The following is an excerpt from the upcoming memoir, Tokyo Junkie: 60 Years of Bright Lights and Back Alleys . . . and Baseball, by Robert Whiting, published by Stone Bridge Press, April 20, 2021.
During my time as a salaryman in Tokyo during the early 1970’s, I became well-acquainted with members of the Sumiyoshi Rengo–kai, Tokyo’s largest yakuza gang, after developing a friendship with a mob enforcer who ran a Sumiyoshi gambling pool in the neighborhood where I lived, Higashi-Nakano, it was a short hop from there to the great nighttime entertainment area of Shinjuku. This passage that follows describes the time Jiro introduced me to his boss. I eventually rose to the rank of ‘Informal Advisor’ in the gang. It was not my proudest moment.
In time, Jiro introduced me to the boss of his gang. The boss’s office was furnished with a gigantic desk of polished oak, two matching leather sofas with a big glass coffee table in between, and assorted chairs on the other side of the room where the gang members sat. There was a large safe in one corner. Photos of the Sumiyoshi hierarchy adorned the walls, including one of Jiro’s boss in formal hakama, a divided skirt with pleats, holding a fan. The oyabun himself was a stocky man of medium height, with a considerable paunch and slick-backed hair that exuded a flowery fragrance. I had seen him on the streets of Higashi-Nakano, riding around in a big Lincoln with dainty lace curtains on the windows, way too big for Tokyo’s narrow roads.
The oyabun looked thoroughly dissipated from alcohol and, no doubt, other types of pharmaceutical aids. But he greeted me in a loud voice, motioned for me to sit down on the sofa, and had coffee served. He entertained me with stories of his rise through the ranks, the memorable fights he had had, the business operations in Higashi-Nakano, minus the incriminating details, and his stints in prison.
He also made brief reference to fighting in the Pacific War, working in the postwar black markets, and battling leftist demonstrators in 1960, fighting alongside the police. He was, he said, a lifelong supporter of conservative government and a staunch friend of the United States.
He invited me to a reception they were about to hold in the sake house they maintained downstairs. Jiro led me down to a private room in the back, where a long, low buffet table was laid out with sashimi, sushi, roast beef, smoked salmon, beer, whisky, wine, Japanese sake, and a stronger vodka-like concoction known as shochu.
I sat at the end of the table and listened as the boss, who had changed into a silvery white kimono, gave a long flowery speech, toasted his men, and then started in on serious drinking. About half an hour later, thoroughly lubricated, he walked over to my end of the table and plopped his rear end on a chair.
“Let’s arm wrestle,” he said, grinning.
That he would do that was not exactly a surprise. I had been challenged before in drinking establishments by young men, evidently weightlifters, looking to score points with the crowd (and themselves) by vanquishing a foreigner. After a couple of embarrassments, I acquired a set of barbells so that I might preserve the honor of my tribe, and I did not suffer many defeats after that.
But arm wrestling the gang boss of Higashi-Nakano was another proposition. There was the delicate matter of face to be considered here, and face lost on either side was not a desired outcome. After a time, with a suitable amount of huffing and puffing, he decided to call it a draw. He shook my hand vigorously. Then he stood up, lowered his kimono top, and showed me his tattoo—his arms and back covered in an ornately designed fire-breathing dragon. It was quite remarkable. It had taken, I was certain, weeks of painful sessions with a tattoo artist.
Then, as the beer and sake continued to flow freely, the oyabun started to sing. He belted out an old Japanese war song and then another. Then he urged me to take a turn. So, I got up on my knees and sang “God Bless America,” a song I had added to my repertoire for such occasions.
Then he got down to business. Handguns. It was a personal hobby. Was there any way I could help him in expanding his collection? Perhaps I knew someone at one of the bases? “A .44 Magnum would be nice,” he said. “Like Dirty Harry.” He said he would be very grateful.
Robert Whiting is a journalist and author who has lived in Tokyo on and off for more than half a century. One of only a few Western writers to have a regular newspaper column in Japanese, he is the author of several highly successful books on Japan, including the best-selling You Gotta Have Wa (on baseball in Japan) and Tokyo Underworld (currently under option on Legendary Global). Topics he has written on include sports, Tokyo nightlife, and crime.