Zen Training at Engakuji


**BUMP–Registration will close in the next couple of days**

Engakuji (円覚寺), one of the major temples in Kamakura and training site of D.T. Suzuki, is holding its Spring Student Zazen Training Session from March 4-6. Application is open to anyone (including non-students).

I attending the Fall training session last year with almost no prior experience and found the weekend intense but very rewarding.

More details on the website (Japanese) here.

If any readers in Japan are interested in attending, please fill out this application form and send it to the temple via fax or mail. The sessions tend to be popular so I suggest applying as soon as possible. Neither prior experience with meditation nor advanced Japanese skills are necessary but having one of these is helpful.

I’m happy to answer any questions/concerns in the comments section.



Some of you may know that I run regular fundraiser for Polaris Project, Japan’s only NGO devoted solely to fighting human trafficking. I’m running my BIGGEST ONE EVER tomorrow in Harajuku and there are still SEATS AVAILABLE.

The event will feature the Edo Daikagura Troupe, masters of daikagura, a performance/juggling art that dates back to the Heian Period. Needless to say, these guys are very very good and their act is incredible! For more detail, check out the Metropolis Magazine feature I wrote on it some weeks ago.

We also got coverage in the JAPAN TIMES today!

I’m posting the flier beneath the break. If any readers are interested in coming (and meeting me and other MF ppl) please RSVP to the e-mail address near the bottom.

Continue reading DAIKAGURA

Underground Gamblers and Academic Grants

This week’s Metropolis has a feature on underground gambling. It’s an interesting read:

The gambling professional is, in general, not who you think he is. For a pro gambler, Rei looks pretty normal. He has an average build, wears average clothes and works a regular day job. He lives in a messy six-mat apartment. The paint on the walls is peeling off, and his stuff is strewn about the room. In the corner lie a couple of duffel bags thrown there the previous night. By all appearances, it’s a standard Japanese bachelor’s apartment.

Except that those bags contain enough ¥10,000 bills to wallpaper the entire room.

Later on in the article, there are short notes about gambling in Japan. Academics may be surprised to read this:

Doing research on Japan? There’s a good chance you’re being supported by the gambling industry. Every year The Nippon Foundation donates roughly ¥30 trillion to charitable and educational causes. It all comes from boat racing.

For the most part, this is true. The Nippon Foundation, the largest philanthropic organization in Japan, receives over 3% of kyotei (motorboat racing) annual revenues.  According to the 2006 Government Whitepaper on Leisure, the total market for 2005 for kyotei was 978 billion yen. In the early 90s, it was about double this. More details can be found in David Plotz’s Pachinko Nation. (Incidentally, Plotz’s research was supported by a Nippon Foundation grant.)

Of course, this isn’t to criticize the foundation itself, which has supported good works around the globe. Apparently some academics in Japan do look down on their grants, however. Last year, a friend of mine was faced with the choice of either a Fulbright or a Nippon Foundation grant for her dissertation research. When she told an academic friend of hers about this, the friend closed the door and quietly told her that she risked a small amount of stigma were she to go with the latter.

If this is how some Japanese academics deal with researchers whose grant is merely peripheral to gambling, I wonder how they will treat someone whose research is on gambling…

Gambling and the Yakuza: An Interview with Jake Adelstein, Part 2

Welcome to part 2 of the Jake Adelstein Interview. For those of you who missed it, here’s part 1. Don’t forget to check out his book. Remember, by spreading his story around you are helping to keep him alive.

I enjoyed your article on yakuza fan magazines. Actually, I met a publisher of one of those once. He mentioned an interesting ritual–if an editor ever printed something wrong about the group or otherwise needed to apologize, he would go to the office with a special set of two sake bottles that were bound together. The bindings, he explained, symbolized a reaffirmation of the relationship and would be drank together after the apology. Ever heard of this?

I’ve heard of carrying big expensive bottles of sake to the offices with a set of two sake cups–probably symbolizing the same thing.  I’ve never heard of the two sake bottles being bound together but it sounds plausible.

This is the publisher of ***, by the way. Does this mean that he’s got a connection to a particular group? I find this idea surprising, as the guy is known in the mahjong world mainly for being very defensive (and cowardly, depending on who you ask). He also has a licensing deal with a video game company, which would probably drop the deal if they thought their own product was tainted.

Every yakuza magazine tends to lean a little towards one organized crime group over another. *** was once said to be really tight with the Yamaguchi-gumi, if memory serves me right.

By the way, did I mention that my specialty is mahjong? Ever see any mahjong games at the press club in the police building? I’ve heard the games there used to be pretty popular, but this is hard to verify.

