Tokyo : Inns and Underground
After a week back at work, I knew I had to get someone to take care of
the house, to do everyday cooking and to dust the furnishings that I was buying. I was
lucky enough to hire a wonderful Japanese house man named Hiro, who could do everything.
Eventually, the house got comfortably furnished and I began entertaining on weekends,
sit-down dinners for twelve every three weeks or so. Billy Gordon, who had moved from head
of casting at Fox to head of talent at Columbia when Max Arnow retired, along with his
lovely wife, Aggie, were invited to one dinner. Both of them enjoyed the food and wine so
much it became the beginning of a lifelong friendship. Billy and I shared a love of fine
cooking, so we had a great deal in common.
A fellow by the name of Frank McCarthy had a house almost directly
above mine by three hundred feet. Hes best remembered as the producer of Patton, which
won a bunch of Oscars. The movie has become a classic, still running regularly on
television. Frank had been an executive of Fox when I was under contract. He was a lovely
man, ex-Brigadier General on MacArthurs staff in WWII, very informal, and a great
conversationalist. Even with his strong studio ties, it took twenty years for Fox to
finally agree to make Patton, and then McCarthy had to fight to get George C.
Scott. The studio wanted a bigger name. Frank became a regular at the dinners and often
brought along interesting ladies, like Jane Wyman, a superb actress, or Pamela Mason,
James Masons ex, and a lot of fun.
Pat and I continued to see more and more of each other. After a few
months, she had practically moved in. I insisted that she keep her apartment, though, and
she spent two or three nights a week there. She was always a delightful and attentive
hostess at the dinners, and I cant remember one that wasnt a huge success.
Id been invited by Pats parents to have dinner at their
home many times and, after using up all my excuses, we went to Orange county one Saturday
evening. Pats father was in the printing business. He had invented carbonless carbon
paper, something we all use now. He had sold his patent for twelve million dollars worth
of stock to NCR. I was getting dressed up to make an impression when Pat said, "Jeans
will be fine," so I changed.
We arrived at a small tract house that theyd occupied for twenty
five years. Having made a good living and a nice fortune, they still lived simply. I
Until the door opened.
I was introduced to Pats mother, who was wearing a childs
Indian headband with one feather sticking up in the back. I tried not to notice it as she
didnt call attention to it either. Then I met her father, a somewhat taciturn man
who asked what Id have to drink. That really set me back, because Pat had told me he
was a Mormon. Alcohol in a Mormon house?
He had a highball in his hand, which he put down as he mixed me a martini. He was also strange in a lot of other ways.
Hed quit smoking three or four years before, and when he quit smoking, everybody
else had to quit, too. When the Arab oil embargo hit the world in the early 70s and
the national speed limit was reduced to 55 miles per hour, he drove at exactly 55 and
would honk his horn repeatedly at any car that passed him. It was always very noisy in his
automobile, especially on freeways.
Pat had spent three years on a psychologists couch just in order,
as she put it, to be able to walk out of her front door. With it all, besides being
extremely pretty, she was kind, gentle, and generous, though a little lost. It made anyone
feel protective of her.
Seven months after Combat! wound up, my manager, Gene Yusem,
called and said there was an offer from Japan. They wanted me to star in a picture being
made by Daiei Motion Picture studios, about the first gun brought into Japan in the
sixteenth century by a Portuguese sea captain. Id have a chance to live in Japan for
four or five months. My salary for the picture came to almost twice what Id gotten
for an entire season of the series, plus I was to have a car and driver, and a living
allowance of $750 a week paid in yen. My salary would be placed in escrow in California
and paid out weekly.
The first thing I did, since I had about three months to prepare, was
sign up at Berlitz for a private course in conversational Japanese, an hour a day, six
days a week. My instructor was a very nice Japanese lady, an excellent teacher. When I got
home, Id practice Japanese with my house man, Hiro, for an hour while we had dinner
together in the breakfast nook.
I wrote a speech in English and, in place of one of my lessons, I asked
my instructor to help me translate the three pages or so. I practiced incessantly on Hiro
and hed correct my pronunciation until, after the hundredth or so time, he announced
that I was speaking very well.
The speech Id prepared was because of a notice from Gene that
there would be a press conference upon my arrival. I figured no other western actor had
addressed them in their native tongue, and really, it was the polite thing to do. Before I
left, Pat and I agreed to get married. She was getting so much static from her mother, who
called her a whore, that it made her miserable. I suggested that she come to Japan when I
got settled in and wed get married at a little Shinto temple.
As I debarked from the plane in Tokyo in January of 1968, I was met by
Carl Morita, a distinguished looking Japanese gentleman with salt and pepper hair. He
introduced himself to me in perfect English and said, "If you will be kind enough to
come this way, Mr. Jason." He saw me through customs and said he hoped Id had a
restful flight. He hoped I didnt object to the news conference that would be held
immediately in a large ante-room.
