The Japa Jew with Yakuza Tattoos
She pulled down my boxer-briefs and laughed.
“Your dick’s too long. You’re not Japanese.”
I reached down around my ankles and found my wallet.
“Look at my last name.”
TYLER FRANK TASHIMA. SEX: M. HAIR: BRN. EYES: BRN. HT: 5-11. WT: 171.
“Well you certainly don’t look Japanese.”
“Baby, I’m only half. But now that you’ve seen the proof, start telling all your friends that the rumor is false. Asian men actually are well endowed.”
“Let’s find out if they’re a good lay.”
There are many times in your life when you think you’re finally a man.
The first time for me was when I convinced an 8th grader to take me to her graduation dance. I was the only 6th grader there as far as I knew.
The second time was institutionalized. Right before I turned thirteen, I had my Bar Mitzvah, which according to Jewish tradition is a ceremony that you have when you’ve become a man. You lead a service in front of all your peers, family, and friends, memorizing several prayers in Hebrew and guiding the congregation. Near the end you read a passage from the Torah, also known as the “Old Testament,” or the “Jewish Koran.” This part is tougher because the Hebrew in the Torah is written in a cursive script without vowels, so the only way to read it is to memorize the whole thing. If you fuck it up, only the Rabbi knows. He will shake his head as you make up words on the fly and improvise the whole thing while your peers judge you as they see the desperation in your eyes and smell the bullshit.
For the Bar Mitzvah party, we had a Hawaiian theme, with a catered lunch and Volcano Punch, a masterful combination of fruit punch and dry ice. We had Hula Dancers who did a hot show. Tahiti is always my favorite when it comes to Pacific Island dancing. You should see the power and control women can have over their hips.
At the party I saw my uncle, my mom’s older brother, from whom I derived my middle name. He wore Rayban sunglasses and bought me my first Game Boy. The first James Bond movie I ever saw was at his house.
“Tyler Frank, you looked like a million bucks up there! Mazel tov!”
“Uncle Frank, thank you for coming. And thank you for the card.”
“You think you’re getting a lot of money, right? With a check in every card…”
“Yeah, I’m probably getting over $1,000.”
“That’s nothing, come outside with me, Tyler Frank.”
I followed him out the doors.
“What kind of GPA you gettin’?”
“Nothing but A’s.”
“Make sure it stays that way. School’s important.”
He put his hands on my shoulders and looked me in the eyes.
“You’re a man now. Do you know what you want to do with your life?”
“I’m going to be the next James Bond actor.”
He let go of me and put his hand inside his suit pocket and produced a pack of Dunhills and took a cigarette out.
“If you want to be an actor, you have to smoke. It’s the only way actors keep their weight down. Have you ever smoked, Tyler Frank?”
“No, I have not.”
My father smoked. When I was in Kindergarten, I flushed his cigarettes down the toilet and my mom stopped him before he could hit me with his belt. This was less than a year before she told me that he had gone away. Less than a year before she told me, “He’s dead to me.”
My uncle put the cancer stick in his mouth, lit it, and somehow exhaled the smoke through his nostrils. Then he handed it to me. It was hotter than I expected.
“Try it. Inhale as much as you can, breathe in again to hold it in your lungs, and then exhale.”
I sucked on the cigarette and it really wasn’t that bad. When I blew the smoke out it even seemed cool.
“You didn’t breathe it in the second time like I told you. You’re not really smoking. Try again.”
I sucked it in like a straw, breathed in a second time, and then started coughing my brains out.
“That’s it, you’ll get used to it.”
“I don’t want to get used to it.”
“Then don’t be an actor. Come on, you’re smarter than them. Actors are still children, they’re performers. You’re not a kid anymore, you’re a man. Keep getting those A’s. When you finish college you can come and work for me. I won’t make you smoke because you’re not an actor. You’re an intelligent, creative man, with Orenstein blood in you.”
After my father was gone and dead the first thing my mother did was return our rice cooker to his older brother, Shin, who had bought it for us when they had gotten married. My carbohydrate substitute became pasta and my second meal each day was a can of Spaghetti O’s. I knew the exact way to pace myself to leave a meatball in every spoonful to finish it off.
