me, I have a little crush).

    Thanks for all you do, Seeroi-san.

    1. Calbee’s Chips—you really know what men like.

      I didn’t have too many prior impressions about the yakuza before I moved to Japan, which is probably a good thing. From what I’ve seen, the closest U.S. equivalent would the the Teamster’s Union, circa the Jimmy Hoffa era. They’re basically guys who work construction, drive trucks, and man doors at nightclubs. Nothing wrong with those professions, but it’s hard to glamorize them. Although the Village People did a pretty good job.

      Romanticizing the yakuza draws upon decades of television in the West—Bruce Lee, David Carradine, Jackie Chan—depicting Asians as somehow possessed with skills that white and black people don’t have. They’re different from the rest of the world. You know, polite and good at math too.

      Even seeing the yakuza as scary and violent is a mistake. Compared with a group of drunk college kids walking down the street in the U.S.—are you kidding? I’d much rather take my chances with the yakuza. The only reason they have a reputation for violence is that finally there’s one Japanese person who might actually kick your ass.

  20. Hey Ken,
    do you maybe know if there is a civil organization or neighbourhood that resists against the Boryokudan?

    Kind regards


    1. I’m not aware of any. But that aside, I’ve become more aware of how much I don’t know about what’s going on behind the scenes. There are a lot of special interest groups influencing what happens in Japan (as there are in the U.S.), and without a clear understanding of them I can’t really take sides. Things are usually less clear-cut than they appear.

  21. Hey, man! Wow, it’s nice to know you still respond to comments here. Anyway, I’ve stumbled upon this blog after a few sites about the yakuza. I’ve been recently interested in Japan and it’s culture. I’m actually learning Hiragana and Katakana right now.

    Surreal, is what your story is. I began to read it and was thinking of taking it in with a grain of salt. Once I’d finished reading it, I was uncertain whether to believe it. But I think I did, and do, believe it. It’s just that it’s such a horrific incident. It’s an understatement to say that my delicate image of Japan has been skewed. For sure, the juxtaposition of Babymetal, Sakura Gakuin, and this is interesting and terrifying.

    As with everyone else here, I commend you. I don’t know what I would’ve done in that same situation. I’d like to think I would’ve done the same. Regardless, thank you on behalf of the purple shirt guy, and of humanity. It’s good to know you weren’t hurt in the process.

    I’d like to ask you, though, did that really happen?! That’s more of a rhetorical question. It’s just so surreal! Anyway, Japan’s still cool. This certainly doesn’t discourage me from visiting it some time. One last thing. Could you describe to me the yakuza’s presence in daily Japanese life? Especially for an interested tourist.


    1. Thanks for writing. Yeah, that really happened, every word of it. If anything, it was more horrific than what I described.

      The yakuza’s presence in everyday life? Well, like all things Japanese, they’ve been mythologized far beyond reality. They’re just high school dropouts who do a lot of manual labor—truck drivers, warehouse workers, bouncers, highway road crews. And like a lot of folks hurting for cash, they sometimes get involved in shady businesses. Think the Teamsters Union under Jimmy Hoffa.

      And sometimes they have tattoos. But not as many as the average American college student.

      1. Hey man. You’re very much still active here! Much appreciated.
        Ah. I see. Seems they’ve been blown out of proportion, indeed. Quality over quantity, though. Traditional irezumi’s something else.

  22. I lived in Japan for a long time and seen and experienced many bizarre things that I wont discuss here. Violent horrible things like you described. Seen suicides etc also. Its not a place I recommend long term. Its give and receive if you know what I mean, win some loose some, survival. Not good for the health over many years. The police reaction you describe seems right. situational ethics. If the situation involves the yaks then he doesnt want you involved, otherwise your fair game for detention. You still seem to paint japan as a rosey, its the same everywhere kind of place, defending and apologizing in some of your post. Japan is not; its intertwined with allot of corruption and ancient rules that make it very difficult for the outsider to exist. People gasp when you tell them these stories, failing to see whats right in front of them. Japans not so distant past included reign by terror..aka the samurai. Must of been a terrifying time to be alive, but so romanticized by the West. There is a place in the NE side of Tokyo where the execution of citizens took place. All of this residue never disappeared; its the real reason Japan is such a “safe” place. Sorry if this disturbs anyone, but its the truth.

