Tokyo Damage Report

Shinya Kusaka’s “ura hello work”

Japan has a wide selection of true-crime books: comic book re-enactments of gory murders, academic studies of government corruption, and everything in-between. But what sets Japan apart (according to Nate from the Waseda Ramen blog) is that a lot of the true-crime books are not just for thrills, they also serve a function of explaining how society really works, behind the scenes. This is important in a country where mainstream news is heavily controlled, and big institutions are not transparent.

Just for grins, I’ve translated Shinya Kusaka’s URA HELLO WORK. This book is in the middle of the spectrum – which makes it just right for my Japanese skills.
HELLO WORK is what Japanese call their unemployment office, where people go to find job listings. URA means ‘the dark side of.’ URA HELLO WORK basically means ‘grey-market’ jobs – things that are not entirely illegal, but everything is paid in cash, under the table.
Anyway, Shinya Kusaka interviewed twenty different people, each of which has a shady job! The  20 different jobs are arranged from least illegal to most illegal.
Anyway, this translation will be a regular feature on Tokyo Damage Report – every Monday, I’ll start off the work-week with a new chapter, and a new job for you guys to get!
 You can buy his book (the Japanese version) here.

Translation notes:
  • I’m not fucking with the mah jongg chapter. That shit is psycho.
  • 100 yen = one dollar.
  • The author takes evident pleasure in making up Dickensian pseudonyms for his interviewees. In order to preserve the odd sense of humor, I’ve decided to translate the pseudonyms literally, and leave it as an exercise for the reader to determine how the name relates to the respective jobs.
  • There’s a lot of normal-sounding words in this book; words which have a sinister double-meaning IN CERTAIN CONTEXTS. These sinister double-meanings would be clear to a Japanese reader, but for you guys, I’ll put these words in italics. For example, ‘He told me that his ‘people’ would cause ‘problems’ unless I accepted his ‘offer.’

1)    how many of the crooks are introduced as ‘I knew this guy from my high school?’ (about half, I’d say!) How long before you wonder, “Where did this author go to school? Rikers Island?!?

2) Which rackets exist in your home country? Which rackets are ‘only-in-Japan’? I’d guess that most of these rackets exist in your own country but it is done totally differently in Japan because the laws here have different loop-holes.

3) How many of the interviewees make the claim that “If the ‘legitemate’ institutions of society were looking after the citizens, I would be out of a job?"  This is a central theme of the book – that  the justice system, insurance system,  and legal regulations don't help people. In USA's crime books, you'll hear about 'the collapse of institutions.' But this is Japan, and the institutions are not 'collapsing' : they are working as they were intended to: to protect the well-connected from being accountable to the public.  OH SHIT!!!!!

4) If the interviewee says something that’s pretty preposterous – Is that because I’m a bad translator? Or is it because the interviewee is trying to dodge the reporter’s tough questions with non sequitur answers?

5) How much of the book is  filler? Do you think the author is getting paid by the word?

6) Is this book an expose? Or is it a how-to, aimed at people who are desperate and actually looking for these jobs?

7) Is doing an unauthorized translation and posting it online ALSO a form of Ura hello work?

8) West Siiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiide!!!!!!!!!!


RISK: ****

In the not-too-distant past, Yakuza loan-sharks would say, “Since you can’t pay back the money, why don’t you work on my tuna boat?” If you work on a tuna boat, you can earn enough to pay off a fairly large loan, and that might be the only way you can do it. But in fact, it’s really difficult to find anyone willing to work there, and the details of the “tuna crew recruiter” are shrouded in mystery. (There was a case where a restaurant owner who owed money to a loan-shark who ‘strongly suggested’ tuna servitude. The gangster was later charged with attempted extortion but he was acquitted.)
 I tried every step I could think of to investigate this hustle, but was unable to meet anyone who had tuna-crewed. However, I had help from an unexpected source! Mr. Smallswamp (Who we’ll meet later on in the chapter on Medical Experiments) happened to know a former tuna crew member, and offered to introduce us. Let’s call this man Mr. Monkeypasser (not his real name). He is 39 and has worked on tuna boats for a total of 5 years (plus more experience bonito fishing). I managed to catch up with him while he was waiting for his next ship to put out.

At the meeting spot, I heard a gruff and hearty voice call my name. I turned around and there was Mr. Monkeypasser with his thick eyebrows, dusky skin and wide shoulders – a real fisherman! He certainly looked like someone who was in debt and was able to work it off. I was flustered by his intimidating appearance, so he had to introduce himself first, and, stammeringly, I replied. Then he led me to a Japanese-style bar where we talked while gorging ourselves on ramen.


. . .Is what he said. I asked him, “But doesn’t everyone joining the crew have some kind of ‘special situation’ ?” He laughed in my direction. By the way, he’s from Touhoku, so it’s really hard for me to understand his thick accent. Basically I’m translating his speech into regular Japanese (Ed. Note: ha! Meta!). “I hear that rumor a lot – ‘Who’s making you guys work on the boat?’ , but really if a guy wants to do it, he does it; That’s all there is to it! But recently, there’s a lot of desperate immigrants on the crews, more than Japanese even. And they can’t even talk right! Can’t understand a damn word. . .”

The fishing industry has been hit by the current recession, and owners are hiring immigrant labor to cut costs.
It seems that all my images of Yakuza slave-galleys were nothing but urban legends ; n practice, it’s immigrants and career fishermen like Mr. Passmonkey out on the ocean. When I realized this, I felt briefly despondent. But then, Mr. Passmonkey continued:

“If there’s 30 guys on an average crew, maybe 2 or 3 have some kinda ‘situation’ going on, but of course it all depends on how bent the owner is. If the ship owner is deeply connected with the Yakuza, he’s more likely to press-gang some debtors! But if you look at it from the H.R. perspective – a noob isn’t going to be as useful as a career fisherman. Plus, if they were honest and hardworking, they probably wouldn’t of gotten press-ganged in the first place, so the boss has to consider that, too, before he hires them.”

“AHA! Gangs,”I thought, as Mr. Passmonkey continued:

“Yeah, that kind of stuff happened more in the past – because there was a shortage of labor, wasn’t there? When the economy was good, who was gonna say, “Hey, I’m gonna drop everything and work on a tuna boat!” So that’s why they had to press-gang debtors – or the flip-side: guys running away to sea to escape debt collectors!!”

Of course there’s always wild rumors – like guys getting lured out to sea under false pretenses, only to be murdered for the insurance money. That stuff never happens. And even if it did happen, no one would say anything. Least of all me!”

There are cases of long-haul tuna boats being gone for 2 or even 3 years at a time. They do put into port for supplies, but this is very seldom – maybe once every time they make a big catch. Recently they’ve been going as far as East and South Africa, which is quite a “round trip.” For all this, Mr. Passmonkey has never been interested in vacationing abroad, and marriage is pretty much out of the question as well. I asked Mr. Passmonkey about the length of his voyages:

“Some boats can be out for over a year – we think 10 months is short! We keep the tuna immersed in water, and rely on a big-ass refrigerator tank to keep them fresh. You want a big catch: the faster you fill up the hold, the sooner you can go home: and of course the reverse is also true! As for money, it’s enough to live on. For a standard-length voyage, around $60,000 a year is normal. Of course the monthly rate is less if you’re only gone for one month at a time! At any rate, since there’s nothing to spend the money on at sea, it really piles up! Of course some fellows get into a bit of gambling, but if you do it moderately, you’ll still have a lot left over when you get back.

“Lots of guys ask me about the money, and then they tell me they want to try life at sea. But fishing is hard work, and not a lot of guys are up to all the physical toil. Most guys act interested but then don’t show up for the hiring– they were just “window shopping!” You can tell them about the job, about all the money, but it goes in one ear and out the other. But when it comes right down to it, we barely have enough guys!

“Long distance fishing – you’re stuck on the same boat with the same guys all year, so it’s really important to be able to communicate. If you get on board with no guts, or trying to do a half-assed job, you’re in trouble! Or maybe you really want to be a fisherman, but it turns out you get paralyzing sea-sickness! Useless! Or if you cry like a baby that you want to go home, you’re a nuisance to us. Usually those guys learn to deal with it in the first week, though. At least they adapt to the extent that they can do their damn job.”

Listening to him speak, one can feel Mr. Passmonkey’s passion for his work. He seems to feel that even a debtor, if they really adapt to life at sea, can be redeemed by fishing.

“If you’ve already thrown away your life once, and you get a second chance, you’ll work your fingers to the bone to regain your lost honor.  The first time I met (this guy), he wouldn’t talk about his situation. But after a month together at sea, he opened up. There’s a lot of guys who leave the boat reformed. Of course, you got your useless jerk-offs too! But in general, tuna-boats aren’t just fishing; you can also think of the tuna boat as a “second chance factory.”


Next, Mr. Passmonkey told me about the serious conditions of life on the high seas.

“I know a guy – a ‘connected’ guy (関係者: ‘kankeisha’) – who puts out propaganda to try to get youngsters to jump on board our super-wonderful ship, but the reality is tuna fishing is the most dangerous kind! I knew an older guy who fell off the ship on the winter seas and died. And I’ve cut my body badly while filleting the tuna. Not to mention the sharks! Sometimes there’s more sharks than tuna! All different kinds – maira, and shomoku sharks circling around. It’s really tough to manage them. You can sometimes kill them if you hit them on the snout, or you can electro-shock them, but sharks don’t die easy! One time a new guy – I thought he was dead for sure – he got bit right on the leg and he was kicking up an awful ruckus about it! Without a word, we all pitched in, though, and finished the shark off.

“You’ll realize it if you think about it for a second – in the middle of the ocean, there’s not a big jump from injury to death! A little knife cut or small wound is one thing, but if you get a deep gash, by the time you can see a doctor, you’ll have lost your life! I’m not exaggerating. Sure, we’ve got some emergency supplies, but full-scale medical treatment is only available on dry land. An acquaintance of mine was on a boat where some guy got a huge deep wound – and there was no anesthetic on board! They had to literally flood the hole in his body with sake while stitching it up. In that case, they were able to save him. But since it takes over a week to get to the nearest hostpial, it’s not unusual for the guy to die. They say the ocean really tests how much you want to live! That’s why it’s hard for us to find new guys that really got that burning desire to put out to sea.

“And when you get to the actual fishing spot, that’s when work gets really hard. It’s not like the old days when you’d catch them one by one. And by law we got to use these damn “longline-fishing” nets which are a bitch to control. You’ll be laboring for up to 20 hours at a stretch. Guys get swept out to sea because they’re so tired, they forget to be careful. There’s not a moment to catch your breath. After you’ve been working 12, 15 hours, you can’t keep your concentration – and that’s when mistakes happen. I knew a guy whose finger got snapped off in the nets – it went flying! I told him to stop working but he kept going – even though he was all holding his severed finger and crying. There was nothing any of us could say to him.”


You can make a good living crewing a tuna boat, but if you need even more money, your only option is the grim, cruel world of crab-fishing.
“Crabbing is so rough, even I don’t want to try it! Tuna boats hit some rough waters, but crabbing season only comes once a year, right when the sea is raging like a monster! What’s more, tuna boats are fairly large, so the chance of getting capsized is minimal. Even in a big storm, we have other things to worry about. But crab boats are really dinky, and if your boat flips in the middle of a storm. ..Those guys live in constant fear that they’ll be thrown into a winter ocean with waves that come at you like titanic black fangs, one after another, attacking. Even a skilled swimmer will be paralyzed by the temperature in a minute, and find himself unable to move his arms or legs. Don’t go crab fishing unless you’ve already made peace with your maker and said goodbye to your family!”

He also said that here are Japanese fishermen that help the Russians illegally fish crabs in Japanese-controlled oceans.

“It’s common to see reports of Russians illegally fishing on the news. But what the media doesn’t show is how Japanese locals guide Russians to the good crab spots, and act as lookouts, when the Coast Guard comes! Because the Coast Guard has really been cracking down, it’s much harder for the Russians to do their thing. . . so they’ve been paying our fishermen to sail near the Russian boats and act as camoflauge! They have a lot of different techniques for that. ‘No, skipper, no one but us Japanese out here!’

“Unlike tuna, which we can catch year-round, crab fishing has a very narrow window of time. But if you work your ass off during crab season, you can clear $10,000 a month. Nothing to scoff at, brother! My buddy went off to do mitsuryou (密漁, illegal fishing), up around the Karafuto islands (disputed between Japan and Russia), but I haven’t heard from him since. I hope he’s ok!”

Most of the mitsuryou is run by the Russian mafiya, it seems, but Mr. Passmonkey didn’t know anything more specific than that. Why did fishermen try to do such dangerous work, I asked?

“The money’s good but that’s not the only reason. We’re tough guys – we like to test our strength. See if we got what it takes. If you can survive crab fishing, you’re looked on as the most tough of the tough. Everyone at the fishermans’ bar will listen to your stories.

As for me, I like the long-distance fishing runs. Everything is huge-scale: the size of the boat, the distance, and even the tuna are huge! I guess land is too boring for the likes of me! Even when we touch down on foreign continents, I can’t get settled. I’m restless to get back on the open ocean.I just can’t get the knack for leading a life on land!”

In the end, Mr. Passmonkey was headed out to sea again just two months after this book is published.

RISK: **

When someone mentions “black market work,” this is the job most people imagine. Recently, pharmaceutical companies have used the internet to greatly increase their recruiting efforts, and make drug-testing seem like no big deal – easy work and good money. But can we say that it has gotten any less dangerous? To find out, I talked to Mr. Smallswamp (27, not his real name), who has been doing medical testing regularly for several years now. He was really into wrestling in college, and still has a very muscular physique – you’d never know that he took experimental chemicals for a living! He answered all my questions readily, with a hearty smile.


“I first did it seven years ago. Nowadays they recruit people over the net, but back then you had to know someone and get personally introduced. In my case, I heard about it from a senpai (先輩: someone ahead of you in school, a senior) friend of mine. I feel funny talking about my life back then ~ I was really hurting for money. Dinner was plain rice with some soy sauce! Senpai  must have figured, “This broke dude can’t refuse!” He just told me, “There’s a job which pays well and is fun!” Of course I’d heard rumors of chiken (lab-rat)  work, but I was surprised that I’d be asked to participate myself!”

The senpai told Mr Smallswamp about the work, but only in the most general terms: $600 for taking the drugs for a week. (The money was called a “donation,” rather than a salary, because the drug companies want drug testing to be thought of as scientific research done out of charity, rather than exploitation of the poor) Also, this was not the type of test where one had to stay in the hospital all day – just come in once a day for a checkup. Mr Smallswamp said OK without being told the particulars: “I guess that was the start of my downfall!”

“Once I told senpai  that I was interested, he said to wait for a phone call from the office, and after that I was on my own. The very next day, the call came – it sounded like a male, around 30. He asked me if I was OK with taking a drug which was already on the market, but they were trying to improve it. I said fine, and he told me to call senpai again. Normally, one goes to a hospital and meets directly with the doctor, but in my case, I had to meet senpai, and he’d guide me to the hospital. It seems he was quite the veteran.! Also, once we were there, he talked with the doctor, not me. He came back from the reception desk with a bunch of documents. He said, ‘Never mind about this, it’s just a formality.’ So I signed them without even reading them! I didn’t even know what kind of drug it was, or what it was supposed to cure!

“Senpai said, ‘Normally we don’t do it like this – you’re a special case, so make sure and don’t tell anyone!’”

The drug that the senpai brought to Mr. Smallswamp looked like simple white pills. Smallswamp was to take the pills, then return to the hospital once a day and report on his experiences.

“Senpai then said, with a casual grin, ‘Oh my bad, I forgot to ask them how many pills you’re supposed to take at a time.’ I went to lunch and thought about the predicament I had gotten myself into. Why hadn’t I read the documents at least once? I didn’t know the dose, nor how many times per day to take it! But what the hell, taking a pill isn’t such hard work, so I figured I’d pop 5 pills for starters. Of course as soon as I took it, I started to worry – this is real medicine! It’s important to take it properly! I decided to call senpai. No sooner had he picked up than he said, ‘You didn’t actually take it, did you? Dood I was just about to call YOU and tell you not to take those! Apparently another lab-rat somewhere had gotten in ‘trouble’ with that medicine.’ I told him I took five at once, and he replied, ‘Fuuuuck! You’re a crazy man! You’re only supposed to take one!’ I realized that this was not even a little bit funny anymore. The senior kept babbling about how it was going to be all right, no one would actually DIE, etc, but I kept worrying. Of course it was my own fault, but still, five pills? What was going to happen? Senpai said he’d call the doctor, but for now, I should stop taking the medicine, then he hung up.

“I sat in my room watching the sun go down, waiting for the phone to ring, and hating myself for never thinking anything through in advance.”


“Just then, a call came from the pharmecutical company guy. He was really freaked out, and admitted that there was a ‘problem’ with the medicine. I could clearly imagine his forehead all beaded with sweat. And that, in turn, gave me an uneasy feeling as well! He said, ‘Please give all remaining pills and all the paperwork to (the senpai), By the way, how many did you take?’ I said, five. Dead silence. Eventually he just repeated his instructions again. I had been just saying ok, ok, the whole time, but I did have one question: what was IN these pills anyway? ‘Nothing, don’t worry about it,’ he said. I was really pissed off with his attitude. Clearly something was fucked up! But no matter how many times I asked him, he wouldn’t tell me anything. Even today, I have no idea! He kept begging me not to tell anyone. I just looked at the red, setting sun and listened. He continued babbling his one-sided conversation: He’d pay me $200 for my trouble, and could I please give him my bank account number? I didn’t feel like arguing with him, and besides, what other option did I have? I took the money, but in the end it felt like really dirty money! To this day I still have no idea what the pills were supposed to do.”

After that, Mr. Smallswamp had three days of vicious diarrhea. No one knows what caused this condition. He had already spent a whole month in India without so much as a bit of diarrhea. What could possibly give such an iron-stomached guy such rectal problems?

“Lots of people become a chiken on a whim- like it’s not a real job. But there’s always the chance that they’ll end up in a situation like mine, or worse! Incidentally, I don’t stay in contact with senpai  anymore either!”


A man of normal balls would call it quits after such an experience, but the heroic Mr. Smallswamp decided to do it again, after he graduated from college.

“After I graduated, I realized that I was doing nothing with my life, just watching the days pass aimlessly and watching my money run out. That’s when I remembered my chiken experience from school. ‘Last time it was fucked up, but next time it’ll be better – at least that’s what I thought to myself as I searched online for more experiments. I found job-offers than I could even imagine!! It seems that most applicants come in on the weekends and holidays, so an unemployed guy like me can basically take his pick of all the jobs. Also, the pay had improved: $1,200 for a 5-day experiment (staying in the hospital), $2,400 for a 10-day one, and $3,800 for a 17-day one. I decided, for starters, to go with a 5-day job.

“I filled out the application form and soon I got an email – a really retarded email! That is, it treated me as if I was the retarded one! All, ‘Hi guys, it’s the internet job chick! How are you doingggg???’ and that was just the first line. It continued like, ‘The weather is quite warm! I’m sitting here in my sleeveless dress!’ and like that. However, it did leave the impression that this was a trustworthy lady, I applied for the job. As a result, I got paid to spend all day in the hospital, watching TV and reading! They’d feed us pills after every meal, and once a day take a blood sample. But other than that, it was basically money for nothing! I felt that, rather than a medical experiment, it was merely a way to while away my spare time. I’m a pretty ‘hebii sumo-kah’ (heavy smoker), which I wasn’t allowed to do during the test, (no alcohol either) but other than that they weren’t strict with us. But we could sleep whenever, no side effects. . . could you think of a better job for me?”

After that, Mr. Smallswamp started looking for chiken jobs really aggressively. But the competition was more fierce than he thought. “Especially for the simple gigs where you take eye-drops, diet drugs, or wear a patch, the doctors fill their quota very fast. You’ll have better luck applying for a hard gig where you have to stay in the hospital for 2 or 3 weeks straight. It’s not uncommon for them to have 10 spots open, but get 50 applicants all swarming to get a spot. However, compared to my college years, the amount of chiken jobs has increased greatly, so if you are persistent, you’ll definitely find work when it’s convenient for you.

“One thing – after the test, you can’t immediately apply for another one, you have to wait for the stuff to go out of your system. 4 months is the law. And even if you go to a different hospital, they all use the same medical database, so they’ll know when you last worked. Even so, I was able to take 7 or 8 jobs without any medical side-effects, or even a ‘bad feeling’ that something might go wrong.

“Of course there is always that one job you shouldn’t have taken, and I’ll tell you about that experience, too. It was $2,000 for 2 nights and 3 days. That was such a good deal, I figured I’d better apply right away before all the slots were filled. Luckily, they accepted me. I felt fortunate. . . at first. They took us in and did the usual examinations – our height, weight and so on. If they had tried anything weird at that point, I could have walked away! They waited until later with the blood. First they took a small sample, whatever. Then a shot of the drug – it looked like a clear, pure liquid, but suddenly I had a bad feeling again. After that, we wanted to get some sleep, but they kept us up another hour – taking another blood sample! After every meal, we’d get a shot of drugs. I was like, are you serious?!?? The worst, though, was the blood samples. Ten times a day! That’s like once every 2 hours. It was only a small amount of blood, but they’d be coming in the middle of the night with needles. 30 blood samples plus 10 injections, that’s 40 needles in just 2 days. What the hell man? And then, midway through, people started getting sick and dropping out. I think out of the original 10 subjects, only half made it through. But, shit, man – $2,000 for 2 days’ work? You can’t complain!”

Mr. Smallswamp had told me all his experiences, so I figured we’d call it a day, but then he busted out with this tale – which happened to a friend of his, also in the business:

“He’d been doing it for ten years! In the beginning he had absolutely no health problems, but after a few years, he started having various things go wrong with his body. He complained of nausea, feeling dizzy when standing up, and pains in his internal organs. Seems to me that such a guy would be disqualified for medical experiments, but they kept hiring him. Even I could tell just by looking at him, he was in bad shape.

“Apparently it was not side-effects from the drugs, which have to be pre-tested on animals before they are allowed to be tested on humans. This eliminates the most poisonous chemicals, but on the other hand, even the most ‘normal’ medicines have some side effects, don’t they? But anyway, he wound up catching colds and fevers very easily, he reported. It seems to me a lowered immune system was the main complaint.

“He told me he got hired for a special gig – a one-time injection. There were three categories of tests~ the $300, $500, and $1,000 categories. And somehow they chose used him for the most expensive. Afterwards, his right arm went numb, he told me. After hearing that story and seeing his present condition, I made up my mind that this was not a job I could do forever. Even if nothing happens the first time, eventually the cumulative side effects will catch up to you.”

After he heard his friend’s story, he began a frantic, do-or-die search to find a real job. Now he works for a small printing company in Shinjuku. Even now he is sometimes tempted to sign up for more work, but his printing job leaves him with little free time, and he doesn’t want to waste it.

RISK: ***

Japan is in the middle of a record-breaking boom in the jihi shuppan (自費出版, literally: ‘own-expenses publish’) industry.
(ed. Note: Jihishuppan is like the Western ‘vanity press’: they publish worthless books, and make the client pay all the publishing costs. There is one important difference: classical ‘vanity press’ houses make their money on exhorbitant printing costs, whereas Japanese jihishuppan companies rely on sales for their profits, making the client promise to pre-order a certain amount before taking the contract).
They say that in the space of one year, Japan publishes 60,000 different titles! And among those, fully half are jihishuppan. But that doesn’t mean that just anyone can get their book published, even if they pay for it themselves. Some prospective customers get turned down. And Mr. Mountainside (48, not his real name), who is a ‘publishing broker’, has a job helping just those types of customers.


“Our firm’s customers are primarily cults and ‘multi-businesses’ (pyamid-scheme companies like Amway). They want to publish promotional materials but most kikakubon  (企画本: ‘legit’ publishing houses) won’t touch them. You might think that, since vanity-press publishers(jihi shuppan)have no financial risk, they’d publish anything. But in fact, it’s not a money problem. You see, many jihi shuppan don’t want the reputation of being “cult printers” or “pyramid scam printers,” so they turn down those clients anyway. It’s all up to the publisher’s personal judgement. There’s not many of us willing to take a black eye, just to make a profit.

“Of course that means more money for us, but there’s a lot of odd people in those religious groups. They’ll call us obsessively, or bring some missionaries around to our offices at all times of day. The pyramid-scam clients are just as pushy – constantly inviting us to their “motivational seminars.” They seem to lack the common sense to see that we are at work.”

Mr. Mountainside is in business to help these groups publish. But it seems he spends less time publishing, and more time fending off the brainwashing attempts of his clients! The trick is to respond to them without making fun of them or making a mean face.