By sixth grade I started going to Sunday school not only on Sunday mornings, but Wednesday evenings as well. There were lots of children from mixed marriages at my Temple- one of my best friends had a Catholic, Mexican mom and another had a Dutch mom. They both got to celebrate Christmas as well as Chanukah but my mom insisted that we day spend presentless and isolate ourselves at home, eating Digorno pizza and watching The Santa Clause every year.
To make it through school, I was competitive and tried to get the highest grades in my classes. I made some great friends so I’d have places to be besides home. I read a lot, I wrote some. I watched movies, anime, and television. I played video games. I didn’t need a father to live a normal life.
After college, I followed my Jewish uncle and my ancestors into the film industry. Frank seemed to make a good living and I wanted to learn from him how I could work hard and achieve a similar level of success.
The entertainment industry is apprenticeship based. You’re someone’s assistant (literally, their right arm) while you learn by listening in on their phone calls and hearing how they conduct business. Frank took me under his wing and showed me what it actually meant to be a producer. He heard pitches and chose which writers he wanted to work with. When the scripts were good enough, Frank would get a director interested and some stars attached to play the lead roles, and with the package in hand, could pitch the project to the studio with a proposed budget, seeking a “green light” and a start date for shooting.
The project me and Frank developed right before he died was called Tokyo Suckerpunch. I was the one who originally found the book and after Frank read it and loved it as much as I did, we commissioned a screenwriter to adapt it, and early on in the process before the rewrites, we got Tobey Macguire interested in it and he attached himself to play the lead. The story was about an American novelist who writes a column that casts him as macho hero living in a surreal, amped-up Tokyo. He gets his book made into a movie and flies to Tokyo for the premiere and after the director winds up murdered, he has to act like the hero he is in his stories and get to the bottom of what’s going on, fighting yakuza and finding love in the underbelly of Tokyo.
Frank Orenstein made the front page of Variety magazine when he died. In his will, Frank promoted me and left me a very thoughtful inheritance. Sony, the studio with which we had a production deal, gave me their condolences and some time off. I didn’t want to waste this chance and saw it as an opportunity to get Frank’s final project officially greenlit. I told Sony I was going to Japan to scout for locations and negotiate for tax incentives to shoot Tokyo Suckerpunch on location for cheap. I was ready to utilize the fact that I was a very special kind of Hapa, a Japa Jew.
Asian people seemed to have the ability to see the Japanese in me while White people thought I was just like them or maybe part Mexican. My mom warned me how when she went to Tokyo, everyone stared at her as if she were the only redhead in all of Japan (this was 1983), so I thought everyone would mistake me for a hakujin (the Japanese equivalent of a gringo) and not take me seriously.
The first thing I noticed in Japan was the vending machines, filled with more beverages than what I thought was necessary as well as familiar drinks like Crystal Geyser and Coca-Cola. Many of the signs were in English too. But for the ones that weren’t, there were cutesy drawings warning me to watch my baggage and offering visual explanations of things like elevator doors that would close and crush people. Being literate wasn’t a necessity in Japan; visuals everywhere seemed to get the point across. Film is primarily a visual medium. I was definitely in the right place.
Everyone at the hotel knew English. They were extremely courteous, but Forbes said that I shouldn’t tip them, even though their service was much better than I usually experienced in America. I thought that I could survive off of communicating only with the concierge. At the Japanese McDonald’s on the street outside the hotel, I could just point to what I wanted to order and they would understand.
My mom was wrong about them staring at me. In fact, the Japanese on the streets didn’t seem to notice me at all. Like drivers in their cars on the freeway, every Japanese person was in their own world because of their cell phone, too busy texting to notice me. There was, however, a tall black man signing shoes in a store in Shibuya that young people queued up to meet. He was the exception. Even cosplayers in Harajuku were ignored. I respected them, though, and gave them the attention to deserved, asking them to take Myspace-style pictures with me, pointing the camera at us while holding it with my right hand and taking a high angle shot.
When I first started walking on the streets I noticed that there were yellow lines that vertically bisected most sidewalks. I was walking into oncoming pedestrians so I realized that I was supposed to mimic their traffic laws and travel on the left side. This went with the flow of pedestrian traffic and was quite an efficient system for a city packed so full of people. But in the first week of my trip, when I was the loneliest, I sometimes crossed the line and walked on the right side, purposefully walking into people to confirm my existence as often as I could without getting arrested.