    1. What you wrote seems right, particularly the part about give and receive. I’ve always thought of Japan as a very transactional place. It pays not to forget that people are keeping score.

      Do I really paint Japan as rosy? ‘Cause other people complain I’m too bitter. (And clearly people with no sense of the ironic, by the way.) Mostly, I just try to describe what I see around me, which seems to be a balance of good and bad. And yeah, I guess that is just like everywhere.

  23. Kudos on having Initiative, Ken. Let me buy you a beer next time I’m in Japan.
    (hoping to take some vacation time in Kyoto this time around, but I will probably spend some time in Tokyo, too)

  24. This is a very disturbing story. I’m glad you were fine and that poor dude was alive.
    You are very brave. I wish more guys were like you!

    Now about the poor guy that got beaten up, I heard many times that purple/violet shirts are worn by yakuza and that ordinary people prefer not to wear such colors to avoid getting associated with them (applies only to men). So people might have preferred not to intervene also because they considered the case to be some kind of inner conflict between two yakuza, and God knows what this guy in purple shirt did to be beaten this hard. Of course, that doesn’t justify any part of this terrible assault tho.
    Anyway, if I witnessed all this with my eyes, I’m sure I’d get endless nightmares. 🙁

    1. Yeah, it really served as a wake-up call. There’s a lot that goes on here that visitors don’t see. Guess that’s probably true anywhere though. Thanks for the comment, and the support.

  25. Dude thats pretty strange, Ive come across allot of “weirdness” in Japan, that many people would have a hard time believing, but what you experienced, Ive never seen anything like that. Yeah, the “help the weak” in me would of tried to save dudes life also, but for those who dont fear death or prison in Japan, they are a dangerous bunch to try and reason with.

  26. “They’re just high school dropouts who do a lot of manual labor—truck drivers, warehouse workers, bouncers, highway road crews.”

    No dude, your talking about the borokudan and bozoku bike tribes. True, basically loser thugs with low skill sets or bad families who find community in those groups. The upper echelon yaks dont roll like that. You might seen them in benz being chauffeured around town.

  27. Wow! Glad you didn’t get bloodied in stopping the Yak. I’ve been in Japan for roughly 15yrs and seen two incidents that involved the Yaks… or maybe Chinpira (still unsure of the difference).

    First witness- Old man (late 50’s) and a 30 something Chinpira arguing on the Shinjyuku train platform about something.. lots of “Koraaa!”(Hey!) and “Temei!” (You!) being thrown back and forth, then the 30 yr old grabs the old man’s collar area, but suddenly the old man does some kind of judo move and I see the 30 yr old fly over the old man’s back and land on the ground! The old man then yells once more, and the 30 yr old is on his hands and knees with his nose 5mm from the ground!! GO OLD MAN!!!

    Second witness – Just last week on the train to Yokohama from Shibuya the train stops to wait for an express train to pass. I get on and there are lots of open seats, despite it being 7:30am commute time… must be because of the express train passing. Anyways, I’m walking down the aisle so that at my next stop, the doors will be lined up with the stairs, and I notice a dude with tattoos all down his arms. I think, no biggie, I’ve seen Japanese people with tats that are not in gangs nor mafia and just walk past him. I sat a row down on the same side of the train and was playing with my iphone. The train starts to get a little more crowded and I guess one business man in his 30s tried to sit near the dude with the tattoos, then suddenly like a foaming pit bull, he started barking at him and yelling those famous words, “Koorrrraraa! Tate Temei!” (I was an English teacher before, and never got the Japanese students to roll their “R’s” like that!) The business dude jumped up and walked right out of the train.

