The Time I Briefly Saw a Real Yakuza
Never crash an expensive import car in the streets of Japan
As hard as it is to explain to anybody on the outside who has no idea who I am, what I do, or anything I'm involved in, it's almost an understatement to say that "yakuza" became something of an on-brand identity for me this past year. For starters (and this is going to sound absolutely ludicrous), I was pretty deeply involved in a very public conversation about an American anime voice actor who had allegedly been involved in numerous sexual harassment and assault allegations over the last few decades. When a Japanese friend of mine saw my Twitter feed and was beginning to grow concerned about some of the horrendous things she was seeing not only about the actor but about his vitriolic and vengeful fan base that she didn't necessarily understand, I made the mistake of responding to her tweets to me in Japanese briefly explaining the situation I was going through. From there, that fan base began spinning the narrative to say that I was slandering the actor's name to Japan, and that--even more absurdly--surely by me speaking such ills of this actor in another language, I have incited the rage of the Japanese crime syndicate, the yakuza.
Within the communities I participate in, this image and other parts of his conversation in which he stated that he believed 75% of Japan to be yakuza and 8/10ths of Japanese people to be related to yakuza by blood were starting to go semi-viral. Based on this, having to fend off the yakuza was starting to become somewhat of a daily inside joke between myself and my followers.
What added to making the yakuza part of my identity was that in the middle of the year, a game by the name of Judgment for the PlayStation 4 (part of the Yakuza video game franchise) was releasing in June in North America, and on top of that, SEGA had kindly invited me down to their Judgment-themed escape room that they were opening to meet producers, voice actors, and part of the localization staff. It felt like participating in the event helped me further lean into the joke, that the idea of the real world yakuza coming to get me for speaking less than gushingly about an American ex-anime voice actor was going to get me killed by a Japanese mobster.
But as fictional yakuza characters started taking up more presence in my daily life, I often found my thoughts lingering back to my time spent studying Japanese in Japan over a decade ago, in which I very likely witnessed something happening with the real-world yakuza.
The setting - Mizonokuchi, Japan, 2008
I spent a semester studying the Japanese language at KCP International Language School in Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan; probably one of the most exciting times of my life. I can recall my teachers telling the American students during our on-boarding to never say the word "yakuza" out loud. I know they were just trying to make sure they covered all of their bases to ensure that they had done everything they could to keep us students safe, but it really felt more like what they were telling us was not to say Beetlejuice out loud three times or else he'd actually show up. At no point did my friends and I truly ever feel like we were in any sort of danger. Interestingly enough, our school was only a little less than a 20-minute walk away from Kabukicho, the red light district where yakuza had been well-known to do a great deal of their business (and is also the basis for the fictional district of Kamurocho in the Yakuza franchise). My teachers also told us to never, ever walk into Kabukicho. Well, we did anyway a few times, and never once got hassled. Sure, there were some smutty images and host clubs around, but I spent my time in an arcade somewhere nearby and didn't much worry myself with anything else.
Ironically, despite my time in Kabukicho, my yakuza story does not even take place there.
Instead, it takes place in the small city in which my dormitory was located. Mizonokuchi isn't even within Tokyo city limits, but rather is in Kanagawa prefecture, just barely to the west of Tokyo. It would generally take me about an hour via train ride to get from Mizonokuchi Station to Shinjuku-Gyoenmae Station, nearby my school. Thankfully, I loved trains, and really enjoyed the commute.
I loved Mizonokuchi. It felt like a tiny, light version of Tokyo. Really, everything I needed was there. Plenty of convenience stores, a couple of nearby arcades, good food absolutely everywhere, and it was way less crowded than Tokyo. A cute little city that I would absolutely move back to if I were given the opportunity to do so now.
I had another classmate at KCP who was my dormitory neighbor in Mizonokuchi. Since we had the same commute despite being assigned separate teachers, we spent quite a lot of time together. I regret that I often hogged her DSL line that she was paying for during that time. I'm sure that must have frustrated her. But there were a couple of times where she and I went out on excursions to explore Mizonokuchi.
