In Asakusa at Kamiya Bar (神谷バー) you never know who you might meet. My wife and I were drinking there one night last November with an Australian friend and her Japanese husband. The tables in Kamiya Bar are packed closely together, so we couldn’t help notice that the people at the next table were having a hell of a good time.
I took a chance and asked if I could photograph them. They happily agreed.
The fellow in the hat seemed to be the leader, or at least he was paying for most the drinks. He was particularly friendly, so I asked for his photograph as well. He smiled and agreed. I got up from my chair and prepared to take a few shots.
But as I did my Australian friend pulled me close and said quietly into my ear “Careful, Dan, those guys are dangerous.”
“What do you mean?” Then I thought for a second and it dawned on me.
“Yakuza?” I said.
She pursed her lips and nodded, then let me go about my photographic business.
When I finished I sat at our table and spoke again quietly with my Australian friend.
“How do you know they’re yaks?”
She said “I used to work as a secretary for a Shinjuku real estate rental company. When they hired me, I just thought they wanted a white foreign girl who could speak fluent Japanese.”
Then she lowered her voice to an almost inaudible whisper. Whispers are almost impossible to hear in Kamiya Bar, but we managed.
She said “After a few years, I figured out yakuza owned the company. I was working for yakuza. They were in and out of where I worked all the time. So I know them. Those are low-level guys, but they’re still dangerous.”
She had lived in Japan for 18 years, and I trusted her implicitly. Yet her concern didn’t match the friendly, easy-going vibe I felt from the table next to us. I didn’t feel threatened, but I also didn’t want to keep imposing my camera upon yakuza having drinks. So I shot one last photo of them, thanked them in the best horrible Japanese I could manage, and rejoined my wife and our friends at our table.
After that we drank more beer and laughed, and even had a denki bran or two. I looked over at the yakuza every few minutes or so, raising my glass to them when they noticed me. I was happy I had met them, intrigued when my Australian friend told me what they were, and overjoyed that I was with my wife and my friends at Kamiya Bar.
(Asakusa, Tokyo 2015)