He explained that he had been retired from Daiei Motion Pictures as
executive assistant to the president, Mr. Nagata, but was asked to come out of retirement
so that he could act as translator for me on the set, since the director spoke no English.
He would be with me every day.
We entered the conference room in which almost a hundred chairs had
been set out for the press and still photographers, as well as several newsreel cameramen
at the very rear. When I addressed Mr. Morita as Morita-san, he looked at me with a
smile and asked that I please call him "Carl." He seated me at a desk and stood
behind me, introducing me to the press corps. I stood and bowed slightly, then sat down
again. As I pulled the folded pages from my inside jacket pocket, I said, over my shoulder
to Carl, that before the questioning began I would like to read a short statement. He
announced this and, Im sure, was all ready to translate as I went along.
In Japanese, I read the following:
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I wish to thank you for being here to greet me. I feel among the most
fortunate to have the opportunity to pay an extended visit to your country. I have looked
forward most of my life to coming to Japan to partake in, and enjoy, your land and your
customs. At the outset, I wish to apologize for any bad western manners that I may, out of
ignorance, display. For those western slips that I may make, I ask you, please, to forgive
The thrill I feel at being a guest in your country I cannot fully
express. I will try to speak Japanese as much as possible, for, as a guest, I believe it
behooves me to do so, rather than make anyone here speak my language because of my
I bowed slightly without standing.
I turned back to Carl and said, "If they have any
He asked if they did and I was pleasantly surprised that I understood
almost everything he said to them. I think they were in culture shock. When theyd
recovered from the initial effects of this henneh gaidjin (strange foreigner), they
took all the still photos they needed. Carl was pleased and we began a friendship that
lasted many years until he passed away.
Combat! had been the most popular American series ever to play
there and was then in reruns. My speech was printed in papers throughout Japan, and film
footage of it was played on all the Japanese TV news programs. From that moment on, I
could do nothing wrong in Japan. I had shown the Japanese side of myself, which, Carl told
me, took me to the hearts of the country. And it stunned him. Hed been looking at
the paper as I read and couldnt understand a word of what Id written -
Id done it phonetically. What seemed to impress everyone was that I had almost no
Id decided that I wanted to live in a Japanese inn rather than
western style. I met with the president of Daiei the following day. Though our entire
conversation was held through Carl as interpreter, I found out later that Mr. Nagata
understood English perfectly, and even spoke some. Nagata was surprised to hear that I
wanted to live Japanese style, and it was a sure bet he considered it a passing fad.
After the meeting, we boarded the bullet train to Kyoto, had some lunch
in the dining car, and passed Mount Fujiyama. It was a clear day and the sight of Fuji-san
(as the Japanese call it) was nothing less than spectacular. Ive seen it from the
train many times and it never ceases to overwhelm me.
There is a Japanese inn that was a private baronial mansion before the
war. The late owners only living child, a woman then in her early fifties, in order
to make a living, had transformed it into an inn. She lived quite comfortably elsewhere in
town. Yoshikawa Inn was let out mostly to traveling groups of fifteen to twenty Europeans
who were on planned tours through Japan. They stayed for several days, then moved on. The
manager, Mr. Tanaka, who spoke a fair amount of English, had never rented rooms for more
than a few days at a time.
When it was announced that I wanted a monthly rate, he went into a
huddle with himself and an abacus. The figure he finally came up with was the equivalent
of $22.50 a day, and that included a Japanese or western breakfast served in my rooms, as
well as a Japanese dinner prepared in my rooms each evening.
The inn was beautiful, had central heating, and was located on a quiet
side street in a most genteel neighborhood. I would have the entire second floor at the
rear of the mansion, overlooking a lovely garden with a huge pond. The sense of privacy
was such that I felt I was the only occupant of the house surrounded by a slew of
To get to my suite, I entered the Inns outer foyer by sliding the
exterior wooden door open. As I did so, Tanaka-san would appear immediately from his
office, wearing slippers. He would bow to me from a landing, welcome me home in Japanese,
and take a pair of slippers out of a cubby hole, placing them where I could slip out of my
shoes and into the comfort of soft scuffs. A young lady in kimono would appear and pick up
my shoes for examination. If they were dirty, she disappeared with them and the next
morning Id find a pair of clean shoes in a low rack. Otherwise, they were just
placed in the rack.
Id walk through the quiet, carpeted lobby, and always there were
two or three young ladies (all in kimono) behind a post, or around a wall. They would put
their hands to their mouths and giggle as I walked by and winked at them. The hallways had
floors of solid planking, while all the rooms had tatami mats. I would walk about
fifty feet to the staircase that took me to a small landing outside my sitting room.
Always, as I ascended my stairs, I could hear the soft beat of little
feet hurrying up the stairs at the very rear. As I was sliding open the shoji to my
rooms, I could hear the wooden cover being slid off the white cedar tub and the hot water
tap turned on.
