Yakuza are people too, and being Japanese, they have the same affinity for seasonal revelry as do any other citizen. But when they converge on public places for drinking and carousing, notes the subculture magazine Jitsuwa Bunka Taboo (June), a certain decorum is called for—but not necessarily followed.
Still, gang members might be advised by the local police to do whatever they can to “conceal their identity.”
“So rather than wearing flashy suits or jerseys, we’ll get our people to put on ordinary casual clothes like blue jeans and sweaters so as to look respectable,” relates a lieutenant from a gang based in northern Kanto. “At first we were thinking, ‘Dressed like this, nobody’s going to recognize us,’ but the more we drank, the rowdier we got, and eventually we’d break out in moody yakuza songs sung by the late Ken Takakura, like ‘Karajishi Botan’ or ‘Abashiri Bangaichi,’ which we’d sing ‘til tears ran down our cheeks.”
In efforts to keep down the noise, portable karaoke devices are usually banned from public parks in cities. But in rural areas, they are often brought along for hanami parties, and participants like to break out in song.
“When other people nearby are also accompanied by a karaoke machine, usually it’s not a problem, unless they are sitting too close to each other, and their voices get too loud,” says an assistant to the boss of a gang based in Kansai. “If the ‘oyabun’ (boss) takes over the mike and sings a raunchy song, or does a lousy job of impersonating a singer, then they might jeer or try to to provoke us. This happens a lot with construction workers and similar types. They know that we yakuza aren’t allowed to go after them, so they provoke us intentionally, and repeatedly, just to get us riled”
In such cases, it’s not unheard of for yakuza to wait until the next day to settle a score. Sometimes a gang boss will invite respectable members of society to join the party, so he’ll dispatch younger gang members in advance to stake out a suitably spacious area. On these occasions, securing more space can involve negotiations with whoever has grabbed the adjacent spot. “Naturally we won’t pay them off in cash, but we might give them some beer or sake, so that the negotiations go smoothly,” says the lieutenant of a gang with gambling connections based in the greater Nagoya area. “But once we found ourselves next to a group of middle-aged women. We plied them with confections in the hope they’d let us have a bit of their space, and asked politely, but…”
Instead, the women took offense and showered the yakuza with verbal abuse, such as “You’ve got no manners!” They kept up their verbal assault until one of the younger gang members lost his patience and snarled, “Hey bitch, are you tired of livin?!” One woman’s reaction was to pull out her cell phone and hastily dial 110, summoning the police. Hearing her, the yakuza to a man promptly scooped up their drinks and snacks and beat a hasty retreat.
Prickly encounters with ordinary citizens notwithstanding, imagine how the tension gets ratcheted up when a gang finds itself being glared at by members of a rival gang who happen to be seated beneath an adjacent tree.
“The younger rank-and-file members didn’t recognize each other and right away the atmosphere got pretty tense,” a gang member in Kansai recalls. “It was up to the senior members, who knew one another personally, to keep their troops in line.”
Once upon a time, he relates, a dangerous situation had developed when rumors had been circulating that one of the two gangs was in the process of taking over its smaller rival. All it took to turn that year’s hanami party into a melee was the tipping over a cup of beer, which set the younger members flying off at the handle.
Jitsuwa Bunka Taboo also notes that cherry-blossom viewing had once been a source of yakuza revenues as in the past, gang-affiliated peddlers called “tekiya” often parked their light trucks close to temples, shrines and other blossom-viewing areas, from which they dispensed drinks and snacks such as “takoyaki” (grilled octopus balls) to the crowds. But those days are mostly gone as the police are under orders to drive them away.