In Osaka, during the first week of my new job, the only work I’ve done is to buy flowers. The rest of the time, I sit inside Ishikawa Real Estate’s small and crowded office, waiting for something to do while flipping through a manga under my desk, studying Japanese, and trying not to bother any of the real estate agents.
The owner walks in. Everyone sits up at their desks. Like a commanding general, Mr Ishikawa has gray hair, rock solid posture, and an aura of extreme confidence. He looks amused each morning to see an American working for his company.
“Paul-kun. The flowers have been arranged at the house in Nagasecho, correct?”
“Yes!” I bow, following the etiquette training I learned at the Japanese language program. ‘-kun’ is the suffix used when speaking to a child. Why is he using that for me? Maybe I need to prove myself.
“Tanaka-san,” he says to another colleague, “Has the customer schedule been prepared for the five properties we will show him?”
“Everything has been prepared perfectly.” Tanaka bows even more deeply.
Ishikawa continues to rattle off commands to his employees. My head spins trying to keep track of what is being said. In business, everything seems to be spoken in passive tense—strings of syllables added after every verb to make things softer and less direct–but adding another dimension of complexity for a non-native speaker.
Yet, this is Osaka, where people are famously more direct and informal than other parts of Japan. The vibe is similar to Chicago, my hometown, where people have little interest in copying the pretentiousness of the coasts.
Ishikawa mumbles something to Tanabe, his right-hand man, before he steps into his private office.
Tanabe comes over to my desk. “Paul-kun. We have an important job for you today.”
“Yes, certainly. I’d love to do more.”
“Here is the address of the Osaka Lands Department's office.” He scribbles down an address on a notepad (everything is done old school here). “You should take the subway over there and photocopy all the property details for Sales Lot #743.”
“Yes, of course. I’m honored to be given an assignment that might possibly be helpful.” I say, using all those passive verb conjugations, and bow again.
After grabbing a few business cards and preparing my bag, I take the subway to Tamabashi station and follow the map to the Lands Department. The public records office is on the 3rd floor. At the reception counter, a young woman in an Osaka prefecture uniform (which looks like a purple nurse’s uniform adorned with bits of police regalia) stands smiling.
“What can I help you with?” she says in the slow deliberate way people speak to foreigners.
“My boss asked me, to ask you, for the land records of Sales Lot #74.”
“Next week’s auction properties?”
“Yes.” I smile, happy to have successfully communicated what I’m looking for.
“Sorry, but the documents have been checked out,” she declares.
“Checked out?” This isn’t a library. “But they’re still in the building, right?”
She looks at me apologetically.
“Checked out by whom?”
Her eyes dart over my shoulder. I follow her gaze. A man is sitting at a circular table, slouched over it asleep. A large bulky Japanese man, with a shaved head. Below his meaty jowls, beneath his crossed arms, is a binder full of documents.
The woman at the counter reiterates, “The documents are not available currently, you may come back and enquire later.”
Her whole body freezes up as she’s holds a tense smile. She’s not going to change her answer.
Frustrating, but I’m not going to back down. I’m going to show them. I can wait them out. Rigidly following rules in Japan is instilled from early childhood, so following them on the surface while being passive-aggressive underneath is the local way.
“I will come back in an hour,” I say, taking another look at the man asleep on the table on the way out.
The neighborhood outside the government office looks much the same as everywhere else. To kill time, I go into a revolving sushi restaurant and watch perfectly prepared plates (exactly 2 pieces of sushi each) glide around the empty restaurant. I eat only three plates to save money, but no one seems to mind. The polite orderliness of Japan is amazing to me after growing up in the chaos of the south side of Chicago,
An hour later, I return to the 3rd floor of the Lands Department. The man is still there.
My finger taps his shoulder. “Sorry, I need to borrow those documents you are holding. You are not using them, so I’m going to take photocopies, and give them back to you.”
“Idiot,” he mumbles, and puts his head back down on top of the binder.
