HORSE’S MOUTH: My Experience with Yakuza


(First published in The Rafu Shimpo on Oct. 22, 2011)


While nearly 70 years have passed since Japanese Americans were forced into camps during World War II, there are still a lot of discussions about that era in this day and age.

Of course, many of those who are involved in these discussions never actually experienced “camp life” or were very young at the time. Perhaps that’s why certain aspects of camp life are never mentioned.

One area is the education that those who were students in elementary or high school received while in camp.

I can’t chat about the other camps on this subject, but I am familiar with what transpired in Heart Mountain.

When “schools” were first opened at Heart Mountain, the high-schoolers used empty barracks while a high school was being constructed on the camp grounds.

When the school was completed, it was like any high school on the “outside,” complete with a gym, where the school’s basketball team played against schools from the “outside.”

The one thing I was curious about was how the camp high school knew what grade each student was in.

Judging from my own experience, I wonder how many students had transcripts from the “outside” high schools to be considered a 10th, 11th or 12th grader.

I know Heart Mountain High School contacted my “outside” high school for my transcript, but it never arrived so I could have claimed any level of education that I wanted.

How many others were in the same situation?

There were 66 “outside” high schools represented at Heart Mountain.

The first graduating class had nearly 200 students.

The schools?

From Southern California: Garfield, El Monte, Hamilton, Lincoln, Hollywood, North Hollywood, Covina, Marshall, Belmont, Poly, Roosevelt, Jefferson, Mark Keppel, Wilson, Banning, Leuzinger, Washington, San Pedro, Alhambra, Los Angeles, Maryknoll, Loyola, Fremont and Puente.

Belmont had the most students with 25.

From other areas of California: Commerce, San Francisco, Sacramento, Santa Clara, San Jose, Mountain View, Girls High, Palo Alto, Live Oak, Fremont, Sunnyvale, Santa Cruz, Lowell, Los Gatos, Placer, McClatchy and Alameda.

San Jose had the most with 15.

From the State of Washington: Renton, Wapato, Kent, Toppenish, Stadium, Skykomish, Yakima, Vashon Island, Kitsap, Columbia, Bellevue, Lincoln, Raymond, South Bend, Mt. Vernon and Enumclaw.

Kent had the most with 8.

Oregon was represented by two schools: Salem and Hood River.

So, how was the education in camp?

Well, among the teachers recruited by the WRA, most were college students who took the jobs offered.

Among those with degrees, six held a master’s degree, eight had a bachelor’s. Two were junior college students and 22 had an associate’s degree.

Since a number of graduates from the camp schools applied for and were accepted at colleges in the Midwest and the East, I would assume that the camp schools didn’t deter their aim in getting higher education.

I left camp to join Uncle Sam’s Army, so I don’t know how those who spent more a year at the camp school turned out.

Some went to school in camp for three years.

I’m sure there are a few of you out there in readerland who might want to comment on my chatter about getting “educated” in camp.

Will be glad to publish your thoughts.

As frequently mentioned here, the downtown area of Las Vegas depends a lot on visitors from Hawaii.

Well, there will be one visitor who might not be classified as a visitor but a “Las Vegan.”

A Honolulu company, High Tech Lights, is moving its operation from the Islands to Vegas, the first Hawaiian firm to establish itself in the city.

High Tech Lights produces indoor and outdoor LED lights and all of its patrons are located in Japan.

The Island company is investing $1.2 million in equipment for its new 10,000-square-foot facility and will hire 150 Vegas employees at a starting wage of $20 per hour.

Since the earthquake and tsunami, High Tech Lights has lost a lot of business in Japan, so they will now eye North America for future business.

A spokesman for the firm said he was encouraged by the quality of those who applied for employment with this company.

And it’s no secret that Vegas residents are finding it tough to get jobs in their city, so they welcome the Hawaiian firm.

I’m curious how many of those who applied for jobs are “regular” casino visitors from the Islands.

Time to toss in a couple of short letters:

First one from friend Harry Honda, who wrote: “With the Texas Rangers vs. St. Louis Cardinals highlighting this year’s World Series, all ‘honorary Texans,’ so called after their heroic and gallant venture to rescue the Lost Battalion in 1944, could be ‘sentimental boosters’ for the Rangers — plus the thousand other Nisei GIs (like Very Truly Yours) who were stationed in a camp during WWII somewhere in the Lone Star State (I was in Camp Berkeley outside of Abilene, Texas).”

Yeah, Harry, since no West Coast team is involved in the series, I’m sure a lot of Nisei vets who served with the 442nd will be rooting for the Rangers.

Me? Well, as an MIS vet, I guess I won’t be rooting for Texas. Thanks for your email.

The second short message is in reference to the piece I printed on Hung Wai Ching, who helped get the 100th/442nd organized.

