On my way back from the store, I turned down the street just before my apartment. It ended, or started in my case, at the old red brick wall of the Toyota Commemorative Museum. The original location of for Toyota’s loom making machines. Which was what Toyota did before they started making cars in 1936.
As I walked down the street with my bags of groceries, I heard someone yell in the distance behind me. I turned around but continued to walk. There was a man yelling from the back window of a Mercedes Benz that had stopped along the red bricks. It was a long black 4-door mid-90s Benz with tinted windows. He opened the door, got out, and began waving his arms as he started to walk toward me. I comically turned in the other direction to see who he was waving to. The alley-like street was lined on one side with a long tall schoolyard fence. The other was lined with various sides of buildings. The residential part did not start until the smaller street began just up ahead. That was my street. Some quick surveillance revealed a quiet and empty area.
As he picked up his pace, my Chicago instincts began rapidly kicking in. Something was not right about this. He was now close enough that I could see his face. Most interesting, is that he did not look Japanese. As he shifted from walking pace to jogging speed, I saw another man get out from the front door of the Mercedes. He was wearing a black suit and glasses.
I was quickly processing all the information. Why would everyone get out of the car to get directions? More alarming is why you would ask an obvious foreigner for information?
I’m not sure if the Japanese are terrified of all foreigners, or if it’s only me. When it comes down to a simple thing like getting in an elevator with me, they choose to wait for the next one. When there is only one seat left on the train it is usually next to me. What make is even more comical is that the next commuter that come the train has to choose to sit next to me after an exhausting day of work, or stand up all the way home. They take a brief look at me and make their easy decision. Stand up.
Why would a large guy run down an empty street to get directions from a foreigner?
And now the final troublesome fact: Now there are TWO large guys running down an empty street to get directions.
The big guy went into a full sprint and was on top of me in seconds. He grabbed the back of my shirt and pulled me to a stop. We were both huffing and puffing when he started saying something to me. His large hands let go of me and he gave me the international, “calm down, I’m-not-going-to-hurt-you” gesture. At this point the fear was setting in and I was under the assumption that I was being robbed, or mugged, or whatever the Japanese equivalent is.
I am very fast, and I am not used to getting caught by somebody else while running. It bothered me that my “Rabbit” maneuver did not work. How did he catch me so fast? I realized that he had already been running full speed when he caught me, revealing the first flaw in my “Rabbit” technique. I was scared and my hands were shaking. I was on full alert as I tried to understand what these guys wanted from me.
He began saying ok… ok… and was doing the “calm-down” gesture. Now we were both at a complete stop. and my frightened nerves were making my hands shake.
I nodded and said, ok… ok…. and gave him the “I’m ok” gesture.
It was brilliantly timed. All those years of soccer training; The speed. The quickness. The timing. My soccer training was like my own “wax-on/wax-off” training that the Karate Kid did. It paid off for him in the end, and it’s paying off for me now.
Unfortunately, at no point in my long soccer career had I trained with bags of groceries in my arms. In my nervous condition, I not only forgot about my groceries, but I had been actually gripping them so hard, that when the plastic bags tore and flew from my arms, I was still gripping pieces of them in my hands.
They flew from my arms because this time he was not giving the international “calm-down” gesture. This time he came with a full “Mortal Kombat” take-down, followed by an elbow to my head that scraped the side of my face along the street and left me flat on the ground. In his left hand he had grabbed my shirt and twisted it tightly up to my neck. In his right hand was a clenched fist; The international gesture for punching someone in the face.
He was pulling on my shirt and wanted me to get up slowly to avoid me from running again. We both slowly rose to our feet with our eyes locked the entire time. I finally got a good chance to look at him. He was definitely not Japanese. He was Brazilian.
There were a lot of Brazilians in and around Nagoya. Another American born English Teacher had explained it to me like this; When the Japanese were kings of the world in the 80s and 90s, they started hiring other people (Brazilians for some reason) to do the “3K jobs”, (kitsui, kitanai, and kiken – hard, dirty, and dangerous). These were labor-intensive jobs that the now affluent Japanese can pay to have someone else do.
But when the Japanese economy sizzled in the late nineties, the Japanese wanted their jobs back. This left many Brazilians on the streets with no jobs wondering what to do. In other words, the socio-economic implications of this are now being worked out on my face.
He was a big guy. Not much taller than me, but he was thick and wide. He wore a black tracksuit and had obviously mastered some kind of martial arts; Japanese, Brazilian, or both. He started yelling at me in what I assumed was Japanese and then Portuguese. Both of which I have trouble speaking when under pressure. Then the occasional English word would pop out.
Aside from the main problem of that making no sense at all, my dear ole Grandmother actual swore like a sailor.
It’s funny how people are much more comfortable swearing in their second language. Things that they would never say in their native language just come blurting out in other languages. My Italian Grandmother, and I wish I was exaggerating this, swore in both languages all the time. Everything from yelling at me and my brothers when we would cause trouble, to swearing at my Mother and Grandfather. The words that I learned from her would just make this guy angrier.
