Families on the Fringe: Complexities of the Ie | Jen Cullerton Johnson


When late July arrives with a heat wave and nearly constant blue skies, every man, woman and child in Asahi Mura heads down to the seashore. Waiting for them, open for business, are the local branch members of the yakuza, what is sometimes referred to in the Western media as the “Japanese mafia”. In Tokyo and other large cities the yakuza does, I suppose, carry itself with something like the wise-guy swagger and intimidation of American gangsters. Here in Asahi Mura, where the local yakuza run the yakisoba houses, beer gardens and raft rental stands, they have more the look of small time wannabes, or gangster pledges having to go through a not-so-trying hazing ritual in an idyllic seaside resort. The lowest yakuza on the totem pole seem to be the guys pushing kakikori carts, selling shaved-ice with flavored syrup like snowcones sold at baseball games back in the States.

I would not have noticed the yakuza presence if it were not for the music that they play over the loudspeakers by the coast. It is only about a 20-minute bike ride from our apartment to the beach. I head that way for a little fresh air during the week when the beaches are not so crowded. One day, as I approach the beachfront buildings which house changing rooms, lifeguard offices, and green tea vending machines, I almost fall off my bike when I hear some Japanese punk start to blare out from the speakers. I wouldn’t be opposed to it at any time or in every situation, but in this dreamy setting, I feel like an angst-ridden teenager has cranked up some Twisted Sister while his parents stand and contemplate the Grand Canyon.

Looking around, I see that the music is grating on the nerves of the other weekday afternoon beachgoers as well. Sitting on a bench near the path I am biking along, an obasan—grandmother—cringes, and a shufu—housewife—grits her teeth in even more disguised annoyance.

“Every summer they come,” says the obasan, dressed for sun protection in long pants, a long sleeve shirt, and a wide brimmed hat.

“It would be all right if they could play more relaxing music,” the shufu mumbles and then stands, rolling up her pants legs and going to retrieve a child who has wandered past ankle high water. When she comes back, she looks over the beach and sits down. From inside the small office that controls the beachfront audio system, designed for the serious job of announcing tsunami warnings, two young guys emerge wearing tank-tops that reveal some impressive shoulder tattoos. As the word yakuza flashes in my mind and my jaw hangs open in fascination, the edges of the shufu’s lips curl up in a grimace that could be mistaken for a reaction to a bad smell.

“They are all over,” she continues, and if it were not for her child floating out farther into the deep, I might have heard more.

Nevertheless, I wonder how much more she would have been willing to say. This is Japan after all, and discontent tends to be subtle. Complaints are highly coded in a way that I am still new at unraveling. Direct criticism seems to embarrass people on both the giving and receiving end. Moreover, coming from Chicago and having a perception of criminal organizations shaped by oceans of movie representations of the Godfather Parts I, II, and III, and few drops of personal experience, I think that people are always tight-lipped about gangsters. Now that I know where to find an outpost of the Japanese secret society, one of my guide books says “always” stays hidden to foreigners—and in my little out-of-the-way town of coastal Japan no less, I know I will be back to investigate.

On my next bike ride, I notice that, besides the music, what really gets the sunbathers’ dander up are the announcements that interrupt the dreadful music. The yakuza guys love to get on the horn, and for the more serious-minded Japanese “civilians” at the beach, for whom community responsibility is a paramount value, hearing the municipal loudspeakers used for juvenile ball-breaking is like nails on a chalkboard. On a Wednesday afternoon, for example, the loudspeaker squeals with the announcement: “Hiko-san, get up here and fix the toilet.”

While pretending not to, everyone on the beach scans the area to find the negligent toilet cleaner. He turns out to be the guy floating ten meters out in the surf on a pink raft with his girlfriend, who is now laughing her head off. Hiko jumps quickly off the raft, landing his girlfriend in the water, and runs up to the pavilion. The girlfriend has stopped laughing now, and takes the raft back to the rental station. By the time she has settled down with a towel to lay on the beach, Hiko returns to find her in a less jovial mood. Until the announcement comes, “Hiko-san, you forgot to wash under your fingernails! Return for proper hygiene.”