The event in question took place after the sun went down, as we went out looking to find some good food for dinner. A lot of the side streets around Mizonokuchi Station are extremely small and high in foot traffic. This is pretty true of most cities within Tokyo, too, including Kabukicho, but to give you an idea of just how small and narrow these streets are, here's a Google Maps image of one of the streets we were walking for reference.
Cars do sometimes drive down these narrow roads, but not frequently enough to keep people from just walking right down the middle of them. As you can see from the image, the street is only just barely wide enough to hold even one single car, with absolutely no room for error or to maneuver around anything that might jump out in front of you. You can also see little cement guards that protect pedestrians on the sidewalk from any vehicle coming down the small, singular lane. There's absolutely no room for anything bigger than that road to go through or for anybody to make any sort of maneuvers.
A Cadillac Escalade in Mizonokuchi
This night in particular, however, as my friend and I were walking through this narrow street, we hear a vehicle approaching behind us and prepare to move out of the way and onto the sidewalk. As the headlights close in, I get a better glimpse of this vehicle. It's a huge, black SUV, the kind of car I didn't expect somebody in a modest place like Mizonokuchi to be driving. Upon closer inspection, it was definitely a big, black Cadillac Escalade.
I had to figure that importing this Escalade was no joke. At the beginning of 2008, during my time in which I was studying in Japan, the ability to import an Escalade into Japan at all in the first place had only been available for maybe three months, since the end of 2007. As of the publication of this writing in 2020, the Escalade is now easy for Japanese consumers to buy and is priced at a reasonable cost comparatively to most other Japanese vehicles. However, at the time, importing an Escalade could set someone back around 95 million yen (over $850,000). I mean, the fact that I was looking at an Escalade in Japan at all just about floored me. Normal Japanese civilians do not regularly drive vehicles this big unless it's a truck or a van for work.
So in comes this Escalade, and all the pedestrians meander from the middle of the street off to the sidewalk. What started to concern me was that the car started slowing down and trying to parallel park alongside a particular, nondescript building. I don't know where this driver thought he was going to park. Those streets don't have parking spaces, and the fact that he was trying to wedge himself right along the edge of the sidewalk didn't make a whole lot of sense to me. I also was growing concerned that he didn't really know how to drive a car that big. Maybe he wasn't even totally comfortable driving a car with the steering wheel on the left-hand side like this Cadillac had. And yet here he was, trying to back his SUV up into some little space that didn't actually exist.
As the driver slowly backed his car up alongside the building, he seemed to be approaching dangerously closely to a metal light pole that stood along the sidewalk. His car now stretched catty-corner across the road with no room for anyone to move past him in any way, he showed no signs of stopping for this light pole. It was pretty obvious to all of the onlookers that he seemed to have no idea what he was doing. All the pedestrians in the area stopped what they were doing to stare at this behemoth trying desperately to find a way to fit into this non-existent space that any other reasonable person would have clearly known could not have possibly fit him.
For a brief moment, the vehicle stopped. It looked like he realized the danger of the electric pole behind him, and for a short time, it seemed like perhaps he was about to pull forward and try to find some other place to leave his Escalade. Surely, I thought, he realized what he was trying to do and decided as any person should that they should try another way or another place to park that monster.
But he continued. He kept backing that car up. And while he was in fact doing it very, very slowly, it was also like watching an embarrassing moment happening in extra slow motion. We all knew what was coming. Every person on the block could see it. But there just seemed like no way to make it stop.
BANG, CRUNCH! The rear bumper of the Escalade lightly collided with the metal electric pole. The SUV came to a halt. I could see the look on the driver's face. It was a look of shock and disbelief. It seemed to say, "Oh, my God, what did I just allow to happen?" He slowly pulled the car forward, and as the back bumper pulled away from the electric pole, his bumper groaned and sat slightly hanging off the body of the vehicle. The previously pristine Escalade was now marred, sadly beyond a simple dent. The pole left noticeable damage that would have broken any car owner's heart.
The driver stopped his car fully across the entire street and leaped out of his seat to survey the damage. The damage to the car was noticeable and unfortunate, but I wasn't certain that it was entirely deserving of the reaction that the man was giving. The man, dressed in a pretty standard-looking business suit, hurriedly paced back and forth between the front and back of the vehicle, as if trying to assure himself that the back end damage didn't look as bad has he was imagining it did, maybe comparing it to the front end to see if maybe it just always looked that way all over. He repeated this multiple times, all with his hands on his head, still in shock that this actually just happened.
