“We are very busy this week,” said Shimazu shifting uneasily under Sotan’s gaze. “What brings you here today? I didn’t expect you to visit again until next week.”

“Yes, I can see a lot of activity, Kobayashi-san, and yet your revenue last week was so poor,” clipped Yoshi, his eyes piercing beneath thickset ebony eyebrows. ”What happened? Did our customers not gamble last week and are now making up for lost time?”

Shimazu stood motionless for a few seconds, began to speak then thought better of it. He shifted his position and stooping slightly, inched forward.

“Bosu, please forgive me” Shimazu pleaded. “I wanted to talk to you but thought I could earn enough to pay you back next week.”

Shimazu stared imploringly at Yoshi as Sotan edged towards him. As in a pantomime, the four young telephone operators appeared oblivious to the drama unfolding across the room.

“You disappoint me, Kobayashi-san. We are brothers and you have betrayed my trust. You know what must happen now!” declared Yoshi as Sotan snatched a small sharp knife from his shirt pocket.

Yoshi beckoned to a chair by a table strewn with food scraps and empty cans of beer. He produced a white cloth from his trouser pocket and placed it carefully onto the table. A nervous Shimazu then obediently shuffled over with head bowed and slumped submissively into the chair.

“Young brothers,” bellowed Yoshi and he paused while the operators politely asked their customers to hold the line. They then flicked their attention to Yoshi who continued, “Let this be a lesson to you all.” 

At that moment Sotan handed Shimazu the knife. After glancing at Yoshi, Shimazu then deftly sliced off the top of his own left little finger, just above the knuckle. Shimazu winced in agony as blood spurted from the remaining stump. Yoshi waved his hand at the operators, directing them back to work, while Shimazu wrapped the finger stub in the cloth before standing and bowing as he presented the cloth to Yoshi.

“You dishonoured me,” said Yoshi. “And by the end of next week you must pay me double what you took or you will be outcast forever from the brotherhood.”  

Yoshi and Sotan checked around the room once more, paced towards the door and left without even glancing back at Shimazu, who was shaking, partly in shock but also in shame at disappointing his master.

Gambling is widespread in Japan and like many other countries, the government earns considerable tax revenue from it. The Yakuza have historical links to the gambling world and compete with the government in various activities such as dice games, pachinko - similar to slot machines and more recently telephone bookmaking, as the Yakuza have been slowly policed out of the racecourse. Telephone bookmaking was Yoshi’s favourite pursuit, though he didn’t mind the occasional protection racket shakedown - due to the low risk of being caught as well as the easy revenue it generated to fund his lavish lifestyle.

Later in the evening, wearing his finest deep purple suit, Yoshi sat dining with an older more conservatively dressed man in dark grey, and looked quite civilised for a mobster, who a few hours earlier had subjected one of his clan to the ritual of yubitsume, or‘finger shortening’. The practice dates back to the days of the samurai where the loss of the little pinky would lessen his grip on his sword, weakening him in battle and forcing dependency on the protection of his boss. The ritual served as a punishment and served to show apology or submission to another. It is a hallmark of the Japanese criminal organisation, the Yakuza.

The name Yakuza is derived from the lowest hand in Hanafuda, a popular card game - eight (ya), nine (ku) three (za), which is worthless in Hanafuda, just like twenty-two is in Black Jack.

“Mmmmm, very tasty,” mumbled the older man, Takeji Yamada, smacking his lips in delight.

“Do you mean the tora-fugu or the waitress,” said Yoshi, leering at the delightful young lady as she delivered another plate to the table.

“There is a time for appreciating fine cuisine and later for entertaining courtesans. The tora-fugu is sensational and the chef here has never lost a patron,” added Takeji, referring to the deadly poisonous fish that occasionally kills the diner rather quickly if not prepared with care.

Takeji loved good food and looked forward to his weekly evening meal at the exclusive Aragawa restaurant in Kobe where they served superb hand-fed Kobe beef from a small farm in the nearby city of Sanda, amongst other specialties. A short, squat man with a heavily jowled face and hooded eyes, Takeji was a jovial yet utterly ruthless and ambitious wakagashira: a high-ranking regional boss of the Yamaguchi-gumi - the largest crime syndicate in Japan. Like his father and those before him, Takeji was born into the yakuza way of life.

Each large clan is led by the kumicho, ultimate boss. The wakagashira is a regional boss and governs many gangs and there are several wakagashira hosa, powerful under bosses. They are assisted by fuku-honbucho, responsible for several gangs of their own. 

Yoshi Tanaka was tall and lean, with angular features and many colourful tattoos, which he normally covered with clothing, only revealing them to his fellow brothers on special social occasions. Yoshi was supremely loyal to Takeji and was one of his favourite fuku-honbuchos, controlling much of the illegal gambling business in Kobe. Like Takeji, Yoshi’s father Riku, and grandfather Haro, had also been yakuza brothers.

“Bosu, did you hear about the four ancient fusuma panels from Kyoto that have recently been restored in New York?”

“No, Yoshi,” said Takeji as he slowly sipped from his glass of Kame no O, savouring the finest dai gingo sake on the planet - costing over five hundred dollars per bottle. “What is so special about this fusuma?”

“Apparently, the set of four gilded panels are believed to date from 1606 and come from the Ryoanji temple in the former capital of Kyoto.”  