“I run a publishing house with five employees, including myself. We used to publish the kind of high-class photo-books that get displayed in stores with the full cover showing (not just the spine). But then the recession hit, and I couldn’t compete. So, three years ago I changed my busness strategy, and changed my clientele.

“In practice, this is what my work consists of: We go to all kinds of businesses and ask them, ‘Would you like to publish a book?’ We actually get a warm reception at most businesses! Whether it’s a cult, a pyramid company, or a pundit, they all want to show the world that they are the best, the top guy! Yeah, they yearn to show the masses their brilliant ideas. But most book companies don’t see things that way! So when I show up at their door, they think, ‘Here’s my chance!’”

“But, the really big cults like (redacted) (redacted) and of course (redacted) all have their own in-house publishers. They don’t need us! So when it comes to making our pitch – we target the smaller cults. But even off-brand, never-heard-of’em cults sometimes have a huge number of members – they’ll sign a contract for a shockingly large run of books.”

 So what’s the biggest run you’ve done so far?

“There’s one group in Nagoya, right? They have a lot of disciples – I should say ‘had,’ because they’re kind of in trouble with the law these days! Anyway, the first edition was 100,000 books! 90% of that was direct sales – whooom! Out the door! The other 10% was sent to bookstores, but even those sold out. There were two more reprints, for a total of, about 200,000 volumes. The actual text was just total blithering clichés, though.  The cult-leader does nothing but complain, on and on and on. It was only 80 pages, so we used really thick paper-stock and hard-cover binding to make it seem substantial. That way we could retail it for $18.

“We sold ‘em to the cult for half-price ($9), and after our expenses, cleared about a million dollars. I guess you could say that nobody lost money on that particular deal. The cult made money, and the cult members got a new bible for less than $20!”!

“In this age, anything over 100,000 copies is a best-seller. In order to reach that status for their bible, some cult members bought 100 copies, just to show their devotion. Really, the cult’s power is frightening! But that’s an exceptional case. In today’s jihishuppan business, 7,000 copies for a first edition with a total print run of 10,000 is normal,

“Before, when I ran a legitimate publishing company, my biggest hit in 20 years was 80,000 copies. Looking back on it, man, I was stupid! If you want to make a living, you have to sell 10,000 copies. Which normally means you have to find 10,000 customers. But, in this business, you can find one crazy customer who will buy all 10,000 copies himself! And boom, you’re done. In fact, I don’t consider my current business to be ‘publishing’ anymore! But business is sure good. When you compare it to my old, ‘advance culture and the arts with books’ phase, it’s a million miles away, isn’t it?”


On the other hand, if you associate with cults, you sometimes get caught up in their troubles.

“Trouble! Yes, I’ve had my share. Nowadays, I’ve learned certain tricks for finding out if potential clients have skeletons in their closet, BEFORE I do business with them. But in the beginning, I’d work with just anybody! The biggest shock was when I almost got imprisoned at a cult compound! I had made an appointment to go to their headquarters, deep in the mountains of Musashino. That whole area has a very spooky atmosphere. There were a few sturdy-looking prefab buildings, and they invited me in. I started to make my presentation, but there had been a mix-up: they thought my company was kikakubon – that we were going to pay for everything. When I explained that we were a vanity press, they got really indignant, and suddenly things changed.

“I was just talking to the receptionist, when she yelled, “Everyone, please come!” Suddenly, from upstairs, four or five scary dudes come and surrounded me. I just stood there: I had no clue what to do! It is eerie, getting stared at by crazy dudes whose cold eyes show no emotion! Next, the receptionist pointed at me dramatically, and announced ‘Thou art Satannnn!!’ I was dumbfounded. I didn’t understand how I could so suddenly become Satan! The lady then started having a hysteric fit, while continuing to say, ‘You’re human now but, hurry up and change to your true form!’ Next, the cold, dead eyes of the cult’s enforcers began to gleam with dazzling hostility.

“The receptionist was now shrieking in a voice that sounded like it had been squeezed from the bottom of her guts. I was afraid for my life, but it looked difficult to escape: I was surrounded. I couldn’t make my legs move, in any case! I sat down on the sofa, afraid to raise my eyes. The receptionist, accompanied by one of the enforcers, went off somewhere. The rest of them stood guard over me, their eyes not blinking even once – I’ve never seen anything more eerie than that.

“After three or four hours of this, suddenly I was released. Someone somewhere had decided. ‘Go home, go home,’ the cult members chanted in unison. It was the moment I’d been praying for, and I was out of there in a hurry!”

After such an incident, didn’t you consider quitting your job?

“I sure did! I quit for two or three months, in fact. But in the end, I had to feed my family. Now I don’t go to any meetings without a male co-worker backing me up!”

Does that kind of trouble happen often?

“Not so often. For some reason, it’s usually the more well-adjusted, worldly cult-members that come to the meetings. People from prestigious schools; people who you’d never guess they were a cult member unless they told you. Compared to the nutters, it’s easier for me to deal with these kinds of ‘smooth operators.’ On the other hand, they drive a hard bargain! (We don’t have set rates in this business – we try to lowball every client and see how far we can haggle with them) On the other hand, there are other would-be clients that don’t know how to negotiate, and get weird on us. It’s best to let them down gently: I tell them, ‘Let’s go back to our respective offices and think about the numbers more, shall we?’ Then, when I’m safely out of their reach, I’ll telephone them and decline to publish their work.”


Working with cults and such demands considerable wisdom. Mr. Mountainside doesn’t really believe in the gods, but he studied religion in college.

“I was very passionate about studying religions at that time! You can apply religious teachings in politics and wars – it makes you open-minded. With such a background, I can usually understand what my clients are talking about. It’s really been an indispensable part of my work. Most of the new Japanese cults combine their favorite parts of Christianity and Buddhism, and a lot add the Islamic emphasis on charity.

“And if they grow, becoming big religions, that’s good for business too. So I try to get clients whose prospects look good. We can enjoy our partnership that way!”

Finally, Mr. Mountainside introduced me to the gimmick used in producing the ‘bestseller lists’ :

“The lists are not based on every single bookstore. The TV companies and newspapers have these lists of ‘selected’ bookstores which are surveyed about what they’re selling – I used to help produce the lists at one time, so I knew which stores were ‘selected’. If I had a client who wanted his book to be a best-seller, I’d get on the phone with some of these bookstores and tell them, ‘If you buy 100, I promise that my guy will send his cult-members round to buy them all.’ And sure enough, the book gets on the list. Religious books always climb towards the top of the charts, don’t they? That’s how! Sometimes you’ll have a small bookstore, (which HAS been ‘selected’ for the bestseller list) which sells 100 copies, but right next door is a huge bookstore (not ‘selected’) that doesn’t sell even one. No surprise, since I didn’t ask them to order any!

“And of course once it’s on the list, even non-members will get curious and buy it, so the list pays off two ways at once! Japanese have a weakness for rankings – they’ll buy the book without knowing it’s by a cult. Some of them wind up joining, of course. It’s so effective that some of our local cults are trying this trick in other countries as well!

“But, when it comes to this business, there’s no one more obedient than cult members, I think. Day after day, coming back to the store and buying exactly two copies. If the leader promises they’ll buy xxxx amount, it always happens, without exception. That kind of obedience is kind of scary if you think about it, though!”

4 – nuclear waste worker (原発作業員: GENPATSU SANGYOUIN)

RISK: ***

In Japan、 nuclear power plants get inspected once a year. Certain workers enter the contaminated core zone check the extent of the radiation, and clean up radioactive waste.
In the past, these workers were called 原発ジプシー (genpatsu jipushii, or ‘Nuclear Gypsys’) because they’d wander from plant to plant, on sort of a one-year tour. But recently, so many new nuclear power plants have been built that the workers can live in one place and drive to the various plants nearby. 

Finding a nuclear-waste worker willing to be interviewed was the most difficult task of this whole book. It was easier to find dealers, mobsters, and swindlers! The reason is that the workers are strongly discouraged from speaking to outsiders. I wouldn’t go so far as to say ‘martial law’ but theirs is a very closed culture, and there is an unspoken understanding that members of the culture are not to talk to outsiders. Through the connections of a friend of mine, was able to score a one-on-one phone interview, but once on the phone, I was told, “We have to consider the circumstances of this situation,” in other words, ‘no.’ 

Undeterred, I continued to search for a nuclear worker. It wasn’t until ten days before the deadline that I managed to score an appointment with a fellow: Mr. Joinbeauty (43, not his real name), who had worked in a nuclear plant for many years, (although he’s currently retired). Because he lives in Kansai (west Japan), I didn’t have time to interview him in person, so we did it over the phone.


“In the business, my job was called HOUKAN (a contraction of 放射線管理, pronounced HOUshasen KANri, meaning ‘nuclear ray management’). Mostly it consisted of monitoring and managing houshanou osen (放射能汚染 meaning ‘radioactive contamination’), and making sure the regular workers were not exposed to excessive emissions.”

He was using a lot of fancy words, but I still didn’t have a clear picture of his every-day duties. Could he explain in more down-to-earth detail?

“We only inspect once a year, so the facility is always pretty ‘dirty’ with radiation that has built up since last time. The difference between us and the regular workers – well, we both prepare and maintain the machines, but only us HOUKAN guys go into the core! And only we do the inspections – we have devices that measure the extent of the contamination and the hibaku (被爆: radioactive exposure). By measuring the hibaku, we can determine how long it’s safe for the regular workers to work at the reactor. The more hibaku,, the shorter the work time. Japanese law dictates that workers be exposed to a maximum of 50 millisieverts per year, but this is much higher than most countries’ legal limits. So the industry has a self-imposed limit of 20 millisieverts per year. What’s more, if a worker is found to be irradiated over that limit, they are forbidden from working at any reactor for one year, for their own safety.

“After we finish measuring, the regular workers come in and do maintainance work on the reactor core. There’s some cleaning too, but nothing you could call hard labor. After we seal the core back up, there’s no way for heat to escape, so it gets pretty hot. We’re totally sweating, as we tighten the screws on the core hatch. Then we wipe ourselves off and we’re done.”

I was surprised to hear him say they wipe themselves off! They got irradiated with nuclear contaminants, and they’re going to clean up with a towel? Is it really that easy? I asked him. Mr. Joinbeauty responded with a chuckle,

“Ha! You can’t wipe off the houshanou. You can’t see it – it’s not a material thing, as you well know! What we’re doing is wiping off the radioactive dust, and the metallic scraps. That’s the only visible indication of radioactive waste, so that’s what you clean up. The regular workers carry a small Geiger counter, the size of a cell-phone. It goes off automatically if the background radiation passes a certain limit, and work stops for the day. I worked at the plant for five years, but the buzzer only went off a countable number of times (ed. Note:  !!!) The threshold for the buzzer – it’s the equivalent of getting a whole bunch of x-rays at once. So that can’t be good for you! That’s why it’s important that us HOUKAN guys do a good job – so the buzzers don’t ring no more! We come in, do our thing, and then the regular guys can start work again.”

Mr. Joinbeauty’s work-day is only five or six hours long, and the work is not harsh or physically tiring. But the fact is, he’s still exposed to radiation – possibly a large amount, if there’s an ‘incident.’ He’s not too worried about it, though. Even though he absorbs a lot more than the average person, it’s still not enough to alter his biology in a significant way.

“People always ask me if we go sterile, or if our body hairs fall out. I’ve never known that to happen to anyone! Besides, if you’re so radiated that you can see physical abnormalities, you’re as good as dead anyway. Around 25 years ago, there was a plant where the management was pretty slip-shod, and some of the guys died from the ‘sleepies’ (ブラブラ病, an incurable syndrome characterized by listlessness and blood running from the nose ) But if you think about it, we’ve come a long way since then. I don’t worry about it.”

Mr. Joinbeauty’s tone of voice grew more grave as he continued to speak:

“But we do have some physical abnormalities. The white blood cells decrease in number, the lymph nodes get distorted. That’s pretty normal for us – because they’re so small, it’s easy for them to be affected by the radiation. If you take some time off of work, they’ll eventually get back to normal so it’s not a real deal-breaker.”

He’s laughing as he’s saying this, but I still have doubts. What if the worker doesn’t take time off? What if they keep going to work with abnormal lymph nodes? I mean, isn’t it the ‘micro’ level of physiology that we should pay the most attention to? It’s on the micro level that our bodies function!

“Well, every day when we finish, we get checked to see if radioactive material is adhering to our bodies. That’s the part of the job I don’t like! It’s pretty rare that it is, but if it happens. The treatment is really primitive: they wash the skin with soap! Just like you’d wash your hands. . . There’s another procedure where they have to put you under anesthesia and then burn it off you! But I’ve never been that ‘hot’ so far, knock wood.”

When I asked Joinbeauty about the worker’s general health, his answer surprised me:

“We’re surprisingly healthy! People think us nuclear workers must be sick, but that’s just a stereotype. For starters, we’re not allowed to smoke inside the reactor. And of course alcohol isn’t permitted either. It’s like you know how guys – drunks or junkies or whatever – get put in jail, and come out much healthier? It’s like that, I think! Also, we’re in the middle of a ‘Let’s Keep Our Reactor Clean’ campaign. So we get breathing masks, to help keep the radioactive dust out. It’s all good, right?”

It appears I was mistaken. The nuclear cleanup crew is just another bunch of regular blue-collar guys!


I asked about the way workers got paid.

“I’m not totally sure myself, but I’ll tell you what I know: Us guys are employed by a ‘grandchild company’, which itself is a subsidiary of the ‘child company’ of the power company which owns the plant. So there’s a lot of pinhane (ピンはね, meaning kickbacks). What I heard is, the power plant pays out between 700 or 800 dollars per day per worker. The child company takes a cut, then the grandchild company takes a cut, and at the end the worker gets around $100 of that. Of course, since us HOUKAN guys are licensed to go into the core, we get treated a bit more favorably – around $150 per day. Not bad money if you think about the workload.”

I asked Mr. Joinbeauty if we could resume his explanation of his everyday job duties:

“Well it’s like this: every plant is different, right? But most plants are divided into four sectors: A,B,C, and D. Sector D is what you’d call the core, the spot with the high levels. So only us certified HOUKAN guys go in there.

“Guys in sectors A through C just wear overalls – yellow overalls. But us D-sector guys get the full bunny-suits, with the anti-radiation insulation and filter masks. At the end of the day, we got to change clothes, and go home in civilian clothes. But this isn’t done for our health – we already done absorbed whatever – it’s to prevent you guys from coming into contact with the radioactive dust on our bunny-suits! It’s really hot in D-sector: around 40 celsius (around 104 degrees farenheit) ! And we’re in there with these monstrously heavy suits on. That’s the most rugged part of this job. As long as I’ve been working, only one guy bit it. And it wasn’t the hibaku(radioactive emissions), either! It was his filter – it malfunctioned and he couldn’t breathe. Poor guy was asphyxiating in 40 degree heat! Thing is, he had a weak heart to begin with. By the time we got him out, he was already dead. What a waste!”


I wonder how many people want to apply for a job at the nuclear power plant? There’s a lot of other jobs that pay the same, without radiation as a co-worker. I asked Mr. Joinbeauty if there was a shortage of workers in the industry.

“There sure is! We have a saying: ‘If you work for more than three years, you can’t quit!” (ed. Note: presumably, quitting would put too much of a strain on your former co-workers, whom you feel a bond with) If you could see the radiation leaks – like if the air turned blue or something, then I don’t think we could find any workers at all! But you can’t see it, so no problem! Get back to work, buddy. Anyway, we got kind of a closed society in here. A brotherhood, like. So if you don’t have connections, you couldn’t get hired even if you wanted in!

“We don’t advertise the jobs in ‘hello work’ magazines or sites. In my case, I went out and got some nuclear industry trade magazines. “Nuclear Times” or “Reactor Core Monthly” or whatever. I read ‘em all! There’s some want-ads in there. The other way to get hired – if you’re not connected – is to skip the main nuclear companies altogether and aim for the subsidiary ‘grand-child companies.’ Like, Big Company A owns the reactor, but Child-company B handles the cleaning. Or Grand-child company C handles the inspections. Or if you find out when a reactor is scheduled for clean-up, just go outside on that day and wait. It’s not rare for there to be a bunch of day-laborers waiting!”

On the streets, there’s no shortage of interesting rumors that I’d like to get to the bottom of. For instance, homeless from Ueno park being offered $100 for a days’ work at a reactor. “There’s also that side of the business!” replies Mr. Joinbeauty. “In this industry, you hear a lot of rumors about Yakuza involvement in the subsidiary companies. I can’t say those rumors are all false. There’s a lot of day-laborers at our plant, and some of them have gang tattoos, too! Who knows what they’re up to? It’s a mystery, right?”

Mr. Joinbeauty’s final hint was this bit of wisdom:
“Before you apply, go down to the local pub and see how the regulars feel about the plant. Some communities are really galvanized into action to protest the reactor. If you take a job in that kind of town, you won’t be able to go drinkin’ in the bars after a hard days’ work. The locals will get all in your face: ‘Say, buddy, are you gonna give me cancer with your dirty drunk face? Who are you lookin’ at?’ So it’s better to know beforehand whether you can get your drink on!”




“Being a kagishi (locksmith) is really not a shady job, yo!” says Mr. Mountainhill (38, not his real name) in a very lighthearted way. ”Of those studying locks, a small fraction drop out and become burglars, but I think those guys were never real locksmiths to begin with.”

“Recently, as regular folks have become more safety- and crime-conscious, they’re buying stronger, more complex, anti-crime locks. As the sales of these locks go up, so too does the value of a kagishi’s service! But if you want to be a kagishi, first you have to develop your intelligence as well as your techniques. Self-study is very hard, and going to a trade school requires very intensive labor. Of course you have to study hard, but the school fees run to several thousand dollars. And if you want to open up your own shop, you’ll have to pay a lot more than school fees! That’s why sometimes guys turn to robbery, since they can use their “lock knowledge” without investing all that capital.

“Back when I was studying in the trade-school, there were some guys in class you could just look at ‘em and tell they had a dark past. The kind of guys where they’re hiding something. I’m not prejudiced against Chinese, but the Chinese students at that trade school wouldn’t talk to anyone. Afterwards, they’d leave quickly. Even if you did talk to them, they wouldn’t say one word about their private lives. After they graduated, there was no indication that they ever opened their own locksmith shop, but I never heard that they were working for a legitimate shop either. In that case, you got to think they were members of a larceny gang – they got ‘time off work’ to go back to school and learn new skills, right?”

After he graduated, Mr. Mountainhill spent more than three years working at a chain-store of a lock-smithing company, before finally opening up his own store. As a rule, lock-smithing is the kind of job where you often  get sucked into your clients’ troubles, but no one got sucked in more than Mr. Mountainhill. Why? His shop was really close to Kabukicho, Tokyo’s most famous gangster neighborhood.

Kagishi is a solitary occupation. Some guys might have their wife work at their office, but when it’s time to do work, you go alone. Mr. Mountainhill had paid dues for over three years, and had self-confidence, but that hard-one confidence could go to pieces in an instant. Why is that? I asked him:

“It’s not because I can’t open the damn lock! It’s because the clients can be . . .a little special. I worry if I can get along with them. When I first opened my shop, I thought there’d be some weirdness, but nothing like this! I wanted to expand my customer base as far as (neighboring ‘hood of) Yotsuya, but the fact is . . .fully half my clients are from Kabukicho. And I’m the only kagishi close to here, so you can imagine how many people are knocking on my door! Some are legitimate, and then there’s those ‘grey area’ clients: Yakuza, police, and people that look like groups of robbers!” Mr. Mountainhill said with a gloomy expression.

“I’ll get a call from the Yakuza, saying ‘Come down to our office and open up this safe.’ I’ve been to their offices many times, but no matter how often I go, I still feel like a cold wind is blowing down my back. The gangsters are always polite: I can’t say I’ve had any really scary experiences with them. But when I go to their office, I can’t help but see things that I don’t want to see: bags of white powder on a shelf , a gun-shaped bulge inside a jacket pocket. And if I think too hard about what might be INSIDE the safe I’m opening, I can’t concentrate on my work at all!

“One time in particular sent chills down my spine: I opened the safe up and there were rows of small glass bottles full of formaldehyde, with little, sausage-shaped things inside them.

“There’s a lot of different kinds of locks. A complex lock can take half a day to break, even for a professional locksmith. One time, after I finished such a long, tiring day of work, I came back to my office. No sooner had I arrived than the phone rang, with a very suspicious call! And unknown person asked me to come to such-and-such a place and open a lock. Now there’s lots of people who call up because they lost the keys to their own front door, or something like that – it’s easy for me to tell these ‘legitimate’ callers just from their tone of voice: legitimate people tend to sound kind of embarrassed, like, “Aah, silly me! Doy!” but robbers sound really stressed, seething with barely-controlled panic. If they sound suspicious, I try to get as many details over the phone as I can, before I decide. In this case, finally I gave in and went to meet the guy.

Another common type of job is what we call 'enforcement work': the clients are police or Finance Ministry people. The scariest 'enforcement' jobs are the ones where the cops say, "The suspect is hiding in this building, so open the front door's locks." The locks are not the problem! The worry is that the panicking suspect will fly out the door at me! I don't know if it's true or just a rumor, but they say that in the past, the criminal would take the kagishi hostage, and threaten to kill him unless some crazy demands were met! Also, Kabukicho is a pretty small town. And some of the doors that the police ask me to open, I'll go there and be like, ‘Oh deeeeyamn! This is the Yakuza office where my old clients work!’ Of course, I can't refuse to help the police, but I hope the Yakuza can tolerate me after that.

“Anyway, the keiji (刑事:detectives)  are always very impatient to open the door. If the lock is simple, that's fine, but if it's a really complicated job, it can take a long time. If you take your time, they think you’re just fucking with them. They get mad and try to rush you.In fact, a co-worker of mine says the keiji got so mad they kicked him!

“But, after a job, the Yakuza usually tell me, ‘I owe you one!’, which makes me feel relieved, and honorable. The police, on the other hand, are unking: ‘I don't care if you're busy! Come now! Do it faster!’ And they never even say thanks.”


Kabukicho's 'special' clients are not limited to police and thieves, however:
"One time, a lady called up, very hysterical. She begged me to come to her apartment right away. She pressured me so hard I left right away. She'd told me that her boyfriend was inside, unconscious, and she couldn't open the door.  She had gone out shopping without taking her key, and when she got back, it was locked. She'd called for him to open it a million times but there was no response. It sounded like she wasn't telling me the whole truth, but I went ahead and opened the door anyway. The moment it opened, everything became clear. Her boyfriend's body was sprawled in the center of the room. He'd taken too many downers, overdosed, and collapsed – but clearly he'd locked his girlfriend out first. If she'd called the police, they would have arrested him for drugs. But if she left him, he would have died. And that's where I came into the picture: I suggested that she take him to the hopsital herself – told her they don’t arrest patients who OD. I didn’t go with them, figuring that I’d be in the way.

He then told me the most dramatic thing he'd ever seen in his life:

"This one started with a woman, too! She said, 'I've got a small storage shed, and I can no longer open the door to it. Please come and fix it.’ It sounded suspicious, but worrying about that was pointless. She didn't sound like a robber, but definitely she sounded like she felt guilty about something.

"I went to her house. She ws in her mid-thirties, and had a very dark aura, like a refugee from a terrible place. I started to ask her for more details about her situation, when I heard a little girl's cry from inside the shed. It turned out that the daughter (just five years old) was playing in the backyard sandbox with a neighbor boy, and bullied him until he cried. The mother scolded her but the daughter refused to apologize. So the mother locked the daughter in the shed! But she had forgotten where she put the key. It sounded like child abuse to me – I thought about calling the police or Child Services. But the mother looked really repentant and the child's wailing told me this was no time for me to dither about 'should I do this or that?' – I got to work and opened the simple lock easily. The mother grabbed the daughter in a bear hug, crying and apologizing. The daughter looked relieved to be out of there – I figured that there was no need for me to involve the authorities. But being a kagishi, you get to witness a lot of private dramas like this."

One time he was called by some worried parents, to unlock the door of their hikikomori boy (hikikomori = person who has such social anxiety they can't leave their room). He'd heard about hikikomori, but the scene inside went far beyond the rumors he'd heard:

"Normally I turn down clients if it looks like they want me to take sides in their little family dramas. But this time was different. They told me their son went in his room when he was fifteen, and for five years has only come out when they were asleep! He's now twenty and they can't take it anymore. They wanted to talk to him face-to-face, but apparently he's been going out at night, unbeknownst to them, and buying locks, and installing them in his door! I agreed to do the job.

