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Yakuza in Hawai‘i

Yakuza gang member Takeshi Takagi, smoking a cigarette, departs a Honolulu courtroom. Half his little finger is missing.
photos: roy ito, photographer; honolulu star-advertiser collection; hawai‘i state archives

 

While I was covering the Nappy Pulawa murder trial in 1978, a law-enforcement source asked me if I knew anything about the yakuza—Japanese organized crime. I didn’t have a clue. The source said I should check out a guy named Takeshi Takagi, a Japanese national living and working in Honolulu. 

 

I was busy at the time and dubious. Who ever heard of Japanese mobsters? 

 

But I was told that Takagi and the yakuza would be worth finding out about. So I made contact with Clarence “Japan” Handa, a Japanese-born criminal who had been a prosecution witness in the Pulawa murder and tax trials. “Japan” had a heavy accent that grew even thicker whenever he was asked about someone or something that he really didn’t want to talk about. When I asked him about Takagi, the only word I could understand was my own name. 

 

“Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy,” Japan said sorrowfully, shaking his head and lowering his eyes. 

 

“What, Japan? What’s the matter? Tell me about Takagi.” 

 

“Oh, Jimmy, no,” he said. He lapsed into Japanese and finally a brief phrase in pidgin: “I no can say.” I couldn’t get anything more out of him, but that was enough for me. Takagi was definitely worth checking out. 

 

Takagi, I learned, was a Japanese citizen, living in a rented luxury home on a hillside that overlooked Wai‘alae Country Club and the posh Kāhala neighborhood of Honolulu. He owned a company that staged sex shows in a subterranean theater in Chinatown, catering primarily to Japanese tourists. Takagi was good-looking and a very sharp dresser. He drove expensive cars, and he was missing half the little finger on one hand and the tip of the other. He was also reportedly heavily tattooed on his back. The physical characteristics were classic signs of a yakuza. 

 

Missing digits and dragon tattoos! Here was a story that would write itself. The more I looked, the better it got. Takagi was not the first yakuza in Hawai‘i. There were others before him and more working with him. The dimensions of the subject and the possibilities of a series on yakuza in Hawai‘i were taking shape in my mind when Takagi was busted by Honolulu police on a gun possession charge. The lead story of my planned series was about to become public property when Takagi appeared in court to answer the gun charge against him. 

 

There were no other reporters in court when I showed up at Takagi’s hearing at the old district court building on the edge of Chinatown. I probably could have held back on publication, but the decision was taken out of my hands by a picture shot by Advertiser photographer Roy Ito as Takagi emerged from court that day. 

 

Framed in the courthouse doorway with his girlfriend and an associate, Takagi looked like he had been centrally cast for the part of a high-powered international hoodlum. He was handsome and impeccably dressed. His girlfriend was very attractive, and his companion was menacing. The photo was just too good not to use immediately. 

 

Coupled with court testimony from HPD officer Donald Carstensen identifying Takagi as a yakuza, the photo and story ran after the first day of the court hearing.

 

Takagi and his lawyer had had nothing to say when they left court that day, and when the story ran the next morning, I went back to court to cover the continuation of the hearing. I had gone considerably beyond the courtroom testimony in the story, naming Takagi as a member of a Tokyo-based yakuza gang called the Sumiyoshi-ringo. 

 

Before the hearing began, I approached Takagi and his interpreter in the hallway. How did Mr. Takagi like the story this morning? Did he wish to make a statement now? 

 

The interpreter translated my questions, and Takagi answered.

 

“Mr. Takagi says you have made a serious error,” the interpreter said.

 

I don’t care how ironclad you think your information is, those words will freeze a reporter’s blood.

 

I asked what the error was, expecting him to say something like, “I’m a businessman, not a mobster, and I’m going to sue you for every penny you’ve got.” 

 

But the interpreter said, “The name of his group is Sumiyoshi-rengo, r-e-n-g-o, not ringo.” 

 

I assured him I would correct that error in the paper the next day, and I was happy to do so. 

 

I wrote another story that focused on two local syndicate figures who accompanied Takagi to both days of the court hearing. One, Wallace S. “Wally” Furukawa, achieved notoriety in 1970 when his brand-new Lincoln Continental automobile was destroyed by five sticks of dynamite planted in the engine compartment. Furukawa was a Nappy Pulawa lieutenant and frequently used the car to ferry Pulawa around town. Furukawa miraculously survived, suffering injuries to his feet and lower legs. The bombing was widely seen as a warning, and a headline on one Gene Hunter story about it said, “Wally Gets the Word.” 