When I was in the Saitama Police Department Headquarters press club–there were still reporters who would gather together, regardless of newspaper/television affiliation and play Mah Jong. But never for money. At least not in the Police Headquarters.

How can you be sure they didn’t play for money? Were there no records kept?

Nobody would be that stupid I assume. You don’t want to taunt the police. (Ed–I know people this stupid)

You mentioned in your book that you discussed Mahjong with police detectives. Did you play the game much and did you ever play with them?

I haven’t played in years. There was one cop in the Organized Crime Control Division who was a Mah Jong fanatic who taught me how to play and sometimes we’d play with another cop pal of his. They were nice enough not to play for money too often because I would have gone broke.  I never got the knack of it. I did have one night where I kicked both their asses but it was a total fluke.  I remember supplementing my lessons on Mah Jong by reading a comic book introduction to the game.

Ever hear anything about yakuza connections to Mahjong? One Japan Society Paper on Pachinko claims that mahjong is a billion dollar industry. I’ve heard from other sources that the yakuza are involved, but sources within the industry laugh at this, saying that there isn’t nearly enough money going through a parlor to attract yakuza attention.
It does seem that Mah Jong is an older person’s sport and while occasionally it comes back into fashion or is considered trendy again, my impression is that it’s not worth the time of the modern yakuza. But I don’t know. Do you remember the great Kabukicho fire on September 1st, 2001 (right before 911)?  One of the bars that had a lot of deaths was a mah jong parlor where gambling was done and it had a yakuza backer. However, it wasn’t being run by the mob, the owners were just paying large amounts of protection money. Nationwide, perhaps it really is big money.

Popular rumor has it that the legally grey Pachinko industry is heavily influenced by North Korean owners, who launder and repatriate the money, and the yakuza, who are involved with the cash-exchange shops. What your take on this? I’ve heard that both of these claims are exaggerated and the real winner is the NPA and its amakudari.

The yakuza have cleared out of the pachinko industry to a great degree. It is true that there are many pachinko parlors with North Korean ties, mostly familial and some business. What’s interesting about the pachinko industry is that while the customers are declining in number, the amount each remaining customers plugs into the machines seems to be increasing.  Bigger investment, bigger pay-off seems to be the lure.  I don’t think anyone doubts that the NPA wants to keep pachinko around because the industry does provide such nice retirement opportunities for themselves.  Now, in Kansai, you probably still have yakuza groups collecting money from the pachinko parlor owners but in Kanto the police have done a very thorough job of driving the yakuza out of the industry.  Even the North Korean connections are becoming weaker. Here’s how it used to work if you were a North Korean business owner in Japan.  If you stopped making regular contributions to the motherland, a representative of the Chosen Soren would show up at your doorstep with a note from your relatives in North Korea saying something like “Why don’t you support our country? We have eaten nothing but grass for weeks” or something to that effect–and most people would fork over cash.  The North Korean government is one giant criminal enterprise and they hold the relatives of Korean-Japanese as perpetual hostages to extort money from them. In many cases, once the relative in North Korea who they were indirectly feeding passes away, the man or woman contributing funds to North Korea will cut ties.

Thanks for talking with us, Jake!

Graffiti “artist” B.N.E in the NYT


The NYT just published an article on “BNE,” the man responsible for pasting the stickers bearing his moniker  all over Tokyo. It’s apparently his first interview with a reporter.

Interestingly, the reason BNE has granted this rare interview appears to be because he is in the middle of a promotional campaign for his work. That’s right, promotional campaign. A graffiti artist who you’re only familiar with because he obnoxiously plasters adhesives all over the mailboxes and utility posts of Tokyo has teamed up with an advertising agency to promote his “brand.”

<blockquote>”This weekend, B.N.E. was not spray-painting surreptitiously, but creating a sanctioned mural on a concrete wall in a temporarily vacant building at 595 11th Avenue, near 44th Street. It is part of an exhibition of his work that opens Thursday, sponsored by Mother, a Manhattan advertising agency.

“B.N.E. has single-handedly created a globally recognized and valued brand in the new social economy,” Mother officials said in a news release. “His presence in Flickr photo galleries and YouTube pages dwarfs that of many multinationals.””</blockquote>

Valued brand? Excuse me? That must be why the mayor of San Francisco issued a warrant for his arrest and put $2,500 on his head. I’m generally one to find viral/guerrilla marketing campaigns innovative and funny (even the ones which create a public nuisance) but this development is ridiculous. Municipalities spend money cleaning up after BNE vandalism, he shouldn’t be able to profit off of it.