Sssttthhhew,” whistled Takeji through his yellowing teeth as he sipped some more sake. “What else do you know? Where are they? How were they found?”

“The panels were identified by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York after they were purchased a few years ago,” Yoshi responded eagerly. “I have the article from the Kobe Shimbun,” he reached into his pocket and pulled out a folded clipping from the newspaper.

After another a sip of his Kame no O sake, Yoshi began reading the article to Takeji.

“The curator has completed his research. The fusuma, or sliding panels, decorated the two most important rooms in the hojo quarters of Ryoanji, a Buddhist complex of twenty-three temples built under the patronage of the Hosokawa family in Kyoto. It is believed the panels were painted by a senior follower of Kano Eitoku, the great master of monumental painting style in late16th century Japan,” read Yoshi, who then stopped to load his bowl with sumiyaki, charcoal broiled steak which was the house specialty and had been brought to the table by another attractive young waitress.

“Does it describe what the fusuma look like?” Takeji asked, leaning forward and clearly very interested in the news.

Yoshi resumed reading, “The fusuma reflect the early 17th century ideals of the rising samurai class, who admired the aesthetic accomplishments of the Chinese. The panels are beautifully painted in shell white, green, blue, red, and black with a gold-leaf background. They depict the Four Elegant Accomplishments and feature three gentlemen and two servants in a garden, absorbed in viewing the scroll of a landscape painting. The theme represents the Chinese ideal of the cultivated man whose character was refined by painting, calligraphy, music and the board game Go which was so popular amongst the ruling classes at the time.”

“The paintings sound truly magnificent. Do they know how the fusuma ended up in New York?”

“I think so. Let me see, yes,” as Yoshi continued reading, “the senior curator studied records of the temple in Kyoto and found documents from 1799, telling of a fire in 1797 and describing in detail the twenty fusuma in the temple that survived. These details fit the characteristics of the Metro Museum’s fusuma.”  

“This fusuma is indeed very precious,” Takeji declared as he hovered his chopsticks over a plate of tsukemono, consisting of umeboshi, much like plums, as well as radish, turnip, cucumber, and bok choy all pickled in brine. “It represents a cultural link of the Yakuza to the glory of the samurai before the Meiji restoration,” he added, before delicately choosing from the tsukemono. “How much do they think the panels are worth?”

“Apparently the Metropolitan Museum bought them from a private collector in Florida a few years ago, who purchased them in Hawai'i in 1955 on his honeymoon for a mere nineteen thousand dollars. Now they are worth over five million dollars,” and Yoshi picked up his glass and sipped more sake.

”Bosu, if only we could get our hands on a fusuma like that!” exclaimed Yoshi gesturing in appeal.

“Mmmmmm,” reflected Takeji. “Our samurai forbears might have saved these panels as the Buddhist temples were being closed.” Then he closed his eyes and lent back, absorbed in deep thought.

Takeji was well aware of the roots of the Yakuza. Their origin can be traced back to 1612, when men known as kabuki-mono, ‘crazy ones’, distinguished themselves with their odd clothing style, distinctive haircuts, unruly behaviour and long swords. Kabuki-mono would harass and terrorise people, going as far as cutting them down for pure pleasure. And their loyalty, even if it meant going against their own family, became legendary.

Many of the Yakuza came from the samurai class after the Tokugawa shogunate reign concluded in 1868 and Emperor Meiji reclaimed power over all Japan. With the Meiji restoration, many samurai warriors became masterless, and were known as ronin. They began to wander around Japan as bands of robbers, pillaging villages and the small townships. 

Not all Yakuza see themselves as offspring of kabuki-mono. Some samurai also became ordinary citizens such as storekeepers or tavern owners. Others remained homeless warriors who formed a group known as machi-yakko.  They were also skilful gamblers. These men took a stand against the kabuki-mono and defended the towns. The machi-yakko became heroes, praised by the citizens for their help against the kabuki-mono. They were not as well armed as the kabuki-mono, and were revered as underdogs, much loved by the people. Many popular tales and plays were written about the machi-yakko.

Takeji identified with the machi-yakko strain and he considered himself an honourable Yakuza. As with many of the senior members, Takeji extended his activities to banking and political corruption while continuing his pursuits in organized crime - extortion, drug smuggling, prostitution, illegal gambling, protection rackets and so on. However, these interests were managed by his fuku-honbucho, like Yoshi. Yakuza are tolerated to a large degree by Japanese society and are now regarded as semi legitimate.

As a senior member of the Yamaguchi-gumi, Takeji had always been ambitious. As a wakagashira - the boss of the Kobe region - he harboured the dream of one day being appointed kumicho, the Don of the largest crime syndicate in the world. Takeji was very skilled at developing his relations within Yamaguchi-gumi and took every opportunity to ensure his business successes and political competencies were well respected. Takeji longed for a masterstroke that would catapult him above his rivals and accelerate his quest for ultimate leadership.

As he contemplated the Ryoanji fusuma, Takeji mused what enormous goodwill he would engender if he could present such a precious fusuma or something similar to the present kumicho. Such a magnificent gift would not only display his unquestionable esteem but also symbolise the link of the honourable samurai tradition with the present day Yamaguchi-gumi. Not that Takeji cared quite as much about samurai heritage as he did about his own ambitions.

“Mmmmm,” rumbled Takeji deeply as he emerged from his reverie. “You have brought me inspiring news tonight, my good friend Yoshi. ”