This guy was in sheer panic mode. He was just about losing his dang mind. I have to admit, because I've never driven in Japan, I'm not really familiar with what you're supposed to do after an accident there. If we had been in America, I would have said you call either the police or your insurance provider or both and start a claim. This man called no one. Instead, in an obvious fit of panic, he left his Escalade parked across the entire road, blocking all other vehicle and foot traffic, and abandoned it as he ran over to the sidewalk and rushed inside the plain grey building he had been attempting to park the car in front of.
The crowd (which had grown substantially over these past couple minutes) was stunned. Something was clearly wrong. Everyone was murmuring to themselves, confused about everything they were watching. My friend and I were no different, as we were asking one another, "Hey, do we need to find a police officer or something?"
But not long after all this, we heard the voice of an extremely angry man shouting from the top of his lungs from just barely inside the building. Seconds later, two men came back out of the building from which the driver of the Escalade had dashed into. One of them, of course, was the car's driver. The other was a man in a pinstripe suit and square-toed shoes, carrying a briefcase, and screaming viscous obscenities at the driver.
At the time, I was still early in my learning of Japanese and could hardly understand anything this new guy was shouting. Although I could definitely understand a "yarou!" (you bastard!) here and there, and he was rolling all of his r's all over the place. Nothing about his tone was in any way happy, pleased, understanding, or good. We didn't have a clear understanding of everything that was happening, but the situation was wholly uncomfortable, and quite frankly, a little bit terrifying. And if us out in the crowd were scared, I can't possibly imagine what the poor guy who dinged that Escalade was feeling. A look of absolute terror was spread across his face, as he was crouched down behind the man in the pinstriped suit, as if he was worried he'd have to duck his fists at any given moment.
It was at that moment that my friend and I recalled what our teachers at KCP told us about the yakuza, and while they didn't really give us a good plan for getting out of a situation if we just so happened to be stuck in something bad, it was clear they were speaking to us with a sense of urgency. Is that what we were looking at right now? Was this some sort of a yakuza dealing that just went south extremely fast due to a lackey's incompetence? While we couldn't say for certain, it sure did seem extremely likely, as we were piecing together everything we had just witnessed. The extraordinarily expensive import vehicle, the sheer terror of the driver after he knew he screwed up, and everything about the appearance the the demeanor of the man in the pinstriped suit, all of it suggested that some yakuza business just went extremely badly.
I wish I could say we stuck around to see what happened next, but my classmate and I were pretty freaked out at this point. As the angry pinstripe-suited man approached the dinged-up car while screaming into the night sky with his driver lingering timidly behind him, my classmate and I made the decision to keep walking and head down the next street so as to avoid anything else that could have possibly happened next. It looked like other people were starting to do the same thing. I had to figure that if our reaction was the same as all of the locals, they all knew this was bad business, too.
What I've Learned from This Experience
I can't say I have any moral to this story, or any important lesson to learn from it. Maybe if I had one, it would be that, if you're going to attempt to drive in Japan, don't bother trying to drive down tiny roads that barely fit your car in the first place. And definitely don't try parallel parking them on that same road.
I often think back to the driver of that Escalade and wonder what ever became of that guy. Just how much punishment did he have to take? Is he okay today? I guess I'll never know. I can't lie, I kinda feel like he was extremely bad at driving, at least at driving something so big with the steering wheel on the opposite side of the car from what he's probably used to driving. Although, thinking back on it now, I have to imagine that he was probably just doing what he was ordered to do, even if it was beyond what he was capable of doing. Seems like he was kinda caught between a rock and a hard place, most likely. That poor bastard.
I think a foreigner's idea of a yakuza is likely romanticized, but take it from me. You'd never want to be around someone who seems like they might be yakuza while they're absolutely livid and flipping their lid. If you're out there hoping you're gonna go to Japan and meet a real-life yakuza, maybe think twice about it.
Man, I hope the driver of that Escalade is doing well today.