“As usual, the locks weren't the hard part – only four of them. The hard part was this kid, who's been going slowly nuts for five years, inside, screaming at me that he's going to kill me the second I open the door. The parents are behind me, saying, ‘Let's talk about it!’ while the kid is constantly repeating, ‘I'll kill you all!!!’ When you back someone into a corner like that, no telling what he'll do. By the time I got to dismantling the final lock, I felt like I was dismantling my life-span instead! "

When he finally undid the last lock, he retreated down the hall. The rest was the parents' problem. But he couldn't bring himself to go home just yet.

"The parents hesitated for a few minutes with their hand on the doorknob. There was an eerie silence from the room. ‘We're coming in,’ whispered the father. No response. They slowly, timidly opened the door, when suddenly an ungodly scream tore the air. It didn't sound like anything human – I can't describe it. Maybe a monkey? The mother froze up at the sound, but the father seemed to make some sort of internal decision and charged in. It was really a do-or-die situation. From the room came the sounds of a terrible struggle. I couldn't just stand by. I helped the mother evacuate,and then I went inside. There was an overwhelming sour stench, and garbage everywhere. Totally dark except for the glow of flourescent orange power lights. It didn't look like a place where a human could live.

"Meanwhile, the father and son were grappling – but their attitude towards each other was startling. Their eyes were red with primal hatred. I hesitated to breakup such a fight, but, well, what else could I do? I stepped in and tried to separate them. The son clawed my neck until I bled – there was no way I could separate them myself. What should I do? I asked myself. Just then, the mother returned, with some people from the neighborhood, and together we separated the two. After that, the neighbors stood guard while the family tried to talk things out. But the son was so shocked that it's not clear he even heard what people were saying. As for the father, it seemed that, he'd rather despise his son than save him. So there was no way that particular conference was going to accomplish anything. I excused myself and went home. Try as I might, I can't think of anything good to say about that family."


So how long does it take to open the typical kind of lock we all have on our apartment doors? When I asked Mr. Mountainhill, he responded by producing such a lock, and a number of tools, and giving me a live demonstration of his technique. First, he inserted a tool called a 'tension.' Then he made one pass around the lock with a 'pick', and in five seconds, he'd opened the lock. I was flabbergasted that my, your, our doors could be opened in such a short time!

"Anyone with my tools and training can do that! Any lock can be broken open. Of course there are some very sophisticated locks, but even they have their weak points."

That's why, Mr. Mountainhill continued, there are criminal kagishi out there. People can use the skills for good or bad.

"To buy the specialized high-quality lock-picks, one needs to show one's locksmith license. That's how they try to keep crooks from getting those tools. But, there's groups of crooked kagishi that act as fronts for burglary gangs – the 'legit' locksmith will buy the tools, and then turn around and sell them to the gangs. If akagishi is feeling REALLY crooked, he can get into the 'duplicate key' racket.

“Say a lady comes to his shop and asks him to make a spare key. Sure, he makes it, but he also makes a SPARE spare for himself. Then he uses his cell-phone to take a picture of her when she isn't looking. He packages her picture and her key as a set – such a set commands a high price! The men who buy such sets, I don't know what they want, but it's a dark world out there. So you have to be very careful not only which lock you choose, but whichkagishi you choose as well."

“If you have private things you want to hide, you use a lock. But most locks are just toys – they give you the FEELING of safety, not the real thing. If someone wants to see your secrets, they can! The only way to protect your privacy is by investing in a high-quality lock. The same principle applies to kagishi! We are people who go into your most private places and install the locks. If you don’t trust a guy to go to those places, why would you buy a lock from him?? Just like when choosing a lock, you have to be careful! If you forget your keys, don’t just call the first kagishi in the phone book. Take your time when choosing. Ask him plenty of questions over the phone, and if he sounds shady, you can refuse him and try another one.”


When someone mentions door-to-door shinbun kakuchouin (newspaper salesmen), one thinks of tough-looking guys that use high-pressure tactics to coerce people into signing subscription contracts. But, sometimes it's a nice-seeming, middle-aged man that sells them. It's impossible to say they're all a certain way. This time I'd like to introduce you to a guy, Mr. Spacefield (not his real name) who will tell you about the newspaper-sales system.


“Well, back in the day, the term "shinbun kakuchou" made people think of well-bred guys from the best schools using low-born, street thugs to sell their newspapers! But nowadays, it's a bit different. First of all, real Yakuza don't sell papers! The guys doing it want to be gangsters but didn't have the heart for it – they are half-assed thugs at best. But being struggling young thugs makes 'em more desparate, so the newspapers probably get complaints about them. That's why, recently, newspapers like Asahi tell the guys to wear business suits and take a more soft approach. It's an imeeji appu (‘image up’) strategy.

But even so, in the kakuchou business, you still have to get people to sign the contract – that's the only way the can put food on the table. An aquaintance of mine had a guy come and ring his dorbell constantly for an hour  the guy wouldn't go away until my aquaintance gave in and signed the contract. It appears that high-pressure sales is still an essential element of the business.I told Mr. Spacefield about this incident, and he replied:

"We call that techniue KATSUKAN. It's a contraction of kyoukatsu kanyuu (恐喝 勧誘, literally ‘intimidation inducement’). There's guys that do that, sure!

“For instance, here's a basic form: You go to the door, and they answer. You ask them, ‘Did Mr. So-and-so move into this apartment recently?’ It’s a good bet that they don’t know anyone in their damn apartment, so they’ll say, ‘I don’t know.’ Then you say, IWell, he’s a young guy in our ‘organization’ so I came by to make sure he wasn’t causing you any ‘problems.’I That way, they think you’re a Yakuza! Then you happen to mention that an ‘older brother’ in your ‘outfit’ has started his own newspaper, and, well, you’ll be in trouble if you can’t sell a few subscriptions to his paper. Can you help me out with this matter? If they’re weak-hearted, that’s all it will take to seal the deal. Then you start talking in your gangster voice, ‘Allright, don’t waste my time, see! Get that inkan (印鑑: a ‘chop’ or personal seal used by Japanese instead of a signature, to ‘sign’ contracts)  out and bring it here, see! I’m not patient with youse mugs!’ If you’re in a really good mood, you can then say, ‘Congratulations! This subscription comes with a free ‘service’ package of floor wax.’ Then you barge into their house and scatter the detergent all over their floor and leave. That is also an option!

“That technique gets used pretty frequently, to tell you the truth! But if you overdo it, the police will come and be annoying.”

“When 'moving season' comes, the ranks of part-time newspaper salesmen swell to take advantage of it! Naturally this causes people to get irritated. They look at us like we are cockroaches, human garbage. After getting looked at like that all day, a salesman might say something not so polite! LIke, ‘Say, bro, how long do you intend to live here? Two or three years? Do you want to have a good time or a bad time for the next 2 or 3 years? If you treat me nice this time, and I'll be nice back. But if you refuse me, I'll call the office and they'll send a young guy – really big and full of energy. An energetic salesman, you could call him! And he'll be round every single day!’”

I mean, you got to start with a very low-key approach. and THEN, when you suddenly flip out and start talking like that, the average person will get all befuddled. Their face turns blue, and they start to stammer. Some people look like they might be pissing in their pants, although those are usually Tokyo University students. But even then, you can't forget the contract. Threaten them into getting their inkan, give them the paper, tell 'em 'Don't forget what I said, bro!', then shake their hand and say 'You're a good kid!' and that's that. Any regular kakuchouin  can make the sale, but only a real pro can intimidate them so much they don't dare cancel afterwards!"

There's a lot of salesmen that do this kind of sham extortion. The salesmen are affiliated with the newspaper's official, full-time sales team, and the team boss' attitude plays a major role in determining how far the salesmen will go. Some bosses tell the salesmen 'Absoulutely no KATSUKAN!', but others are like, 'Do what you gotta do.' Mr. Spacefield says that 2 or 3 sales teams out of ten use katsukan all the time.

"There's lots of ways to do it! If you're too old to scare 'em, you can DOGEZA (kneel down and press your head to the floor), can't you? Or you can do a MANZAI (a form of comedy routine) sales approach, or the NAKIKAN!

“With the MANZAI, you just sort of make them laugh until they sign! Of course you've got to have a knack for storytelling, and an affable personality to boot. For instance, they open the door, and you ask, ‘Have you seen the  Monday  night "LAUGH OUT LOUD" variety show? I was on that last week!’ You tell them you’re a celebrity and everything. Make them laugh with a series of preposterous lies. ‘Yeah, showbiz is a hard gig. The TV network owns this newspaper, and if I want to go back on the show next week, they say I have to sell ten subscriptions!’ They'll whip out their credit card and inkan right there!

NAKIKAN, is different. To put it simply, you just fall down and cry! Your daughter has an incurable disease! She can only be saved with a special technique of a famous American surgeon! You bow your head and plead with them to help save your daughter! And if you happen to have a photo of a cute girl to show them, all the better! It helps to speak with a heavy country accent, too, as if you’ve traveled hundreds of miles. Of course this technique doesn’t work in ritzy neighborhoods like Yamanote, where people are less humane. ‘That’s your bad luck, isn’t it?’ they say, ‘I don’t need the newspaper!’. But in ‘shitamachi’ neighborhoods, people have more pity for the working stiff. Especially grandmas! ‘Here, you poor struggling guy, I’ll take three months,’ they’ll say! So you have to tailor your approach to the neighborhood. “

As he explained the techniques, he solved two mysteries that had been on my mind: The salesmen that come to MY apartment had always seemed to have strange accents and ill relatives.


“Of course, no matter how many sales techniques you have, you can't use any of 'em if they don't open up! And nobody's going to open up if you just say ‘Hey, come take this newspaper in my hand!’ That's why we have to tell all manner of lies. You can tell 'em you got a delivery from UPS, or say you’re the carpenter. Or maybe you just moved to the neighborhood and wanted to say hi. On the other hand, maybe their washing machine in the front yard got knocked over, and you came to warn them, out of the goodness of your heart. There's a lot of pretexts, if you think about it!

“When they open up and your lie is exposed, hit them with a compliment before they can ask you any tough questions. If the mark looks like a student, tell him, ‘You look like a cool guy – good at sports, I bet! And what a face. I bet you're a hit with the ladies, bro!’ If the mark is a housewife, tell her, ‘You look like a kind wife, don't you! Plus, so beautiful – I bet your kid's real cute if you're his mom. Frankly, I'm jealous of your husband!’ That's how you – oomph! – shove the door open. Compliments make you seem like not-a-bad-guy, so they won't take the usual precautions. You can evade their anger a bit.
If I can say it, the kakuchouin 's technique is 80% oomph! – pushing.

“What I usually use is a little gimmick called "HIKKAKE" (引っ掛け:the snare). If a house already is subscribing to a paper, there’s no way they’ll subscribe to another paper  – or is there?
For instance, I'm working for the Daily Yomiuri. . .but I'll SAY  I'm from the Asahi (a rival paper). If they're taking Yomimuri already, then it’s game over for me, but it would have been game over in any case. On the other hand, if they’re already subscribing to Asahi, they'll mistake me for an Asahi bill collector. That’s how I get the door open. Once it’s open, I make small talk until they get throuroughly confused. Then I finally admit I’m working for the Yomiuri, and try to make the sale that way. Don’t you want to switch? And so on. . . that’s how you get them to open the door, you see!”


Next, I asked him about the salary system, and it was just as I had expected.

"The pay is entirely in comissions. Our slang term for it is 'Europe' (a pun, because 'europa' sounds like the Japanese pronunciation of the numbers 4,6,8) A three month subscripton nets the salesman 4000 yen, 6 months is 6000 yen, and a year is 8000 yen. The method for disbursal is different from squad to squad, but at my job, we’d get 50% of our wages at the end of the day and the other 50% in a lump sum at the end of the month.

“A guy at the top of his game can clear 8,000 dollars a month. Out of a team of 50 people, there might be 2 or 3 guys at that level. A competent person can pay rent and bills; it's a pretty cool way to make a living. But if you can't get those commissions, you're screwed. You have to have a certain amount of chutspah and daring to tell lies so casually! If you think like, ‘What if my lie is exposed? What if I get a scolding?’ then you shouldn't even try this job. That's why the turnover rate is so high – if 50 guys start in January, by June there'll be 3 left! In my case, my first month was a big failure!   In an average day, I could only sell 3 subscriptions – If I gave it my all! Then I started following a more experienced salesman around, and learned many tricks from him. Everything moved quickly after that. If you have the knack, it's a heavenly job. In a single day , I can sell around five 6-month subscriptions, and that's 300 dollars in my pocket! The 'total comission' system isn’t like the regular job where you get paid more the longer hours you work. It’s all results that count!

“What's more, there's some thrills that happen when you knock on so many doors. Since you're working during the day, most of the people who answer are ladeez. What I'm about to tell you next happens pretty often: Going from opening the door, to beddo in 'bed in' in less than an hour. Especially my co-worker, who is pretty handsome: snaring the ladies is his specialty. He's also a stunt-man, but he couldn’t make a living at it so he does sales part-time . So
one day, we were hitting up these one-room row apartments together. We'd planned for me start on the right, and him to start on the left, and we'd meet in the middle. I worked my way all the way from one side to the other – no sign of him. Halfway through, he'd managed to get a girl! Myself, being a rotten guy, learned a lot of tricks from him, and put them into practice! You might think I'm lying, but some of his techniques are fantastic. They really work!”

(I’d like to reveal one of the secret ‘so-good-you-might-think-I’m-lying’ techniques that Mr. Spacefield told me: Once the lady lets you in, remark that you have not showered since yesterday. If she is nice enough to let you use her shower, get to work stroking and give yourself a nice erection. Then exit the shower devoid of towels, and tell her, ‘Well, I’m clean now, so why don’t you give me a hug?’ According to Spacefield, this is an alarmingly effective method).

I asked him what kind of guy chooses this line of work;
"Well, guys who embezzled from work and are on the run, guys burdened with gambling debts. That’s most of us! They just respond to a recruiting ad in the paper, and get hired on sight. They're put up in a dormitory, and garunteed some food, but that's all you get. Your social status doesn't matter here. The background checks are half-hearted – you give a false name, and there you go! But of course you get some real bad guys too – robbers and the like. Because they can go around all day and case the houses. Find out who has money lying around in the entryway. They can come back at their leisure, at night, and snatch it all up! But those guys are rare. Most of us are honest, hard-working guys, right! They do the work without intimidation or fraud.”

I interviewed him for an hour and a half, and really admired Mr. Spacefield's knack for story-telling. He’s retired now but he said that his former boss is always asking him to come back to work.  I told Mr. Spacefield if we meet again, I'll buy a subscription. He was really amused by this, and replied, “Sure, next time!”


 It seems I’ve received a complaint from newspaper salesmen who read the first edition of this book. They especially disagreed with the parts about picking up women and stealing things. “We never do anything like that!”, they said. I would like to apologize for any misunderstanding relating to those parts of the article.

RISK: ***


The first thing Mr. Miyazaki (32, not his real name) said to me in our interview was, “I can’t tell you too much about my cult work, I’ll get in trouble if I even say one word too many.” Until four years ago, he had been a follower of a shinkou shuukyou dantai (literally, ‘new religious group’, but let’s just say ‘cult!’ Better yet, let’s say kyoudan (教団), which is a more manageable contraction!!). The founder of the kyoudan lives a very lavish lifestyle, but how about the disciples?

“Basically, we get food and shelter. But that’s about all we are guaranteed. The cult doesn’t charge us rent, or charge us for food either. But all you have wear are the clothes that you had on your back when you joined, that’s all. No matter how old those clothes are.”

The cult members don’t stay in one house for very long – every one-to-six months the cult moves them. If they’re living in a single house, the men will stay on the first floor the women on the second. However, it’s also common for them to stay in apartments. Either way, entry-level members won’t get their own private room of course. Communal living is central to the cult’s beliefs.

The  shinsha ( 信者:cult members) get breakfast and dinner at their quarters. But for lunch, they get around 5 dollars a day. They buy some food and eat it while they work, so as not to interrupt their labor. I asked him what kind of street-work the kyoudan does, and he told me:

“Basically, we do what is called ‘inspired selling’ or ‘inspirational commerce.’ Here’s what that means: We’ll work in front of a big, busy train station. We’ll approach people and tell them that we’re studying palmistry. If the sucker lets us read his palm, the next step is to tell him his fortune is INCREDIBLY BAD. We trap them with worry and fear! If they want to fix their bad fortune, and rescue their fate, they have to buy a really expensive inkan (seal) or prayer beads from us, or agree to come to one of our seminars.”

There are people who will actually pay several thousand dollars for this ancient scam, so you can’t really say it’s pathetic! I asked Mr. Miyazaki what kind of commission he gets from a thousand-dollar sale:

“Commission? No way! From the moment we head out the door to the moment we come back, all the money we make goes to the kyoudan  What we get is status – the honor of selling more than another shinsha. That’s how a new recruit advances in the ranks. Plus they give you little things, too.”

I asked about the ‘little things’ and it turns out they really are little! Until the member joins the management class, they live in the same type of house and eat the same food. I asked him what a big seller DOES get, and he made a rueful face:

“They give you dessert. Or they let you watch TV an extra hour, when everyone else has to go to bed. Plus you get free coffee.”

In the street-work, they have a catchphrase: APAKINJO WO NERAE! (‘Hunt for the APAKINJO!’) Apakinjo is a contraction of APATTO (living in apartments) KIN (working),and  JO (woman). This is because a woman who works for a corporation lives in her own apartment, apart from her family, so the family won’t cause trouble for the kyoudan if such a woman joins. I asked Mr. Miyazaki what the cult does besides street-work:

“Well, we also do door-to-door sales. For this scam we call ourselves the “Handicapped Person’s Shelter Foundation Volunteer Team.” We sell handkerchiefs and mops for around 30 dollars – the high price is because the money goes to the handicapped shelter. Since the wholesale price of these items is around 1 dollar, we can get a lot of money that way! Incidentally, some of the money actually DOES go to the Handicapped Shelter, but it’s a pitifully small amount. Also, we sell coffee beans. But for that scam, for some reason we call ourselves “The Refugee Aid Collection Fund” instead of Handicapped Shelter Volunteers!”

 One cult member can usually sell around $100 of coffee beans per day. If that sounds like a lot, imagine 50 members selling! That’s $5,000 for the kyoudan  per day. And it’s all profit for them, since they don’t pay members a penny.

“Let’s see what else . . . sometimes we call ourselves the Health Squad. We advertise our Free Health Clinics through the internet and by passing out flyers. The people that come to the Free Clinics . . . are they just passionate about healthy living? Or are they generally pretty worried about their own illnesses? You be the judge. We’ll listen to their complaints: If someone has stiff shoulders, oh, that’s cancer. If they have an upset tummy, that’s stomach cancer. If their vision is getting blurry? Eye cancer. Whatever it is, it must be cancer, and you’re going to die, die, die. If we make them afraid enough, they’ll buy our “Carrot Tea” – for 800 dollars a bottle! It’s a one-month supply, though. So if you want to live another year, you should buy a year’s supply. But there’s all sorts of laws nowadays about selling stuff – we can’t actually say it cures cancer. We just tell them, ‘If you drink this, you don’t have to worry anymore.’ That’s how we get around the law.”


Mr. Miyazaki worked hard at street-sales for three years, and his efforts were rewarded with a chance to teach a seminar. People get approached on the street, then they go to the seminar, then they get indoctrinated and become members, and finally they themselves go out and recruit others.

“We have to get them to come to the seminar without telling them the name of our kyoudan! We just say it’s a ‘self-enlightenment study group.’ They study on their own for about a month’s time. Then I come in and for two weeks, I teach a seminar of the kyoudan’s beliefs, all without mentioning the name! After immersing them in our teachings, only then do I say the name. Their eyes go round. Their jaws drop. But by this time they have already spent a month studying it, and I’ve been pounding them with lectures for 2 more weeks, so usually they don’t quit. I won’t say it’s impossible for them to quit, but 99% of them stay.”

That’s how the cult accrues new members, and they really put their heart into their work. They only get to sleep around 4 hours a night. Let’s follow a typical new recruit through the course of a day: He gets up at 6, washes his face, eats, cleans the communal house. At 9, he goes in the street to hustle, and does that until 9 or 10 at night, with $5 allowance for food. Each group has a kind of leader – they have to call the leader every other hour for instructions. If they haven’t earned enough money, the leader tells them to stay late, like until the last train (12:30 or so). Sometimes, they’ll have to work until the next morning, if they are not earning enough. This life-style takes its toll on the physical and mental health of cult members.

“This one guy (a cult member) called out to a lady walking by. He tried passionately to explain about our beliefs, but he hadn’t slept in several days, and his speech was slurred. No matter how hard he tried, she couldn’t understand what he was talking about. He got so frustrated he started slamming his head into a wall. He was just trying to wake himself up. She tried to pull him back, but stopped when she saw his forehead all bloody. He continued to hit his head. You’d think she would run away after that, but she stayed. In the course of time, she joined our kyoudan! I don’t know if she was moved by his single-minded devotion to our god , or just felt sorry for him. Who knows why anyone joins a kyoudan.”


“I was a shinsha for five years, but in the end I resolved to leave.  The shinsha  are really spin-controlled. Information coming from outside is either censored, or if we DO hear something, the leaders will call a meeting and ‘interpret’ it for us. For instance, if there’s a negative media report, they’ll tell us, “Jesus and Buddha were both hated and persecuted during their lifetimes, but as history goes on, they were both proved to be right. We are in the persecution phase of our religion.” That is how they make the members feel like we are in the right, and everyone else is wrong. That’s how they keep us mind-controlled and obedient.

When a shinsha is interviewed on television or in the media, his answers seem crazy to the average person. (even though to another shinsha  the answers seem very nice)

“But,” says Mr. Miyazaki, “To a smart shinsha , over time, he might begin to realize how crazy it all sounds. Plus, if his family won’t agree with his cult lifestyle, there’s no way for him to keep doing it forever. Of course my parents were against it! But I was a true believer, so I didn’t listen to them. I thought everything I was doing was righteous. I joined the kyoudan right out of university, so I have no experience with the real world, you could say. And I never had a chance to really carefully talk about it with my parents. Today, I feel great sorrow over what I put my folks through – they didn’t cut me off, cast me out: they kept trying to gently persuade me, and they never gave up. It was their earnest, patient attitude that at last made me think maybe I was wrong about things. If I think about it now, my whole attitude was hypocritical.”

So that is why he quit. But, even after that, he’d have terrible flashbacks.

“I can laugh about it now, but immidiately after I left, I had terrible anxiety. It wasn’t hard to walk out of the cult, but it was hard as hell to STAY out: They teach you that the kyoudan is your only path to salvation, the only way to escape damnation. I felt like, no matter how hard kyoudan life was, how ridiculous it was, . . how could I so casually throw away my eternal soul? That’s how they trap you. Some people find this anxiety unendurable, and they return to the kyoudan. Fortunately, I had my family to help me. I’m grateful they did not cast me out!”


Imagine it, if you will: You’re driving along, minding your own business, when someone runs in front of your car, and suddenly – BOOM, he’s down on the ground. You don’t know if he’s dead or alive. You take your hands from the steering wheel, and jump out of the car, hoping your victim is still breathing. A mob gathers around you, pointing fingers. The ambulance and a police car come screeching to the scene. I am getting paid by the word. As the sirens echo, you call your danisha (ed. Note: 代理者: an insurance agent who is appointed by the insurance company to act as the insured person’s proxy or legal representative if an accident happens. I am not sure if the dairisha is working for the insurance company or if they are independent contractors.) But, just like you thought, the dairisha won’t answer your calls. ‘Leave a message at the tone.’  Your panic grows and grows! What will become of you? Jail? Just then, you’re approached by a mild-mannered, skinny little guy, who hands you his business card. It says, “out-of-court settlement negotiator” on it. “Looks like you’re in trouble, sir,” he says. You nod. And that’s how, in the course of time, you become a client of Mr. Townup (45, not his real name), the negotiator.


Mr. Townup is wearing a very classy suit, looking like a very proper salary-man from a trendy corporation. It’s a very re-assuring first impression. But if you talk to him for any length of time, you’ll notice he never smiles. Maybe his mouth smiles, but it never quite reaches his eyes.