Takeshi Tokiyama wrote: “In your column of Oct. 18 you wrote Hung Wai Ching’s story. His story was well documented in a 2007 DVD titled ‘The First Battle,’ which is available from the Japanese American National Museum store. It relates what Ching and Shigeo Yoshida did to prepare Hawaii and the Japanese American community for the predicted coming war with Japan. It aired on PBS a few years ago.”

Thanks, Tak. I didn’t hear about the DVD being sold at JANM or that it was on TV already.

I guess I’d better pay more attention in the future.

Okay, I’ll reverse gears and get on a completely different topic.

In recent times, two books were written about Japan’s yakuza or gangster organizations. Both were written by Caucasian authors. I’m not sure where and how they gathered their information.

It’s kind of ironic that books on the yakuza are now being made public.

When I went to Japan to work for Rikidozan, I didn’t know what a yakuza was when I first heard the word because I’d never heard it used back in the U.S.

When I asked one of the fellow workers in Riki’s office, they just laughed.

I know I related this bit several times in the past, but one day Riki called me into his office because he wanted me to meet someone whose organization I would be working with.

The fellow looked like any other Japanese businessman, middle-aged, dressed well and soft-spoken.

Riki said in his introduction (in Japanese, of course), “George, I want you to meet Mr. Taoka. He’s the Al Capone of Japan.”

Needless to say, I laughed because I thought Riki was joking around.

Well, Mr. Taoka didn’t like my laughing and gave me a glare.

At that point, Riki said, “If you were a Japanese you’d be floating face down in the Sumida River because Mr. Taoka didn’t appreciate your laughing.”

Then I learned that Mr. Taoka was the “oyabun” or head man of the Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s largest yakuza group.

Fortunately for me, Riki explained to Mr. Taoka that I was a “gaijin” and didn’t understand Japanese protocol.

However, after that incident, I started gathering information on yakuza groups because I thought it would make a good story.

I got to know the “oyabun” of the next two largest yakuza groups, the Inagawa-kai and Sumiyoshi-gumi.

Over the next six months I had enough information to fill a book, so I decided to start on the project.

However, when others in Riki’s company heard what I was doing, they all said the same thing: “If you want to live in Japan, junk your idea.”

That’s because Riki’s company was involved in promotions and anyone involved in the promotion business had to deal with the yakuza.

So, I put all my notes into a briefcase and stored them away.

When I returned to the U.S. after Riki passed away suddenly, I forgot all about the notes, so they remained stored in our garage.

Besides, at the time, I didn’t think anyone would be interested in the yakuza in the U.S.

Now the scene has changed and people are buying books about the gangster organizations of Japan. And I’m writing a column twice a week, but I’m not floating face down in the Sumida River.

Today being Wednesday (the day I write my column), I went to the neighborhood liquor store, where I have been buying my Super Lotto ticket since the inception of the game.

I ran into a Nisei friend who was also there buying his ticket.

“How long you been playing the lotto?” he asked me.

When I told him since its beginning, he laughed and said, “Me, too.”

So, I asked him, ‘Have you ever won anything?”

“Yeah,” he said, “a few bucks about a dozen times. What about you?”

I made a zero sign with my finger.

Then I told him that for some reason, I forgot to buy my ticket for the first time last Saturday and when I discovered my goof, I broke out in a cold sweat and could only curse myself.

The reason is that about a dozen years ago, a Nisei friend who had to go out of town suddenly, forgot to buy a ticket, which he had been doing since the game began.

Yup. His numbers came up and he missed out on 7 million bucks.

I wondered what I would do if something like that happened to me.

Fortunately, my numbers didn’t come up.

I began to wonder if maybe I should “forget” to buy any more tickets in the future.

Hey, what would I do if I won $12 million, the pot right now?

Maybe I might buy a race horse. Heh heh.

Okay, here’s a “horse laugher.”

A big Texan is walking down the street when he meets Liam standing by a big, strong horse.

This prompts the Texan to attempt to realize a life-long dream. He says to Liam, “That’s a fine-looking horse and I’d like to tour this beautiful country on a horse’s back. I can see the sights and hear the sounds of the countryside like they did in the good old days. How much do you want for your horse?”

Liam says, “You don’t want to mess with this horse. He don’t look too good these days.”

“Hey, boy,” says the Texan, “don’t try to tell me what’s a good-looking horse. I know all about them.”

“I’m saying to you that this horse is not a good-looking horse, Mister, and you don’t want to mess with him.”

The Texan is getting angry now. “Listen, boy, you leave it to me to judge what’s good-looking and what’s not. Just give the price and I’ll pay you cash right here.”

“Oh well,” said Liam. “$2,000.”

“Deal,” says the Texan, and he hands over the money. Liam unties the horse and lets the Texan take him.

The horse walks smack into the first lamp post in the way.

The Texan turns to Liam and says, “Hey, boy, you damn swindler, you didn’t tell me this horse was blind.”

“I kept telling you he don’t look good,” says Liam, “and you kept saying it was none of my business so in the end, I gave up.”

Heh, heh.


George Yoshinaga writes from Gardena and may be reached via email. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.



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