Organic farming, Japanese recipes


True Stories: Getting out of the yakuza

Living in the country, sometimes it seems like the same day just repeats itself.  But if you wait around long enough some interesting things happen.  I’d like to do an occasional piece on the true goings-on in our area.

Today’s story happened some time ago, and is told by a very good elderly friend of ours.  It actually happened, and I translate it here without embellishment.  The names have been changed.

The Yakuza Story

Oka: You want to hear that story?

Interviewer: Yes.

Oka: The thing that I did?

Interviewer: Yeah, we’re recording now.

Oka: It was someone right around here.  It was Sato, just down the street.

Interviewer: Wow, close! That was the one who got taken away by the yakuza?

Oka: No. He wanted to marry a woman … you know the circular train platforms where they turn a train around? They used to repair trains there, it usually took a couple days but sometimes it would take a week.  Well, there was one of those in the nearby town.  It looked like the sun, there were so many tracks coming out of it.  Those trains would go back to Osaka, well it was the daughter of one of the managers there.  Around Tennoji, it was the manager near Tennoji.  It was a good job, so he had enough money, if you look into it a bit.

Anyway, his daughter and Sato-san got serious but it turned out that he was involved with the XXX yakuza group in Osaka.  He had started as a chimpira (local area gangbanger) and went up from there.  Well the father obviously opposed it but they loved each other and eventually Sato told him that if he didn’t allow his daughter to marry him, Sato would kill her.  It’s a crazy thing to say, but…

Anyway, when your (interviewer’s) grandfather got sick, we took Sato to a religious center so he could get away for a while.  Your grandfather didn’t know he was in trouble.  I asked Sato, “Are you serious about marrying her?  If you’re serious I’ll help you.”

He said, “I’ll have her, and if I can’t have her, I’ll kill her.”

It sounded serious and I didn’t want him to become a criminal, so I told him to quit the yakuza so his father would accept the marriage.  He said he couldn’t quit, that he promised his brothers he’d be in forever.  I told him that if he couldn’t quit the yakuza, he’d have to give up the daughter.

Well, he wouldn’t give up on it, so I decided the only way was to take him to Osaka to tell the boss that he wanted to quit.

We arrived and met with a chimpira group in the boss’s house, and asked to let him wash his hands of the gang.  I didn’t know much about the yakuza system, so I just said it.  I told them they probably have some rules about this kind of thing, but I don’t really know anything about it and if they just told me what they needed we could do it.

Well the chimpira told me that we could settle it with ‘enko’, which means losing the three lower fingers off one of my hands.  “If you cut those off I’ll see how serious you are,” he told me.

“Anyway, who the hell are you?” another chimpira asked me.  “You’re a tiny little guy.”

“I’m nobody,” I said.  “But I’m a religious guy and I believe in god.  That’s why I came here and I’m not scared to ask.”

“There’s no such thing as god or buddha,” one of the chimpiras told me.  “There’s only money.  We’ll solve this with money, or we’ll solve it with enko,” he yelled at me.

“Let’s just do the enko!” another one yelled.

I told him, “I don’t have any money, so you better cut my fingers off.”

I guess he was surprised; he said, “You’re a small guy but you say pretty big things.”

They started mixing up some white paste.  I asked him what it was for.  He said, “It’s for the bleeding so you don’t die.  Shut up!” and kept mixing it.  The one who told me that wasn’t the boss, it was a higher-up chimpira who decided on his own to cut off my fingers.

Chimpiras are the scariest ones in the yakuza!  The godfathers aren’t so wild.

The chimpira said, “Oy, Sato, you brought this little guy but did you think that was going to solve your problem?  You don’t have any money, you don’t have anything.  We’re going to take your pinkie and this tiny guy’s enko, that’ll take care of it.”

They were bringing a platform and a sword, and finished preparing the paste.  This is the end of my normal life, I thought, since everyone could see that I was involved because of the missing fingers.  Once you look like that everyone assumes you’re dangerous.  Anyway, having one wing clipped might not be so bad, but what if I die of shock?

I told them I wanted to make a call before this happened.  The chimpira yelled, “You made your decision, are you trying to run away from it now?”  Well, I guess I wasn’t going to be making that call.

I said, “OK, let’s get on with it!”

“Oy, Sato,” I said, “when you get out of this family you can marry your girl, so you better go through with this too.  I already told your father that I was going to try to get you out and asked for his blessing, so get ready.  If you come this far and then back out, you’ve failed as a man.  Get rid of that finger!”