“Although we jidanya do have the power of attourney to settle disputes,” he says, “we’re subject to Article 72 of the Lawyer Laws.” (ed. Note: Article 72 states that people who are not full-on lawyers can not take on accident cases purely for the commission money. In other words, they are working with the hope that their client will pay them a donation. This is to prevent ambulance-chasing. However, this system often results in jidanya forcing their clients to pay ‘donations’. In 2004, a former pro boxer was arrested under article 72)

“But, that law doesn’t really have teeth. Most of the time a negotiator gets busted, it’s for intimidation or fraud. Our clients are at the center of a vortex of trouble, and we hurl ourselves in headfirst. So a certain amount of intimidation is necessary to bring about a settlement,” he continued, in a very casual voice, as if he wasn’t shady at all.

“An acquaintance of mine got busted for intimiation, but the way he did business was pretty outrageous to begin with. He even made the news, I think! After he settled out of court, he demanded the client pay him $20,000 – the same exact price the client would have paid to the victim in the first place!! The client was a real piece of work, too though – he was complaining to everyone around him, and I guess one of his friends put it in his head that he had no obligation to the jidanya at all! So he said, “I’m not paying!” and stopped talking to my friend. Now in this kind of situation, (because of the ‘not for profit’ clause of article 72), the negotiator is supposed to do the honorable thing and throw up his hands in defeat. Not my friend, though! He tailed the client until the client walked down a dark street, no people around. Then he kidnapped him and took him to a warehouse! “You’re not getting out of here until you pay up!” And that’s how he got arrested. He’s an idiot, but I can understand his anger. We jidanya have to work like dogs to grind out a settlement, and then the client who was begging us to please save him, he can turn around and say, ‘Who are you?’ and walk away without paying? It can certainly make a man angry!”

Mr. Townup has never been arrested, but he’s come within a hair’s-breadth of it!

“I’ll tell you this much: If the insurance and the dairisha (proxy agents) did their job properly in the first place, guys like me would not exist. But they get greedy, they cut corners. They work really hard to get new customers, but when the customers get in an accident, the insurance man pretends he’s never met the customer! ‘It’s got nothing to do with me! I never heard about this so-called ‘accident’!’ If the insured person is driving, and it looks like the company might have to pay the accident victim, you can bet their phoney-baloney investigation team will ‘discover’ that somehow the insured person was not at fault, and therefore they should not have to pay. But – on the other hand – if the insurance customer is the victim, and the OTHER guy has deep-pocket insurance. . . the insurance agent will tell the customer, ‘Act like you’re injured bad!’ (‘But it doesn’t hurt at all.’) “Just do it, please!” (In this case, usually I get hired to negotiate for the OTHER party!)

“If the insured person was in a car crash, they’ll tell him, ‘You’re not covered for medical treatment.’ Of course, legally, the insured person is entitled to kenkiri  (ケンキリ means, to retroactively change the policy to cover car crashes). He’s entitled to it, but unless he’s a lawyer, he doesn’t KNOW that, and they damn sure won’t tell him. In fact doing ケンキリ is really easy to do, but the hospital makes more money if the patient doesn’t use insurance. You’d think that the insurance would take the side of the patient over the side of the hospital, and give good advice, but that is not how they do things. And THAT’S why guys like me are necessary! WE are the ones who tell the client his real options.”


If there’s an especially ‘complicated’ accident, the insurance companies are even more eager than usual to tuck their tails between their legs and run away from the insured person. Mr. Townup discusses one of his most memorable ‘complicated’ cases:

“Yakuza are scary, no question. Big black Mercedes Benzes rolling around. You have to be careful with them. If their Mercedes has even the tiniest scratch, they’ll demand you pay for a full-body re-painting. In that case, the wisest thing to do is cry and give up. But for some reason, seeing that kind of bullying gives me an inner strength, and makes me stand up to them. One time I really got into it with an authentic wiseguy.

At the time he took the contract, he didn’t realize that the claimant was a yakuza. Sure, the claimant was demanding $10,000 in damages and full-body repainting, but lots of regular people like to make extravagant demands. Townup set up a meeting with the claimant. He went there with his client, only to discover that, inside an ordinary-looking office building, was an official Mob office! 

“I stopped and psyched myself up to deal with them. But first I told my client to go home – now was definitely not the time for him to meet them. Clearly, by choosing their official mob office as the meeting place, they were trying to kyoukatsu (恐喝:intimidate him). I didn’t know who was waiting for us inside, but I had no choice but to go in. In this business it’s essential to never show weakness. You have to make the other party feel like are obliged to you.

“We stood in front of the door while I thought. The client was scared, it seemed he wanted me to take care of everything – Well, if it’s on like that, then it’s on! As I decided, I felt my nerves calm. I guess my decision was odd, but I’d lost to Yakuza before, but instead of making me hopeless, it made me more determined to win this time. I guess it’s my personality! “

Mr. Townup sent his client to a nearby convenience store to “get me some hot ramen noodles.” He himself went directly in front of the building and called the claimant on his cellphone.

“’XXX Industries,’ a gruff voice answered. That’s how I knew for sure they were Yakuza. I gave my name and announced that I was outside. ‘Then get your ass in here!’ they replied. I kept refusing, and then the line went dead. Shortly thereafter, three big dudes came out of the building, heading right for me. Normally when you mess with gangsters like I did, you’d think that you’d get hurt. And you’d be right. They tried to drag me inside. I pretended that I was calm, but it was frightening – I thought I was going to piss my pants. I was thinking, ‘Go ahead, hit me!’ Normally Yakuza in the countryside care about their reputation with the locals, so they don’t beat people up right outside their office. And that’s when they hit me!

“To them, it might have felt like they were just flicking their fingers, but I got hit two or three times in the abdomen. All the while, I was telling them, ‘The client couldn’t come today, but we’ll be back another time.’ When they realized that they weren’t getting anywhere with me, they told me, ‘Come back tomorrow at two, both of you!’ and went back inside.

”I borrowed a camera from my client and took pictures of my injuries. Looking at them, anyone could clearly see that I’d been attacked. We had them enlarged, printed, and attached them to a large sandwitch-board, like someone advertising stuff on the street. Armed with this injury sandwitch-board, we returned to the Yakuza office the following day. The Yakuza went crazy! They were so mad. At that time, I was puzzled that I’d even taken the beef that far. In retrospect, it’s puzzling that we didn’t get beat up even worse!

“In the end, they ordered us to go to a nearby coffee shop, where we negotiated. We wound up paying more than in a normal case, but still only a third of what they’d originally asked. “

At first, the gangsters were looking at him like they’d as soon kill him, but in the end they had to admit he had some guts, they told him later.

“But, when they told me that, in the back of my mind, I shuddered. The Yakuza continued: ‘If you had continued to stand there another hour, we were debating whether to stab you or not.’ I couldn’t tell if he was serious or not, but looking at his face, there was no way to think he was entirely joking.”


After that hair-raising tale, Mr. Townup began abruptly to talk about funerals.

“If the insured person dies in a crash, neither the insurance company nor the dairisha comes to the funeral. But a jidanya like me, who has entered into a legal contract with them, sometimes gets asked, ‘Please come to the tsuya(通夜: all-night funeral vigil!’ That’s definitely the most difficult part of this job.

“If you look at it from the point of view of the bereaved family . . . It’s not like they can get a cash settlement and then, boom, it’s over. It’s not that simple for them. It’s never over! Especially bad is when a child dies. It’s impossible to calculate the suffering of the parents: Their child walked out the front door in the morning, all cheerful, and came back that night, a lifeless cold corpse. I can’t even imagine their state of mind.

“We can’t do anything but lower our heads and look away. One time, I went to a tsuya  for a six year old girl. My client (who had killed her in a car accident) had been invited to the tsuya by the victims’ family, and he asked me to go with him. He warned me in advance, “No matter what happens, don’t stop praying.” Sure enough, at the tsuya, the girl’s mother goes half-mad with grief and starts spinning around. The client also gets up, waving incense sticks around and shaking his hair. Suddenly the girl’s mother grabs my client, and throws him to the ground. Then she unleashes a flurry of punches. The rest of the victims’ family sits there, praying. As you might expect, we could not have our negotiation meeting that day. It wasn’t until fourty-nine days later that the victims’ family had calmed down enough to call me and set one up.

“When I think of incidents like that, I start feeling like mine is an unlucky occupation.   But, we are vital to settling cases. I’m not going to say we’re a perfect bunch, but we help more people than the insurance companies. And there’s a lot of cases where the insurance companies are so neglectful that the matter might actually have come to a trial, had we not mediated. (ed. Note: In Japan, lawsuits are a worst-case scenario, not the first-case scenario like in America)  There’s other cases so complex that only we have the ‘know how’ to bring about a settlement. Of course, some jidanya are nothing but Yakuza, and there’s groups of people calling themselves jidanya who have never been certified, but some of us are really good, honest people. If you’re in an accident, you should call your insurance company and your dairisha first. But if they are useless, there’s another way: call your ‘negotiator.’ A skilled jidanya can get you a much better settlement than an unskilled lawyer can!”




“About four or five years ago, in Shikoku, there was a case of illegal touki (投棄: waste-dumping). The amount was the biggest in Japanese history at that time – somewhere between 500,000 and 700,000 tons. As you'd expect, the police did an investigation, and several businessmen were arrested. A few days later, the factory foreman hung himself. But I'm not convinced that his hanging was actually suicide. "

So speaks Mr. Watertown ( 32, not his real name), a truck-driver for a sanpai shori (産廃処理:waste-management) business. Of course, waste disposal is legal if it’s done right, but if you mention ' sanpai shori ' to the average person, he will imagine some crooks. Part of this image comes from mass-media reports of illegal waste-dumping. The other part comes from what Watertown describes as “black rumors.”

“The truth is, me, I know a guy who works at that company. It looks like he’d heard something, because a few days before the ‘suicide’, my guy  told me, ‘I bet the foreman’s going to be killed.’. They made it look like a suicide, but everyone in the industry knew what really happened. They wanted him to keep his mouth shut, didn’t they! I can’t be sure if he was straight-up murdered or just – ‘strongly encouraged’ – to do the ‘honorable thing’ by ‘certain people.’

“In any case, the ‘bakku’ of waste-management companies is usually Yakuza (‘bakku’, or ‘back’  if you prefer, refers to silent partners, or people holding strings in, a company). Recently there’s all these strict new laws about sanpai shori. They say that if the government administrators find there’s mobsters involved, they can punish them now. They say that they took care of the mob problem. But from where I sit, not a damn thing’s changed: every company I know has Yakuza ‘in bakku’ – either Yakuza or politicians!! That was certainly the case of the company where the foreman was hung: after he died, there were a lot of black Mercedes with Kansai plates circling out side. Everyone saw that!”

Mr Watertown speaks with a very quiet, indifferent tone of voice. But his hushed, intense tones pack a punch quite out of proportion to their volume.

“In this industry, I can’t say there’s a lot of companies doing illegal dumping, but they’re certainly doing it in a lot of places, aren’t they! A bit too much, if you ask me. Where is the garbage coming from? Who is the money going to? If I talk about that, I’ll get in trouble, just like that foreman! He had to take responsibility for all the illegal stuff, so that the investigation wouldn’t concentrate on living people.

“That company continues to do business, by the way, but it looks like the president and director are safe. I wonder what kind of connections they have behind the scenes? The foreman, though, he must have known too much, but he can’t talk now, can he! In the end, the newspapers never printed the name of the Yakuza gang who was the bakku of the company. Not even once.”


Next, Mr. Rivertown talked about an illegal-dumping incident in which he was directly involved.

“Big cases like the one I just mentioned are pretty rare, actually, but there’s guys at my company that will illegally dump small, manageable amounts. Too many to count! (thikns for a second) If anything, you should think of that as the norm! Of course you can dump it in the countryside, deep in the mountains, on land you don’t own, but only in small amounts, and even then your chances of being caught are relatively high. So we rarely do it, yo. Mostly we use our own company’s land for illegal disposals.

“So what is the touki mono (投棄物: industrial waste) we dispose of? Cinders, sewage, sludge, old plastic, and waste oil, animal and plant residue, concrete and glass rubble, a lot of things. . . But it’s the waste wood, oil, and plastic, and waste fibers that are made into landfill. But before you can put ’em in the landfill, you’re supposed to do ‘intermediate processing.’ That sounds complex, but it’s just incineration! The rule is, you’re supposed to burn it, and take the resulting ashes to an official landfill site, and funnel the ashes through a hole into the ground in that site, and bury it that way. But, you know. That costs money, and the incinerator itself wears out and has to be replaced. So we try to skip that step as much as possible.

“My old company illegally dumped on their property, too. And they had a lot of property! Over 10,000 square meters! There was a forest surrounding the property, and a cliff behind it. First we built a concrete wall along the side of the cliff. Then, we’d just roll the waste off the cliff. After we were done, we’d cover it up with earth. Every time, layer after layer. Of course, we didn’t ‘intermediate process’ any of it! That way we could save the money. And we didn’t have to pay the fee for the landfill, either. We made crazy profits that way! We’d always do the work on weekends. The local officials were wise to us and would come around sometimes to catch us doing fuhou touki, (不法投棄, illegal dumping) but those guys never work weekends. By the time they came on Monday, everything would be covered up with a fresh layer of earth! Nothing wrong here, boss!

“Factories pay us $400 per ton to dispose of their stuff. If we illegally dispose of it, we can get hella paid – 10,000 tons gets us $4,000,000! Of course, even fuhou touki is work in its own way, so they have to pay SOME money to us guys. But the remaining profit is still hella more than they’d get disposing of it properly.

“There are cases where guys get caught, the company’s assets are seized, and it goes bankrupt. But even then, the guilty guys go to prison for only a month. I don’t think any of them really came out reformed! Also, most companies hide their ‘black profits’ so the government can’t confiscate them in the first place. Not a lot of people would mind going to jail for a month, if they had $1,000,000 waiting for them when they got out!”

In cases where the crime is exposed, the government can force the offending company to pay all the costs for removing the waste to an appropriate place. But even then, the company has to be careful who they hire for the job, don’t they!!

The waste-management industry is a cash business. So, in addition to the problem of fuhou touki, it is also a ‘dumping ground’ of sorts for dirty money. Especially with the landfill sites- those turn a huge profit, all in cash. So there’s always different Yakuza fighting over the best sites:

“It’s such big business, the largest gangs in the country squabble over the landfill sites. But as you might expect, the Yakuza don’t really care that much if the waste is disposed of safely. They just want the cash. They do have some rules, though. Come at 6AM, don’t come at noon. You’d think there would be rules about how to dump, but no. Just pile the shit up somewhere, give us the cash, and get out! They make out all right on the deal! One time, “X gang” owned a disposal site, but that wasn’t enough for them – they started throwing the waste onto the neighbor’s property, too. So they got arrested. By the time they made bail, “Y gang” had already acquired the rights to that site! Apparently it was all a matter of money – people say they threw between one and two million at the mayor. But it’s normal for gangs who have had their site stolen to complain to the rival gangs. It’s not unusual for them to agree to split the takings, in the end.”


The corrupt beauracrats don’t feel any guilt about their connections to illegal dumping.  They adapted to it a long time ago: it just feels normal to them now. Just to be clear, I’m not saying that all beauracrats are corrupt. There’s a lot of good ones who are trying to reform and clean up the ‘intermediate processing’ racket.   The cases that Mr. Watertown speaks of are definitely the worst of the worst of the bad apples.

“Recently, a lot of guys are getting busted for fuhou touki. But the arrests don’t ‘damage’ just the sanpai shori companies. . . the politicians and beauracratic patrons get damaged too! If there’s a lot of illegal dumping cases within one administrator’s jurisdiction, people will say, ‘What’s going on with this clown?!? He’s supposed to be the one cleaning up the environment, not wrecking it!’ And that increases the risk of his corruption being exposed. In my ken (my prefecture), the mass-media has done a huge number of reports on fuhou touki. And every time another incident comes to light, the reporters besiege the prefectural governor – because he’s the one who issues all the permits for us sanpai shori companies! ‘Why are you still giving these crooked companies permits? What’s the deal?’ they say. That’s why we try to do our illegal dumping in small amounts – it’s easier for our political patrons to deny it that way: they can save face. They can plausibly claim to the media, ‘It’s such a small amount, how could I possibly have known about it?’”

After hearing all of this, I commented to Mr. Watertown that he must be in it for the money, too!

“Naw, it’s not like that,” he said. After taxes, he only gets $3,000 a month, not a surprisingly large sum. Only the bosses make real loot. Mr. Watertown’s major regret is not money, but the effect of his job:

“Ten years ago, Japan’s environment was pretty beautiful. But the environmental quality has degraded along with our economy. The reason for this is that there’s less and less space in our legal landfill areas. Once it’s all used up, there won’t be any legitimate place to dump industrial waste at all! And as space continues to shrink, the disposal costs increase proportionally, increasing the incentive to illegally dump.

“I know I can’t do this work forever. But, that’s the only way I know how to put bread on the table. So it can’t be helped. There’s no space left in my prefecture. We have to drive our legitimate waste to other prefectures! And even if we do open up more land for legitimate dumping, our whole country will turn into a mountain of trash. If you could imagine all the waste I’ve dumped in my ten years on the job! If a guy starts thinking about the environmental impact, he can’t do this job anymore. And make no mistake, it’s really stinky garbage. Human waste mixed in. No matter how many times you wash your overalls, the smell doesn’t come out. Lots of guys stop the work because they can’t take that. Then there’s the guys that get a rash all over, from the toxins.

And the garbage is hot – even in winter, it feels like summer. Rank and humid. But , you know, you don’t want to get warm like that! And then there’s the spontaneous combustions. Too much trash – poof! On fire! That is not a rare incident by any means. The only way to put it out is by covering it with earth. Tire fires are the worst – even re-burial can’t put them out. Black smoke rising from barren ground. Full of dioxins. Makes you wonder what the world is coming to, eh?”

10 – DRUG COURIER (転び屋, KOROBIYA, literally ‘delivery merchant’)

I have an aquaintance, Mr. Wellnow, (27, not his real name) who happens to be a self-proclaimed “professional korobiya.” Originally, he just liked going on vacations. On one of his trips abroad, he acquired a taste for narcotics, mainly Marijuana, but also stimulants, LSD, extacy, and “whatever was around.” For the sake of his drug-loving Japanese friends, once every three months he goes to India or Cambodia, buys high-quality drugs from the locals, and smuggles it back into Japan. Drugs that cost $3 over there, he can sell for $50 over here- nice work if you can get it! At first he was just doing it for walking-around money, but soon he found he could make a living at it. Our interview was the first time I’d seen him in who-knows-how-many months, and when we met, I noticed that something was different about him. He looked like a very confident and outgoing junkie, but also there was something cold about him – a kind of a chilly, paranoid atmosphere around him. I asked him “Have you been doing shabu (speed,sometimes combined with LSD) ?” He just shrugged. “It looks like you haven’t been sleeping,” I continued. He said he’d been up over 24 hours on the stuff – sleeplessness was a side-effect. It was with this awkward ice-breaker that our interview began.


“In my case, I usually bring back ‘chocolate’ from India.” Perhaps because of the shabu, Mr. Wellnow kept swiveling his head back and forth, and began to speak very rapidly. Even if I didn’t ask questions, he kept on talking, telling me how to smuggle drug after drug. It was definitely the easiest interview of this book!

“There’s rules to mochikomu (持ち込む: smuggling), but I don’t usually bother to follow them. For instance, it’s commonplace to hide the stuff up your asshole, or swallow a condom full of it. But that’s kind of gross, isn’t it? It’s not for me. It’s my policy to do things the smart way, as much as possible.” 

According to Mr. Wellnow, the most important point to keep in mind when you’re mochikomu-ing is: “Don’t appear to be a supsicious person.” Even if you put stuff in your butt, if they investigate you enough, they’ll find it. The trick is to behave so you don’t get investigated in the first place.

“You should act like a legitimate, boring businessman. Whenever I go to the airport, I always wear a suit. And I don’t take any drugs for one week prior to going to the airport. That way I look and feel very ‘clean.’ That’s pretty crucial. Always travel business-class, And when they ask why you’re traveling, always reply, ‘business.’ Beyond that, I try to adjust my body-language: I look like a very conservative, inflexible guy. That kind of simple disguise alone significantly reduces the risk!

“If you look like a hippy and go abroad a lot, you’re basically saying, ‘Please strip-search me’! I’ve been doing this dozens of times, and have yet to be searched even once. Customs is like that – always going by a profile. They’ll let a guy like me through without even slowing down, but they’ll pull someone else into the ‘special room’ just for looking weird. They get the wrong guy!”

I asked Mr. Wellnow if he knew what went on in the ‘special room’ – the room that us normal tourists never think about. He’s never been taken in there, but several of his ‘co-workers’ have been in there. Of course, they were all innocent. In the room, usually a pair of very enthusiastic customs workers will start by emptying out the luggage, item by item. They don’t care if the clothes or whatever is dirty, they look at everything. Cigarettes are pulled apart, one by one, to see if they contain drugs. Really hard-core customs officers will even pry apart the filters, to see if there’s stuff in there. (the friend who experienced this was quite surprised!) “People who are actually smuggling, we’d never even think of half that stuff! But the customs guys, they got more ideas than we do, and they’re looking! Jewels are gouged out of necklaces to see if drugs are inside. Sneaker toes are probed. That is the craftsmanship of the customs-people. Plastic bottles full of water are tested to see if there’s drugs dissolved in it. One acquaintance of mine DID get nabbed that way. So, you guys out there, nobody do that! Testing water for speed is the new rage in the customs-search world.”

By the way, none of his friends reported having their butt-hole searched. There’s a rumor that if your butt is searched but they don’t find anything, in that case they have to pay you $500, but none of Wellnow’s friends got the opportunity to collect. At any rate, they scatter the clothes all over, and the suspect has to pick it up afterwards.

Mr. Wellnow explains how he prepares his drugs for smuggling:

“First, saran-wrap the hashish tightly, so there’s no wrinkles or cracks. Then get some macadamia nut chocolate, and melt all of it. Then put the hash into the plastic tray that the chololate came in, and pour the melted chocolate around the hashish, totally enclosing it, (you’ll want the hash to be about half the volume of the box, so you’ll end up pouring in only half the chocolate!) and wait for it to dry. Afterwards, shrink-wrap the box with plastic so it looks like it’s never been opened in the first place! And then you’re done. If it doesn’t look suspicious then they won’t even search you for it. Just walk through the airport inspection! La de da!”

Hmmm, don’t you ever think, ‘I could just throw the drugs away and not risk arrest?’

“No, the risk is the fun part! Not that I don’t ever get nervous – but because I do! The thrill when I walk up to the gate! Will I get busted, or will I outwit them again? My asshole clenched tight. Even after I get safely on the plane, my stomach hurts from the stress.”


Mr. Wellnow explains another technique he uses:
“This scam is good for you beginners out there: If you do this carefully with all the precautions, chances of getting caught are next to zero, and it requires very little effort on your part. It’s not suitable for things with strong odors like ‘chocolate,’ but works fine with speed, LSD, or extacy. There’s nothing to it! In the foreign country, just buy a damn envelope and some stamps. Then wrap the drugs in a vinyl bag and wrap that in a letter you’ve written. They might check letters at customs, but only if it smells funny.

“Here’s the part where you have to be really careful: the reciever’s address. If you’re a dummy, you might use your own. Try doing that more than once- you’ll get pinched for sure! Some people use their friend’s address, but then their friends start bragging about it, and the whole sneaky ruse becomes meaningless. The best thing to do is find an apartment where no one is living, and use that apartment’s post-box for the reciever’s address! Just look around many apartment lobbies until you find a post-box overflowing with junk mail, that’s the easiest way to find a vacant apartment. Just in case the customs agents discover the drugs, put a fake name for both sender and receiver. Then mail it from the foreign country. Now, while you’re over there, maybe someone’s moved into the apartment, and then you ‘re out of luck. But in my career, that’s only happened once.

“Once you’re back in Japan, you have to be careful when you go to the post-box. You can’t ‘stake it out’ for days at a time – that’s the most dangerous solution! Recently there have been some dudes who got hella caught doing that kind of stake-out. Be subtle about it. If you do it right, though this is the safest way: you’re never in direct contact with the drugs when they cross the border, and you have no relationship to the receiving address. It’s pretty untraceable.

“Another method is, sometimes the local ‘outfits’ can make arrangements for your smuggling convinience. For instance, in a certain neighborhood in Calcutta, the old guy at the travel agency will hook you up with a false-bottom suitcase, and have it delivered to your hotel with the drugs already sealed in it. This costs several hundred dollars, though, and besides I prefer to do everything myself. But for guys who are afraid of risk, and want to err on the side of caution, I’d recommend that method. The old guy has been doing it for years and years, and apparently his success rate is 100%, so why not give him a try?”


