It was 1993, and I was 9 years old.
We had been studying feudal Japan in our schooling, and had embraced the topic wholeheartedly. Generally, in our childhood, my brothers and I went through things in phases, during which time we would be so immersed in whatever it was, that it was our entire world for however long that phase lasted.
If we were in a pirate phase, every book on pirates would be rented from the library. Ships, cannons, and bloody conflicts would be drawn on any blank surface in the house. Paper shopping bags were cut into pieces, crumpled and un-crumpled until they took on the texture of old leather, and treasure maps carefully scrawled onto them. Shipping routes were charted, and white paper stained with coffee and burned at the edges for an authentic feel.
Ditto for our current interest in the far east. Rice paper and chopsticks were turned into official looking scrolls. Old watercolor brushes were used with bottled ink to paint images of pagodas, severe looking shoguns, and of course, samurai.
We went so far as to create our own alphabet by making symbols that looked like kanji, and attributing to them the value of an English letter on a 1 for 1 basis, using this cipher for coded notes between us, and to increase the secrecy around our newly formed gang: the Black Dragons.
The Black Dragons came about as a product of reading a piece in one of the books on “ninkyo-dantai,” or “chivalrous groups,” also known in the western world as Yakuza, the Japanese equivalent of the mafia.
Coming about in the Edo period of Japan, Yakuza groups were originally known either as tekiya, if their business was mostly fencing goods, or bakuto if it revolved around illegal gambling. The name Yakuza is sort of a Japanese version of the term “snake eyes” and refers to a particularly bad and unlucky hand in a popular regional card game.
Run as secret societies based around protection, extortion, gambling, prostitution and so on, the largest Yakuza family in Japan is estimated to have around 58,000 members in the present day.
After reading about their history, their position as an outsider organization, the elaborate tattooing and strict adherence to internally determined honor systems, we were ready for the big time, and decided to form a neighborhood “family” of our own.
Our center of operations was the large, sprawling tree fort in our side yard in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Built years earlier by our dad, who probably didn’t consider that in a short time it would become the crime base of a fearsome American Yakuza family, the tree fort and rope swing attached made our yard pretty popular with the local kids- a draw we would capitalize on as we formed our sinister network.
Our reign of terror began with attacks on the neighborhood itself- adults we had grudges with, perhaps due to late payments on my older brothers paper routes, or other (possibly imaginary) slights on our honor. With the kind of fireworks available in Wyoming that are illegal pretty much everywhere else in the states unless you work for an industrial mining company, we wreaked havoc on the mile radius around us. Large scale mortar attacks on sides of houses. Incendiary magnesium strobes duct taped together and allowed to burn through new wooden porches. Screaming bottle rocket batteries in the middle of the night, and everywhere, our gang’s sign left as a warning.
We soon graduated from these kinds of activities as they generated too much neighborhood “heat,” and began to build our empire in earnest. Kids from other areas encroaching on our turf were threatened or beat up, and on our BMX bikes, we began to strike out across town on what we called “missions.”
These missions would usually involve some variation on the following:
Bikes would be safely kept somewhere nearby the “objective,” that being a convenience store, book store or magazine stand. Our group of Yakuza youth would walk into the store, innocently looking around and spreading out through the floor plan.
As the youngest, smallest, and most disarming looking of the bunch, I would find the desk clerk or main employee and ask a series of long and involved questions about where a certain item might be, such as “hi, I am doing a book report and need you to show me the section where magazines on monster trucks are, and then also need to find books on how castles are built,” or “I hurt myself on my bike, can you take me to the bandaids?”
While the smiling, charmed worker graciously took me to wherever I needed to go, my loyal brothers in the Dragons would rob the place absolutely blind.
At the time, our main target goods were cigarettes, cigars and smoking paraphernalia of any kind, and we had developed a bizarre and not easily explainable obsession with pocket watches, which had become a major status symbol in our gang. The more you had, and the nicer they were, the more you were envied in our small circle.
The tobacco became a gambling currency, and we began holding card games in the tree fort. The amount of contraband in that place was pretty staggering for 9 and 10 year old kids. Cigarettes were smoked until the place looked like the Russian roulette scene in the Deer Hunter, cards hurled down in indignation and rage, and piles of smokes and pocket watches changed hands at the turn of a card.
Like all criminal enterprises, we were bound to take a pinch if we kept carrying on in such a brazen fashion, and we finally did.
My dad started to wonder what the hell we were getting up to out there, spending all our time in the tree fort, and I imagine we reeked of tobacco and probably slunk around like jackals, eyes filled with distrust and disdain for all authority figures we saw as the enemies of our enterprise.
One day we were summoned outside, and my father demanded an explanation on the sizable pile of illicit profit, stored in wooden crates, ripped out car consoles, and underneath benches, in tool boxes, and anywhere else we could fit the amassed wealth of the felonious family.
We saw no choice but to plea-bargain, and we came clean.
Our small Yakuza firm stood silent and grim as our dad piled all of it up on a concrete slab, and lit the treasure trove of bootleg goods ablaze, watching as our burgeoning empire’s nest egg went up in flames.
I still remember the feeling I had as I stood there, unrepentant, with my honorable brothers- none of us had sold each other out. We all took responsibility, and shared in the punishment.
Having tasted the forbidden nectar of the underworld, I knew I could never go back to civilian life again.