I think I’d feel differently if his work was a little bit more innovative. He pastes the same damn sticker (or slight variation) everywhere he goes–that’s it. C’mon, even the Andre the Giant sticker has more quality than that!

Plus, the letters in BNE can be rearranged into my nickname, something all my friends never let me forget.

Gambling and the Yakuza: An Interview with Jake Adelstein

Tokyo Vice
Tokyo Vice

Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan came out this past Fall. A tale of sex, scandal, and gangsters, it was written by Jake Adelstein, a former vice reporter for the Yomiuri and the only American to have been admitted into the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department press club. If you’re interested in hearing more about the seedy side of Tokyo, I recommend picking up a copy. It’s a great read, at least as interesting as Robert Whiting’s Tokyo Underworld.

Some of you may have heard of Adelstein when his name popped up a year or so ago as the author of a Washington Post article about the yakuza (Japanese mafia). He is an interesting fellow; besides his unique former press credentials he also was instrumental in the 2006 TIP report that embarrassed Japan into adopting stricter anti-trafficking measures. Additionally, he runs the “Japan Subculture Research Center,” a blog devoted to the Japanese underground. He is currently running around the world promoting his new book. This isn’t just to generate sales. The publicity he generates keeps him alive.

Continue reading Gambling and the Yakuza: An Interview with Jake Adelstein

Organ Harvesting in Japan–Now Legal?

The Lower House voted yesterday to remove the major restrictions on organ transplants in Japan–an age limit and the need for family consent of the donor. Since the organ transplant law was passed, transplants have been difficult to get in Japan and are fairly rare–only 81 in the 11 years since the current law was enacted. Yesterday’s changes were spurred by pressure from the WHO, looking to stem the tide of “medical tourists” who go overseas to get transplants.

Of course, this isn’t to say that everyone agrees with the changes that were made. Many Japanese remain wary of organ transplants and the concept of “brain death,” necessary for organ transplants, is not as accepted in Japan as it is in the United States. Twice Dead, by Margaret Lock, details many objections Japanese people have; the most interesting one she cites relates to 贈答文化, exchange culture, in that a donee can not properly return the favor.

Now, this was nowhere near as interesting as the reason detailed in the newspaper handed to me this morning as I passed a group of protesters demonstrating outside the Diet. According to 関東「障害者」解放委員会, the Kanto “Disabled Persons” Liberation Committee, the law will allow the nefarious Japanese government to do what it has long wanted: harvest organs from workers and sell them on the global market. Social stratification in Japan has spread to the medical arena and politicans led astray by America’s neo-liberal influence are plotting to increase the number of its brain death diagnoses in order to save costs on emergency care and further oppress the working poor! Will the capitalists never cease their brutal exploitation of workers?

After getting over my shock in realizing I was actually reading the headline of the newspaper correctly, I found myself somewhat disappointed that the protestors couldn’t have put together a better case. It is possible to argue against organ transplants without sounding like a complete nut. Although the criteria for brain death are quite rigorous and misdiagnoses are nearly unheard of, there are rare cases of people being declared brain-dead and then coming back to life. The idea of brain death also conflicts with many religious and cultural notions of death.  These aren’t limited to non-Western cultures; according to Wikipedia, the orthodox Jewish community is divided over the issue.

Of course, these nuanced arguments are complicated. It’s much easier to simply say that Japanese politicians are selling poor people’s hearts and livers to line their pockets. Ah, politics! I can’t wait to see what I’m handed the next time I head to Nagatacho.

(Interestingly enough, Japan has had problems with people who allegedly broker “used” organs. Also, see Roy’s post about Japanese organ harvesting in Thailand.)

Article on Mahjong Babe (Shameless Plug)


Hello everyone, Benjamin here.  I’m Roy’s old friend from summer camp who researches gambling in Japan.   I haven’t been posting much but once the program I’m in ends next week I hope to start contributing.

I’m putting up a quick post now because I’m on the cover of Metropolis, Japan’s largest English magazine.  Or rather, the article I wrote about mahjong is, but that’s still pretty neat, right?  If you live in the Tokyo area, you can pick up Metropolis whereever there are large quanitities of gaijin.  If you don’t live in Tokyo, here’s an online version.

I’d also like to take the opportunity to (shamelessly) plug a few lectures I’ll be giving in the Tokyo area this month.