 

The car bomb was detonated on the same morning that high-level officials of federal, state, and county law enforcement had convened on the Big Island for a first-ever summit on combating organized crime in the Islands. 

 

As I looked into Takagi and the yakuza story, I found that Japanese mobsters 

 

had been living and working in the Islands since at least the early 1970s and were connected to local and Mainland syndicate figures in a variety of ways. 

 

They were smuggling drugs into the state and guns out to Japan, as well as supplying prostitution, pornography and gambling services to Japanese tourists. 

 

Organized crime figure Wallace Furukawa is treated by emergency workers  after his car was bombed.

I found that one kobun—a soldier in the huge yakuza gangs known in Japan as boryokudan—named Wataru “Jackson” Inada had been murdered in his Honolulu apartment shortly before he was scheduled to go to trial in a federal drug-smuggling case that was linked to Los Angeles mafia figure Peter Milano. 

 

Yakuza and their associates had been operating bordellos in Waikīkī hotels. One establishment, named Utamaro, after a famous Japanese erotic artist, had employed runners to pass out business cards on Waikīkī Beach to Japanese tourists. 

 

Then there were the yakuza who disguised their severed fingertips by wearing false rubber pinkies when passing through airport immigration checks. One successfully cleared immigration but removed the ersatz digit before he hit the Customs inspection line. When he was asked to empty his pockets at Customs, the phony fingertip tumbled into view, and he was taken into custody. 

 

“The Toruko [Turkish bath] Utamaro is like the enjoyment of watching the 11 p.m. TV program,” the card said in Japanese. 

 

The reference was to surprisingly raunchy television shows aired nightly in Japan. (A colleague of mine who was an occasional traveler to Japan told me that he was taken aback by the programming when he turned on late-night television in his hotel room on a Tokyo visit. “It seemed to be some kind of game show but the contestants—men and women—were seminude and were riding each other around like it was a rodeo,” my friend said. “Everybody was squealing and whooping and the audience was roaring with laughter. It was amazing.”) 

 

The Utamaro flyer continued: “You can be proud to say this is the best setup in the U.S. You can drink and watch porno movies and have the services of a beautiful blond girl for your enjoyment,” the card said. 

 

Waikīkī civic leaders complained about the operation, which was in a detached annex of a major hotel. Utamaro was eventually closed, but I found another operation, Hotel Tsuru, going strong in a different location just a block from Waikīkī Beach. The building was across Kapahulu Avenue from the Honolulu Zoo, so I spent several evenings in my car in the zoo parking lot, watching the activities at the Hotel Tsuru. 

 

Those were strange evenings. Occasionally I could hear lions roaring and chimps screeching in the night behind me while I watched a raging hormone show in front of me. In the background, waves washed placidly over Kūhiō Beach. 

 

There was a steady flow of taxicabs and white Cadillacs with red roofs that dropped off and picked up customers at the hotel, the same private cars that had earlier serviced Utamaro.

 

At one point, Advertiser colleague Mike Keller and I inquired at Hotel Tsuru about checking in for the night. We were told that was impossible by the front desk staff. When we persisted, we were told that all the rooms had been booked five years into the future. 

 

A friendly cabdriver explained the Hotel Tsuru operation to me. The price per customer was $70, $20 of which was kicked back to the driver who delivered the customer. The proprietors were very suspicious of non-Japanese johns, I was told. 

 

Eventually I found a Japanese exchange student from the University of Hawai‘i campus, paid him $70 to get laid and then interviewed him about the experience. I was probably guilty of criminal pandering and had to really finesse that particular expense past the Advertiser’s editors. But the story ran, and Hotel Tsuru was closed not long after. 

 

Two months later, Honolulu police busted another prostitution operation in a condominium rented by three Japanese “students” in a very expensive residential building at the base of Diamond Head. When the cops raided the unit, they found a dozen male Japanese tourists and three Caucasian women inside. Although a cache of X-rated videocassettes was available for customers’ viewing, police found three of the tourists in a room watching a Japanese-dubbed copy of the Lassie television show. 

 

When I checked with the apartment owner’s agent, I found that one of the men who had rented the condo for $2,000 a month was an officer of the company that had operated Hotel Tsuru.

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