But even Mr. Wellnow, with all his sophisticated precautions, can’t hold a candle to my other smuggler friend: a Canadian named Tim (30s, his real name). I met Tim first in Vancouver. Vancouver isn’t as wild as Holland, but maruijuana is legal there. I gave Tim my contact information when I left, but assumed I’d never hear from him again. About two or three months later, I got a phone call: “Hi, it’s Tim! I’m in Japan. Want to buy some pot?” He was so candid about it, it was scandalous. I told him, “Jesus, man! This is Japan! You can’t just talk like that!” We agreed to meet in a public park in Ikebukuro. He beckoned me into a public toilet, and pulled out a bunch of weed. “This!” he proclaimed in broken Japanese. I’d never met someone so foolishly bold: It was noon, and the park was full of kids playing. I told him, “Christ, man, you’ll get arrested! How did you mochikomu?” “I just put it in my pocket.” I didn’t believe him. That was either genius or sheer stupidity. 
“You mean, that’s it? Put it in your pocket and walk onto the plane?” He just nodded. “No, man, I do it all the time.” It seemed that he really believed he was doing nothing wrong. He acted innocent because he honestly felt innocent, so the airport security never thought to search him. I mischeviously decided to set up a meeting between Tim and Mr. Wellnow. When Wellnow heard about Tim’s mochikomu ‘technique,’ he was crushed. It seemed that all his meticulous planning and elaborate precautions had been for nothing. Both Wellnow and myself felt that “when it comes to smuggling, you can’t beat the Canadians.”

Thanks to Mr. Wellnow’s suspiciously fast speech, our interview only took 30 minutes. He looked miserably exhausted, like he wanted to sleep but was unable. I suggested that he try some Halcyon, but he said that it wouldn’t affect him in his current ‘condition.’ I warned him to be careful, that he was a wreck – I couldn’t imagine him smuggling anything in that condition without getting arrested. Then we said our good-byes. It seemed that my advice had gone in one ear and out the other – he didn’t seem to care if he was caught, the most dangerous way for an outlaw to make a living, I’d say! I hope that next time I see him, it won’t be behind bars.

11 – SOKAIYA (総会屋 – literally ‘shareholder meeting merchant’)


The deadline for this book was the end of May. Around the beginning of May, I got a phone call from Mr. Abyss (not his real name), the Sokaiya. I’d sent him a fax of our interview for fact-checking, and his response was: “We’re in trouble.”

To mess with the sokaiya(corporate blackmailers), Japan’s corporations – more than 2,000 in all – all try to hold their annual sokai (shareholder meetings) at the same exact time. And this year, the time was less than a month after this book was scheduled to come out. “It’s bad for business if you publicize our activities right before the big meeting. So, I’ll have to ask you not to publish our interview, please.” But the page numbers had already been decided – if I cancelled his chapter, there would be 10 blank pages in my book!

I tried to explain this to Mr. Abyss, but he said, “It’s better to not publish it.” At first I figured this was just one of his sokaiya tricks: he wanted some money or something else from me. But then he didn’t ask for anything, and he didn’t budge from his position. We went back and forth like this without resolving anything, so I arranged a face-to-face meeting.

He told me his conditions: “The names of everyone I mentioned has to be a replaced with a pseudonym. Also you have to cut everything where the timing of your publication might mess up business. Change the details to the point where, everyone we’re extorting, they won’t be able to recognize themselves if they read it.”   Naturally I was against it, but at length it became clear that I still had enough “permissible” material to finish my book, so I gave in. In the end, the interview did shrink from 10 to 8 pages. But Mr. Abyss pressed on, piling more and more conditions: “Don’t print a description of anyone’s face OR what they look like.” After hammering out these kinds of final details, I received permission to print the interview in its current form. But be advised, there’s important things missing. This racket goes deeper than I can tell you.


“I don’t like to waste time or mice words. Putting it briefly, sokaiya is exortion. Extortion and blackmail. But on the other hand, it can also mean being a bodyguard. In other words, we can make the sokai (shareholder meeting) run rough or we can make it run smoothly. It’s all up to the company. I guess you haven’t heard of the bodyguard part – we don’t do that one so much anymore. Basically, when legitimate shareholders try to ask problematic questions, or they try to vote against what the management is proposing, we shout over them: “No objections! No objections!” And the meeting runs smoothly – if the corporation pays us, that is! This type of work we call YOTOU (与党 from a political word meaning, ‘the ruling party’). On the other hand, there’s also YATOU (野党、meaning ‘the opposition party’) work: we show up to the sokai and ask questions about corporate scandals, or the private behavior of the CEOs! Or we can just try to waste everyone’s time with long, persistent, irrelevant questions. . .
Or we’ll complain that their last-years ‘achievements’ are a sham, that the company is losing money and lying about it. That their new business plans are going to be a disaster, that management has lost their minds.

“You put yatou and yotou together, and the total is ‘sokaiya.’ Company A pays us ‘support money’, so we’re their yotou. Company B doesn’t pay us, so we’ll turn into yatou At THEIR meeting. But frankly, our profession is in decline since the new laws, so there’s not a lot of sokai meetings turning into riots recently.”

Whad to you mean, your profession is in decline?

”There’s less places that are safe for us to do it. Plus, less fellas are doing it – back in the bubble days, there were 1,000 or 2,000 of us. Now there’s around 100 left, and that number includes Yakuza ‘made men’, unaffiliated free-lancers, veterans, and new guys (. Now that I think about it, it’s kind of complicated).

“The problems started in 1981, with the passage of the Revised Commercial Practices Act. To put it simply, the revision was designed to shut us down! It was actually the first time the law acknowledged our existence – before that we had impunity! The reason for that was, the corporations knew that we were a useful ally from time to time, when the legitimate shareholders became a problem. But the Revised Act changed all that! It made it illegal for companies to give sanjoukin (賛助金 :support money) to us. That is, now the executives AS WELL AS the extortionists could BOTH be charged.

“That took food off a lot of guys’ plates. On top of that, they closed another loophole: before, if you owned even one share of stock, you could go to the sokai. Nowadays, you have to own a considerable amount of stock. Small gangs got shut down, forced out. That mostly just left the mobsters and the veterans like me. Also, the name of the hustle changed. ‘Sokaiya’ were no more. Now we were ‘professional stockholders’ or ‘special stockholders.’ (特殊株主 tokushuu kabunuchi, プロ株主, pro kabunushi) As far as I’m concerned, that law is just part of the larger mafiyaka (マフィヤ化 : mafiazation) of the Yakuza that’s been going on for years!  What I mean by that is that Yakuza have traditionally had very obvious jimusho (事務所 : offices), just like other businesses. They were part of society. But since the police have been cracking down, this has driven Yakuza further and further underground, where they become more dangerous and uncontrollable. It’s becoming more and more like the foreign Mafias, less connected to the traditional Japanese ways, and more and more dangerous for society.”

So how do you extort the money?

“You have to have some sort of pretext. Like maybe you’re selling office plants. Very expensive office plants. Or you’re renting ‘uminoie’ (a sort of temporary beach house, wood frame and cloth walls). . . very expensive uminoie. Of course, even this sort of extortion is still illegal, but a lot of the people working at our front companies don’t know this! (ed. Note: front companies: the workers who actually install the office plants or build the uminoe.) Some of them think they’re making an honest living!

“There’s over 3,000 publicly-held companies in Japan. On the average, each company has a staff of ten people whose job it is to repulse us sokaiya. That’s a total of 30,000 people nationwide, to deal with 100 of us! We call them ‘tantousha’ (担当者= person who is responsible for something).  Out of those guys, maybe one in a hundred is so concerned with having a ‘smooth’ sokai that he’s willing to play ball. We can take advantage of him.

“Of course we never directly say, ‘You should buy our uminoie! You have to buy a membership in our very expensive golf club!’ – that would defeat the whole purpose of having a front company. We go to the office and ask to speak to the general manager. He’s scared to talk to use, so he’ll send out the tantousha. That’s their job. So we sit down ,and it turns into a waiting game. We just make meaningless small talk about ‘How’s business recently?’ We just try to wear the guy out! If he’s ready to play ball, he will ask US something like, ‘So can we help you with anything?’ And we will reply, ‘Well, recently we’re leasing oil paintings that companies can use to decorate their offices. If you know of any companies that want to brighten up their office environment, please let us know.’

“If the tantousha is a weak person, that’s all it will take. The subject of the sokai meeting will never even come up, let alone any threats. They’ll lease some of our paintings from our front company, and we will have ourselves an  anmoku no ryoukai (暗黙の了解; unspoken understanding)  that we leave them alone. But you have to have the heart of a true sokaiya to pull things off in such a grand fashion.”


What kind of heart does the sokaiya have?

Sokaiya is a racket that exists only in Japan! Lots of countries have their little mafia or their gang or whatever, but those gangsters can’t find a way to make millions just by intimidating a sokai meeting! We’re the only ones! It has to do with Japanese national character. As a people we have historically placed a great value on sumuuzu (‘smooth’) or harmonious interactions. So to the average investor attending the meeting, if it’s over quickly without interruptions, then he thinks the company must be doing great! On the other hand, if the meeting drags on and on like a marathon, he will assume that the company, not us gangsters, are to blame: because the meeting is not smooth. I’m not talking about sokaiya just yelling like Yakuza, threatening and saying they have pictures of the chairman fucking the mail-clerk. I’m talking about us politely stalling the meeting and making it go long, that’s all. That’s all it takes for the average Japanese investor to think that the company must have done something wrong. Sales must be off. Better to sell the stock, just to be on the safe side. And the corporation knows that the investors think this way. That’s how we get our power.

“In fact, after the Revised Commercial Practices Act was passed, a bunch of us got angry and decided to disrupt certain high-profile sokai more than ever. Not for money – as that would be illegal – but just to teach the companies they needed to respect us. I joined in this protest myself. Of course the sokai turned into a total circus. But that was good for us, because the mass media really picked up on it. The more articles they do, the more afraid of us the companies get. Because the reporters ALSO think that the company must have done something wrong if the sokai gets out of control. As annoying as we are when we ‘marathon’ the meetings, it’s even worse for them if they shut us down. See, if the chairman doesn’t painstakingly correct all of our innuendos and rumors, the reporters will go ahead and write them up as fact. So the chairman helps us make the meeting run long!”

What kinds of statements do you make when you are doing yatou (‘opposition party’) work?

“IT depends on the sokaiya! Some guys just yell a lot, intimidating through force. But real sokaiya generally sit down beforehand and study the company thoroughly. We look for weaknesses: rumors, scandals as well as legitimate problems. Our goal is to make the chairman admire our research: ‘I can’t believe you knew about that!’ kind of thing. Put another way, if you just talk nonsense, conspiracy theories or filibuster, eventually you’ll get shouted down by the legitimate shareholders. But if you ask serious questions, the chairman can’t evade them.

“But nowadays, this kind of well-prepared, slick sokaiya is hard to find! Not because speaking out-of-turn at sokai has become illegal – it isn’t – but because it’s now illegal for the companies to pay us sanjoukin. In the past, the more infamous you were, the better business was. Now it’s the opposite! Nowadays, if you start to get too high-profile, the police will arrest you right before the June meetings, just to make an example out of you. Actually, the police are being stupid, if you ask me. They’re arresting the yellers, who really aren’t that well-connected to begin with. The real high-rollers live in the shadows, and never get arrested.”

Is it true that the majority of today’s sokaiya are either Yakuza or uyoku (right wing, militia-like groups)?

“I can’t deny it. It used to be different, but the stricter laws forced everyone else out, so the police made it this way, really. (Mr. Abyss’ discussion of his own ‘relationship’ with these groups has been cut at his request). The corporations deal with Yakuza and uyoku differently. But recently, the police are the most dirty of all of us! They’ve stopped us from selling our ‘bulletins’ (some sokaiya print industry magazines, bulletins or pamphlets (very expensive ones, as it happens) and ‘request’ that the companies buy the entire print run). They’re really getting all up in our turf. They started coming to the sokai, even! Not only does that cramp our style, but by coming to the sokai, the cops make a lot of personal connections with the executives. So recently, a lot of them retire early and go to work as tantousha or sokaiya-management consultants. And they charge the companies almost as much as we do! It’s police extortion if you ask me. You can check the hiring records of the corporations if you don’t believe me.”


What direction is the sokaiya business headed in from now on?

“Recently, corporations have to share more information with the public. They are more open and transparent. Sokai meetings, too! In other words, we have fewer and fewer chances to do our business. But on the other hand, the bigger the company gets, the more it starts to fray and unravel at the seams. It is harder for the corporations to keep hidden things hidden. Until recently, our business was like, ‘Find some dirty laundry and then run to the sokai and sell it for protection money.’ But we don’t target sokai meetings so much any longer. We aren’t quitting – we are just changing targets. The new techniques can be used year-round, and it’s harder for the cops to catch us. Basically, that Revised Commercial Practices Act did us a favor by weeding out the lames. Now it’s only us smart guys, and we’ve all gone underground. As long as there’s secrets that people are hiding, we’ll stay in business, mark my words!”

RISK: ***

Recently, ‘kyabakura hosutesu’ (carabet club hostess) have become fairly mainstream. It’s as if all the young ladies are doing it. The old image of the kyabakura hosutesu as a tragic whore is disappearing. People tend more and more to think, “She’s confident! Looks like fun!” instead. Instead of junkies and women in debt to the Yakuza, today’s kabakura hosutesu can be a normal woman who just works a few days a month for some extra pocket money. That’s why I didn’t want to interview one for this book!

But on the other hand, the people I’ve interviewed so far have all been guys, and the book needs more sex appeal. That’s when I hit upon a brilliant idea:  I’d go to Osaka’s Hida New Entertainment Zone (飛田新地). It’s like Tokyo’s Yoshiwara neighborhood used to be, back in the samurai days: a licensed red-light district. But Hida is still open, and still doing prostitution in the traditional way, called ‘honban alley’ (本番、literally ‘real performance’, means sex, as opposed to geisha or hostesses, who are all talk).

People have an image of Hida as a vulgar and dilapidated place, but that’s not accurate. I’ve walked all around Hida and it’s got all the conveniences of the modern-day red-light district. There are rows of almost-identical small shops, with a YUUJO (遊女, literally ‘play woman’) on display in the front windows. The yuujo wear colorful kimono. Obaasans (older women) call out to passers-by from the doorways of the shops. The interior of the shops is very bright and pink, like a little girls’ bedroom. Many people come to Hida not to have sex, but just to absorb the 150-years-ago atmosphere which makes Hida unique. 

This time I’ll be interviewing Ms. KANA (24, her maiden name), who used to work in Hida for over half a year. Nowadays she has put sex-work behind her, but prior to working in Hida, she had a lot of different sexual jobs: hostess, fashion health (massage), hotel health (exactly what you think), and so on. Ms. Kana is not the type of beauty that would turn anyone’s head as she walked down the street, but she’s charming. I asked her how she started working in the New Hida Entertainment Zone.


“It was the atmosphere! When it comes to fuzoku (風俗, literally ‘vulgar style’, but it means prostitution), there’s absolutely no other place like it. I was born here in Osaka, but I was always a ‘good girl’ who lived with my parents. So I’d heard of Hida but never been there even once! I was working at a massage parlor on the south side. One of my co-workers told me she used to work in Hida. I was curious, so I asked her to take me there sometime.”

New Hida Entertainment Zone is made of two main streets, which are called “Blue Spring Street” and “Youkai Alley” respectively (Youkai are a kind of traditional monster). Younger women work on Blue Spring Street, and older, cheaper women work on Youkai Alley. If you meet a lady from Hida, maybe you shouldn’t use these words, though!

“The first time I saw it, I thought I was in “Ryuuguu-jo” (an old legendary castle)! I felt like I’d had a taimu surippu (‘time-slip’) back to the Edo period! I was slack-jawed with amazement. At night, the streets are lively with people walking, although me and my friend were the only women out for a stroll! My friend seemed to know a lot of people, even though she didn’t work there anymore. People called out to her; there was a sort of feeling of community. At one of the shops, the Obachan called my friend, and we stopped to chat. Then Obachan started asking about me: ‘Does she want to work here?’ My friend said, ‘No, no!’ but it did start me thinking about the possibility. My friend later told me, ‘Don’t do it. Being a YUUJO is not like working at the massage parlor. It’s HONBAN (the ‘real performance’). The work is very physically demanding, even more than working at a soapland. It’s really no fun.”

 The reason is that – unlike the ‘soapland’ brothels – most of the customers in Hida can request the ‘short service.’ Short service means they only pay for 15 or 20 minutes, as it’s cheaper. The workers have to stay lubricated with lotion so the customer can immediately penetrate. So a busy Hida worker can have three clients an hour. Ms. Kana didn’t really dislike the thought of ‘honban’, but she was put off by the idea of so many customers in one day, so she abandoned the idea of working at Hida.

“I had a friend who really liked brand goods, and she got in debt. To pay off the debt, she started working at Hida. That’s a common story, but the amount she earned was surprisingly small! The workers sit in the window, motionless, and the customers wander from shop to shop, choosing whichever worker who has a face which appeals to them. So if you don’t have a great face, you’re out of luck! Since I don’t have so much confidence in my looks, that was another reason why I gave up on the idea of working at Hida.”

But, after experiencing Hida’s atmosphere, Ms. Kana found it difficult to work at her massage parlor. She had been caught in the spell! She persuaded her co-worker to take her back a second time, and this time the co-worker introduced Kana to a shop owner.

“The owner was a lady around 40 years old, and pretty street – like she grew up poor and got wealthy late in life. I told her I had experience, and she decided right on the spot. It was much more sudden than I’d anticipated. I started work the very next day! The obasan told me that in Hida, a new worker’s first customer is called the ‘gen.’ If you can’t get a gen on your first day, it’s considered a bad omen, so I was nervous! What’s more, the previous times I’d been to Hida it was night time, the busy time. But I started work in the daytime when there were almost no customers. What could I do?? I wore a very flashy kimono and put on my most beguiling face, and waited. An hour passed. The obasan called out ‘Hey, c’mon in!’ to passing guys, but they all ignored her. Finally a man stopped to chat with obasan. Turned out he was a regular. She said, ‘We have a fresh face today!’ He replied, ‘She looks nervous!’ But he kept looking at me, again and again. Obasan said, ‘Oh, just give her a try already!’ and that’s how I got my ‘gen!’ He said, ‘It’s her first day, so I’ll give her good luck!’ Seems even the customers know about that superstition!

“The regular customers taught me a lot about the rules and history of Hida, and I tried hard to learn more. ‘You have to have a good relationship with your obasan, otherwise you can’t make it,’ they’d say: ‘She’s the one who calls out to customers. If she doesn’t like you, she won’t try very hard to catch them. You can’t rely on your looks alone.’

The prices of Hida New Entertainment Zone vary by time. A 15-minute fuck costs $100. 20 minutes is $160, 30 is $2,100, and 90 minutes is $420. Some obasan will haggle with you but others won’t. Since business is slow in the daytime, most places will let you stay a bit longer. The YUUJO gets 40~50% of the profit, the obasan gets 10%, and the rest goes to the owner. Some of the most popular workers can get 20 customers per day – at an average of 20 minutes each, that’s 1500 per day. But not many women can keep up that pace even if they wanted to.


Because Hida’s system is more arduous than most brothels, there’s more desperate women working there.

“The two other women at my shop both had bad debts. One got hooked on drugs and ran into money trouble that way. The other one, she never told me the reason, but apparently it was a lot of money! But at other shops, the workers were like me – they loved the atmosphere. Really, everyone’s got their own reasons. Paying for an operation for their parents. The most surprising reason I heard was, this one girl, she just liked sex! I mean, you can’t make it here if you really hate sex, but I’d never heard of anyone finding it fun! She would work without a condom, so she was pretty popular! Plus she’d give ‘time service’ – go into extra innings for free. If she liked the guy, she was determined to outlast him.”

Ms. Kana was a bit more popular than average, apparently. When I walked around Hida, I was sometimes surprised by how beautiful the women were. Despite Hida’s cheap-and-dirty approach to selling sex, some of the women are really high quality. Of course, they’re all doing their best to look pretty, but still.

“When customers walk by, some girls make flirty faces like, ‘I want it!’, but I never bothered to. I could get guys just by sitting politely and letting obasan do her thing.  The guys sometimes told me they like my doll-like vacant stare. Even if the guys didn’t come in, I really enjoyed sitting there and taking in the whole atmosphere, seeing the community. In other red-light districts it’s more of a fast-food approach: Hurry up and cum! But Hida isn’t like that. It’s got a deep, traditional charm to it.”

There’s a little room on the second floor – a traditional Japanese style room with a futon. All in good taste. Technically the New Hida Entertainment Zone is under the jurisdiction of the Osaka Restaurant-and-bar laws. Having futons in a restaurant was a bit too obvious – so, to save face, they used cushions instead. But now they’re back to futons. Also, they don’t have showers (too modern) so the worker will wipe the customer down with warm, moist towels before sex. First, the worker takes the client upstairs, and goes through the motions of giving him the food – really expensive food. The customer pays for the food, not sex. After that, if they happen to fall in love and take their relationship to the next level, it’s up to them, not a matter for the law.


“Of course some of the customers are irritating. The worst ones are the guys that lecture me about, ‘You must not have any self-respect if you work here.’ I want to say, ‘What are YOU doing here, then?’ but I don’t. Plus, since I’m in Hida, I can sort of imagine that I’m the tragic heroine of an Edo drama, and put an enjoyably epic spin on my troubles. I enjoyed my first three or four months a lot! But then my boss told me, ‘My other shop just had a girl quit so I’m transferring you.’ Turns out the reason she quit was that that shop’s obasan was a total bitch! And now I was stuck with her.

“If she couldn’t catch any customers, she’d start yelling, ‘This is your fault! Fix your makeup – or put a bag over your head!’ all kinds of crazy stuff. All so she could get her ten percent. The place felt like a regular, run-of-the-mill brothel: all business, and no romantic atmosphere. I couldn’t enjoy the parade of people walking by anymore – because she was so stressed about money. Work became more difficult.

“One time me and her got into a huge argument. I felt like crying, but I didn’t want her to see me. I held it in, but I really wanted to quit after that. My co-worker told me I should complain to the boss, but what would I say? I didn’t know. Obasan wasn’t messing up the business end of things. And I hate gossiping and telling lies.”

Eventually I had a long talk with obasan, and we managed to patch things up – after that we were always very candid and straight-forward with each other. But, still, when you’re selling your body, there are always moments of despair that come and go. For example, one day I was cleaning one of the rooms and found some small graffiti carved into the wood by a previous girl: ‘I’ve been sick for many days and many months.’ When I read that, I felt like I was looking into a bottomless well of sadness. This woman – I didn’t even know who she was, but she was doing the same work as me, in the same room as me. I felt her pain so strongly. I had to go home early that day. But, a few weeks later, when I was cleaning another room, I found another hidden message: ‘After many days and many months, my sickness went away.’ I felt instantly relieved. I guess that woman is still working here – and able to carry on in spite of everything.”

Unfortunately, a few months later, Ms. Kana had to quit the business because her health was failing. Her obasan and co-workers came to see her off, even the shop owner came. She looks healthy now, and has managed to finally put her prostitute days behind her. She’s living off of her modest savings, for now, and taking it easy. But before we finished the interview, Ms. Kana had one last thing to say: “I don’t really want to go back to prostitution, but if I had to, I’d want to do it at New Hida Entertainment Zone.”

Forget it.


RISK: ****


If you walk around the Kabukicho neighborhood, store signs beckon to you: “7 videos for $100!” “5 DVDs for $100!” They’re not talking about the normal pornos that have the mosaic censor on them. They’re talking about what’s commonly called URA bideo (裏ビデオ,meaning ‘black market video’). These videos are illegal, so I wonder why so many stores are selling them.

I decided I wanted to hear more about this phenomenon, so I dared to venture into the porn world in search of raw material for my book. If you go just a little way into Kabukicho, you see over ten porno stores, all around. If you hesitate too long, you will lose your nerve to enter: in this neighborhood, it’s pretty likely that the stores’ Yakuza owners are lurking nearby! I’m feeling a certain amount of anxiety about asking these people my journalism questions!