I liked to explore the alleys and walk into Pachinko bars and watch Japanese teens play arcade games. It was here that I got the hint of a larger Japanese underworld. Men in suits with red, yellow and green flames reaching above their collars and black Japanese characters inked on their knuckles played pachinko during the daytime. After two weeks of acclimation I received my itinerary from Sony.
First, I was to hear a feature pitch from a friend of the Chairman. We met for lunch and ate tonkatsu. He handed me the script and began his story.
“It’s Inglourious Basterds meets Farewell to Manzanar. It’s a historical, quirky action film with thrills and it’s perfect for Tarantino. Our protagonist is Sakura, a girl in the camps. This is the untold ‘story’ of how we brought down Emperor Hirohito and ended the war with Japan. It begins like this.”
EXT. Manzanar – Day
A JAPANESE BOY (18) plays catch with his friend, SAKURA (18). He throws one pitch a little too high, and it rolls off the top of her glove towards the BARBED WIRE FENCE.
Don’t worry Sakura, I’ll get it.
He runs to the fence and an American guard, who we’ll come to know as STEVE JOHNSON (21) from the watchtower spots him running.
Sneaky little Jap.
Steve aims his rifle and lets out a single shot that drops the JAPANESE BOY to the ground.
I kept on reading the script as he continued his pitch.
“Sakura makes a ragtag team of Japanese-Americans and not only do they burst out of Manzanar, but they convince Roosevelt to end all the internment camps, completely. Sakura and Steve are put together in charge of OPERATION AMATERASU, the plan to assassinate Hirohito. There will of course be some friction between Sakura and Steve because of their past history- she hates him, he hates Japs, and her internal conflict is that she struggles with her dual identity as a Japanese-American and as a Japanese woman. She had originally done nothing to betray her country, America, yet is now asked to betray her ancestral country, Japan. However, when things get dangerous Steve first and then Sakura saves the other’s life and they fall for each other. Hirohito gets eaten by whales, FDR cancels the Manhattan Project, and Sakura and Steve make love on the roof of the Imperial Castle.”
“Did you know that Inglorious Basterds made more than $300 million worldwide? This sounds like a very commercial idea.”
“Does it now? I just wrote this because I felt the story needed to be told,” he chuckled.
The assistant director sent me a script breakdown with the scenes we needed to shoot on location and the places I needed to go to secure these locations. One required locale was a seedy Pachinko joint, and I knew just the place, near my hotel.
I walked on the wrong side of the sidewalk again, and as I approached the alley a woman in a red kimono slammed into me and fell to the ground. I apologized for my carelessness and noticed dried blood at the corners of her mouth. She quickly stood up and hobbled on her heels, looking back at a man in a white suit with inked fire around his neck was coming up the alley towards us. Something about him sent an impulse charged with melancholic nostalgia down my spine. I couldn’t see his eyes because of his sunglasses, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to.
I bent her over my shoulder, lifted her fireman style and ran around the block and up a flight stairs and set her down outside of the McDonald’s.
I breathed. The golden arches glowed to our side as I gazed into her uncommonly large eyes that made her seem as if she had crawled out of the pages of a manga.
“You’re safe with me. I’m Tyler Tashisma. I’m from America.”
“My name is Katsumi.”
At first, Katsumi didn’t want me to see the world she came from. She was a prostitute for the Red Dragon Clan, one of the wealthier Yakuza gangs of Tokyo. We kept away from upscale locales and ate at the restaurants where you put Yen into a vending machine and choose your order. A receipt prints and when you give it to the kitchen they immediately start on your meal- chashu ramen was one of my favorites. I savored the tender pork in the soup and decided to get out of the hotel and rent my own apartment.
She soon tired of eating cheaply and after a few days we went to one of those sushi boat restaurants where you sit at a U-shaped counter and little boats filled with sushi travel around on a conveyor. I was surprised at how little sushi I found in Tokyo.
Maybe the fish weren’t biting. But I was.
I had as much Yellow Fever as any other White guy, if not more. I wanted Katsumi so badly that I tried my hardest to be as Japanese as I could. Other than a mild amount of knowledge of their films, Anime, and my growing knowledge of the language, I had little to offer her in terms of compatibility. Well, at least we were compatible in bed together. She told me she used to be a gymnast and I certainly believed her after she had me fuck her while she wrapped her feet behind her head.