The woman at the reception counter acts as if nothing unusual is happening. But if I push that man and grab the binder, I’m sure the police will be here in seconds and I’ll be the bad one. In Japan, everything is done according to the rules.
After being here so long already, I’m invested in this mission. I study the sign on the entrance door. ‘Public viewing hours: 9am to 4pm’
I take a seat, and scan the free pamphlets about Osaka’s government development projects, while keeping an eye on the man with the documents.
At a few minutes to 4pm, the man lifts his head and sits up, keeping his hands on the binder. At 3:59pm, he gets up, walks to the reception counter, and returns it, signing his name out on the register.
There’s one minute left.
I rush to the counter. “I want to borrow land records lot #74,” I blurt out, pointing at the binder.
She pauses, takes a deep breath, and looks at the clock.
“Today’s public document viewing hours have ended.”
I’m leaning so far over the counter, I could grab the binder.
She shifts over, inserting herself between me and the documents. “Tomorrow, you can file a new request for viewing,” she says in a tone that sounds hopeful, or mocking, I’m not sure which.
“This is…” I catch myself before saying ridiculous. Japanese think that when Westerners become emotional, we are behaving like petulant children, and we lose respect in their eyes.
“Understandable.” I bow again, and think about how much I need a strong drink tonight. I take the elevator down to the ground floor and head back toward Tamabashi train station.
“Oyy!” someone grunts behind me.
I turn around. It’s the man with the shaved head. His suit barely fits his massive bulk, folds of meat push out from around his collar.
“Why are you fucking around?” he says, wheezing.
“It’s a public office. I need those records for my job.”
“This is Japan. Japan,” he says, twice for emphasis. “Don’t come back here tomorrow.”
He holds my gaze, like sumo wrestlers do before a bout. Shifting from side to side, he appears to strain simply to hold his massive frame upright.
Role playing at my Japanese school did not include this situation. I’m not sure what to say.
“Let’s be friends?” I plead, and hold out my hand to shake his.
He snorts dismissively and walks off with a rolling gait. From how much he slept at the records office, he probably spends his nights eating and drinking at one of the many izakayas in Osaka.
When I get back to the office to tell my bosses at Ishikawa Real Estate what happened, I apologize profusely for not getting the photocopies, and explain that the government employees wouldn’t help.
Tanabe-san explains that without the documents, and the property details, they won’t know what they are purchasing. Some repossessed houses are unsellable because of earthquake damage or building code violations. To bid on the properties, they need the documents.
“Ganbaru,” he says. Keep trying.
He doesn’t tell me how to ‘keep trying’ but I need to make this job work, so I start plotting how to get the copies tomorrow.
Before 9am the next morning, I'm back at the Lands Department. The big guy, looking as tired as yesterday, waits in front of the ground floor entrance. When the guard unlocks the entrance, he shuffles in and waits for the elevator.
This is my chance. I sprint up the staircase and tear into a full run into the 3F records office. Except for the employee, there’s no one here yet. Sweat dripping from my forehead, I rest my elbows on the counter and say breathlessly, “I.. would like to.. borrow … folder #74.”
She points to a register, and while I sign in, she gets the binder from the shelf behind her.
“Thank you very much!” I bow.
“You’re welcome,” she says, handing it to me.
There’s a noise from the entrance door opening. Looking around, I see the big man walking in.
“Shit,” he grumbles. He stands there, eyes fixed on me.
I ignore him, take the binder to the copy machine, place the first page onto the machine, and push start. It takes more than 15 minutes to copy everything. I sense him standing behind me, watching me. But if he gets violent in a government office, the police will be on my side. I hope.
When I’m done, I slide the copies into my backpack, and return the binder to the counter.
“All yours now,” I say to him.
He glares at me with a look of disgust. As I leave, he follows me, and gets into the same elevator. We take the elevator down together, him wheezing like a bulldog next to me. I walk out the entrance, now hurrying.
On the opposite side of the parking lot, I see two men approaching. One is a very thin man wearing a purple suit and the other is young and strong, and wears a tight t-shirt showcasing his large biceps.