There’s a lot of first-floor porno shops, and even more varieties underground, if you take my meaning. The prices on their signs vary really widely, almost at random – from “5 for $100” to “10 for $100.” If you loiter too long without going in, you’ll get pestered by brothel guys trying to take you to their club. So, you go inside, just for the sake of research, and find a lot of normal, non-scary guys browsing the shelves. The guys are from a broad age-range : middle-aged to college-aged. They don’t seem scared or nervous – the scary part is going inside!
. This being the case, I decided go go on in. Immediately on my right is a rugged old man who mumbles, “Welcome.” The walls are lined with uncensored polaroids taken during the movie shoots, with the title of the video written on them. One video gets you four polaroids, thrown in as a ‘service’. The actual dvds and tapes are not in the shop. Though really cramped, the place is well-lit and not run-down. There’s two or three other guys, hungrily eyeing the polaroids. “Let me know if you can’t find what you’re looking for,” says the rugged old man. I remember I have to pose as a customer, so I walk around the store some more. The customers have small note-pads. If they see polaroids they like, they’ll write the titles down with their ball-point pens (ed. note: ball-point? why does he include this detail?!?) and then go to the counter and order a dubbed copy of the video. Some of these guys are making pretty long lists! There’s a huge abundance of goods – over 100 titles. These include leaked sex-tapes of showbiz women, which are irresistible to fans.

 But I didn’t come here to buy pornography! I had a book to do! I needed to find out the system behind all these illegal videos. I marshaled my courage and daringly asked the proprietor to divulge the details:

”Um, I’m a writer and I uh.”
I hadn’t even finished when he shut me down with a furious scowl. Awkward! He doesn’t believe me. What’s more he is making a gangster mug at me, overflowing with menace and disgust. “What are you up to, huh?”

His voice changed, too. It’s gravelly and thuggish! This is not the time for me to gather my research material! It looks like it would be dangerous for me to even answer candidly. I wanted to explain everything, but my lips wouldn’t move.

“If you’re not buying, then get out.”

The interview, such as it was, seemed to be over already. But I’m still a real writer, after all, and I still had some will-power left. Before leaving, I asked one more question: “So, I guess this place is run by the good-fellas after all, hey?”
“Shuddup, you!”

Feeling the pressure of the Yakuza, I immediately apologized and left the store. Back outside, I looked down the street of porno shops, and noticed just how long it was, and each store was full of potential danger for me. I retreated to a coffee-shop to gather my thoughts.

At length, I decided to resume my challenge. But at the second store, it turned out just like the first! I was back on the street with my tail between my legs. I should just quit now. But, no, in for a penny, in for a pound, I decided. The more they turn me away, the more it fuels my desire to get to the bottom of it all. That’s the kind of person I am! So I went into the third store.  It had the same atmosphere as the others, even selling the same videos. The only difference was the way the manager greeted the customers. This particular old guy said “Welcome” in the old-fashioned way popular back in the first half of the 1900s. It was a good omen, I felt – maybe this is the place where I will get my interview!

For five minutes I walked around the store, until I heard the old man’s voice: “Let me know if I can help you find something.” I couldn’t let this opportunity slip away. I bravely whipped out my business card and asked him, “Could I please interview you for my book?” He timidly took my card, and although he made a dubious face, I felt that he was my best shot so far: he wasn’t making the ‘WTF is your problem?” face. “Please wait a moment,” he said, and walked into the back room. I waited for what seemed like a small eternity, when suddenly the old man re-appeared with a man in his thirties. The man introduced himself as Mr. Peninsula (32, not his real name) I began to repeat my request to him, when he cut me off with a sour face, “Yeah, I heard already! I’ll tell you what I can.”


First, I asked if the Yakuza personally own or manage all the stores?

“No. I’d say it’s about half Yakuza and half amateurs. Just so you know, I’m one of the amateurs.

When I heard this, I was relieved – it felt as if I could breathe again. This must mean that the first two stores I went into WERE mob-controlled. What was I thinking, just barging in like that? To an average customer, mob stores and amateur-run stores look the same, but if you start nosing around their business, the results can be very different!

“The ones run by Yakuza are less likely to carry the ura-bideo because they’re more likely to be raided by the police. I’m probably asking for trouble just by answering your questions. If you didn’t have a business card, I wouldn’t be talking to you at all.”

I was grateful that Mr. Peninsula believed my story, but I still had to press further to the core of the matter: I asked him to explain the system: how do they get the videos, and how do they select which ones to purchase? These are things the average person simply can’t even guess.

“From the old days- hell, even until a few years ago – you’d buy a master tape of a porno from a mobster. Then you’d go down to the video store and buy a bunch of blank VHS cassettes for $50 cents a pop. But every time you dub it, the quality degrades a little. That’s why DVDs are all the rage now. They don’t degrade no matter how many copies you make — Handy little things!”

They’d take the master to a black-market ‘dubbing store’ to duplicate it. The store had 20 VHS dubbing decks and 5 DVD burners. In the old days, the dubbers were called ‘suitcase men’ because when they were done, they’d show up to your porno store with a suitcase bulging with illegal porn! But they don’t call them that anymore.

“Our store has a purchaser who decides what to buy. But we only know the guy who sells the masters. Anything beyond that – who he’s connected to, where the money goes – is taboo. I don’t want to know anything about that.”

In Kabukicho, all the porno stores pay ketsumochi to the gangs (けつ持ちmeans protection money, but the literal translation is more evocative: ‘asshole-guarding money’). Probably even legal businesses have to pay ketsumochi.

“It’s only natural! The rate varies depending on the store, from $300 to $1,000 per month. How much do WE pay? I could get in trouble for telling that. Let’s just say that it falls in the middle there somewhere.”


Even if you pay your protection money, you can still get in trouble . . . from the police:

“Like I said before, the police usually target the Yakuza-owned shops. But of course the gangsters don’t put their own names on the documents. They have a non-‘family’ guy who ‘officially’ runs the business. They’ll pay him around $5,000 a month. If the police raid the place, he’s legally responsible. The cops know he’s just a front, and they’ll interrogate him pretty good, trying to get him to tell who the silent partner is. If he doesn’t talk, the mob will give him a $10,000 bonus when he gets out of jail.  I don’t know what happens if he DOES snitch, but it seems like a scary situation, don’t you think?

“The other thing you have to be careful of, is Lolita porn or ‘enkou’ videos (‘enkou’ is a contraction of ‘enjo kousai’ which was a kind of trend where high-school girls would go on dates with daddy-aged businessmen for money). The penalties for that are much more strict than for ura-bideo. But a surprising number of guys want those videos. Sometimes guys will come in and ask me directly if I know where they can get some. If he’s a regular, I might refer him to a guy I know, but even that is dangerous. The worst is guys that I’ve never seen before, that come in and ask for exactly one Lolita video and nothing else. They’re almost certainly keiji (刑事:detectives)! I don’t have a lot of options – I have to refuse to serve them. Tell ‘em not to come back. We never deal that stuff – it’s more trouble than it is worth. Even within illegal-porn, there exists a ‘red zone’ of really bad stuff. You’d have to be ready to go to jail at any time, selling stuff like that. Some people love the money that much, I suppose. Don’t understand it myself, personally”

I asked him about his wages – less than I thought.

“We make around 1 or 2 thousand dollars on a weekday, 6 or 7 on weekends and holidays. Of course it was more back in the ‘bubble economy’ days (of the late ‘80s). Wages aren’t so high – I make around $3,000 a month, but my employees only get $100 a day. If a store is really popular, the manager might get $5,000 a month, but I’ve never heard of a manager making $10,000 a month!”

If that’s the case, why did Mr. Peninsula go into this line of work?

“I wanted to make some money, sure, but I also liked the ease of the work: I can set my own hours, it’s not physically demanding, and. . .basically it’s an ok job! Although I can’t say I’ll never be arrested.”

In this business, the more that one store sells, the less the next-door store sells. So they compete vigorously for customers. One store might slash prices, while the next store fights back by getting the new videos before his competitor.

“The really popular videos. . hmm. . .leaked sex tapes, I’d have to say. Hidden camera footage of famous idol-singers at the hot-springs. Famous stars. Like (redacted) and of course Ms. (redacted). If they’re as famous as (redacted) we can sell a hundred copies, easily. We can charge $100 for a DVD of that. It used to be that there was an entire separate system for these kinds of things, much more expensive and all that, but nowadays we just sell them like regular pornos.”


While I was interviewing Mr. Peninsula, I noticed that there were a lot of customers in the store. Perhaps because it was friendlier than the mob-run stores, and Mr. Peninsula would greet each customer with a pleasant word. One customer in particular seemed to be waiting to talk to Mr. Peninsula – he was looking for a particular urabon (裏本, or black-market book). Peninsula’s store sells uncensored books as well as movies. I’d heard of them but never seen one until now. One book for $40, three for $100. Why would someone buy such a book when DVDs are cheaper AND have moving pictures?

“The book fans are a different breed than the video fans. Instead of buying a ‘master’ from our mob connection, we buy a ‘gara’ (it looks like a book cover, but there’s no book! Just a cover with the description of the book’s perverted contents printed on it). The customers have to pre-order the book sight-unseen. If it looks interesting, maybe 20 or 30 people will buy it. But if it seems stupid, we’ll be lucky to sell 10 copies. Of course each book is different, but most are in the $12-22 dollar range. I guess the main difference is that you can’t ‘dub’ books the way you can dub video-tapes. So if they miss their chance to buy the book when it first comes out, they’re pretty much out of luck! Everything is so limited-edition, the used-book prices are very high. Sometimes we’ll get a used first-edition porno book from the ‘80s – those are so rare, we can get up to $3,000 apiece for them! Book customers are more dependable that way, you could say.”

I’d already taken an hour of Mr. Peninsula’s time, and was running out of questions to ask. I thanked him for his kindness. “Is there anything else you want to know?” he graciously replied. My last question was, how do you feel about selling illegal things?

“I don’t think it’s so evil, really. In this life, people accumulate a lot of stress. We give guys a little breathing room. Some of the most conservative, button-down, law-abiding salarimen come here for a little fun, and it makes me feel good to help them. As for the law, well, we can’t do anything to change it, so whatever!”

15 – CON MAN (詐欺師:SAGISHI)
RISK: ***

You might think that con-men are just an urban legend. But there’s a surprisingly large number of people with the the right combination of gift-of-gab, skill, and innovation who can earn a living at it. After all, there’s so many different cons, there’s room for everyone in this field!

This time, the interviewee is Mr.Paddytown, who was my senpai (先輩:an upper-classman) in high school. He started his life of crime by breaking into vending machines with a crowbar, and selling the candy to elementary-school students. Rumor had it he also had a steel chain for a weapon! He seems like a smart guy, although not one for book-study. When he was out of his teen years, he started conning people just as a lark, and has been walking down that road ever since.


“I started sagi (詐欺:fraud, but the literal translation is ‘manufacture of deceit’) just as a joke, but I was pretty good at it, and it was amusing work, so I just kept doing it! Anyway, I hate the taste of pickles. So when I order a hamburger I always say ‘hold the pickles.’ One day me and my friend were at (REDACTED)burger, and the girl taking our order was such a bitch! Like customers were a nuisance, like we weren’t good enough for her fast food! I asked for no pickles. And when opened up my hamburger, there were the pickles right in my face. I said, ‘Ok, we got to fuck with these people back!’”

So my senpai grabbed his stomach, and fell to the floor screaming in pain. His friend started shouting “Are you allright? Are you allright?” just in case the other patrons had missed the point. Everyone was staring! The workers rushed over in a tizzy.

“My friend started yelling at them, really scary-style. ‘Why did you put pickles in it? He’s allergic to pickles! He could die now! He asked for no pickles, but you killed him! This is absolutely your fault!’ The snobby register girl came back and apologized over and over. I figured that if I over-did it, they’d call an ambulance and my sham would be exposed. So I faked getting a little better, enough to sit down in a chair at least. At last, the manager called us into the back, and tried to patch things up by offering us some free meal cupons. I figured that this scam had a little more mileage in it, so I turned him down: ‘What good will free cupons go? I’m never coming to this harmful restaurant again!’ And then he took out his own wallet and pulled out two hundred-dollar bills and gave them to me! Fuck yeah! Afterwards, me and my friend split the take, and that’s how I got started doing sagi: We were both out of work at the time, so we figured we’d take our show all over town. But nobody else would do us the favor of forgetting to hold the pickles!!! So we started looking around for a different scam. We kept bouncing ideas off of each other until we hit upon a winner.

“Con-men are like TV magicians – you need a good gimmick! I used to think that con-men were really smart guys, but then I realized how many of them are just copy-catting some crime they read about in the daily news. It seems like the more newspapers publish crime stories, the more they are encouraging it!”


“We came up with a good idea – didn’t make a huge amount of money but it was pretty safe, and plus it required almost no start-up money. I can talk about how we did it, because we ain’t doing it any more! But seems like you still could do it if you wanted, know what I mean? I’m talking about selling fake medicine to ‘stop the spread of thinning hair.’”

He was certainly on to something: thinning hair is a huge fear of every guy in his ‘30s, whether he’s bald or just afraid he’s GOING to go bald. They bought ‘legitimate’ anti-thinning cream over the counter, but then cut it with 90% water. (ed. note: ‘legitimate’ anti-baldness cream? The irony!) Then they took out classified ads in the evening papers and sports magazines: ‘The ultimate weapon against premature baldness and thinning hair ! Now and only now one bottle for $48!!” and the return address. Even with such a brief, perfunctory ad, they were immediately flooded with requests.

“We sold a lot of that stuff! Water it down, re-package it in our own bottles! It cost us a dollar a bottle, we sold it for $48 a bottle – about 100 orders a damn month! I was surprised there were so many desperate guys out there. What’s more, there were repeat customers! They’d write us these polite letters, saying that it cured them, thanking us, all this nice stuff! Oh, how we laughed!

“As a supplement to the existing ‘medicine,’ we developed a ‘special DX version’ which sold for $88! Then we sent out junk-mail ads to all the customers on our mailing list. About one in ten actually wrote back! Idiots! DX was basically the same as regular but instead of 10% actual medicine it was 20%! We got one or two letters saying that the package was leaking, but other than that, no complaints, if you can believe it.”


If you want to be a successful sagishi, you need to have one of two things: either a scam where it’s hard for people to tell if they’ve been ripped off, or a scam where they’ll get in trouble themselves if they complain to the police. An example of the former type is our baldness cure – even the results of the legitimate, un-cut variety vary widely from person to person, so it’s hard for our ‘customers’ to decide if it’s bogus or if maybe they’re just unlucky.
“The latter type of scam, well I’ll tell you that right now:

“Some guys who say to themselves, ‘Hey, I want to be a sagishi. That is the life for me!’ They think they need tobashi keitai (飛ばし携帯: cell-phones obtained under a fake name, which can not be traced back to the real owner) or kakuu kouza (架空口座:secret bank accounts). Sounds handy, right? I mean, I have those things, but I know a professional forger who can hook me up. But for someone who is just starting out as a sagishi, where can he turn? Well, he might find one of OUR ads on the internet or in the back of a true-crime magazine. WE’LL sell him that stuff. It costs around 3 to 4 hundred. If we price it any cheaper, the mark will tip that it’s fake. Naturally, we just take the money and run! This scam is overdone nowadays, so we don’t do it any longer. But even if you did it now, it’s not risky – What’s the mark going to do? Go to the police?: ‘Officer, I sent away for this stolen cell-phone and fake papers to go with it, but it never arrived! Please help me!’

“In the case of the kakuu kouza scam, you can get even more evil with it if you want. I mean, you can actually go ahead and set up a real kakuu kouza for them. Then when it gets pretty full of their money, you go ahead and withdraw it all. See ya! The problem is the chances of your getting arrested go up, so we don’t mess with that scam! Here’s how it works: when you set up the account in the mark’s (fake) name, you go ahead and name yourself as a proxy on the bank forms. That way not only can you take money out, but you can go to any ATM and check the amount – see if it’s full enough. If you wait too long, the mark might withdraw it himself! Sure, the risk is higher than other forms of sagi, but what are you gonna do? Just get the money fast, and split.

“These amateurs shouldn’t even try to be sagishi in the first place. What do they think they’re doing with tobashi keitai and kakuu kouza?? It’s hard to feel sorry for them. Some of these marks get clever and they’ll deposit a little bit of money, so they can check to see if it ‘disappears.’ But we’re not after a measly one or two hundred! So naturally we let the money alone, and then the mark gets down to his real ‘business’ and the money really starts coming in. A friend of mine who was selling illegal pornos, he paid some guy to set him up a kakuu kouza. He got took for $10,000! Because of that, he decided to give up his business and go back to his day job.”

My senpai seems to really enjoy his work. Sagishi seem to think of themselves as smart guys who are playing a really risky game.


Next, my friend told me about the ‘business’ that could put food on his table for years to come: keikaku jiko hasan (計画自己破産: arranged bankruptcies)
(ed. note: Japan’s bankruptcy system is just like in the USA: you are allowed to default on debts and declare bankruptcy, but it’s illegal to deliberately run up as many debts as you can, with the intention of ripping off your creditors. And you have to go to court to declare bankruptcy so the judge can try to decide if you’re ‘legit’ or not. If the judge thinks you’re a fraud, he or she won’t let you declare bankruptcy and you still have to pay everyone their money back. So, onward!).

So far, he has only had three clients, but he says that all of them have succeeded in being allowed to declare jiko hasan. He is only giving ‘advice’ on how to convince the judge, not actually forcing them. Furthermore, he never reveals his identity. Because of these two factors, he says his risk of getting caught is very low. He adds that the amount of keikaku jiko hasan is only going to increase in the years to come:

“Do you know how many people declare jiko hasan every year in Japan? 200,000! Because of the recession, I suppose, but still – it’s an outrageous figure! And out of those, who knows how many are kaikaku (arranged)?

“I have an acquaintance who is a yamikin (やみ金:loan-shark). If people owe so much money they can’t pay him back, he refers them to me, for my ‘advice.’ Normally people don’t owe yamikin so much that they have to keikaku jiko hasan, or so I thought! Silly me. $20, $30,000 loans? Yikes! From the point of view of the yamikin, a mark who owes that much might just flip out and kill himself, and then how does the Mr. yamikin get paid? That’s where I come in!
A debtor with multiple creditors. . . well, he’s got to pay back MY friend first! After that, he can go ahead and go bankrupt, screw everyone else. Many people don’t want to keikaku jiko hasan, because they’ll get black-listed – their credit rating is ruined forever. But where else are they going to get the money?

“First of all, I ‘advise’ them to max out their credit cards. Take out the limit, every day. If it’s a ‘cash-machine card’ with a $2000-a-day limit, that’s only ten days it’ll take to pay back a $20,000 loan. If the card is a ‘shopping’ card, I’ll take the mark shopping for items which have a high re-sale value: new-model computers and such. You can get around $10,000 at the pawn shop before you max out a credit card like that. The biggest debtor I worked with owed $50,000! It took us around 3 months for him to ‘get him ready’ to keikaku jiko hasan: that’s how long it took him to borrow 5 large with his cards!

“When it comes to jiko hasan, people are less stressed once they finally decide to take the plunge. Here’s how to convince the judge: start out by paying a little interest, and then gradually stop paying altogether. The toritate gyousha (取り立て業者: debt collectors) will come and hound you but you have to tough it out. After a year of this, you’re finally ready to go to court. It’s just a matter of filing some papers. The actual process of filing for jiko hasan is – while painful – much simpler than I’d expected. It does help if you’ve been paying the interest on your credit-cards, though. That, plus telling the judge you really honestly want to pay the money back someday!

“In the following months, you’ll have to go back to the court-house a few times, but that’s just to check that you really can’t pay back the money. Just say, ‘I can’t pay it’!’ Bada-bing. The only people who get turned down by the judge are guys – gamblers, mostly –  who declare bankruptcy over and over again. And even some of those guys manage to convince the judge that they have ‘gambler’s disease’ and they’re not responsible for their actions!!

“About six months after you declare jiko hasan, the judge decides whether to indeminify you or not. This is a more strict process in which they try to figure out if your bankruptcy was staged for financial gain, or if it was legitimate. This is the part where I really earn my money, by helping clients to hide their assets, conceal their money, and invest in high-price purchases which can then be physically hidden. So, I can’t tell you all the tips and tricks that I use. That part is hard enough to begin with!”

In Japan, personal bankruptcy means that you can’t have a credit card or bank account for five years, and you can’t declare bankruptcy again for another ten years. That’s it.

Mr. Paddytown has been making a living as a con man for a number of years, and doesn’t know what else he can do.

“You get ‘troubles’ in my line. Late night threatening calls from guys who sound like Yakuza. I guess they’re my clients’ other creditors! Right now I’m confident that I can manage those clowns, but every year I get older, so . . .I can’t do this forever! More and more I’m thinking about when to quit.”

I hope he can quit, too!


RISK: ****
SALARY: ****


After the collapse of the ‘bubble economy’, the amount of people contacting moving companies and requesting a sudden relocation ‘because of a certain situation’  (情事がある) increased dramatically. This kind of sudden move is commonly known as a  yonige (夜逃げ:‘night escape’).

Nowadays it’s not uncommon for guys to run a perfectly legitimate moving company, which nonetheless help a few people to yonige on the side. But they get so many requests, it’s impossible to accept everyone. Besides, some of the clients might be on the run from the law, or owe money to the mob. It’s dangerous to help these people, so the moving company turns them away. One fellow told me it’s normal to get ten requests a month for the ‘special night service,’ but out of those ten, he might take only one a month – the safest-sounding one! There’s months where he turns everyone down.

It’s fair to say that the legitimate mover has to be very very careful when choosing the client for the ‘night service.’ The cops could charge such a mover with ‘aiding and abetting,’ or if the client is on the run from the mob, the mob could come to take revenge! Of course they charge these ‘special’ clients much more than the regular moving fee, but even then it’s not usually worth the risk.

But, the gods take away, and the gods also give: if you’re turned down by a ‘regular’ mover, it’s possible to get an ‘appointment’ with a ‘specialist’ moving company that ONLY accepts clients too dangerous for regular movers.

A friend of mine was kind enough to introduce me to Mr. A, who was helped by such a ‘specialist.’ Mr. A used to run his own business in Osaka, but his management skills weren’t all that, and the business kept losing money. What’s more, he was going deeper and deeper in debt. Then the ‘Great Hanshin Earthquake’ hit. He knew that if he was ever going to escape the debts, he’d have to do it right then! Using the post-quake confusion as a cover, he moved to a different city, and bought new identity papers as well. Nowadays, he has a totally new life, a new name, and seems free from worry.


Mr. Blackfield (40, not his real name) is a yonigeya (夜逃げ屋 : night escape specialist). He met me in a family restaurant in the Ikebukuro neighborhood of Tokyo. My first impression was that he was a big, strong guy. He must do a lot of the moving and lifting himself! He warned me straightaway that I shouldn’t use his real name or be a nuisance to him. I promised that I’d do what he said, and he began to talk:

“I made a lot of money off of that earthquake! I’m a Tokyo guy but when I heard the news I jumped up and ran to Osaka. It’s really an ideal condition for those wishing to escape their lives. Including our Mr. A, I helped three or four people after the quake. I don’t just mean that I helped re-locate them; I set them up with new identities as well.”

I assumed he was talking about the koseki (ed. note: koseki (戸籍) refers to a piece of paper – the ‘family register’ or ‘record of family history’ which has historically been used in Japan instead of, say, a Social Security number, when applying for jobs, insurance, bank accounts, or places to live). I asked him to tell me about the illegal koseki trade:

“Here’s the simplest way to get one: just go to a place like Yama-ya (山谷) and buy one off of a drifter. (Yama-ya is an neighborhood near Asakusa – an open-air ‘day-labor’ where guys who lost their jobs in the recession go to find pick-up work.) But if a guy has been homeless for too long, he’s already marked as ‘dead’ and his koseki is useless. So you have to check! You pay the homeless one or two thousand dollars, and sell it to the client for twice that. It doesn’t matter how far you run, if you’re using your real name to get apartments, jobs, and so on, it creates a paper trail. Your enemies can find you! I’m the only guy who provides ‘complete service.’ I help you become a completely different person. I’m damn handy, if I do say so!”

I asked Mr. Blackfield what kinds of people he helps:

“At first, I tried hard to turn away people that seemed too risky. I’d be taking customers that had, like ‘man-woman trouble.’ Usually this is a woman who is fleeing from a stalker or a violent husband. That happens a lot. Next most common was people deep in debt! But of course those guys can’t pay ME a lot, can they? So they’re troublesome. It sucks because the only people who can pay you a lot are generally on the run from, ‘dangerous folks,’ which I then get caught up in their problems! But, what the hell, for $10,000, I’ll risk it! That’s not a small sum, my friend! So little by little I began to specialize in the ‘risky’ clients.”

He took out ads in the evening paper, and classifieds. Just by this small measure alone, he was instantly flooded with a great number of requests.

