Sep 252008

Speaking of Yakuza (see previous post), I learned something really interesting the other day.

After a few hours of programming at Starbuck’s, an old friend of mine, call him “E,” dropped by for a coffee and a chat. Originally from Egypt, E has lived in Kyoto for more than 20 years. He’s now married to a Japanese woman and owns a small chain of English schools. Needless to say, he’s more than familiar with the Japanese laws and way of doing things.

During our conversation we got to talking about the problem of Japan’s declining birthrate. The older generation is worried that soon, there won’t be a big enough workforce to keep the country afloat – so they’ve started importing foreigner labor to help fill the gap. My response to this is “If a lack of labor is really such an issue, why don’t they start by diverting some of the workers filling the millions of useless job positions to things that actually need to get done?”

I refer to the armies of people filling out unnecessary paperwork, the combini workers who stand by the door simply to bow to entering and exiting customers, and to the dozens of unarmed 60-year-old security guards standing around at banks where not one incident has ever occurred. But most of all, I refer to the “air-traffic controllers” – guys with glowing wands who stand in front of driveways or at crosswalks waiving bicyclists down the sidewalk or cars out of the driveway. It’s completely and utterly pointless. I think people can probably handle walking past a driveway on their own.

E’s response: “Don’t you know? Those guys are tied to the Yakuza.”

How could these little old men who stand around all day doing nothing be connected with the Japanese mafia, you ask?

Well, when you own a business in Japan, you “have to” hire these guys to stand in your driveway, and you “have to” pay them ridiculously high salaries. The Yakuza then take the high salaries and pay the little old men minimum wage. It’s a way to justify pay-offs.

Japan is all about “tatemae” – saving face, or making things appear as if they’re falling within the lines. Paying an old guy a high salary is fine; a mafia payoff wouldn’t be. So they disguise the latter as the former.

Just like how gambling is technically illegal, yet you can find hundreds of Pachinko parlors in every city. In a Pachinko parlor, you can’t win any money so it’s not technically gambling. Of course, you can always take your Pachinko balls right next door and sell them to the “Pachinko-ball-buying-shop,” converting your fortunate luck into cold hard cash.

Pretty interesting. A few years ago, I would’ve found this incredibly strange. But knowing how things operate around here, how the Japanese mentality says that “seeming to be okay” is far more important than “actually being okay,” I can almost understand why they do it.

I think I’m turning Japanese, I think I’m turning Japanese, I really think so! 😮

  7 Responses to “Old Yakuza Men”

  1. hey we forgot to tell you, but some yakuza-like guys choke slammed george into a wall when we were in kyoto. yakuza suck dude.

  2. Whaat? Why would they do that? George wouldn’t pick a fight with anyone! 😛

  3. The wand-wavers are particularly annoying, and often painfully redundant. Regardless of them getting paid, I can’t imagine having the willpower to wake up every day and go to a job that is so obviously redundant.

    But a quick note about the pachinko comment, you don’t actually trade the pachinko balls for money. They count up the balls at the pachinko parlor and give you a slip of paper with the number. They cash out the slip with prizes, nowadays in Tokyo it seems to just be small pieces of gold (seriously) for set values… like every 1000balls will get you a certain piece. The remaining balance can be spent on cheap stuff like cigarettes or candy, and then you walk around the corner and exchange the gold for cash.

  4. Interesting!

    I did actually see a line of guys holding large baskets of balls right next door to a pachinko parlor in Osaka last weekend, though. The line started at a small ticket-booth-style window and ran almost right back to the entrance to the parlor itself. Of course, they too might’ve been walking away with gold. Who knows.

    Japan’s a strange, strange land at times 🙂

  5. PS Just checked out your Flickr…awesome photos, man. I really gotta get out there and start shooting again 🙂

  6. yeah…..some of the stupid jobs that people hold here in China also amazes me

  7. What a concept, using an item with intrinsic value such as gold as a currency… I wonder why other countries have not thought of that…

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