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’.


Dragonfly Café, Amemura

(This place closed about a year after the review appeared, but I don’t think it was my fault…)

The Dragonfly is a short walk from Yotsubashi Namba station, or three blocks south of America Mura’s Triangle Park, in Osaka (across the street from the Family Mart). An elevator at the end of a narrow corridor takes you to the third floor. This café-lounge (café in the afternoon, slowly evolving into lounge at night) is like a stage ready to be decorated – unbuffed black and white floors and walls, indirect lighting in the evening, assisted in the daytime by natural light from a big picture window. Along the walls, a monthly exhibition of photographs or other works from guest artists. The afternoon I visited… (read more here)

“Get your own damn salaryman!”

Shortly after arriving for my first stint in Osaka, I discovered, as all new arrivals did, the Pig and Whistle, an ersatz British pub in Shinsaibashi. It was then (c. 1989) the only place one could get an order of fish and chips, and beer in a pint glass. It was also one of the first actual gaijin bars in the city (this was in the days when “Gaijin dame!” – no foreigners! – was a not untraditional greeting in the drinking quarters of cheery old Naniwa). Salarymen, in those heady, Bubble Economy days, were always working hard to use up their then-generous expense accounts, and it was quite trendy to go to the Pig and try to start up conversation with a gaijin sensei or two. By 10 PM, it was usually standing room only, the ratio of Japanese to foreigners nearly 50-50. If they were middle-aged managers or bosses (so not really salarymen, although we weren’t aware of the difference at the time) they’d also bring an underling salesman or a few OLs and treat them to a drink and the passing parade. I find it hard to think of myself as exotic (it’s not an adjective that clings naturally to anything from Nova Scotia), but I guess we were, to them. In 1989. Hard to believe now.

Besides the one-time-only gawkers, there were a few regular Japanese patrons, salarymen, whom you’d notice there at least once a week. They did not all look alike, but back then they certainly tried to, and it must be said that many of them succeeded. They would introduce themselves once, and you were expected, like a Japanese businessman must, to remember their name for the rest of your life, though of course I rarely did. I spoke next to nothing, literally a few sentences of Japanese (including those sure-fire conversation starters, “Where is the subway station?” and “How much is the beer?”). I couldn’t even follow Japanese-accented English (now I can barely understand anything else…). More often than not I would miss the name several times until the guy helpfully took out his business card and showed me his name, written not in English, but kanji. Big help.

At any rate, it got you meeting people, and the Pig was sort of a halfway house to acclimatize newbies to Japan and enable Japanese to meet actual foreigners at close range, under controlled conditions (it was also a pick-up joint, but it didn’t become primarily so until somewhat later, when it became sleazy and boring and we deserted it for Tin’s Hall). It didn’t seem so bad at the time.

I had been in Japan about a month when, dropping into the Pig after work, a gray-haired man in a pinstripe suit and a meticulous comb-over (bar-code, the kids call it here) struck up a conversation with me. I have no idea what we spoke about, he seemed friendly enough, and he offered to buy me a beer. I accepted with feigned reluctance (I had learned that much Japanese etiquette in a month), and he had barely walked over to the bar when a stocky foreigner, also in a suit, brushed past me and muttered in my ear.

“Hey, pal,” he said, ” get your own damn salaryman. He’s been buying me drinks for the past week.”

There’s no point to this story. I was just reminded of it by another blog I’ve just read. I do remember drinking the beer anyway, naturally. As for the ale-whore, he eventually went up to the man, bowed ingratiatingly, and got his beer too, throwing me a smug look in the process. Luckily, I started making Japanese friends and going to izakaya (居酒屋, Japanese pubs) around then, and my quality of life (if not my liver’s) improved exponentially.