I asked the chimpira, “I’m not going to die if I use this paste, right?”

He said, “No, you’re not going to die.  We’ll take you to the hospital and you’ll be fine in a couple days, but after that you better get out of Osaka.”

Just then the godfather came out.

“I heard you say some interesting things,” he said to me.  Then to Sato, he said, “From today, I’m taking your name off our list.”

They had the block out and were deciding whose hand to cut first, so I had no idea we’d get off just like that.  The chimpiras were getting more and more excited for it; here’s a little guy who just knocks on their door and asks a favor so of course they wanted something in return.  But the godfather knew that if he cut us when we were just coming to talk, that his reputation would be harmed.

“You’re going to marry a beautiful woman, right?” the godfather said.  “So just get out of here;  you’re not in this family anymore.”

I tried to say thank you, but he cut me off.  “This conversation’s over, so quit talking and get out of my house!” and they literally pushed us out the door.

Three days later at our local shrine we had the wedding.  This all really happened!  Oy, when was that wedding?

(Oka’s wife) I have no idea—I had no idea what that guy was up to anyway.

It was a great wedding at the shrine.  The bride’s father never liked Sato, but he had made him the promise and had to go through with it.  He was rich and wanted to throw his daughter a big wedding, but that’s just how it goes sometimes.

And for a while, the new bride had to work at a food stand after she got married.  She got blisters on her hands, that beautiful princess.  But her husband had been a yakuza and had to get back into the real world (yakuza don’t work), so her father told her to go work with her husband.  He gave them some money and they opened that stand where they worked for two or three years.

In the end, though, she got tired and they got divorced.  She just couldn’t put up with the work.  But when those yakuza were about to cut my fingers off I was shaking!  Anyway, that was scary, but Sato still lives in this neighborhood.

(Wife) Yes, but he got remarried to a good wife.

Yes, I helped him find that one!  She was from Shimoayukawa.  He went to work at the gravel company in Ichinose; I went to ask the boss there to put him to work so he didn’t get mixed up with the yakuza again after his divorce.  He used to wear incredible clothes to work, shiny pointed shoes like chimipra wear.

Now his wife is working at a restaurant and I don’t know what he’s doing, but his son managed to marry a temple’s daughter; she had a child from a previous marriage, so he has a grandchild.


That’s the end of this story.  Like I said, it’s a true story told by the guy who actually did it, so I hope it was at least a little interesting!  Coming up: a magic book, and mistakenly building your house in the wrong place.

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Rainy season and ume plum liquor

We’re getting ready for a trip back to America in a couple days, and it looks like we might be taking off through a typhoon! The 2nd of the year is on its way north, over Okinawa right now, and it looks like a doozy.

Seasons around here are wacky. A very popular question for foreigners is, “Do you have four seasons in your country?”, and no amount of meteorological education can sway people’s instinctive belief that Japan is the only place in the world that really has four seasons.

Despite this, you could easily argue that the extended rainy season between spring and summer constitutes a fifth season, and the Japanese certainly treat it as such. Temperatures usually drop a little, the humidity skyrockets, and the typhoons start coming.  As they form in the SW Pacific and start to swing northward they’re a regular feature on the news, and as they get closer they bring days of rain if they swing wide, or an increasing gale and downpour if they come our way.  During the rainy season I’ve had leather shoes grow mold and wool sweaters mildew.  They’re in sealed bags this year!

Japanese plums on the tree

The rainy season apparently started 18 days early this year, and despite the fairly cool temperatures we were lucky that the ume plums ripened a bit early too, in time for our trip.  We like to invite ourselves over to our friend’s house who grows the plums and help ourselves to some of the variety called ‘nan-kou’. That’s the variety used for juice or liquor, rather than pickling, and as such they just leave those trees to themselves and harvest what comes–the other trees they spray, process into salted pickles, and sell mostly on the domestic market.  We always make umeshu, Japanese plum liquor.  If you’ve tried the Choya stuff from the store and found it way too sweet, remember that it’s possible to make your own at any sweetness level you like.  We usually use 40-50% of the standard amount of sugar, resulting in a sweet but very tart liquor.  Delicious!

Finding the best ones

Picking is usually a pretty sweaty affair but this year it was a very pleasant family evening out.

In pretty short order we had 12 kilos or so.

