Subject: Local Color
So, I'm still trying to figure out if a gangster bought sushi for me and Max last week.
Max Black, visiting from America, and I were looking for a place to eat last Wednesday night. Max saw a small place with little blue curtains over the door and said, "That looks good." And so it did. Typical yakiniku place, about eight seats facing a ledge in front of a bar, in front of each a gas griddle. Mom and Pop proprietors behind the bar. There was space for us, but only one stool in it, though as Max started to reach for a second stool, one of the men in an adjoining seat swung one into place for us. Before we could sit down, though, we heard a rousing shout of "Petah-sensei!" from a few seats over. A pair of men waved us over, and as we made our introductions (they didn't know Max, of course, and as it happened I didn't know them), the man who'd helped us with the stool and cleared some room for us then cleared the other way (as I bowed, apologized, thanked, and "excuse-me'd" repeatedly, in the local fashion) so we could join our new friends, who turned out to know me through the PTA. I hadn't been out drinking with them before, though.
We settled in, got some advice on what to eat, and while Max got talked into getting some sake for himself I fiercely resisted all attempts to get me to drink, as I had to drive home (again, the legal limit here is .00). After a few glasses of water, one of the guys insisted on buying me a "juice," which after extensive cross-examination I came to believe, naively of course, to be non-alcoholic. It was close enough to non-alcoholic that I couldn't be sure whether or not it was while drinking it. Later, one of our unnamed companions, an incoming co-president of the PTA, no less, got quite insistent about me drinking, insisting that he goes to that same restaurant every night, drinks himself stupid, and drives home--no problem. I think my equally forceful refusal won me some points with the mom of the place, who, of course, is the mother of one of my students (yes, my student lives in a bar).
As we were finishing our food, another customer came in, obviously a regular. Our two companions, Nakagawa-san and Takahashi-san, told us he was "Japanese Mafia boss"--in Japanese and English, for good measure. It seemed pretty clearly a joke, although the guy looked the part, with a permed blow-dry look hairdo, which is pretty rare around here. He also had an air of authority over everyone around him, although our friends were kidding him about being a yakuza (mobster). He went along with it, and in fact later told Max, in Japanese, "I am a samurai," which is how yakuza identify themselves. Still seemed like just a joke. He sat by himself at the far end of the bar (all of eight feet away) and occasionally participated in the conversation, otherwise talking to Mom and Pop and the other guys in the place, and to people by phone. Although he didn't like sushi, he announced at one point that he was ordering a ¥10,000 spread. I had thought it was for everyone, though of course motivated by our presence. I urged him not to, telling him we'd just eaten and couldn't eat any more, but I wasn't sure how serious this all was--I mostly thought it was a joke. After a minute, I was surprised to hear him really ordering sushi on his cell phone (in a friendly but authoritative tone)--he ordered the ¥10,000 spread, specifying a number of more expensive kinds of sushi. For reference, ¥10,000 is about $75 now, but when I got here it was about $100, and that's still what it's like in terms of what you can buy with it. A typical restaurant meal in Takefu ranges from ¥800 to ¥3500. In Japanese terms, this was a $100 tray of sushi.
When the sushi comes (I was still slightly surprised that you could sit down in a restaurant and have food delivered from another restaurant), there's another surprise. It's for Max and me--only. Boss--which everybody is calling him now, but humorously--doesn't eat sushi at all, and no one else is hungry. Despite our urging, our friends and Mom and Pop take just a few pieces. It is absolutely the best sushi I've ever had. Incredibly fresh--as fresh as animals that have been killed in front of me, only better, as if it came from better fish. I genuinely enjoyed the uni, and uni is something I'd resolved never again to put past my lips after trying it a few times in America (most non-Japanese people who try it agree that it's the worst thing that's ever gone into their mouths). I'd had it once before here and was surprised to find it tolerable, but this uni was out-and-out delicious. I've had people do me wonderful favors before, but this struck me as exceptionally--and abnormally--generous. Which is why, toward the end of the evening, when I considered the magnitude of the gesture, together with the air of authority he assumed and the deference everybody else showed him, I began to wonder about the "joke" of him being a yakuza.
Of course, there are other explanations, all of which must include extraordinary generosity, and hopefully wealth. Perhaps he ordered the fish from his own sushi shop; the gesture would still be extremely generous, but more understandable, as would the commanding tone he took when calling in the order. Maybe he's just a rich guy and community bigshot. I asked one of my Japanese friends for an analysis a few days after the event, and he suggested that the guy probably wasn't yakuza, but this was one of my colleagues and I've often detected in him a bit of wanting to shield me from anything unseemly in Japanese life. I'll ask a couple of more frank friends in the next few days. I suppose in the end I'll realize he probably wasn't a yakuza, but I don't think I'll never know for sure. The impression certainly gives the memory of that night a bit of extra color. If I learn any more, I'll let you know. So that's life out here in the boonies.
O genki de