On the weekends when there are more people around, there is tighter control and a lot less tomfoolery. The hotels around the beach place a subtle pressure on theses hooligans. The yakuza may rule the summer weekdays, but summer weekends are when the hotels net their gains in a region where winter tourism at the inland mountains dominates. These eight weeks of sandy beaches and sunny skies keep hotels, like Dream Hotel and Senami Spa, afloat before the snow renders their guest rooms vacant. To sweeten the attraction for the yakuza staff, some hotels offer free, private onsens, or thermal baths, since the yakuza’s tattoos prohibit them from entering most communal baths. Some struggling hotels go so far as offering blocks of rooms to yakuza bosses to then dole out to younger apprentices who will then work the menial summer jobs. In exchange, the resort owners want a little light music on weekends, soft, genki melodies like the ones the families hum.

A regular beachgoer or hotel owner never talks to or argues with the yakuza, even the minor ding-a-lings who rule the loud speakers and the food court. Understanding this severe ostracization of the yakuza, at first, is the key that I am missing in trying to understand how the Japanese deal with their criminal class. The unwillingness to talk to, or even openly look at the yakuza, is not so much a product of intimidation and fear, as I initially expect it to be. Maybe these scare tactics play a part of bullying with some of the big shots in Tokyo, but with these scrawny noodle sellers, flip-flop purveyors and provincial DJs, intimidation isn’t their strong suit. People avert their eyes not in the hopes that they will go unnoticed and not be singled out for confrontation by the yakuza; rather, they look away in order to stress the alienation of those who flaunt Japan’s generally rigidly observed social conventions. “Regular” families accept that these two-bit gangsters are part of the scenery, like broken glass in a parking lot; they simply choose to ignore them.

Although the respectable Japanese public is estranged from the yakuza, the yakuza plays an important role in the nation’s wider society. The NHK, national news station, and Asahi Shimbun newspaper are always reporting some money laundering scheme or sweetheart real estate deal betraying nefarious connections between government, corporations, and yakuza. While it is not the bozo on the loudspeaker at the beach masterminding these transactions, the presence of young cut-ups does explain something about society’s ambivalence toward the yakuza.

In Japan, the juvenile justice system is a fraction of that which exists in the U.S., and in the absence of large juvenile halls, the yakuza are seen to fulfill an important function. Let the adult gangsters deal with the juvenile troublemakers. If theses punks are going to do nothing productive, at least let them learn some manners from a segment of the older generation no matter how corrupt, even if they are slicing off fingers Omerta style. Thus, the deal seems to be that the yakuza get a certain amount of space to train their lieutenants, with the caveat that summer weekends at the beach, when families want to float on neon colored rafts, eat yakisoba and down ice-cold Asahi Super Dry beers, are inviolable.

Still, every time I come to the beach, just for fun I try my best to pick out the shot-callers. At first, my task seems simple enough. Working from what I remember of the Michael Douglas movie Black Rain, which finds two New York cops going to Tokyo to battle the yakuza, and from renting old Japanese detective movies at the Jusco, I think I should spot the real McCoy decked out in a black zoot suit. His body should be inked in tattoos, one of his fingers sliced off for disappointing the boss, and he should grunt instead of talk. He will have slicked back hair, a stare that is mean as hell, and of course be handy with a tantō, the sharp dagger, which yakuza are known to brandish.

Disappointingly, my stereotype is not very much in evidence at the beach. Of course, I realize that I would never troll northern New Jersey looking for the Sopranos cast around the Dekanski Homes Colonia, NJ, or expect to find John Wayne-style cowboys populating the plains. Still, now that I realize that there are yakuza in these hills, I want them to be a little more stylized than these yo-yo’s with peroxide blonde mullets or mohawks and sometimes severe acne.

However, in my quest to spot the yakuza, I instead get a first row seat to observe the normal Japanese families that their recruits are cast out from. Until the U.S. occupation of Japan at the end of World War II, Japanese law did not recognize individuals as individuals, but rather as members of a hierarchical family unit, called an Ie. In theory, the Ie consists of all family members harmoniously fulfilling their duties. The ojiisan, grandfather (or eldest male at least), carts the umbrellas, the towels, and the coolers. The obaasaan, grandmother (or ranking female), carries the picnic baskets, and the two kodomos or children drag all beach junk that they sell in a store along the promenade.

These Japanese families enjoy regimented days at the beach, arriving early and staying for several hours, but never the whole day, unlike yakuza teenagers who have shirked family responsibility and, therefore, enjoy greater freedom—but at a price.

So when I meet the first bona fide Yakuza, I don’t see it coming. In fact, seeing is part of the problem. I don’t see the cigarette he throws on the sidewalk, and he doesn’t see me coming until I step on it with my barefoot and shout.

