Gangsters Hiding in the Kanji

The local yakuza boss who showed up at my friend’s noodle stall was indeed “straight”, dressed in a suit and looking much like an ordinary salaried man.

During my years in Japan I have encountered yakuza (gangsters) and their underlings the chimpira on a number of occasions. Recently I went to a local festival at a temple in Tokyo to see a friend who had a food stall there, selling fried soba noodles. The local gangsters showed up (they take a share of the stall keeper’s profit in return for whatever pointless “services” they provide).

There is a kanji — a Chinese character — that describe those three shady characters very well:

It’s a wonderful image! In the middle you see a person of rank (大 by itself it means big — a guy with arms and legs spread out to show how big he is). And guess what? The two little “armless” guys (人) on his sides are his bodyguards. I’m not making this up! That’s the ancient, hidden story in this character. Hard to tell if these two bodyguards really were “armless” or “armed”, but you get the picture (or pictogram, in this case).

The meaning derived is “chivalry”, and that is precisely how the yakuza describe their crime syndicates — “chivalrous organizations” (“ninkyō dantai”). The idea of this kanji is that the two bodyguards are extremely loyal to the person of importance. You may have heard of how yakuza who has broken the codes of conduct ungrudgingly sacrifice a finger, which is chopped off with a knife as punishment. These are “chivalrous” people, obeying the code.

And guess how the yakuza write ninkyō dantai? Like this:

Yes, that pompous guy with his “chivalrous” two guards is in there!

(I wasn’t really honest a moment ago when I told you there was only the big guy and his two underlings in this character. There is another man to the left as well (人 straightened up a bit to fit in), so you get:

And now his two bodyguards are kind of hiding. Well, that’s what happens when people mess around with their script for milennia. The kanji have changed over time. Let’s just say that the story here goes:

“There is this guy in the neighbourhood (a nice and straight version of 人). He seems to be really BIG, and IMPORTANT (大). Well, he showed up the other day with two of his gorillas…” (人 + 人 = two people). He chivalrously offered to buy me some noodles.”

The local yakuza boss who showed up at my friend’s noodle stall was indeed “straight”, dressed in a suit and looking much like an ordinary salaried man. Slim and nice. Friendly looking. The body guards looked a lot more gangster-like, almost like two characters out of some yakuza film. The boss apparently came around to check out things at our stall, and all the people immediately rose in respect. You can’t have a stall at a festival in Japan without the “aid” of these people, you see.

The boss immediately noticed me and asked if he could buy me a serving of noodles. I replied that I was very honoured but that I had just eaten. He smiled and turned to his bodyguards: “Hey, you two, get yourselves some noodles, it’s on me”. They bowed and accepted the offer most respectfully.

I believe I was the only white guy at the festival. I am not part of the harmonious whole of Japanese society, and perhaps that is why many yakuza have been kind to me. Maybe my friendly, polar bear-like appearance helps, too. I’m the polar bear among all the penguins — the Japanese salaried workers in suits, scurrying around everywhere. Here, penguin herd behaviour is the norm. We — me and the yakuza — are different. At times I feel a kind of brotherhood with them, a moment of understanding between one outsider and another. Penguins don’t get that kind of thing. It’s good to be strange in this country.

Not always, admittedly. I have been refused entry to pubs run by members of the underworld, and some even put a sign on their door saying “NO FOREIGNERS”. It’s rather enlightening to feel a sting of hurt standing there, unable to enter because of your whiteness. For once, we are not superior.

That, too, is a lesson you can only learn from being a misfit. And in Japan, with it’s long history as an isolated island nation and a unique culture only the Japanese can fully understand, you always will be.


If you liked this story, you may also enjoy “A Loveless Gangster’s Funeral”, that gained a large following on Medium. → ReadA Loveless Gangster”.

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