It wasn’t just the sex. Katsumi helped me grow as a person and as a man. The most important thing Katsumi taught me to help my business skills was to how to smoke properly. She took me to the designated section on the bullet train platform to Tokyo where there were more than six men puffing cigarettes.
“Inhale, Tyler-kun. First you must smoke without the cigarette.”
I stopped holding my breath and continued normal respiratory activity, in my nose and out of my mouth, coughing a little here and there. She put a ridiculously long cigarette in her mouth and another in mine. She put the lighter to hers.
“The first intake is the most important.”
The white paper at the tip turned black and I saw the tobacco embers burn as she took two quick womanly puffs and moved the smoke around in her mouth with her tongue, playing with it, before blowing it away from my face, over onto another man who didn’t seem to care.
“The first intake offers relief. You will feel a wave of relaxation as it wipes away your anxieties and allows you to really focus.”
She brought the warm flame of her lighter to the relaxation stick dangling from my lips. I made eye contact with a veteran smoker standing near us who was about to have his intake of relief. We took a deep breath at the same time.
I really felt like a man after Katsumi took me to a tattoo parlor in Shibuya. The needle buzzed and burned as it permanently etched a much tougher looking version of Dragonball Z’s Shenron onto my back. I felt like Han Solo when Darth Vader tortured him in Cloud City. The tattooist also made the Red Dragon symbol from mahjong, hong zhong, over the veiny parts of my wrists. Hong zhong looks like a dagger, and it made it clear, at least to me, that I fucking meant business.
I got the Yakuza tattoos partly out of impulse, to impress Katsumi and also out of perhaps a partially masochistic desire to show other Yakuza that I was tough enough to go through this torturous procedure. All marines come from the same boot camp; all Yakuza come from the shared experience of this marathon tattoo session of burning needles and the following days of raw red skin and the inability to lie down.
I now felt much safer walking around the streets of Tokyo and to the riskier locations. I acted and appeared like I knew what the hell I was talking about and the underground businessmen I spoke to felt like they were dealing with one of their own. My vocabulary wasn’t much better than some of the guys who joined these gangs, making my persona even more believable. I made production and location deals with benevolent Yakuza who were more concerned about the construction deals I offered them than drugs, prostitution and murder. A lot of the men I met were also interested in acting in the film, and I handed out roles like I was a politician. I even met one of my favorite Japanese actors, Tadanobu Asano, and signed him as the main antagonist.
Sony was ready for me to come back to LA soon. With all of the locations secured and the budget in place, shooting for Tokyo Suckerpunch was set to commence in a few weeks. Upon completion of principal photography, Sony essentially wanted me to dispose of my Japa and come back as the Jew they knew to continue running my late uncle’s production company.
But I was only beginning to unlock the secrets of Tokyo, experience Japan, and understand the other half of my genetic self. I asked for another two weeks. Katsumi helped me look up my family history, tracing it back several centuries. We discovered that my Tashima lineage had come from the Shinsengumi. These guys were totally badass. They were the imperial guard during the Tokugawa Shogunate- the personal army of the Shogun. Many of the Samurai in the Shinsengumi were the bastard sons, the illegitimate and undesired children of the emperor from his extramarital relations. The Yakuza felt like the modern predecessors of this generation of lost boys. Maybe we were all bastards.
I called my Uncle Shin, my father’s older brother, to find out if I wasn’t one myself.
“Oh, Tyler. It’s nice to hear from you again.”
“Do we have any family living in Japan?”
“No one that we really keep in contact with.”
“It can be anyone. An aunt, an uncle? A cousin?”
“Heh, closer than that Tyler.”
It turned out that my father really wasn’t dead. He was living in Japan and had divorced my mother, who had told me he was dead. He had never written me, called me, or shown any curiosity towards me, nothing I knew of. He had been a haunting ghost that was easy to ignore because of what little impact he had made on me. But apparently he was a Yakuza Oyabun.