“Jesus Christ,” I bellow and hop on one foot. “What the…” My face contorts in pain. My eyes bulge. My tongue lags.

The man who threw the cigarette at first does nothing but watch me. His brows knot together with worry, but then he must realize my burn is nothing serious and starts to laugh. I guess he is laughing at my oversized gestures, ones I have done before to teach second graders fear, shock, and pain. His laugh grows and becomes so loud that I stop jumping and begin to laugh myself. The situation isn’t funny, and my foot still hurts but, either way, both of us are laughing together now. This is no “normal” Japanese family man, I realize. A regular Japanese would be bowing and suimemasen-ing profusely. A “normal” Japanese person would not laugh until tears stream out of his eyes. Maybe he is Yakuza, I think.

My first clue comes when he shows me where I can ice my burn behind his yakisoba hut. Handing me a bucket of ice he says, “You’re not the first gaijin I’ve met.” He has known many, and many of them have been women, he tells me with a grin, checking out my bathing suit. But I am not his type, and we both know it. I’ve got a body that has not quite bounced back after a baby. Plus, I wear no ankle bracelets and I’m married. To him I am a curiosity, a diversion of the day, an eigo no sensei, an English teacher. For me, talking with him might prove my guidebook wrong. Plus, I fantasize for a moment, it never hurts to have a yakuza to call upon if needed, no matter if he is just a yakisoba grill master pretending to be in the big time.

“Call me Mister Red,” he says over his shoulder and brings me inside his place of operation. He uses the English translation for his name.

Mister Red starts to grill another batch of yakisoba. When it is ready, he hands me a bowl free of charge, then serves two families who have plunked themselves down in his flimsy beach shack-restaurant. The restaurant is like Mister Red, seasonal and well worn. His fellow workers and he have made the place unique with an open view of the sea but protected from the wind and shaded from the sun. The noodle hut can fit a few large families or several intimate couples. Customers must remove the sand before they come inside, a task Mister Red has made possible by setting up a water hose by the entrance. On the floor, to my surprise, are tatame mats. Everything looks legit, despite the beach being the fourth wall and Mister Red running it.

“How did you get that name, Mister Red?” I ask him, then suck up some of the noodles he serves me. They taste delicious with just the right amount of soy sauce seasoning and grilling, tender green peppers mixed with onions and sliced carrots and a few morsels of meat.

“Long story,” he says and nods his head in the direction of the families eating. “I’ll tell you later.”

“Hey Mister Red, when do you close down?” I ask, also glancing at the families around us. He gets the message.

“We close at sunset. You’ll hear us on the loud speaker,” he says, grinning a little.

Getting to know Mister Red during the daytime when all these restaurant-goers are famished from the sun and the water is not going to work. Mister Red is all business, and his customers are all eyes. I notice they slurp their noodles quickly, then when they ask for more and the second plate comes, they watch for the clue that Mister Red might be yakuza: his tattoos. Ornate and plentiful, they peek out from his white long sleeved shirt he has buttoned half way up. Although I cannot get a full glimpse of them, I can make out dolphins leaping through waves, a sea lion nuzzling her calf, and waves crashing into rocks. On his right arm are kanji characters I do not recognize. Near his neck is a mountain and sakura. Tattoos are considered a sign of the yakuza, and from the number of tattoos on Mister Red, it is clear he does not mind the association. He only goes through the motions of hiding his tattoos, wearing clothes that could conceal them if they were stiffly worn as they might be at a more formal restaurant. He knows that his customers are eager to catch a glimpse of this taboo artwork, and he is clearly not embarrassed by it. I would be proud of it, too. Mister Red looks like a hipster tourism brochure, not Shinto temple, but a more modern emblem of the country.

“See you at sunset then,” I say and get up and walk over to my shoes.

Leaving the beach, I see families float in the water and laze under umbrellas. In the distance, I can make out the edges of Sado island, an island that hundreds of years ago the government used as a penitentiary during Samurai times, but now has a whole village of fishermen watching cable television on squid boats. When I turn away from the sea, the mountains loom in the background. I can make out the town’s radio tower next to the old ruins of Asahi Mura Castle.