“It's him," I hear the big guy's wheezy voice shout behind me.
The two men block my way.
The guy in the purple suit sticks out his pinky finger, and says, “We’re the yakuza. The yakuza.” His other friend puts his hand on my shoulder. “Don’t mess with us, or we’ll kill you,” he whispers into my ear.
They're going to take my backpack. I’m not tall, but I work out, I’m strong enough in a fight. I yank myself loose and make a run for it. This is life or death. Pedestrians and shops fly past in a blur as I run. When I can’t run any more, I look behind and don’t see anyone. The streets are full of taxis. I hail one, get in, and keep my head down.
The crosstown taxi ride is expensive, but returns me safely back to Ishikawa Real Estate, where I victoriously present the photocopies.
“Great work, Paul-san,” Tanabe says. “Amazing!”
“Thank you so much. I’m so pleased to serve Ishikawa Real Estate.”
Osaka is a big city, those thugs will never find me. That night, to celebrate, I go to Ned’s, a foreigner's bar. I’ll have allies here if any local thugs find me.
“I’ve survived work today,” I say to my drinking buddies there. “Shots on me.”
We down them in one go, as I shout, “I feel alive!”
The night goes past in a blur of me buying drinks for people I don’t know well. And then when I run out of money, a few people buy me back shots of tequila.
The next morning, I wake up jittery, and my head is pounding. I don’t remember much of the latter part of yesterday evening, but I definitely remember being grabbed by the thugs outside the government office. The rock solid grip of that hand on my shoulder.
Taking the subway to work, I scan the crowd for anyone who looks suspicious. At each station, dozens of people board. I keep an eye on anyone who looks out of place. By the time I reach Ishikawa Real Estate’s office, I’m edgy and nervous.
When everyone in the office is busy, I spot an opportunity to step into Ishikawa’s office to ask something. It’s important.
“Ishikawa-san, I’m happy to have completed my task yesterday.” I bow. “But, there was a man there that threatened me who said he was with the yakuza.” I don’t tell Ishikawa about the death threat. It might sound too ridiculous to be believed.
“Yes,” I say, and look down solemnly.
Ishikawa stands up, walks to his door to the office floor, and shouts, “Tanabe-san! Come to my office.”
Tanabe leaps out of his chair and rushes over.
Ishikawa smiles. “Paul, you have nothing to worry about. We’re with the yakuza too. Just tell anyone who bothers you, you work for the yamaguchi-gumi,” he says, mentioning the name of the infamous Osaka crime network.
Tanabe rolls up his sleeve. His forearm is covered with the tattoos yakuza have.
“Feeling more relaxed now?” Ishikawa asks, giving me a fatherly pat on the shoulder. They’re real estate businessmen now, but I wonder what Ishikawa and Tanabe might have done in the past.
“That’s good to hear, I think I overreacted!” I say, and chuckle along with them.
“Good, good,” Ishikawa says. “Now that that’s settled, you did a great job, you are very dependable, and you know where the office is. So, next week, I would like you to go and place our bids.”
“Yes, of course!” I say, and bow deeply.
The next day, I come to work and act normally. After work, I take the subway to Osaka train station. All my belongings are already there, stashed in a coin locker. I pick up my bags, and paying cash, buy a one-way shinkansen ticket to Tokyo. I have a friend in Tokyo. I’ll turn off my mobile number. Tokyo is far enough away, they’ll never find me.
When I arrive in Japan’s capital city that evening, a spring rain has washed the pink blossoms from the cherry trees onto the ground. An endless pink carpet welcomes me on every avenue. The streets are wider, everything more organized, than Osaka. Walking along the boulevard that leaves Tokyo station, I see the Imperial Palace in the distance. The city looks glorious.
Author's Note: This story is based on the recollections told to me by an American resident of Tokyo, about his first job in the city of Osaka. Specific details and conversations were imagined to bring this story to life, while staying as true as possible to Paul's recollections of the events that happened (everything to do with the yakuza.)