Mahjong and the Law (Japanese)

June 3rd 4:45pm

Queen’s Square Yokohama, Queen’s Mall 3F Minato Mirai Gallery Presentation Room

(accessible from Minatomirai and Sakuragicho stations)

Free, open to the public

The Tiles that Bind:  How Mahjong became the most popular table game in Japan

June 7 2pm-4pm

Marchao Mahjong Parlor, West Exit, Shinjuku

1500 yen, includes use of the parlor until 10pm.  This is a great way to start playing!

RSVP to benkun [at] gmail [dot] com, attendance limited

If you’re interested in any further info, contact me at the address above.

Dumb Luck: Japanese gamblers love hunches—and throw statistics out the window

[Roy: The following is a short article by my friend Benjamin Boas, which was recently published as the back page “Last Word” column in Tokyo’s free English language paper, Metropolis. Ben and I actually met around 12 years ago when we were both attending Buck’s Rock Summer Camp and then after a decade of no contact, both happened to be studying at Kyoto University at the same time last year. Ben spent one year at Kyoto University on a Fulbright grant, which he used to conduct field work researching the anthropology of Japanese gambling, particularly the social role of mahjong in Japanese office culture.

He has a sporadically updated blog on his mahjong studies, found here.]

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During last year’s All Japan Poker Championship, one of the finalists made a play that seemed strange. Despite only having an unmatched ace, he called an all-in bet by his opponent at the flop, caught nothing on the turn and river, and lost to his opponent’s pair of tens. Since he could have folded his hand and taken a small loss instead of losing the whole championship, making that call was at best very risky and at worst a terrible play. I mentioned this to some of the expert players at the tournament, and they agreed, but one Japanese spectator had a different opinion.

“Did you see that last hand?” he said. “You didn’t know who would win until the end. It was so exciting!”

When I pointed out that that the chances of the losing player winning that hand were very low he was unmoved.

“But you don’t know what card is going to come next!” he maintained. “He could have gotten the ace.”

Assuming my Japanese had been misunderstood, I got my friend, a former champion, to explain that although there was a chance of this happening, it wasn’t high enough to justify not folding. This, too, fell on deaf ears. It was more than just not understanding how poker worked; the guy didn’t seem to understand that there’s a difference between luck and probability.

In my years studying the Japanese gambling world, I’ve run into this a type of thinking quite often, and sometimes I wonder why.

Now, myopic reasoning is definitely not limited to Japanese people. No one besides card counters, poker sharks and casino owners comes away from Las Vegas ahead in the long run, but that doesn’t stop millions of people of every nationality from trying. What makes Japan different from America, however, is that gambling parlors aren’t limited to a couple of cities and Indian reservations; they stand on nearly every street corner of Tokyo and dot practically the entire countryside.

I am speaking, of course, about pachinko parlors, which account for roughly 4 percent of Japan’s GNP and are patronized by nearly a quarter of the population. Although commonly described as “Japanese pinball” and legally defined as something close to an arcade game, pachinko is machine-operated gambling and nothing more. Thanks to the advent of automated shooting and computer controlled payouts, after a player sits down at the machine, skill is practically nonexistent. Despite the fancy CG and byzantine prize-redeeming system, pachinko is probably best described as a slot machine in a kimono.

And that’s not the worst of it. If you factor in all other forms of gambling and take into account differences in population size, Japanese and Americans spend roughly the same amount on gambling-but Japanese people lose twice as much money. What accounts for this difference?
Part of the answer may be found in another Japanese gambling game, mahjong. Although Chinese in origin, mahjong was introduced here over 100 years ago and is currently one of the country’s most popular board games. Several manga dealing with mahjong are released every month, and the stories, written by pros, often touch on the subject of luck. Some of these writers’ ideas about how probability works are pretty suspect, particularly when they recommend “analog” methods over “digital” approaches.

Analog players try to play in accordance to their luck. If they feel lucky, they make risky plays and shoot for big hands; if not, they give up on hands regardless of how promising they may look. Digital players, on the other hand, make plays which are statistically likely to favor them.

Think about that. If this debate were brought to the attention of skilled poker players, it would get laughed out of the room. Yet I have interviewed very senior mahjong pros who insist that the young ‘uns who play only according to the numbers are “idiots.” “If you can successfully take your opponent’s luck,” they say, “you can win in any situation.” Just like with the spectator at the poker tournament, no explanation will get through to them until they recognize the significance behind probability math.

So, in the end, I had to agree that yes, the losing player was very unlucky and yes, poker is interesting because you don’t know who is going to win. What I will always remember about that conversation was seeing the expression on my friend’s face as we gave up. It was the same face I see Japanese people put on when they just can’t get a foreigner to understand the way things work in Japan.