Before I get on my bike, I look back at Mister Red. Another cigarette dangles out of his mouth, and he is flipping more yakisoba. Within minutes, a whole new herd of hungry people has crammed into a low table. What makes Mister Red so interesting, I think, is how he seems to straddle two worlds, the old and the new. He lives on the outskirts of Japanese society, accepted but shunned. Exactly how he lives, I am unsure; maybe the noodle job is a front, like some of the Chicago mobsters I have read about back home who work day jobs in delis or bakeries. Pedaling back to my apartment, the sea breeze hits my face. I inhale and think, tonight when the loudspeakers shut down, I’ll know.

Later that night, in the beach parking lot there are a hardly any automobiles, except a tiny K-car and one of the especially small Japanese minivans. On the promenade, a few store lights flicker. When I look at the beach, a distant bonfire glows, and a few kids spin lighted sparklers around in the dark. Out on the sea, the squid boats shine bright lights over the waters. Asahi Mura Beach is mostly deserted.

I walk over to Mister Red’s yakisoba hut, which is boarded up with the signs and umbrellas taken inside. Only the glow and hum of the vending machine flash alive. Then out of the shadows as in the B-grade, Japanese detective movies I’ve been watching, Mister Red appears, the glow from his cigarette appearing before the outline of his face. In his hand, he holds an Asahi Super Dry beer. After some small talk, Mister Red and I take a seat on a stone bench in front of the sea. He dives right into a conversation I never dreamed I would have with a Japanese person, let alone a man with yakuza connections, responsible for crimes as big as my imagination and as small as the burn blister on my foot.

“There are so many types of people in Japan,” he begins and twists his hands together, as if wringing out a wet towel. “All of us fit together and stand on this land. Some of us know each other and some of us don’t,” Mister Red says.

The white long-sleeved shirt he wore during the day that covered up some of his tattoos is off. In its place he wears a jogging suit jacket and a pair of clean shorts. From the faint light of the lamppost, I see his eyes are bloodshot after a hard day’s work.

“Where are you then?” I ask and take a swig of the beer he has offered me, a large can of Asahi Super Dry. “Where do you stand?”

All joking aside, I see he wants to get into a serious conversation with me, and I don’t know why. I guess that maybe, deep down, he is like all Japanese and wants to show the good side of his country. Perhaps it is because I am an English teacher and he wants to practice conversation skills with me. Then, I realize that we are similar at least in one respect: we are both outsiders to the mainstream Ie-centered Japanese culture that surrounds us. He may not have a lot of people to actually speak with him much. I decide to stay with the frank conversation. Maybe we will learn from each other. Who knows maybe this exchange will help us later.

“What’s your background?” I ask offering him cigarette.

He takes the cigarette and smells the tobacco.


I nod my head. He lights the cigarette and lets it hang from his lower lip. Then he takes a long drag. I can see his face working out an answer suitable for gaijin to understand.

“Background means background. It means doing work to keep order. Not like the cops but different. You know set up in a place, work it, and leave. Background means moving places. It means, I don’t know,” he says and lets out a sigh.

“Do you like your work?” I ask, lighting up a cigarette for myself. I think maybe the questions are too personal and may overstep, but I’d like to get some juicy information. Mister Red does not seem to mind. He seems like this is his chance to share with a stranger he will never see again, though it is difficult for him to pull his answers together in a conversation of blended English and Japanese.

“Loved it at first. Who wouldn’t? I was kid who ran wild. Got some structure. Got to play. Got to see something besides Kobe.”

Asoka, ne? – No regrets?” I ask and try to cajole Mister Red into revealing some adventure.

“Well, things change,” he says and then blows a smoke ring.

“Wow, what kind of change?” I ask shifting my weight on the stone bench, so I can see him clearly. For a few seconds I imagine Mister Red’s change had to do with him being a head honcho in the yakuza. A rising star wheeling and dealing with other gangsters and gamblers, he got caught up in the mix, hit a bad turn, and was punished by being sent to grill up yakisoba and be a camp counselor for young yakuza in an out of the way beach town, all his glamour and guns stripped away to barbeque tongs and flip-flops.

Instead he says, “I had a kid. She’s twelve years old. She’s going to be in high school soon, and, well, you know how it is.”

I cough beer out of my nose. Fatherhood changed this wannabe thug? No deals in the back alley, just late night diapers! I couldn’t have asked for a better cliché if I wanted one. “Wow. Really? Honto ne?”

Honto ne. My daughter set me straight. You know how it is with kids. They don’t care about what you give them, just that you’re there. Do you have any kids?”

“Yeah, I’ve got a toddler son who is learning Japanese words faster than English ones.