Katsumi brought me to the Red Dragon Clan. Their operation was run out of a 35-story building near Tokyo bay. Besides controlling a sizable cut of the cocaine market, they were successful fisherman, controlling nearly 60% of the seafood that entered the great Tsujiki Fish Market off of Tokyo bay. They also owned several hundred businesses involved with construction and film production in Japan, and I had signed contracts with some of these men. Katsumi told me that as long as I kept repeating my last name, they wouldn’t kill me.
Katsumi was going back home to live with her parents in Kobe. I gave her money and bought her a cell phone so I could call her to come to the premiere with me. We kissed as if we were saying our final goodbyes and she thanked me and called me “Tyler-kun.”
Outside the sliding doors, I ignited a cigarette and ravenously inhaled my relief intake. After two more long drags, one in which I exhaled the smoke out of my nostrils, I littered, grinded the cigarette into the concrete, and went through the sliding doors and into the lobby.
“My name is Tyler Tashima. I am here to see the boss. He is my father.”
I opened my briefcase for them to see the rest of the Yen bills that I had left, stacked on top of bags of cocaine mixed with protein powder and baking soda.
The thug in a suit listened to someone through his earpiece. A dragon’s head inked up the inside of the wrist of the hand that touched his listening device.
“Go.” He gestured towards the elevator. When I was inside he hit the button for the 35th floor. The doors closed and when they opened I was greeted by a woman in an expensive red kimono that took me down the hallway through lacquered doors to a gigantic office with three walls of black glass windows. The man sitting in the chair facing me wore a white suit and had flames inked on his neck. He had gold jewelry populating his hands, wrists and neck. His hair had not lost all its black- it was hanging out on the back and sides on his head while the top was white. I think this was the man I had seen chasing Katsumi down the alley.
“Let me get a good look.”
I approached the man who was supposed to be my father and put the briefcase on his desk and began to open it.
“I’m not interested in that, I want to look at you, idiot.”
He grabbed my hands and saw the hong zhong marks.
“Do you even know what this means?”
“Red Dragon, right? Like the mahjong tile. And it happens to be the same name as your Yakuza.”
“It’s a symbol of Chinese national pride, you idiot. You can really get in trouble with them if you weren’t so obviously American. Show me the rest of your tattoos.”
“They’re normal. Dragons. Women. Fire.”
He yanked on my tie.
“I didn’t ask for you to tell me what they look like. I want to see them with my eyes.”
I threw off my jacket and tie and began unbuttoning my shirt.
“Why did you leave mom? Why did she lie that you were dead?”
“She wasn’t lying, she was just exaggerating. From her point of view, I may have been dead. She didn’t want to come back and live in Japan and as you can see, I have my business here. I couldn’t be overseas for more than a few months. Long distance just wasn’t working out.”
“That was it?”
I turned around in a circle, flexing and showing him the dragons, ninja women, and Japanese characters written across my back, chest, and arms.
“Tyler, take off your pants.”
“But there aren’t any other tattoos. This is everything.”
“I need to see if you really are my son. Tomoe!” He clapped his hands.
The woman in the red kimono came up behind me.
“Tomoe, give this man an erection.”
Growing up, the fact that I was Japanese didn’t come up often. However, there was this one kid who always assumed that because I was Asian, I must have had a small penis.
“Shut up,” I’d say.
“You have a small dick! I bet it’s not even longer than my pinky!”
“Shut up! The shorter it is when it’s soft, the more room it has to expand,” I reasoned.
“Who told you that?”
“You haven’t seen it! You don’t know how long it is!”
“Have you measured it? Take the ruler, go measure yourself. Or better yet, measure with your pinky, see how many inches that is, like two, and then compare-”
I kicked him hard in the shin and he dropped to the floor.
“At least I have a dick.”
Tomoe held onto to it with her hand and took her mouth off long enough to get out a few words and some laughter.
“His dick’s too long. He’s not Japanese.”
My father beamed with pride. “He may not look incredibly Japanese, but he’s a Tashima, alright. You should know, Tomoe, that the Tashimas are never less than above average, with anything.”
She looked at me with hunger in her eyes.
“What else do you want to learn about your son?”
“Take him to my bedroom. Find out if he’s a good lay.”
“Fuck you, dad! I’m a man. I’ll take her right here on your desk.”
I pulled on her sash and began the laboriously long process of undressing a woman in a kimono.