“My first ads were, like, ‘We help move people who have jouji (‘a certain situation’) so if you’ve been turned away by other moving companies, come to us.’ We got mobbed with hundreds of desperate letters, phone calls at all times. We couldn’t do it all! We were so busy, I began to wonder if it was worth the money. We took as much as we could – I didn’t care who the client was, or what bad things he’d done.”

Mr. Blackfield employs three men in his company. They’re all zenkamochi , (前科持ち: ex-cons) and some are former Yakuza.

“That’s the only way to do it, yo! Some of the situations we face, it’s like something you’d see on a special report on TV! And it’s not like we can call the cops for help. So I can’t afford to have employees to get scared when shit jumps off.”

More than half of his clients are running away because they owe money. So Blackfield has to move them without the toritate gyousha (取り立て業者: debt-collector) finding out.

“Most of these clients owe over $30,000. And they think yonige is easier to than to declare bankruptcy. So I have to make sure I get paid in advance, right?!? As long as I get mine, they can owe as much as they like to whoever they like! I’m open-minded about that. My rates? It’s different for every client. For instance, a single man living in a one-room apartment don’t have a lot of stuff, so I’ll charge him $3,000 – moving furniture is extra. It’s sure more than a legit mover – even more than the average yonigeya. They pay more for us because we’ll take dangerous jobs!

“A surprisingly large amount of clients want us to move their whole family! As if it’s as easy as making one person disappear! If they agree to throw out all their furniture, I can temporarily re-locate them to a room above a pachinko parlor that my friend owns. No one would think to look for them there!

But some of these clients – they want to bring the furniture. They want to make the wife and kids disappear too. There’s no way for me to move them all stealthily, but other movers won’t help them either. I got to charge them $5,000 to 10,000, and even that is an act of charity on my part.”


I asked Mr. Blackfield to tell me the most dangerous situation he’s ever encountered. He said that it was a tale of failure, so he didn’t want to talk about it. Making a very sour face, he reluctantly continued:

“I got a sudden phone call from a young gangster. ‘Help, save me! If I go outside they’ll kill me! I stole from my boss. It was stupid, I know, but now I’m cooped up in here. I see black Mercedes circling the block! I didn’t know what else to do, but I saw your ad so I’m calling.’

“I didn’t know if his call was being wire-tapped or not, so I cut him off before he could say more. I said I’d consider helping, on three conditions: First, we had to do this right now. Second, I couldn’t guarantee him a new place to live. Third, this would cost him $20,000. He agreed. I hung up without telling him when I’d come, or even IF I would come. Again, wiretapping was a concern. I took two of my guys, and we left in two vehicles: a passenger car, and a windowless van. We drove around his apartment but didn’t see anything suspicious. I went in and knocked. No response – I didn’t know if he had already been kidnapped or if he was just being cautious.

“So, I called out the name of the moving company we used for the ad he’d read (because we’re not idiots, we change the name of the company and the phone number after every client). Then the door half-opened, revealing the face of a young Yakuza, white with fear. He said he was ready to go, right now. We surrounded him and marched downstairs to the passenger car. We got in the rear seat, from the right side. Then we secretly opened the left rear door and shoved him into our van which was parked in the next spot.

“After that, I had the passenger car drive off, as a decoy, to see if anyone was tailing it. But the Yakuza were too smart for us; they came right up to our van as soon as the car was gone. They marched up in formation, and began kicking the van, yelling at us to come out. I told the client I was really sorry, and then opened up the door for the Yakuza. I had my van driver’s safety to think about, you know. The client was screaming, clinging to both my legs as the mobsters dragged him outside. It was pretty rotten, but we’d been caught by the fuckin’ mob, man. There was nothing else to do! Maybe you want to tell me that if I was a competent yonigeya, I wouldn’t have gotten into this jam in the first place. Don’t say it! That client was pretty much doomed in any case. Sometimes, when you lose, you lose, and that’s that. We did all we could to help someone that no one else would help. And then we lost!”

Mr. Blackfield likes to brag about how good he is at what he does, but even he has to turn down some people:

“One time, I got a call in the middle of the night. Some guy, really freaked out, yelling, ‘Come and get me now!’ He sounded like a criminal on the run! You get those guys from time to time. I’ll help them if I don’t have other matters to attend to, but I don’t want to get involved in anything heavy as murder. You could catch an ‘aiding and abetting the escape’ charge or possibly even ‘accomplice’. I’m running a place of business here! What if a bunch of cops or gangsters bust in? That would be no good! I don’t mind risky jobs, but if the police look for me in earnest, they’re gonna find me. So, that’s why I turn down guys like the guy I’m telling you about. I asked him, ‘What have you done?’ But he wouldn’t answer. ‘You’re a midnight mover, so fuckin’ midnight move my ass!’ He was all yelling at me. I didn’t know the particulars of his situation, so I couldn’t really judge him. On the other hand, I had to keep a cool head. Is he a killer? What’s he mixed up with? It looked too risky so I just threw out my phone! I only use one cell – phone at a time, so if I dump it, he can’t bother me again, and neither can whoever was chasing him! I never knew what wound up happening to him.

“The actual process of moving is not that hard. As long as we do it systematically and according to plan, our success rate is almost 100%. Of course, if you include guys like the ‘midnight yeller’ and the ‘young yakuza’ guy, where we don’t even manage to start properly, it drops to around 80%.”


“The real hard part comes AFTER the move. I tell everyone that. You have to watch everything you say and do, for years! You’d be surprised how many people mess that part up. After a certain amount of years, they feel – based on nothing – that the jikou (時効: statute of limitations) has expired and they start talking about their past. They start saying a bunch of stuff they shouldn’t say. Even that friend of yours, Mr. A. I have a feeling he’s not going to last too much longer, even with that new koseki I got him. If you tell your new friends, in your new city, the wrong stuff, who knows how far that information will spread? And you can’t talk to your old friends. Even your brothers and sisters, your family. If you are serious about your yonige, you’ll let your family think you’re dead. It’s the only way.

(In Japan, the family can file a missing persons report. If seven years has passed and the body has not been found, the family can have the missing person legally declared dead)

“But otherwise, if you even get a little sloppy, make one little mistake, you’ll be caught. Your past will catch up to you in a big way! The most common mistakes are using a cash card, or credit card, registered to your former identity. That stuff leaves a paper trail. It doesn’t matter how far away you moved, buddy! Anyone checking the report of your credit / cash card use will know the exact location and time you used it. You have to take all the money out of the bank beforehand! You have to plan ahead a little bit.

“The other big mistake is phones. Don’t call anyone from your old life! Period. The third mistake is filing a change-of-address form with the post office so you can still get mail from your old life. That’s just illogical! Dudes can check that stuff. Dudes can trace that stuff. ‘New identity’ doesn’t just mean a new nickname and a new apartment, it means you are dead to your old life! Otherwise, they’ll catch you sooner or later.”

17 – MARIJUANA CULTIVATOR (マリファナ栽培: mariwana saibai)

RISK: *****

When the door opens, a fresh, green smell overflows from the room. It is unmistakably the scent of . . .marijuana. Mr. Myswamp (30, not his real name), the marijuana saibai, turns on the lights, revealing row after row of pots lining the floor. In these conditions, the stalks grow to one meter in height, and they bloom twice a year. He says that it’s been a long time since he’s let anyone besides himself inside here. I have a confession to make – back when I first started doing drugs, I used to smoke weed regularly, and that’s how I met Mr. Myswamp. There’s a lot of ‘marijuana fans’ who grow one or two plants for their personal use, but it’s difficult to find someone who grows it professionally. But since I knew Mr. Myswamp since we were young, I was able to get this interview!


“It’s been a year since I moved my operation to this place,” says Myswamp with a very casual, unworried tone. I knew he’d moved but didn’t know the dirty details. I asked if he could enlighten me.

“Aw, you know I used to live in Saitama city! I’m sure you heard why I had to move here!” he said. I told him that this was an interview, so he should pretend he doesn’t know me. After that he answered in a very serious manner.

“The reason I moved is that a ‘marijuana robber’ came while I was out and stole all my crops! 15 mature plants – around $10,000 worth. And of course I couldn’t call the police! I could only cry and walk home with my tail between my legs.”  

Why did the robber target you?

Myswamp made a sour face: “I can’t say for sure. I used to have regular customers over to the grow-room often. I even sold weed out of that room. I thought it was safe! But in the end it was like a target for robbers.

“Even though I’m a saibai, that doesn’t mean I’m at the grow-house every day. I live elsewhere. I still do, in spite of the burglary. I mean, that’s kind of a rule. You have to keep the grow-house dark a lot, to fool the plants into thinking that winter has come and gone – that’s how you get two harvests a year.”

Looking around the room, I see around 10 pots, but no furniture other than a small refrigerator. There’s some books in a corner. The robbery was the reason for the move, but Smallswamp was such a stoner, it took him 2 years to do it! So even after being looted, he continued to grow in that room for 24 more months.

“I spent two years in the old room, wondering when it was going to get burglarized again, thinking I should move. It took me a long time to outfit this new room: I had to invest in special grow-lights and irrigation systems, partitions. It’s not all profit in this business! So now in the NEW grow-room, I never invite anyone over. Anyone bold enough to break into this new place, it’ll be a miracle if they don’t get busted! I know a fellow stoner who had gotten busted, but he never snitched on me. I’m really grateful for that. In thanks, I’ve given him loads of free sinsemella when he got out! He got a suspended sentence, so he was stoked.”


“It’s not that risky, I don’t think. Besides this room, I’ve also got a small plot of land in the mountains. The quality of mountain-weed is not as good: The buds go for $10 a gram, the leaves I’ll throw in as ‘service.’ I can harvest the outdoor crops once yearly, the indoor stuff twice-yearly. I clear around $70 or $80,000 a year.

“Of course if you have three times the grow-houses, you can make three times the money, but you also got three times the risk! I don’t need it, myself. Basically the most worrisome part of my job is how to market and sell the stuff! If you just sell it on the street, you’ll get nabbed quick. And selling by internet is difficult. And as much as I can, I want to avoid dealing with organized crime groups. Once they get their hooks in you, they’ll never let go. Plus I don’t like all that tobashi keitai (飛ばし携帯: cell-phones obtained under a fake name, which can not be traced back to the real owner) and kakuu kouza (架空口座:secret bank accounts), and that whole gangster life. I sell to my friends, basically, and their friends. Strictly word-of-mouth. Some of my pals are pushers, with their own clientele. They like to take the buds and make ‘chocolate’ out of them, but I don’t know how they sell it.”

Marijuana can be made into hashish, also called ‘chocolate.’ The ‘choco’ maniacs will spend up to $60 for a single gram. The usual market price is $40, but Myswamp sells it to friends for $30.

“And of course if you grow more, your expenses go up, too. It’s especially expensive if you live in a cold climate . . . .you have to turn your room into a virtual green-house. The electric bill for the heat-lamps alone can run to $500 per month. What the hell, man? Marijuana is a plant that really loves to grow and reproduce. Robust! You can pretty much just leave it alone and it’ll do its thing. But it’s only ‘in season’ in the summer and fall. So it’s really sensitive to cold. It stops growing, the stems wither. More importantly, your customers will be able to taste the difference. So I guess you do need to tend to the plants pretty well.”


“First, your grow-room has to meet one important condition: it has to be in the city! I’ve been using this apartment for a whole year and I still don’t know anything about my next-door neighbor but his face. If you’re in the country, everyone knows everything about everyone. There’s no way to keep a secret! So you got to set up shop in Tokyo, Osaka, somewhere like that. Then you have to somehow get ahold of some seeds. But nowadays, you can consult websites like ‘Amsterdam’s ‘Cannibus Cup’ to find the most popular varieties and buy them. About $50-$70 worth should be fine.

“It’s not illegal to have marijuana seeds or buy them. But the second they sprout, they become illegal! Most people don’t know this but, shichimitougarashi (a common spice) has a certain amount of marijuana seeds in it, as does some of the ‘bird seed’ sold in pet stores! That’s why they can’t make seeds illegal! But the police aren’t stupid – they keep track of all the pot-seed sites, and if you order online, they’ll track your IP address. So I recommend setting up a new email account for that purchase, and after you get the seeds, wait 6 months to a year before you start growing them. That’s the bare minimum of precautions. Right now, Mr. Kubou, the former assistant editor of a famous boys’ magazine, he bought a grow-light rig called a phototron off the internet, and he said that later he was investigated by the police. For some reason, people don’t take precautions – they feel like buying stuff online is a crime, even if they’d never do it face-to-face. This ‘mental paralysis’ is kind of scary!”

Mr. Myswamp then began to talk about how marijuana was different and better than other drugs, but I begged him to change the subject:

“Next, I’d like to recommend how to grow outside! In the (redacted) region of Saitama prefecture, by the riverside, during the right season, you can find it growing out there like blaaaow! Of course, that region is the Yakuza’s ‘territory’, but plenty of the locals grow a little on the side. I also have a little plot of it at a, ahem, certain location.

“It’s really easy to do – just find some plot of land where nobody goes, out back in the mountains. Then scatter some seeds like waaah – ! all over the place. And when you think ‘It’s probably about time for them to bloom, isn’t it?’ then go have a look. The only problem is that a lot of the locals have the same idea as you, and if they go to the mountains to grow their own, and they find yours, that’s it. Game over, city boy! Those hicks are so sophisticated, they can probably even tell what variety you’re growing just by looking at it! Especially in areas like Nagano and Yamanashi, yeah!

“Me getting jacked in my own room is weird, but getting looted in the mountains is normal. I’ve had my crops stolen three or four times out there! In the end, you have to go so deep in the mountains no one else will come – but that’s got its own problems. Fact is, I had to buy me a GPS unit just to find my shit! Compared to indoe, the quality is poorer but you get a larger yield. To be honest, from a ‘risk assessment standpoint’, outdoor-grow is the hands-down winner. But I’d lose all my current customers with that dirt-weed and plus I personally don’t even like smoking it! So, indoe it is!”

I asked Mr. Myswamp how he first got started cultivating:

“My friend came back from Amsterdam with some seeds, and gave them to me. I sort of unthinkingly planted them in a simple bowl and grew me some marijuana! Then I graduated college, but couldn’t really get a professional job. Wound up working at a convenience store, busting my ass! I never really thought of selling weed for money: it was just for me. But the number of friends who kept asking me to ‘grow some extra for them’ kept growing and growing, and pretty soon I had a full-time job! I never really asked for the opportunity to grow it or sell it, it sort of just turned out that way! I guess in the end, the only reason was that I was interested in it. . .seriously!”

RISK: *****
SALARY: ****

The people I’ve interviewed until now fall into two groups: those who make a living off of their physical efforts (tuna fisherman, nuclear reactor cleanup) and those who make a living like an artisan or craftsman (marijuana cultivator, locksmith, etc.). This time, I’m interviewing a forger – definitely on the top rank of artisinal ‘ura work.’


“First of all, you’ve been told that some documents are too hard to copy. Forget that. It’s nonsense. Think about it like this : every paper is made by humans, so it can be re-made by other humans! I don’t gizou (偽造: counterfeit)  yen bills or stock certificates, but not because they’re too hard – it’s only because the effort and startup expenses are too bothersome.”

So declares Mr. Islefield (32, not his real name), a ‘gizou creator.’  Then he mutters to himself, “Actually those would be really hard to do.” It’s this skittishness, this nervousness that gives him a different first impression from most of the guys I interview.  Islefield doesn’t do anything but gizou  – even the sales of his creations are handled by his partner. I wasn’t able to meet the partner, but Mr. Islefield assures me that he’s a really aggressive salesman! Looking at Islefield, I can understand why he needs a partner for the ‘people-skills’ part of his business: he’s barely able to hold a conversation.

I ask Mr. islefield what items are popular in his line of work. He says houkenshou (保険証: insurance ID) cards. (ed. note: In Japan, insurance cards are used as I.D. cards, since most people don’t have drivers’ licences)

“Anyone can fake a houkenshou – All you need is a high-quality scanner and a PC. Of course, the finishing touches will show the difference between the pro and amateur. Then, you get the correct kind of paper to print on, and you’re done. And they sell that paper at any stationary store! Really, who decided that such an easily-copied thing should be the main form of ID? It’s strange! If you have this houkenshou, you  – in theory – have yourself a fake identity: you can open a false bank account! That sounds handy, but in practice, almost no-one takes them seriously as ID anymore. Only really low-level yamikin (やみ金:loan-sharks) will loan you money if you’re your only ID is a paper houkenshou.”

Tha’ts why recently the government has decided to switch from paper houkenshou to plastic, credit-card-lookin’ cards.

“Compared to the paper ones, it takes a lot of painstaking effort to clone the plastic houkenshou. But, since they switched to plastic specifically to shut guys like me out of business, why didn’t they go the extra mile and put a face-photo on there? It seems like they’re not thinking straight. A photo-ID. That would be a more exciting challenge for me!”

So, Mr. Islefield is currently spending all his energy trying to duplicate the new plastic houkenshou. He says within three months of the REAL plastic cards’ debut, the forgeries will also be on the market: people know how easy the paper cards are to fake- many places don’t take them as IDs.  But everyone assumes the new plastic cards will be un-breakable, so they DON’T take precautions with those. Meaning that users will be able to get away with a lot more. And that means that the first forger to market counterfeit plastic IDs will make a killing!

I was not allowed to see Mr. Islefield’s work-space, but he told me the general process: First you get the materials, then you process them to make a plastic card. Then you print the letters on the card. Then you laminate it with transparent plastic. You can buy such a laminator at Tokyuu Hands (the equivalent of Target). There’s really nothing to it, he says. Talking to him, you get the feeling that he doesn’t regard what he’s doing as a ‘hard’ crime like mugging or larceny. He’s more like a big kid playing with toys.

(ed. note: 1990s Japanese ‘telephone cards’ were not magnetic or electronic: they operated on a hole-punch system: you bought one with minutes on it, and physically stuck it inside the telephone slot. Every 5 minutes, the phone would punch a hole in the card. When the card was full of holes, your card was done.)

The first time he tried to gizou something was ten years ago, during the big ‘phone card’ fad. At that time, he was in college, and became quickly obsessed with hacking the cards. The technique was simple: fill up the holes in the cards with tiny wedges of aluminum foil. Even though it worked, it was clearly a hack, and not a genuine forgery: you could tell it had been tampered with. Upon realizing the difference, Islefield became ashamed at his poor workmanship and resolved to become a true gizou kurieitaa.

“I wanted to make something perfect! That was the start of my ‘gizou mania.’ But it was all for fun – I had no idea I could make a living at it. I started forging insurance ID cards – I guess you could call that my ‘debut’ in the world of grown-up counterfeits. I didn’t have a nice scanner or sophisticated software like today – I just studied gizou a lot and tried really hard, and eventually succeeded in producing something that couldn’t be told apart from the real deal. I guess that’s why I’m so passionate about being the first to clone the new plastic IDs!

“I didn’t want to clone someone else’s ID cards for money – I only wanted to get skills for the sake of skills. So I used my family’s cards to practice on! Honestly I didn’t really think of it as a crime. One day I showed the card to my friend. He said, ‘I want one! You should do this for a living!’ and that’s when I started thinking about it.”

This friend is not working with Islefield nowadays, but they’re in the same general line of work:

 “He never went to school. He was always going to the dangerous spots. Now he’s an underworld guy. Anyway, thanks to him, I realized that my hobby was criminal. But I couldn’t stop – I had to find out if my creations would actually work in the real world. So when my friend asked me to make him an ID, I did it!

“After that, I got more and more requests – houkenshou and also student IDs. I have never done a passport, but I’d like to try one day. Overcoming such a challenge would be the pinnacle of my career! The more complex it is, the more I enjoy grappling with it. Stuff like telephone cards or houkenshou, anyone can do those! I really like making things with photos embedded in them – drivers’ licenses and things of that level. If some punk beginner tried to do a drivers’ license, you’d take one look at it and be like ORLY? But I can do it, so that makes me feel good.”

He uses Adobe Illustrator to make the drivers’ licenses. Working from a model, he reconstructs each detail in the software. Then he pops in images that he’s scanned. Scanning is useful because the pictures don’t degrade no matter how many times you copy or process them. He pays special attention to the kerning of the letters, and the license number. (You can’t just pick random digits – There’s information hidden in the license number. Certain patterns of numbers mean things. When you use your ID card at a machine, the machine checks the numbers, and you don’t want to tell it the wrong stuff). The work is very meticulous. He allowed me to inspect some of his drivers’ licenses. Aside from the words being slightly blurry, it looked and felt real. “One of these days, I’m going to clone the font that they use – then I won’t have to bother Photoshopping the existing letters,” he says. “Then my cards will be 100% perfect!”

“The people who buy my creations usually are crooks. They won’t tell me what they want ‘em for! But recently, there’s been an increase in ‘regular citizens’ also buying fake IDs: mostly drivers’ licenses and college IDs.  They tell me they’re regular people who want the freedom to pretend to be someone else. Go out drinking with people and introduce yourself as Mr. Smith, make up a fake story, have some fun. Or if you couldn’t get into a certain college, go anyway! Pretend to have the life you want. Like you ever see on TV where someone is obsessed with policemen? And the guy will ride the train in full (stolen) police uniform – and get arrested? Well, I think my customers aren’t that nuts, but definitely they remind me of those fake-police-maniacs. In this day and age, a lot of people want a second identity. It’s just a card, but it gives them a feeling of freedom, like they can do anything. These are strange times we’re living in!”

Incidentally, the market price of a forged drivers’ license is around $1,000. A small price for turning into another person, I think! Of course there’s always people advertising phoney IDs on the net, but those items aren’t ‘real’ gizou, so to speak. I’ve heard of people who sent their money to the internet address, ordering a fake ID, and in the mail they get . . .a Morning Musume fan club card!


“I don’t do tobashi keitai and kakuu kouza (untraceable cellphones and bank accounts). Not my job. You have to find people at the bank , at the phone company, get them to cooperate – either by trickery or bribery. I prefer to work alone. That’s why I call myself a “gizou creator” – a craftsman, not a con-man.”

Mr. Islefield’s friend, however, is doing fake bank accounts. I ask him to tell me about it, and he looks crestfallen. He answers without any of the feverish passion he uses when describing his own techniques.

“Well, (sigh), you can use one of my fake IDs to open an untraceable account, or to sign up for a cellphone contract. But it’s simpler to just pay a homeless or a junior-high student for their ID card and use that. In any case, my friend charges $30 to set up a fake bank account, and $50 to get an untraceable cellphone- but of course that’s just for his labor, it doesn’t include the fake IDs.”

These days, what is your most profitable commodity? What do you get asked for the most?

“Concert tickets! Famous idol-singers’ concerts. . . compared to drivers’ licenses they’re simple as hell to clone, but expensive as hell to buy. People scalp them on online auctions for $400, $500 a pop. I don’t like doing that work, though. It’s so easy, anyone could do it. They post pictures of the tickets on the auction sites – you don’t have to be Michaelangelo to duplicate a damn .jpg and print it. People tell me I should clone a lot of tickets and sell them to crooked ticket-shops. But frankly, I have no interest in idol-singers. I don’t have the passion to sit there all day and make tickets for these kinds of events! Oh, also pet pedigrees! For certain breeds of dogs, the pedigree can earn me a ridiculous amount of money. There’s a few corrupt pet-shops that ask me for pedigrees, like, all the time! I’m thinking of quitting that racket, too! Too much bother over a dog.”

Once again, Mr. Islefield’s tone of voice is declining to a whisper. The idea of forging things which are ‘too easy’ seems to be like a ghost which is haunting his whole career. He feels that certain items are beneath him.

After the interview is over, I went home and took all my various cards and IDs and spread them out on the table. Try as I might, I could not be certain they were real! What is ‘real’, when it comes to plastic cards? To think that our society puts so much trust in them – we dedicate our entire identities to these little things. I think we’re all living in Kafka’s novel ‘The Castle.’


In January of 2004, Due to the overwhelming growth of loan-sharking, Japan established the “Financial Countermeasures Act.” The aim of the act was to put loan-sharks out of business: it regulated interest rates, advertising and methods of bill-collecting. But, according to loan-shark Mr. Longtail (31, not his real name), the bill didn’t really damage his business at all.


“The loan companies are feeling the pressure of the new regulations, I guess. . . but my business is “090 loans” – it was illegal to begin with! So I’m not really in any more trouble than I was before, right??”

‘090 finance’ refers to loansharks that have no office, so the police can’t find them, and use their cellphones to do business. 090 is the area code of Japanese cellphones.

We’re doing the interview at a coffee shop, and Mr. Talltail stands out splendidly in his gold chains and loud silk shirt: He looks very much like a movie gangster! I was introduced to Talltale by Mr. Islefield, the forger, who said, “He’s a really nice guy.” But, if you asked me to share my first impression of Talltale, I might have to say something different! I asked him about it and he said he was not a ‘made’ Yakuza, but he was a junkouseiin (準構成員: someone connected to a Yakuza family).