“Where you live?” He eventually asked. I did not want to tell him that I lived around the corner. So I pointed in the opposite direction.
“Where you go?” He yelled. I pointed at the various food items that were now lying all around me. He then looked around me. It seemed obvious where I just came from.
“Saifu? Saifu? Passport?” He demanded.
“No comprendo… No passport” I said.
So here we go, I thought, I’m getting robbed. I was scared out of my mind but for some reason I was not in fear of my life. I knew in the back of my mind that this was Japan, and people are just not murdered in the streets. Like… say… Chicago.
My wallet was actually loaded with cash from a teacher who had just paid me back for a loan. Nothing crazy, but there was over 200 US equivalent dollars. This is going to suck I thought, but it should make this guy happy and keep him from hurting me any more. After the big guy got my wallet, The Brazilain pulled down on my shirt to make me sit down on the ground.
The Brazilian guy was flipping through the cash in my wallet when he realized the other guy was next to him. He handed the wallet to him immediately, cash and all. This guy was older, mid forties maybe. He was clearly Japanese. He had a cigarette in his mouth and sunglasses on. I guess thetough guy does the all dirty work and the Japanese guy splits the money with him. But why wouldn’t he just do it himself and keep the money? It was all so confusing. The Brazilian guy said nothing as the Japanese man flipped through my wallet.
“Nihongo hanashimasuka?” The Japanese guy said. I was not sure what he asked, but I heard Nihongo (The Japanese language). I shook my head to indicate that I don’t speak Japanese. The Japanese guy took the cigarette out of his mouth, blew out the smoke, and muttered something, that I assume was the equivalent to “Shit.”
He slowly looked around with a pissed-off look on his face. He thumbed through my wallet, passed all the cash, and was looking at the ID’s and credit cards.
“What name?” The Japanese guy asked putting the cigarette back in his mouth.
Now that I was able to catch my breath, I started getting nervous. Why all the questions? What’s with the suit? The cash is right there, just take it and lets get this over with. Either these guys are the most inquisitive robbers ever or…
That’s when a horrible sinking feeling came over me.Why would a guy in a suit from a Mercedes Benz be robbing people on a street in broad daylight? Something else was going on here. These guys had no interest in the cash in my wallet. This guy was not a robber or a petty criminal. He was Yakuza, or something like it.
The Yakuza, simply put, is the Japanese mafia. It is Japan’s infamous organized crime syndicate. Like their Italian counterparts, they have been elevated to legendary pop-culture status through countless movies, TV shows, and anime. I don’t really know much about them other than the tattoos and pachinko parlors. I am not really fascinated by them as much as I am with other aspects of Japanese culture. However, I am familiar with their Italian counterparts by default;
I am both Italian, and from Chicago. Two fun facts that lead people to assume the following:
- I am connected.
- I am carrying a gun.
- I am angry until the cannolis arrive.
It is amazing how many times I am asked about this outside of Chicago, especially in Japan and Europe. Bless Michael Jordan, and Barack Obama, for giving the rest of the world something else to associate Chicago with. I can assure you that being Italian and from Chicago does not give me any special insight into organized crime. Which has becomes painfully obvious from the situation I am currently in.
They keep asking for my passport, which I was not carrying. Perhaps this was some kind of underground fake passport ring. They were collecting them and selling them in some kind of black market scam. If they take my ID’s and passport I have no idea what could happen to me.
Because I was working in the country, I had a “Gaijin Card” (foreign resident card), so I did not need to keep the passport on me at all times. But these guys seemed like they were not looking for the Resident Card. I had another US government issued ID that actually had a photo on it. Perhaps that would help. I pointed to it in my wallet. The Japanese guy pulled it out and read it. A look of shock came across his face.
He stepped back and yelled,
“Firearm! Firearm! Where is firearm?
The Brazilain guy sprang into action. He pulled on my shirt and twisted while grabbing one of my arms.
“Firearm?” I said. Do these guys think I have a gun? My voice started getting higher and faster.
“Whoa wait… No firearm…. No pistola… No comprendo!”
What the hell is going on? My best friend is a Chicago Policeman. He had taught me how to say “Drop the weapon!” and “Do you have any chewing gum?” in several different languages. He said knowing this would get you out of the most difficult situations. I was actually thinking of this at the time. What I had NOT practiced was a situation where I had the weapon and the chewing gum.
I realized that the photo ID he was looking at was my Illinois issued firearm owners Identification. Or F.O.I.D card as its referred to. I got it a few years ago so that I could go to a shooting range with my father. I don’t actually own a gun, but you must have the card to fire a weapon at a shooting range in the state of Illinois. I brought it to Japan because it had a photo and a cool US government seal. I thought it might come in handy in the right situation. This, is not that situation.
Across the top of the card in big bold 3rd-grade English was written, “FIREARM OWNER”. How else was he suppose to grasp that information.
