Typhoons wash over Yakuza

    As a UCSD freshman, I was upset with La Jolla. From what I’d been told by my San Diego friends and relatives, I would be spending the next four years in a sunny paradise where temperatures rarely dipped below 75. It didn’t quite turn out that way, as I saw layers of thick fog roll across campus more often than not. When it wasn’t fogged up, it was raining.

    But compared to the Japanese city of Yokohama, San Diego, even at its foggiest, is indeed the land of eternal sunshine.

    Twenty-three typhoons have swept through Japan this season. Ten of them — a postwar record — have rocked the main island. Trees have uprooted, huge waves have hit the shores and dozens of people have died. School was canceled last Monday because of the weather, something unheard of in San Diego, unless wildfires raging through East County are considered “weather.”

    When typhoons hit, they flood the subways and train lines, bringing urbanized Japanese life to an abrupt halt. Most people depend on the normally efficient public transportation to get around the country; the city streets are narrower than Berkeley’s and the tolls higher than New Jersey’s, so cars, especially big ones, are luxuries few care to indulge in. The last typhoon to shut down the trains around the Tokyo metropolis stranded almost 100,000 commuters. Thousands were forced to disembark at unfamiliar train stations, lining up for taxis to ferry them to hotels and bars to wait out the storm.

    The day of the first huge typhoon in our area was also the day of our mandatory field trip to Kotobuki-cho, a low-income area of Japan’s second-largest city characterized by its population of day laborers, homeless and the Japanese mafia known as Yakuza. The mafia operates openly there. They run homeless shelters (swindling the homeless out of their welfare checks), gambling parlors and other scams in Kotobuki.

    Betting on sporting events is illegal in Japan, but the police usually look the other way when it comes to these shady establishments. Horse racing, dog racing, motorcar and boat racing are all fair game for the men sitting at the tables inside. On sunnier days, the room will overflow with people, spilling out onto the adjacent narrow street, where the crowd can watch the action on four wall-mounted TVs, which are shuttered in black boxes during the inclement weather.

    The police don’t usually bother shutting these places down. But when an officer is up for promotion, he might earn some points by busting up a gambling den or two. If someone is caught with a betting slip during a raid, he is guilty of a crime. The first rule of Yakuza gambling is to drop your betting slip as soon as the raid begins: no betting slip, no crime.

    Successful raids are rare, though, since the Yakuza have guards looking out for police officers.

    As we listened to our professor explain all this, he glanced over our shoulders.

    “In fact, um, I believe there is one looking at us right now, actually, to make sure everything is all right.”

    Stupidly, we all whirled around to see a grungy little man with a cigarette watching us intently.


    The next Yakuza run-in happened after our professor led us down another narrow alley.

    “Here, at the end of this alleyway, is the main Yakuza office in Kotobuki,” the professor explained.

    Yes, the mafia has its own office.

    We did not approach the Yakuza, instead turning left down another alley and onto the open road.

    “We are going to pass by the front of the office now,” the professor said. “We will walk by slowly, but please do not stare.”

    Naturally, we stared.

    The Yakuza seemed amused by our presence in their town. Rather than hiding from the large group of Americans, they leaned against the door frame and watched us. One young-looking mobster, probably about 25, actually waved. I waved back. I wondered at the time if they would have reacted differently if we had started snapping photographs. Thinking back, I bet they would have smiled and thrown up the peace sign. After all, the police already knew who and where they were; the nearest station was less than 300 feet away.

    Before the parliament passed an anti-Yakuza law a few years ago, their presence was even more prominent. A black wooden panel hanging over the door was all that was left of the flashy sign with gold lettering that used to announce the name of that particular Yakuza branch.

    The nearby police station was vacant when we walked past. Our professor suspected that the officers might have been in the upstairs quarters, asleep.

    I’d give the address of the Yakuza building so that other visitors can someday have the pleasure of waving at a mobster, except that the street did not have a name. Most streets in Japan do not have names, making navigating a bit stressful.

    Out of the 2,000-plus streets in Tokyo, only 100 have names. Some parts of Tokyo are even more confusing: There are nameless streets full of nameless restaurants, all with the same menu and prices. Post office employees who have to deal with this system are either psychic, really lucky, or know the area like the back of their collective hands.

    When typhoons trap us inside, UC and Japanese students alike turn to the one thing whose unifying presence can calm even the strongest storm: Nintendo.

    A few weeks ago I bought “Super Mario Bros. 3” and a Nintendo Famicom, colloquially known as “regular Nintendo” in America. This was later supplemented by someone else’s Super Famicom (“Super Nintendo”), which preceded a video-game shopping spree that ended with a library of games from “Super Mario Kart” to “Megaman X2.” Rainy weather keeps the Famicoms running.

    As long as there is a Nintendo controller and a can of beer within arm’s reach, these imported California students can tolerate any storm.

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