After a shower and a soak in the hot bath, and while enjoying a jug of
warm sake, two young ladies, in kimono, would knock gently on the frame of the shoji.
They would then enter with cooking utensils, food on several platters, and a tank of
propane gas for the one-burner stove theyd brought. As I sat with my back to the tokanoma
(a slightly raised alcove on the rear wall of which hung a scroll) we would all chatter
away, one evening in Japanese, the next in English. This way I could keep up and they
could improve their English.
At that time, local currency was frozen, just as it was in Europe. Of
the $750 in yen I was handed each week by Carl, I couldnt spend more thatn $250 even
living like a king and often taking him out for a Kobe steak dinner. About a month after
my arrival, I received a letter from an acquaintance Id made in Hong Kong when
Id been there on my first visit. He had a couple of friends (expatriates) living in
Tokyo whom I should look up. I telephoned one of them, Nicola Zapetti, and he told me to
come up Saturday afternoon (we worked a five-and-a-half day week on the picture). He said
hed make a reservation at one of the hotels, and he and Jack Howard would take me
out on the town that evening.
Nick Zapetti turned out to be about five-seven and a hundred-and-eighty
pounds of muscle, a big Italian nose and an infectious smile. If he liked you, he made it
known in five minutes. If not, you really didnt want to stay around any longer.
He liked me.
Nick had been in the army of occupation after the war and had taken a
local discharge so he could remain in Japan. Hed been married three times, had eight
half-Japanese children whom he spoiled, and had made and lost two or three fortunes. At
the time I met him, he was amassing another fortune and building a four-story home for
himself, those of his children who were not yet grown, and his latest wife, Yae. The house
was being constructed of solid concrete and steel (to withstand the earthquakes).
His rule of thumb each time he got divorced was not to make a big
hassle out of it. He just gave each wife a cool million dollars. His chauffeur drove us to
the Otani Hotel. On the way, he imparted most of the above information. He owned a
well-known Italian restaurant, Nicolas, in an exclusive section of Tokyo
"Japanese," he said, "adore Italian food."
He was also selling frozen packaged Italian dinners by the ton at
various retail stores around the country. Nick came upstairs with me to check out the room
and make sure I was well taken care of. He even tipped the bellboy, telling me to take my
hand out of my pocket, this was on him. You didnt argue with Nick. We had dinner at
his restaurant, where I found the pasta to be, surprisingly, only so-so. He told me it was
because the government wouldnt allow him to import semolina flour, and it was
against the law to bring in dried pasta of any sort. But the sauces were excellent. He
used his mothers recipes for everything.
Nick passed on some years ago, and only recently Ive discovered
many things about him which do not, in the least, change my warm feelings for him, and for
our long friendship. I knew he grew up in an Italian-American community in East Harlem,
where if you couldnt take care of yourself physically, you didnt have a chance
to grow up.
He was the toughest gaidjin (foreigner) ever to live in Japan,
and a mob boss who controlled innumerable enterprises. At the time, I only knew I had an
overly generous host, and the more I got to know him, the more I liked him. He had a
constant twinkle in his eye, definitely nothing one would associate with a gangster. He
imparted a story to me once, which I took at face value since it occurred three or four
years after the war when everything in Japan was wide open and the police had their hands
He was arrested and thrown into solitary confinement for five days
because he wouldnt cooperate with the authorities. He said then everyone was out for
himself, but he refused to talk about anything, even the weather. They sent him
bread and water for the five days he was in a dark cell. Hed break the bread in half
and send back the other half, along with half the water. When they took him to an
interrogation room and offered him a cigarette, he broke it in half and took a few puffs
from the butt. It drove the police nuts that he was having fun with them. So they set him
free. He told me that compared to East Harlem, the Japanese police were pussycats.
After dinner at his restaurant, we went to a nightclub called Mama
Cherrys and joined Jack Howard and his wife Chieko, whom everyone calls Chi-chan.
The Vietnamese war had heated up to full blast and Jack had fifty-five American civilians
in South Vietnam selling insurance policies to the army and air force guys. Every few
weeks, hed fly to Saigon and collect the policies and rotate some of his salesmen
back to Tokyo for rest and recreation. They were all getting wealthy and Jack was getting
wealthier. Insurance issued to servicemen by the government didnt cover much and
Jack was supplying policies valued at a half mil and more.
During the evening, I asked what I could do with all the yen I was
accumulating. He offered to take care of it for me. His rotating salesmen had dollars when
they arrived from Saigon and had to change them for yen, so Jack became my banker.
Hes a redheaded Texan, as tough, in his quiet, smiling way, as Nick, and they were
A lot of the above I discovered in a book Jack Howard (who has lived with Chieko in the
San Diego area for many years) told me about. Its called Tokyo Underworld by
Robert Whiting, published by Pantheon in 1999.