Protection

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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“Do you remember me?”

The Japanese language can be very oblique. There are checks and balances throughout every conversation, subtly feeling out the social pecking order of the participants, how much can be asked of someone, a constant subtle search for common ground. Yes, I know, every language has that to some extent, but I’ve had conversations where I felt like the potato salad at the picnic and the Japanese person talking to me was the fly – hovering about, circling, but never quite lighting where I expected him to, if at all. Data is being collected, conclusions drawn, but darned if all I can see is someone going in circles. I have a kindly old neighbour, whom I meet every now and then on the elevator. Most of the time we exchange the usual pleasantries about the weather, but if she veers from that topic, I’m never really sure if she’s stating a fact or asking a question. That’s how courteously oblique she is, and for that reason, Japanese sometimes makes no sense at all if translated directly into English. But it works for them, I guess, in Japanese, and when speaking Japanese, I obey the Prime Directive. Continue reading