Soaking in water for cleaning


Processing is pretty easy–just remove the stem connecting point with a skewer or knife, soak overnight to wash, lay them out to dry, and set them soaking in 35% alcohol white liquor and some sugar. That’s it! In as little as 3 months you can enjoy it, but you can soak the plums much longer and then even age the product after you remove the plums. We have some 5- and 10-year stuff around here somewhere… not telling where! 😉

Plums soaking in liquor and sugar

In the last picture you can see the color has changed–these have been soaking overnight at this point.  If you look closely you’ll see that the plums are also floating in the middle of the liquid.  The sugar has dissolved and the sugar-heavy liquid has sunk to the bottom and it’s heavier than the plums.  It’ll all normalize in time.

As a final note on plums, these are not really plums.  They’re actually species of apricot but if we started calling them that no one would know what we’re talking about.  So for everyday purposes, they’re plums! I hope you agree that the misnomer isn’t quite as offensive as, say, the Clean Air or Patriot acts.

And we’re offline for a month and a half!  See you all soon enough in the summer heat!

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The Emperor of Japan rolled through town

When was the last time you saw an emperor?

All joking aside, there were some interesting things about this visit. First, nearly all of the road construction in our area for the past couple months was tied to this visit, and funded by the country rather than our prefecture. We appreciate it and some of those surfaces really needed it (as did the commuting schoolkids, who now have a sidewalk around a very dangerous corner), but it makes you wonder if his eminency is aware of ‘real’ life in Japan, if there is any such thing. On the other side of that coin, however, the empress gained huge respect in the country by insisting on raising her kids by herself as much as possible. To this end she had a kitchen installed which she could use, among many other things.

Second, even given the pair’s position, I thought that that the security surrounding the visit was pretty extreme. Hordes of police were brought in from around the country to stand in front of every business along the Emperor’s route (mostly they just told each and every customer what time the road would be closed, thought not even very clearly at that), and more were brought in to inspect all bridges, bushes, etc., along the route.

Were the hordes really necessary? I don’t want to get invaded by the Japanese secret police or anything, but if I really wanted to do anything harmful I don’t think it would have been too hard given the MO of the police. Can you really trust a man’s life to a group of people who can’t clearly explain that a road will be closed from x o’clock to y o’clock? Don’t know for sure, though–the security guard in the passenger seat of the main car looked like he was made from the same stuff as one of the Terminators.

Finally, we were a little sad that our local park has been closed for a few days getting ready for a visit by his eminenciness. As far as we can tell he actually did show up there today, but it was to a crowd of people who won an all-country lottery and met up at the local airport at 6 a.m. (serves them right?) to pass security and wait inside the park for the event. It would have been nice to have even a section in the nosebleeds reserved for local folk, but oh well.

I guess it was easy enough for us to line up on the side of the road to see them drive by.


Measuring in Japanese: using a masu

In planting rice we deal with lots of measurements held over from olden times that are mixed with the easy to understand metric system.   It’s similar to America, except that in America we don’t have the easy to understand metric system–we just have the obscure measurements held over from ancient times.  (It’s odd to me that while some early Americans deliberately changed the spelling of certain words–just one example–to differentiate us from the Brits, they didn’t try to leave the Imperial system of measurement behind.  I’m just grateful we don’t have shillings.  What the heck are those, anyway?)

One of the main measurements of volume is ‘shou’, which is equal to 1.8 liters.  The main things that come in a shou are rice and liquid fermented foods, including sake and soy sauce.

You can buy an ‘isshou’ (1 shou) bottle of sake in stores, but in older times it was measured with a box called a masu.  The masu is now popular as a way to drink sake in the ichigo (1 go) size, which is a good amount of sake to drink and is also conveniently a good amount of rice for one meal for two people.  The masu also came in the ‘gongo’ (5 go) size, and, of course, the ‘isshou’ (or 10 go) size.   When you buy a rice cooker in Japan, its volume is measured in ‘go’ or ‘shou’. Pictured here is the 1.8 liter size.

The cool thing about using a square box as a way to measure is that it can measure more than just its original volume.  If you tip it straight down so that the contents make a line from the lip on one side to the intersection of the wall and floor at the opposite side, you get exactly half of the original volume.  That’s pretty easy to understand.  But if you turn 45 degrees and tip again on the diagonal, so that the contents overflow at a corner and meet the floor at the other two points of the right isosceles triangle, you get 1/6 of the original volume.   Very handy for those of you who frequent sushi joints, I’m sure.

By the way, what you’re looking at there is some of the best water in the world. I feel lucky every day to be drinking it.

Up next: how an isshou masu of rice fits into our rice field area measurements.