Last month, while the cherry blossoms were still blooming in Osaka, Dave, Tom, John and I met for dinner at Chindonya, an izakaya (pub) in Nagai, my neighbourhood. I enjoy a get-together like this, partly because the food and atmosphere of the place are good (as noted earlier here) and also, poignantly, it’s one of the few situations anymore where I get to be the youngest person at the table.  We arrived early, at around six. The only other customers were two men, who looked to be about 70 (meaning they were probaby about 62). They were sitting at the largest table, which seats 6. It’s common in Japan for customers who come early to an empty shop to be seated at a larger table – it shows hospitality. Besides, most places don’t usually fill up until between seven and eight, and such early arrivals are usually long-gone by then. The men were dressed in the typical garb of retired men in Osaka: cotton bucket hats, earth-toned plaid shirts; one of the men wore a windbreaker, the other the type of zip-up, multi-pocketed vest favoured by photographers and park pond anglers of a certain age. They were quietly nursing a mug of beer apiece and a bowl of edamame. Probably two old co-workers taking time out from their daily retirement pachinko routine for a hike around the park and a little drink afterwards. You see them all the time in Nagai Park, and we thought little of it.

After an hour of eating and drinking and talking, one of us noticed that the two old guys had nodded off to sleep. Again, nothing odd about that: catnapping is one of the national sports in Japan, and I, a very light sleeper, often envy people’s ability to doze off anywhere.

It was only after one of the old guys woke up and quickly ducked out, leaving the other one sleeping at the table, and none of the staff made any effort to wake the remaining guy up, that we started to wonder what was going on. At around seven-thirty, a party of five came in and asked for a table. “Sorry,” the waitress had to tell them, “we don’t have any large tables right now.” A few of the group looked over at the large table with the sleeping man, but said nothing. They, and their money, walked out. By this time, the rest of the place had filled up. Still, no one made any effort to ask the old man to move along. Other groups came in and had to be turned away or were asked to wait until another table was free. And still he snored away. By the time we left, at about 9:30 (they loved us – we were easily their best customers of the night), he had sprawled out on the bench and had his cap over his face. And no one said a word. “Wow,” I said, “he must be the owner’s grandfather or something.”

The other day, I ran into Tom. In the course of our conversation, he told me that he had mentioned the curious old men to his partner Kazue, who is Japanese. She rolled her eyes immediately. “That’s one of the oldest tricks in the book,” she said. “Nagai is in south Osaka. They’re famous for it there.” Tom was mystified. She explained. The old men had probably been sent by the local yakuza, and had probably come back the following day, and the day after that. If the owner wanted them to go away, he had only to offer them protection money. But of course once he had, it would become a monthly payment, and God help him if he missed it. The men would probably become the collectors, and get a pathetic monthly commission from the gangsters (that someone would be so greedy or hard up for pocket money that he’d feign sleep in a bar all night is another story).

But why not just ask them to leave? After all, they were losing business for the shop. Ah, but then they could cause a scene, say they were paying customers who were being discriminated against by the greedy manager, and embarrass the other patrons into leaving. They would stand outside, if need be and warn people away from the premises for a few days. If that failed, a few more obviously thuggish yakuza would go to the shop and be drunk and raucous, frightening patrons away. By the time the owner agreed to pay up, the protection fee would have risen, and the shop would be known as a yakuza hangout – not a good reputation to have.

Wait a minute, you say: aren’t there any laws against this kind of thing? Oh, probably. But the owner has to prove he’s been extorted from. That sounds fair, but the laws are so ambiguously worded that, unless the incident more or less happens in front of a uniformed police officer, the owner is screwed (and would probably be threatened with a lawsuit for defamation of character). There are ways around it, but usually small bar owners just settle up. It was such a commonplace situation that Kazue was astonished that we hadn’t spotted it right away.

So, on a busy Friday night, the izakaya staff let the old git doze away, hoping that he might just give up, as they’d given him no reason to complain. The place was a going concern, and they were hoping to keep it that way. I hope they do – without ‘protection’.

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8 Responses to Protection

  1. Kelly Azuma says:

    What about if a paying customer went up to him and demanded the table? It wouldn’t come back on the owner then would it? Or are people too frightened to do that because it’s a yakuza.

    • nagaijin says:

      Good question, Kelly. I suppose the old guy could turn around and say that the owner was condoning the harrassment of a poor old man. This is why the yaks send such people instead of doing it themselves – it would be too obvious.

      • Orchid64 says:

        I think that this sort of thing would never be an issue. Customers do not take it upon themselves to bully other customers out of their accommodations. It would be extremely out of character for a Japanese person to assume such authority over another, particularly in a business establishment at which they were not employed or a proprietor. This just doesn’t happen here because it’s so far outside of the cultural norm for behavior.

      • Kelly Azuma says:

        I would like to think that at least some people would pick up on the situation and call him on it. “What do you need the table for? You’re just sleeping on it, go home if you want to sleep, we have a party of 5 here”. Or something like that.

  2. Orchid64 says:

    I had a student who worked in Kabuiki-cho in Shinjuku, an area pretty well-known for being controlled by the yakuza. Her company foolishly built their own building in the area because it was cheaper to have their offices located there than anywhere else in Tokyo (for good reason), but they had to pay off the mobsters regularly to keep the peace. If they didn’t, the fear was the the yakuza would cause problems between her company and its customers using disruptive behavior (similar to what you describe).

    This is all so well-known and commonplace in Japan. It’s actually tolerated by the police because it’s simpler and less violent to allow it to go on than to do something about it. This is how Japan’s “crime statistics” stay so incredibly low, at least in part. It’s not a crime if no one reports it or the police pretend the problem isn’t one they can do much about. The same goes for many other crimes in Japan, particularly rape (which is massively under-reported and the police are actually reluctant to even take reports for), but also theft. If your family member steals from another family, the likely result isn’t a crime but a bribe to hush up what has happened with no involvement of the police.

    • nagaijin says:

      The difference here, I guess, is that it’s a residential neighbourhood, so the yaks have to be a bit more crafty and can’t just swagger in with punch perms and nine fingers like they do in Kabuki-cho.

      • Orchid64 says:

        I think that it’s not like that in kabuki-cho either. I think that it’s all very “nicey-nicey” and business-like as long as everyone plays nice. Someone in a business suit knocks on your office door, has a conversation with you about your new location, and some things are “understood”. Money is given as expected, and no one makes an issue which messes with your business. My student never saw anyone who had that typical look. I think those sorts of men are lower-level thug types and don’t do the subtle stuff like extortion. They don’t want to be so obvious about it.

  3. Melody says:

    I’ve always had overwhelming fondness for Japan, but there were a couple of things that really irritated the dickens out of me and one of them is their habit of ignoring huge, enormous, elephant-in-the-room problems, even if it was to their detriment.

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