One morning, when Kiku the little fox was relaxing in one of the thermal baths at the Bamboo Bathhouse with Boss Panda he noticed something that he hadn’t noticed before. Boss Panda was leaning with his paws on the edge of the tiled bath, and Kiku saw that a part of his paw appeared to be missing. “Boss Panda! What has happened to your paw?” he gasped involuntarily.

Boss Panda, who had had his eyes closed, looked down – first at the paw, and then at Kiku, and sighed. “I suppose the time has come to tell you a bit more about myself little one, as you really are a part of my family now…”

They finished up in the baths, and went into a back room to have a cool drink of coffee milk, and Boss Panda called for Miko-chan to join them. When the little shrine maiden appeared and had settled herself into a chair, Boss Panda cleared his throat. “As you can see, my little friends, a part of my paw is missing, with the outer digit and its claw now gone. It was removed when I offered it to save the honour of a friend. I normally cover it with a patch for daily life, which is why you may not have noticed before, but I have to take it off when I bathe…”

Miko-chan’s eyes narrowed, as she asked “what do you mean ‘removed’?”

Kiku had a feeling he knew what was coming. Boss Panda continued, “It was cut off.” The pair of friends looked shocked, and Miko-chan covered her mouth with her hands. “CUT OFF? By whom?”

Boss Panda began to explain. “I was abandoned in Japan as a cub. I had nowhere to go and was taken in by a group of yōkai known as the ‘Bakemono-kai’ (化け物会), an organised criminal gang made up of the most dangerous yōkai. I was given my tattoos to mark myself as an outsider and to show my affiliation. They were the ‘merchant’ type of criminals, who make a living by selling fake and poor quality goods (like dodgy amulets and cheap toys) and food mainly at matsuri (festivals). As you saw when you visited Oji during the fox parade, at events like these, yōkai can mix freely with humans and not only join in the festivities, but make a healthy profit too.”

Kiku looked again at Boss Panda’s left paw, which now was indistinguishable from his whole right paw. The old bear turned the left paw to show them that the outer part was covered by a furry patch, which when removed showed that he was missing a claw. “One day a badger friend of mine got into a fight at a matsuri with members of a rival gang, causing such a ruckus that our identities were almost shown to the humans. Ordinarily he would have had to cut off part of his own paw to atone for this outrage, but instead I took the punishment for him. I removed my outer digit and claw with a sharp knife and presented it, as is the custom to the oyabon, or gang leader. I also made the decision at this point to cut ties with the gang and try to make amends for my poor lifestyle by going straight”.

Miko-chan and Kiku could hardly believe that this friendly old bear could have ever done anything bad, and certainly not hurt himself so terribly. “Unfortunately it is not easy to make an honest living when you have this kind of past – there are rules in Japanese society preventing ex-gang members from getting things like bank accounts and loans for five years after leaving, forcing many back into criminal ways. And its hard to hide your affiliations with body covering tattoos and missing body parts”, Boss Panda told them. Fortunately for me, I had met Toji Tanuki a few times and we had formed a friendship. He supported me and became my partner in the White Crow Sake Brewery, and from profits we made together there I was able to buy the Bamboo Bathhouse.”

Miko-chan, who was always worrying about something looked a little bothered. “What about your former gang family? Do they present any danger to you now?” she enquired hesitantly. Boss Panda smiled. “Do not worry my little ones – I have made sure that the Bamboo Bathhouse is welcome to everyone, a safe place for all, and have even encouraged a whole other gang to join me in doing good for our community.”

At this, Kiku suddenly smiled. “You mean the Tokyo Crows right? Those birds are always visiting you and letting you know when there is a yōkai problem that might need solving – like the bamboo babies appearance every year!” Boss Panda laughed. “Exactly right! They help prevent problems for yōkai which has made us useful – even the more dangerous yōkai don’t want the humans coming to attack them – at the moment, humans suspect yōkai for many problems, but they half believe and half put it down to superstition, and with the Tokyo Crows help, we help keep it that way.”

Boss Panda looked a little tearful all of a sudden. “I am very sorry for the life I led in the past, but hope that I can continue to make amends through the life I live now and the friendships I have built.”

Before he had even finished the sentence, Miko-chan and Kiku both threw themselves onto the old bear hugging him tightly. “We love you Boss Panda!” they both cried out, and the old panda was filled with gratitude for these two lost souls who had come into his life and taught him so much…

Further Information

Please note: most food/ toy vendors at festivals are not yakuza affiliated, but a takoyaki stand has been used for illustration purposes in this story.

In Japan, full body/ large tattoos can be associated with criminal gangs, and as a result, people with tattoos are often denied access to public swimming pools and onsen (hot spring resorts). Foreigners sometimes cover small tattoos with plasters, but larger ones often prevent people from using hotel pools etc. In sentos (public bath houses), it is up to the owner whether tattoos are permitted. However large tattoos are also found in some other professions – for example some fishermen and some craft trades within the construction industry.

An interesting article on the merchant (tekiya) branch of yakuza can be found at

Insider Outsider: The Way of the Yakuza

There are prosthetic laboratories in Japan that specialise in creating bespoke prosthetic little fingers for ex-yakuza, to help them blend into society better and avoid prejudice. There are also a few employment agencies that try and help former gang members find work, but there are still many obstacles for them to overcome. Some enter construction work and do the jobs no one else is willing to do, sometimes at the expense of their health – there have been reports in the English language press that some yakuza are working as part of the decommissioning/ clean up of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

An article discussing the current state of yakuza culture in Japan can also be found in a May 2018 article in the South China Morning Post:

https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/society/article/2147813/japan-gives-yakuza-criminal-gangs-finger

Another option is to try to go it alone – a recent documentary shown on NHK World Japan followed three ex-gang members trying to make amends and set up their own udon noodle restaurant, where they were encouraged back into society by estranged family members and former classmates.

4 Comments

  • Lily says:

    Charming story and interesting background info about Yakuza.

  • Julie (cloudtea) says:

    Wonderful tale Joanna! So sweet. Very interesting both about the Yokai as small business people(spirits!) and the difficulty yakusa have in rejoining everyday society. Coincidentally was just listening to a Radio National story about the difficulties ex convicts face in rejoining society. The fellow was talking about how that criminal past continues to haunt one forever, even when the person is genuinely and sincerely rehabilitated.

    • nakamura says:

      Hi Julie! Thank you! Yes, it seems that society remains suspicious no matter what someone does – there are certainly many obstacles put in the way in terms of bureaucracy, credit and limitations on the types of employment. It is good to hear it being discussed more in the press – NHK World have covered a few angles on the rehabilitation of ex criminals and the prejudices faced.