Ok… Hold on. I can explain this in Portuguese/Spanish/angy-Italian-Grandmother.
“I have no firearm.” I said slowly and clearly while I raised my hands in the international, calm down, I-don’t-have-a-gun gesture. Exactly how the Brazilian guy had done it for me.
“We are in Japan…” I pause for effect.
“No guns in Japan… cadere la pistola.” Pause again as they try to understand me.
“That card is from America. No guns here.” Long pause for maximum effect.
And to my surprise, there was a long pause.
The Brazilian guy stared me right in the eye.
“America?” He mumbled and twisted the end of the word to emphasize the question part.
He stopped and then turned to look up at the Yakuza guy. I followed his glance to reveal the Yakuza guy with the same confused look on his face.
“You from America.” The Yakuza guy repeated as if he was answering the question.
“No guns in Japan. I am an English Teacher.” I pleaded now realizing it was having some affect on them.
“You are English Teacher?” The Brazilian guy repeated in disbelief. More as a matter of fact then questioning me. He looked up again at the man in the suit. This time the Yakuza guy said nothing. The Brazilian released my shirt and arm. He stood up, took a few steps back, and looked around the area as if he was checking to see who was around.
The Yakuza guy took the cigarette out of his mouth. “Where do you teach English?”
AEON Nagoya, I said. As if this prestigious company would explain everything.
“America” He mumbled to himself. “What city you come from? ” He asked in a conversational tone.
“Chicago.” I replied. There was a short pause, and then a smile came across his face.
“Chee-ca-go… ” He said pronouncing the “chi” like in cheese.
He then took a long pause as if trying to remember something.
“I know this Chee-ca-go… I know about Al Capo-ney (Al Capone).” He said with a smile. “Many firearm in Chee-ca-go.” He looked at my F.O.I.D card and placed it back in my wallet.
I guess Chicago does have a lot of guns, I thought to myself. But compared to Japan, Disneyland would have more guns. “Michael Jordan was there too.” I mumbled under my breath.
“Do you like Chee-ca-go?” He asked with a strange sincerity. As if someday in the future, he would like to quit this damn life of crime, come out of the Japanese underworld, and follow his true dream of going to an engineering school abroad.
“Yes I do. It’s a great city.” I said, defending its honor while also trying to put the good word out.
I grabbed his hand, and he pulled me up. He handed me back my wallet and then strangely dusted the rocks and dirt from my shoulders. I then stood there in amazement, as he walked around me to grab all my fallen groceries and place them back in their bags. He handed the bags to me, and said. “Sumimasen” (I apologize).
He turned and started walking back to the Mercedes. He pulled out a cigarette, lit it, and blew a big puff of smoke into the air. The Brazilian guy soon turned and followed him a few paces behind.
I stood in the empty street holding my torn grocery bags. Everything was still in my wallet. My face was skinned and bleeding and I was wondering what the hell just happened.
Curiosity alone drove me to do the next thing.
I yelled, “Scusi… Scusi…” and started running after the Brazilian guy. When I caught up to him, he neither stopped nor turned to look at me. He just continued his walk back to the car.
“What the hell was all that about?” I said in my best teacher-polished English.
He nodded his head forward toward the Yakuza guy. “Someone owes him much money… Brazilian… He think it you…” He said.
I stopped and watched them walk off.
Now what do I do? Should I call the police? Tell them that I was mugged by two guys who took no money from me, but roughed me up and rearranged my groceries? Maybe warn them that there is a Brazilian guy who lives in this neighborhood who looks like me, but borrows a lot more money. Perhaps tell them that the bad news is; I got beat up by the Yakuza, The good news is; I have never been beat up with such respect and courtesy.
So I have a story to tell every time a Japanese person tells me they don’t want to go to America because it is too dangerous. I told the other Japanese teachers on Monday how I got all the scrapes and bruises on my face. They were all shocked and verified that the guy was some level of Yakuza, and that I should call the police. In the end, I did not call the police, or even call home for that matter. I hate to say it, but I figured it could have been a lot worse in Chicago. They could have just shot me and then found out I was the wrong guy. In other words, I like Japan so much that I actually prefer to get beat up there instead of my hometown.
As with all the stories on my True Stories Page, I ask myself the same question after it happens. How the hell am I going to explain this to people back home? Start a blog perhaps…
Top photo – Kurosaki from the manga Dengeki Daisy (電撃デイジー) by Kyosuke Motomi. Painstakingly rendered in color by yiny-chan from Deviant Art.
Running Photo – Ryuuichi from the manga Full Contact (フル・コン) by kabuto kitahama and Shinobu Minazuki.
Scorpion from Mortal Kombat. Mortal Kombat Wiki
Police Cars – Riding Bean(ライディング・ビーン) by Kenichi Sonoda
Gunsmith Cats (ガンスミス キャッツ ) by Kenichi Sonoda
The Quiet Don (静かなるドン) by Tatsuyo Nitta