“Ask me anything you like,” he said.

Since he was nice enough to say that, I decided to start off with the most invasive, risky thing I could think of: “Why do you dress like that?” It was an inappropriate question, but us normal people always wonder why gangsters dress in such poor taste, and I might never get another chance to satisfy my curiosity on the matter.

He looked faintly indignant for a second but soon composed himself.

“Usually ‘outlaw fashion’ is just younger guys copying the traditions of older guys. But in my case, it’s a bit different. For me, this is a work uniform! In this business, if you don’t look threatening, you can’t collect the money! But times are tough right now. If you even raise your voice these days, you could get charged with kyoukatsu (恐喝: extortion or intimidation). Can you believe that?!? So we try to collect the money as ‘sorftly’ as possible. Looking the part means it’s less likely that I have to raise my voice in the first place! It’s pretty effective, too.”

A very concise, candid answer. Next I asked him about the loan-shark system.

“People talk about yamikin like it’s all one thing, but there’s many different approaches. There’s registered (legal) loan firms, (those are the guys affected by the new law), and 090 guys like me. There’s different rates of rishi (利子:interest), like ‘ten-for-one’ (ten percent rishi, compounded every ten days) and ‘one-for-one’ (ten percent compounded daily), ‘ten for five’ (fifty percent rishi, compounded every ten days), and so on. Basically, the common point is that the rishi  is always above what the law allows! As for me, I’m ten-for-three, so I make good money!”

However, because of the law, yamikin can’t advertise openly anymore. So how does Mr. Talltail get people to fall into his traps?

”There’s various techniques, such as the ‘furniture rental store’: set up a real store, full of real furniture. Then you can advertise in evening papers for people looking to ‘rent furniture’ because they’re ‘short on furniture and need some in a hurry.’ Of course the furniture has 30 or 50 percent rishi! Otherwise, you can solicit customers over the phone, or just do your business In Tha $treetz:

“As long as there’s people looking for a hand-out, guys like me will be in business. It’s the law of supply and demand! That’s what validates our existence.”


When you mention yamikin, most people think of the manga “Southern Kings,” where they’re loaning out millions of dollars. I asked Mr. Talltail about this:

“Oh, it’s different in real life! I’m not going to say that there are no yamikin operating at that level, but Southern Kings is just a manga, in the end. The only people with such huge debts are guys with multiple creditors – that’s always a rough situation. In my case, I usually loan two or three hundred dollars at a time. I’ve turned down people that wanted $1000 before!”

He’s totally different than I thought he would be, based on his appearance.

“When it comes to getting clients, I use two methods: flyers and lists. The flyers I put on telephone poles and public phones: ‘Get money with one phone call, no questions asked!’ kind of thing.  A lot of people have a jijou (事情、 a ‘certain situation’ = in trouble!), find the flyer, and call me as a last resort. To me, that’s totally nuts, but whatever. The lists are lists of yamikin which circulate underground. Some are made BY yamikin  associations, but mostly they are made by clients themselves, and passed hand-to-hand. They list the guy, his rates, his terms and conditions. So it’s easy for the clients to compare and decide. They’ll pick a yamikin who seems OK and call him!”

Of course, Mr. Talltail and his colleagues use black-market cellphones under false names. They can buy them from a professional forger, but usually it’s simpler to make one of their clients buy them a phone in the client’s name.

“I charge 30%, so it’s common for me to lend to guys who THEMSELVES lend money at 50%. That way, I know they can pay me back, and plus since they’re also sharking, they know the rules and I don’t have to explain the game to them.

“Sometimes I have to wire it to a client’s bank account, but I try as much as possible to hand it to them directly. And no written contracts. Also, business must be concluded in one phone call. If they start hemming and hawing, trying to negotiate or barter, I just tell ‘em, ‘Call ya back,’ and hang up. The point is, in this business, you have to do everything smoothly, keep the money moving, work fast, fast, fast.”

Right then, Talltail’s phone began to ring. It seemed to be a call from a client of his: His voice changed, as did his way of speaking. Suddenly he was a threatening Yakuza. Even his face became a mask of hostility – and the client couldn’t even see him! He didn’t explicitly make any threats, but he kept repeating, “You better think of how you’re going to pay me back,” and, “Don’t be late!” After hanging up, he just as suddenly returned to his casual, conversational demeanor. I wasn’t sure which side was the ‘real’ Mr. Talltail. At any rate, I asked him how he did toritate (取り立て:debt collection):

“It’s actually pretty rare that I have to do something drastic. If the client is reasonable, I’m reasonable! But if he’s ridiculous, I have to respond even worse. In this business, it’s fundamental to keep the money circulating. Go around town, collecting rishi from this person and that, and then go around again, loaning it to other people. That’s why we don’t care too much if they don’t pay the principal. Even if I don’t come to see a guy on ‘deadline day’, he might just automatically wire the rishi to my account. That’s not rare!

“But, on the other hand, there’s always some guys that you know they’re going to welsh on you right from the start. And I have to respond to each guy in a way appropriate to the situation. Mostly I start by calling them – but not at home! I call them at work! And not once – ten times an hour. Because their job is a place of  business, someone has to answer the phone. And the debtor will quickly get a reputation as someone who owes money – who knows? Maybe he’s a gambler? Maybe he’s mixed up in mob business! He’s disrupting the business. Their co-workers start talking. Usually that’s enough to get them to pay up. If that doesn’t work, you can take them ‘on a ride.’

Mr. Talltail smirks as he says this.

“You get a big guy to be your driver, someone the client has never seen before. You pull up while he’s walking down the street and invite him into the car. If he gets in, you drive to a spot deep in the mountains. You don’t say a word. Even if he starts asking you questions, you don’t reply. Just keep driving deeper and deeper into the countryside, where no one ever goes. That’s a really effective one! If you’re in a mood, you can stop in some deserted zone, and everyone gets out. Then you throw a shovel at his feet! But if you overdo it, some clients will jump out of the moving car. So you have to be careful. But we’re really good guys at heart, though! We don’t loan money in huge amounts – it’s not worth the risk of arrest. And we’re not as scary as the loan-sharks that have ‘an office’ (i.e. made men). Those guys loan out thousands of dollars at a time! That’s when the rishi payments really start to snowball, it’s a shakkin jigoku (借金地獄 : debtor’s hell)!!

“I know one guy, he’s got a little yamikin business: His rishi rate is ten-for-three, like me, but his approach is totally different. He uses ‘the jump.’ Let me tell you how he works! Say a guy, call him Mr. B., wants to borrow $1,000. But Mr. B. is such a dead-beat he’s on the ‘blacklist’, which means that normal banks won’t lend to him. But my friend will. The client, Mr. B, signed the contract; but the funny thing is, the only thing on the contract is the amount! No rishi rate or deadline or anything else. Just “Mr. B borrowed $1,000”. But borrowing $1,000, doesn’t mean he GETS $1,000. There’s the first-ten-days’ rishi, isn’t there? $300. My friend deducts the rishi in advance! So Mr. B only gets $700.

“So. After ten days, Mr. B. has to pay the second $300 in rishi. He can’t afford to. So my friend says, ‘OK, I’m not a mean guy. I’m not some crazy gangster like in the movies. I’ll tell you what – I’ll loan you the $300 until you get back on your feet. See you in ten days!’

“So Mr. B. now has a principal of $1,300, which means the rishi rises to $400. In ten days, Mr. B. still can’t pay. No problem! My friend loans him the $400. Mr. B’s principal is now $1,700, and the interest on that is – well, around $650.

“After ten more days, Mr. B. owes $2,700. The next time, $4,300. The next time, $4,300. (incidentally, the interest payments go from $300 to $400, $6,500, $800ish, and then $1,300.)”

Frankly, I don’t understand this, I say.

“Hell, I barely understand it myself! It’s best that way. The mathematical calculations involved in ‘the jump’ are totally crazy. Even if you explain it to someone they can’t get it. Which means the client never knows what hit ‘em, right? Even when they pay you back part of the debt, they’re confused about how much is left. . . Especially if you start rounding the figures in funny ways. Especially if you start rounding the figures in funny ways. In the space of two months, a $1,000 debt can exceed $10,000! So why would a yamikin use a method that almost guarantees the client can’t repay? Well if the client is a woman, she can be forced into prostitution. If it’s a guy, his new career choices are even more grim: he can work on the tuna boat, or help build a tunnel deep in the earth.

“You make it sound like it’s his choice: ‘Which would you prefer?’ Anyway Mr. B. wound up choosing tunnel-construction. He managed to pay off the loan after a year, so it worked out ok!”

Mr. Talltail has been speaking about another yamikin’s busness practices, but I get the feeling his own clients wind up sharing the same fate. If they don’t pay, the debts grow exponentially, and if they CAN’T pay, then what happens?

“Well, some clients, they borrow from one guy to pay off another guy, as the debts grow, and eventually it all blows up, doesn’t it! Then, I tell them, they have to pay me before they even think about paying back their other creditors. Many times, I go to collect, but I’m too late: the client has already given his last dime to another yamikin! They don’t have to pay the whole thing – I’m happy with $500 or even $100. That way they can work off the principal. But if they can’t pay at all- then they have to sell their body in the end, don’t they?”

Mr. Talltale’s merciless words contrast with his mild-mannered speaking-voice – he talks as if this were the most casual topic, and forcing people into slavery was no big deal. Who cares if they die while building a tunnel, or get lost at sea? The important thing is that he keeps his hands clean of any obvious crimes.  He’s very frank and patient with my questions, but in the end he’s really a criminal. I can clearly see in my mind the line between me and him.


Mr. Talltale says that yamikin have to be very aggressive while collecting loans: “If it did not require force and daring, everyone would be doing it, wouldn’t they? Of course there are a lot of would-be beginner yamikin that find out the hard way they don’t have what it takes. I was almost one of those guys – I almost got ate up!

“It started like this: I borrowed $20,000 from my ‘boss’ at the ‘organization’ to start my own loan-shark business. I borrowed at 10% interest and loaned at 30%. It seemed like no-brainer! But when my clients would dodge me, or welsh on me . . I couldn’t very well turn around and welsh on my ‘boss.’ So my debts to him started snowballing. He started asking ME if maybe I should consider riding the tuna boat or working in the tunnel. So I got more serious about my debt collections after that! I would stalk people, beat people, do whatever it took, because it was my ass!

“The worst is when you get arrested. Doing the time isn’t the bad part: If you don’t manage to reach an agreement with your yamikin before you go in, they’ll keep charging you interest while you’re inside! One guy had to do a one-year stretch, and when he got out, he had to work in slavery at a factory deep in the mountains for two years. So in my case, I worked my ass off for my first six months, and then finally I had a sort of equilibrium between the money I was getting and the money I owed. But I was always afraid of losing that equilibrium if and when I eventually got busted. So I can’t say it’s a fun job to do.”

It seems the yamikin’s lot in life to always persue others while being persued. Even if you get arrested, you can’t quit the job afterwards. Mr. Talltail said he’ll keep on doing the 090 operation. For my final question, I asked him what advice he could give to people who don’t want to get so deep in debt that the marrow is sucked from their bones.

His advice was chillingly simple: “Don’t borrow shit!”

SALARY: *****

Perhaps you’ve heard rumors that the underworld deals in not just guns, drugs, and women, but in human organs as well. I head those rumors too, but I couldn’t feel as if they were real. It just seemed like a threat that a gangster or loan-shark would say to his victim– “If you can’t pay me back, why don’t you sell a kidney?” Like something out of a crime-movie, not real life! I asked my underworld contacts, but they all said, “I heard about it too, but I don’t know if it’s for real!” Even my mobbed-up yamikin (loan-shark) acquaintance said, “What’s up with that stuff anyway?” But, one source who was a soushiki daihyousha (相識代表者:literally ‘representative’ of an ‘organization’, but I’m sure you can figure it out )told me, “Yeah, ihou (違法: illegal) zouki buroukaa  exist, I’m pretty sure. There’s none in our soushiki (相識:organization) but I could get ahold of one if I had to.” When I asked him if he could do it for me, he said, “Quit talking shit!”

I asked everyone to put me in touch if they knew anything, but it was futile. I resolved to go ahead and publish the book without any zouki buroukaa.


One night around two AM, my cell-phone rang. I was at home alone, working on the manuscript. In my line of work, it’s normal for me to get late calls, but not this late! Also, the caller’s number was ‘unlisted’ – almost certainly a prank or a threat. (incidentally, could you please stop calling me at weird times, and then not saying anything?) But I wasn’t making much headway with the manuscript, and I needed a nice distraction. Sure, prank calls make me so mad I can’t sleep – but maybe the anger would keep me awake and give me energy to finish the ‘script!

So I picked up: “Is this Mr. Kusaka?” a man’s voice said. It’s very rare for pranksters to take the time to confirm my identity. So I replied, “Yes, that’s me! What do you want?” The voice lowered to a whisper: “I heard you’re looking for zouki buroukaa, so I called.” As soon as I heard that, I scampered around my house, phone to my ear, looking for my digital recorder. I never managed to find it- maybe it was back at the office – so I conducted the interview at my computer, listening while typing notes!

“What is your name?”
“Who told you I was writing about zouki buroukaa?”
Silence, again.
“Have we met before?”
“I can’t answer that either. It’s safer for both of us if we assume we’ve never met.”

I decided not to ask him anything that might tangentially reveal his identity. After all, he was being kind to me by volunteering for the interview. He was very polite and formal during the interview. I asked him what he would prefer to be called: he said, Mr. Origin. His age? “Please write that I’m in my mid-thirties.”


After making me promise many times to preserve his anonymity, Mr. Origin began to tell me about his operations:

“My work is mostly that of mediator, an assen (斡旋:intermediary): I look for sick people wishing to receive an zouki (for transplant) and then I take care of them.”

He was choosing his words very carefully. I couldn’t tell if he was being arrogant or paranoid. His story emerged in dribs and drabs, one word at a time.

“Finding people who want zouki is the easiest part of my job. I get ahold of the official “waiting list” for zouki , which all the hospitals use. Then I contact the families directly. I can meet a lot of clients quickly that way. What’s more, everyone is in a big hurry to save their loved ones, so they don’t haggle. I can get the job in a single meeting. It’s probably the easiest thing to sell in the world! Of course, it does cost a lot of money. But once I’ve established that they can pay, we can conclude the contract immediately.”

The people who hire Mr. Origin are people who have already tried to obtain zouki legally and been turned away by the system because of the long waiting lists. They are desperate enough to straight-up barter money for human organs, he said: “There’s a huge shortage of ‘legitimate’ zouki donors. The odds of a deathly ill patient getting a needed zouki are astronomically small – they say you’d have better luck winning the lottery. For instance, in Japan, 10,000 people sign up every year for a kidney transplant, but there are only 200 donors a year. So that’s why so many people come to me.”

 He seems to be arguing that his job is moral because he’s only trying to help sick people. Having established this moral foundation, he proceeded to summarize his operations:

“First, I make contact with the person who wants zouki. Then, they have to meet a variety of conditions- many people don’t qualify. For instance, they have to be OK with doing the operation in a foreign country. The Phillipines is the best, because ishoku (移植 : organ transplants)  are legal, and they have first-world-quality hospitals. But some other Asian countries are also ok. Some Japanese people don’t want to go overseas – either they don’t trust foreign doctors or they are concerned by the long wait-time for a Phillipine transplant. SO reassuring the clients is the first part of my job.

This is not as racist as it sounds because getting zouki from different ethnic groups increases the chances of the patient’s body rejecting the zouki. (ed. note: so he says)

“After that, we decide on the zouki fee, which varies widely from organ to organ. It’s difficult to generalize about the price, but roughly speaking, kidneys and corneas are the cheapest. In The Phillipines, such a transplant will cost between $200,000 and $400,000. But a heart transplant can cost an order or magnitude more: over $1,000,000. Besides the cost of the zouki, other factors also affect the price: the age of the client, the choice of the hospital (better quality hospitals cost more), and the time-urgency of the patient’s condition. After I conclude the contract with the client, then I have to find the zouki! It’s comparatively easy to find adult zouki on the black market in the daisan sekai (第三世界:third world), but finding children’s zouki I not easy at all. Those will cost you a pretty penny, I tell you!”

So how does one purchase black-market zouki in the daisan sekai, anyway? When I ask him, Mr. Origin once again cautions me that he bears no responsibility for ‘harvesting’ the zouki, he is merely the assen (intermediary) in these transactions.

“Poor people are selling them, that’s who! That’s what it is! The dollar goes a long way in those impoverished countries – $1,000 for a kidney is a lot of money to them. With that kind of money, they can open their own business, open their own store, improve their lives! That’s how it happens in the Phillipines sometimes, but mostly it’s Indians who sell their own organs. If you offer $5,000, you’ll get a huge crowd of applicants, each yelling, ‘Buy mine! Buy mine!’

Hearing this, I can’t help but imagine a whole bunch of Mr. Origins, in various daisan sekai countries, who go round all the poorest cities buying organs, and then selling them to the Japanese Mr. Origin The ‘industry’ begins to make sense to me, falling into established capitalist common sense and patterns.

“Some of the zougi-sellers are hideous parents. They’re harvesting their own childrens’ organs. One time I was talking with a mother who was selling her daughter’s zougi. She was pregnant again at that time. When I asked her about it, she said she was going to harvest that baby as well, after it was born. I was deeply shocked – it seemed that the world was going dark before my eyes. But in all my years on the job, that’s the sickest thing I have seen, so it’s not average.”

So now we know about the zougi -buying, now we turn our attention to the actual surgery:

“As you might imagine, the whole family is stressed. They get on the airplane, not knowing if everyone will return to Japan alive. You can see the lingering doubts on their faces. You talk to them and they don’t really hear you. I try to encourage them, but. . . .

“The sense of fear increases on the plane. Many people vomit. But also a lot of people feel kind of relieved as well- they feel for the first time that their drastic plan has actually, really come together, and they realize it’s not a dream. When I look at them, I feel a very complex web of emotions radiating from them.”

By this time, I had been interviewing Mr. Origin for almost an hour. If I ask him a risky question, he might just hang up on me. And I have no way of getting back in touch with him if he does. I have to tread carefully.


“Some of the clients are selfish – they only want a Japanese donor, only want a Japanese surgeon. All opening up a briefcase full of cash money, asking ‘What can we get for this much?’ My fingers start to itch! ‘We don’t want to wait in line for the surgery. Find us a Japanese hospital where they know how to play ball.’ Of course these clients get charged a special rate.”

I asked him, are there really Japanese hospitals that crooked? But he ducked the question. Pressing on, I asked how he obtains zougi in Japan, as opposed to the daisan sekai. Is that old rumor about the loan-shark who says, “Why don’t you sell your kidneys?” really true?

“I can’t deny it.” He continued, “I try to avoid domestic zougi brokering as much as I can.”

I remarked that his statement implied that yes, he did harvest domestically. This resulted in the longest, most awkward silence of our whole conversation. Which was saying something!

Finally, he continued: “Let me just say this: a client might broach the topic this way – ‘How would you feel if I said something about, say, for instance, doing the surgery here in Japan?’ I would reply that, if such a thing were to, perhaps, occur, that the zougi donor would still have to be a foreigner. I might say, ‘Someone would have to get that person a passport and fly them over here, with the contraband, as it were, smuggled inside their body. It would still be difficult to find a ‘compliant’ hospital, and then find a way to smuggle the donor inside and hide the procedure from the medical association. But in the end, the only real obstacle is money and do you have enough of it.’

“In the cases where the client agrees to these hypothetical conditions, I have usually been able to succeed in arranging the transplant. For instance, if an Indian wants to sell a kidney, we pay him – well it’s like paying an allowance to a Japanese child, really – but to him it’s a lot, so you can’t say anyone got burned on that deal.”

So far we’ve been talking about foreign donors, daisan sekai donors. But behind that phenomenon is the huge economic difference between the countries. Isn’t that a bit like prejudice? Paying the Indian $2,000 and then selling the organ for $300,000? That’s a distorted structure no matter how you look at it. Plus it seems as if the ‘helpful assen’ Mr. Origin only helps sick people with lots of cash.

“What I have in common with the daisan sekai donors is this: we both know that they’re starving, and they can’t exchange their kidneys for wheat and milk!”

Seriously, bro, what kind of man are you???

Mr. Origin got very worked up at this, and responded : “Look, I can’t single-handedly evacuate everyone in the third world! But a few Japanese people are calling on me to save them, and I can do that! It’s not like the client says, ‘Hey, I’m so rich – why don’t I buy a new liver just for fun!’ That’s only a small minority! My clients are very old people, people in pain – children born with terrible diseases, children born to die. Who can refuse someone who is screaming with their whole body, ‘I don’t want to die!’ Who can look at them and then shrug and walk away? Not me. That’s why I chose this business!”


In 2000, in Guatemala, two Japanese tourists were mistaken for child-stealing hitosarai (人さらい:kidnappers). They were killed by a mob. Mr. Origin has also talked to other brokers who actually DO ‘procure’ zougi by kidnapping people.

“What I’m going to tell you next is incredible but it’s not a lie. In a lot of foreign countries, parents have to take their children to school, and pick them up. If the children go on their own, they’ll be yuukai (誘拐: kidnapped). To a Japanese, this might sound like an exaggeration because you have no sense of the daisan sekai. But security is a big issue in these countries. I’ve heard all kinds of crazy rumors – that the organs are sold to rich Americans with sick children. I’ve heard about two or three children being kidnapped from Myanmar. Or Indian hospitals where a baby is born ok, but they tell the mother it was still-born- it just disappears. I’ve heard lots of terrifying stories like this.”

I should have asked what happened to the children afterwards, but I couldn’t. I was paralyzed by a mixture of horror on one hand, and on the other hand, doubt. Mr. Origin’s stories were getting more and more shocking. Could a real criminal really talk about such deep things openly? Mr. Origin’s voice began to quiver and quake over the receiver.

“When you hear things like that, you wonder what human life is worth. You can’t do this job if you think about that all the time, but now and then I stop and wonder, and it makes me afraid.”

As he said this, his tone of voice had subtley changed- there was a trace of regret.

Our interview had already passed the two-hour mark, so I decided we should finish it up. My final question: I asked him who told him about my book. He wouldn’t answer. I explained that I needed to send him the manuscript later, for fact-checking. But he wouldn’t tell me how to contact him. “Just write what you feel like,” he said. And we hung up. I was in my empty room in the middle of the night, holding a phone that I couldn’t put down.

11 comments Tags:

11 Comments so far

  1. Tzench December 5th, 2010 4:07 am

    What about the Mah Jong chapter?

  2. admin December 5th, 2010 7:23 am

    like I said, that mah jong chapter assumes people know the rules of mah jongg, and the very arcane exceptions to those rules, and it also assumes you HAVE A COMPUTER FONT OF MAH JONGG TILES. Fugettaboudit.

  3. Valerie December 5th, 2010 7:57 pm

    Thanks for translating this. It gives off a complete opposite of all the stereotypes of crime and how we think life in Japan really is. The last chapter was specially terrifying.

  4. Dave December 6th, 2010 12:07 pm

    Thanks for reposting this together. Pretty chilling in parts, and I like the way it's got the graduating levels of intensity.

  5. G December 6th, 2010 1:56 pm

    Thanks for the translation. It was very interesting to read albeit not that surprising (for some of them at least).

  6. HWP December 9th, 2010 1:29 am

    I DEMAND the Mah Jong chapter!!

  7. ʁȫפʁȫפ June 18th, 2011 1:00 pm

    Thanks for translating this; as usual, you are the fucking man.
    Very interesting stuff!

  8. Mr. Patton July 6th, 2011 8:08 pm

    Many thanks for putting this together!  It was easily one of the most interesting reads I have enjoyed in quite some time.  Additional thanks for this entire website and for Kanjidamage.  I will soon be in Japan myself and would be very interested in getting in touch for excellent conversation over beers. – Patton

  9. admin July 6th, 2011 8:20 pm

    @patton: rock on. let’s do this. thank you so much for reading.

  10. Neko Arc July 21st, 2011 1:18 pm

    Wow, thanks for translating this. This was such an interesting read, it really gives me a better insight into the changing culture of Japan. I know that this side isn't common or popular, but it's still really neat to see the parallels to North American culture.

    Seriously, thanks a bunch for translating this, you're awesome!

  11. kb November 27th, 2011 7:52 am

    臓器ブローカー chapter gave me mad chills.

    Cheers for the translation, was a great read.

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