    I’m half Japanese but I guess I still look like a foreigner at times, and from my experience here, I’m usually one to be blamed for any fights, regardless of what I did. So, in order to avoid the situation, I got off at the next stop and moved down one cart. I saw everyone just horrified by what usually is a calm ride, now being threatened by an increasingly tempered dude with tats down his arm. After the whole yelling, he was clicking his tongue in a “che” sort of thing (舌打ち), and tapping his legs like he wasn’t happy to just end it like that. I thought of what I’d do if an old person or anyone tried to sit down and he started a fight… I’d like to think that I’d try to help defuse the situation as you did, but I honestly don’t know if I have the balls anymore. It is sad to think that I would chose to just go to the station attendant and say, “There is a fight on the train that I was on, oh and one of them is probably a yakuza member. Good luck!” What a #$%%& I’ve become, but with a family and a decent career, I can’t afford to get in the middle of an argument. I can hear my friends go, “Dude, what if it was your family or friend?” To that I would answer without a doubt I would step in. But for someone I don’t know? I would do my best but not risk my family for it and that is what makes me sad. I grew up dreaming of becoming a hero but if I turn my back on someone in need of help… ugh.

    1. Wow, great comment. I agree with all of your observations. First, the notion that the only Japanese who have have tattoos are yakuza is majorly outdated. That might’ve been true 20 years ago, but nowadays tats are all over the place. I probably know a dozen folks who have them. As for whether the guy on the train was a yakuza…that’s not really even asking the right question.

      I mean, the difference between your average high school dropout and a yakuza is pretty much nonexistent. Chinpira or yakuza? Who cares. The only people interested in such distinctions are kids from the West. Yakuza are blue-collar workers, same as in any country. Okay, they’re less dangerous than a street thug in the U.S. or some bar brawler in Ireland, but otherwise, eh, basically identical.

      It’s been a few years since I wrote this piece, and in that time, in addition to figuring out that there’s absolutely nothing special about “the yakuza,” I’ve also learned two other things: First, there’s pleeeenty of crime in Japan. Most of that information doesn’t reach the English-speaking audience, because honestly, few English speakers live here long enough to figure out what the hell’s going on around them. The second thing I’ve learned is that if you have a problem—and I don’t mean forgetting your sweater-coat on the shinkansen—that is, a serious problem, nobody’s gonna step in to help you. So yeah, it’d pay to bear that in mind before playing the hero. I gotta say, having lived and learned in Japan, I’d be a lot less likely to do it again.

      1. ” I’d be a lot less likely to do it again.”

        I’d wage a beer you’d do an equivalent thing again, in similar circumstances.

        People who actually try to do something in such a situation will keep doing it unless something big has happened and made them a different person (e.g.: the situation happens while you are with your child).

        1. Well, if you’re willing to wage a beer, then hell yeah. Given the proper liquid incentive, I’d do just about anything.

  28. Very interesting posts on this blog, especially your own, Ken. Your insights into that culture are remarkable. My wife, kids and I visited Japan for the first time this past summer, and we found the people to be extremely friendly, accommodating, polite and extremely reserved. It was hard to imagine that a mere 74 years ago, and for years before that, this country was aggressive and a nightmare for its neighbors–just mention Japan to a Korean. What a complete 180.

    While in Japan, my teenage son and I did try to spot the stereotypical Yakuza (either an Oddjob looking fellow or one of the Crazy 8″s from Kill Bill), but we didn’t see a one. While our failure didn’t delude me into thinking that Japan is crime free, as an obvious tourist knocking around Tokyo, Kyoto and Hiroshima, I felt as safe there, as I had felt on an earlier trip to Alaska. If the airfares to Tokyo ever drop again (an indirect result of last year’s earthquake was steeply discounted airfares), we’ll go back. Every traveler should visit Japan. The land and the people there are unforgettable.

    If you’re still there, keep on posting your experiences. They make for great reading, and bring back great memories of our too short stay.

    1. Thanks for the comment. Yeah, I really think Japan’s a great place to visit. Living here day to day is, of course, a little different. Okay, a lot different, but still it’s okay. The real question is, Once it stops feeling strange and exciting, will you still love it?

      Guess there are a lot of things like that, though. Pretty sure that’s why I’m single.

  29. We live in a fascinating world! Because here in Japan some of the nicest people I meet were yakuzas, they even help me sorting out some things, but in the other hand the most agressive people were just average Japanese people with no education and zero affiliation to any gang.

    In the other hand the couple fights I have ever have was whit some Latin guy an then two Caucasians, the 3 of them thinking they were the bosses on the street bothering people until they were so stupid to annoy me, a guy who practice various martial arts since childhood, the intetesting thing is, the police don’t even care if there are foreigners fighting!

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