My Very Brief Fight with a Yakuza
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.