After going out drinking on Friday (and waking up with a headache on Saturday), I was in the mood for a quiet evening and a bit of detox. At about 10:30 pm, after a bowl of homemade soup, I wandered over to the local sento for a bit of a soak. While sitting in the little dry sauna (listening to the enka which is always playing there), I noticed three old men totter in, followed by a middle-aged man in a black track suit. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but his slight swagger and eternal pointing (put it here; go sit over there; go get me another towel; hang it there) gave me all the info I needed. The old men put their clothes in the lockers (wooden cabinets, really, with locks), then sat on a sofa in their underpants and t-shirts. This is odd. Anyone who goes to a sento immediately goes into the bathing room, then lounges afterwards (reading the paper or a manga, having a drink, or smoking). The middle-aged man swaggered around a bit more, then took his shirt off – body tattoo. They were hesitating because they – or some of them – were fairly good-mannered yakuza. The majority of public baths and hot springs in Japan flat-out refuse admission to anyone with a tattoo, in order to discourage the mafia element. But in the Kansai area, there are so many of them that some neighbourhood sento wouldn’t have too much business if they refused them outright. Some places have certain days or times (usually late), when yakuza can come and bathe (in Daikokucho, it seemed to be Wednesday night at my local bath). I don’t think I’ve ever seen any before at this sento.
When I was finished my sauna and was soaping myself down (which you do before getting into the tubs, having rinsed yourself off first), the yakuza came in. His tats were quite elaborate and ended at mid-forearm and just above the knee . There was a bare v-shape from his neck to his breastbone, so he could wear a t-shirt and shorts and still be undetected. On his back was Kannon, goddess of mercy, and a dragon, with elaborate symbols emanating from there to the rest of his body. Must have cost him a fortune. Real Japanese tattoos take years to apply (according to Wikipedia, the artist usually starts with the outline and the customer comes back for the rest when they have the time and money, section by section). They are also very painful to apply, so when you see a guy like this, with detailed inner thigh and ass tattoos (I was too discreet to notice how detailed, but when something like that struts by you it’s hard to ignore even if you want to), you know he’s serious. And you don’t mess with him, which is the whole point, I guess.
He greeted some guy in the tub, always speaking slightly louder than he had to, in the yakuza fashion. Even when they’re being – by their standards – polite, they always have an image to maintain. He barked a few non-sequiters with macho inflections, to which Mr Joe Average replied with the affable, non-committal, “Soodesunee,” ( in this case, the nearest translation might be, “Yep, I guess so,”). I always know when I’m being looked at – it becomes a second sense here, so I knew that as he was sitting in the tub behind me he was gawking at the back of my head and trying to figure me out. Why wasn’t I afraid of him? Why was I just going about my business? As far as yakuza go, he wasn’t particularly aggressive (perhaps if he’d been there with others, his attitude would have changed). The yaks, though, have a bit of the Oscar Wilde about them – for them, the only thing worse than being gawked at is not being gawked at. And of course, like most Japanese of a certain age, the concept of a gaijin as a long-term resident is beyond them: we’ve all just gotten off the plane and –comfortingly – will soon leave. The fact that I’d seen his kind dozens of times and it was no big thing anymore probably never entered his head.
Still, I didn’t want trouble, and in all fairness, neither did he. He was just playing a role, and everyone accepted that (it’s a very common thing here – managers tamp their hair down and wear conservative glasses to act like managers, professors grow their hair and wear bolo ties and berets and act like professors; one of the reasons Japanese television is so god-awful is that an actor in a drama doesn’t act like a sushi chef, say, or a doctor: he acts like an actor who is acting like a sushi chef or a doctor).
I finished my ablutions and went out to the locker-room/ lounge area. The old men were still sitting there, obediently. By the time I had dressed and was reading the weather forecast in the paper it was quarter to midnight and the old men decided it was time to go in. One might have been the yakuza’s father: when he took off his shirt, there was a tattoo along his left shoulder, quite faded, mostly just outline (the other men were unillustrated). The boy had come a lot farther in the yakuza world than his old man, apparently. Probably source of some pride to him – not, judging by how he and his elderly mates scuttled into the baths at a signal from the son, that he had much choice.