He nods. “They’re smart, aren’t they?”

“Real cute,” I say thinking of how to swing this back to his fatherhood moment. “Do you take care of your daughter?”

“No. My mother raises her since her mom’s gone. Took off and followed the white line, ne,” he says and makes a snorting nose.

“Natsui-chan is all mine,” he continues. “Most of the time she lives with my mother. At least in the summer she can come down for a week to be at the beach with me and her grandmother. The Sea Dream Hotel gives us a deal, so we all stay there. It would be hard if I raised her, but I guess you have already figured that one since you live here. You know how it is for people like us.”

I do know how it is for children who have marginalized parents, like Fernando and me. Children do suffer because Japanese society shuns their moms and dads, and in doing so separates the children, too. Some of the parents I know work at jobs “normal” Japanese refuse. Take for instance, Otaki-chan’s father. He is a Nikkei, a Japanese citizen who was born and raised in the largest Japanese ex-pat community in the world, in Brazil, but returned to Japan for economic reasons. He works at the bon-bon factory, the only place that would hire him when he came back. They gave him the nightshift, too. There are the Philippine women Marta and Lucia, students with me in our Japanese language class. They are here on work visas and run a roadside snack shops by the highway, a job most Japanese believe is synonymous with prostitution. Now before me is a small time, noodle grilling yakuza father. Each parent, including me, is an example of an outsider. In a way, we all live on the fringes, the margins of life eking by with our limited roles and our limited interactions with the rest of the population. They teeter on both sides, no side totally accepting them as their own. As for me, I am just an outsider looking in for a few years.

Still, I know how Mister Red feels when he says people here are group people, and those outside of the group are lost. In a way, I know what it is like to be shunned by the Japanese. I’ve experienced the sting of isolation. Sometimes at the beach mothers pull their children away from my son. Once at a public pool, I slid down a slide with my son in my lap and when we reached, the bottom, all of the families vanished for another pool. Knowing I am always on the outside is lonely. It feels like I am under a microscope, trapped between two slides. Yet, I can’t imagine being Japanese and rejected by my own people and what it does to a person to be constantly ignored.

“This work is seasonal,” he says, interrupting my train of thought. “In a month I will be down south in Kyushu, doing something else. Natsui-chan will go back to my mother in Kobe. There is where Natsui-chan can grow. Ever been there? Before the earthquake, it was beautiful. It is where I’d like to settle down, but settling down is difficult.”

On the water the bright lights twinkle from the squid boasts. A few teenagers drift by us, arms and hands linked together.

“What do you know about home-stays outside Japan?” Mister Red says, breaking the silence between us.

“A good exchange. You get a glimpse of a different culture. I don’t know. It depends on which country your daughter chooses for her home visit,” I offer.

“I want my kid on one of those when she is older. English can get her a good job, right?” he asks me. His voice is void of the tough guy Mister Red routine. He is just a father, and like all fathers he wants the best for his child, better than what he has for himself.

“Yeah, sure,” I say. “She can begin in a few years. I think they start as young as 16. If you give me your address in Kobe, I can send you information. Does it matter which country?” I ask.

“America,” he says then stretches his arm above his head and yawns.

“Really? Not British?”

“Yankee doodle dandy American. You’re more open than the others,” he says.

“Not sure about that one, Mister Red,” I say thinking of all the groups who are excluded and marginalized in the United States.

Arrigato gozaimasu,” he says with new formality and pulls out of his pocket, a wallet takes out a meshi, a business card. Then he writes his address romaji and adds his mother’s name.

“Here is the address,” he says, and he stands up and bows. Our conversation has ended.

“Wait,” I say, “you never told me why they call you Mister Red.”

But he doesn’t seem ready to tell me the story. Maybe being called Mister Red became part of the attitude, the mask he reveals to the public, not this private side he showed me. Mister Red is not who he really is and whatever the real story is that gave him the name no longer matters.

“Just send the stuff if you remember,” he mumbles and gives another quick bow and disappears into the night.

Jen Cullerton Johnson lives and teaches in Chicago. She has published fiction and creative nonfiction in literary journals and magazines. Her books include Seeds of Change (Lee & Low 2010), Kiss Me Goodnight (Syren 2004) and a forthcoming textbook called Green Literacy: Fueling the Conversation Between Young People and the Environment. She holds a MFA in Non-Fiction, a MEd in Curriculum and Development.

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