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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. He’s 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 MacArthur’s 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 Mason’s 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 can’t remember one that wasn’t a huge success.

I’d been invited by Pat’s parents to have dinner at their home many times and, after using up all my excuses, we went to Orange county one Saturday evening. Pat’s 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 they’d occupied for twenty five years. Having made a good living and a nice fortune, they still lived simply. I admired that.

Until the door opened.

I was introduced to Pat’s mother, who was wearing a child’s Indian headband with one feather sticking up in the back. I tried not to notice it as she didn’t call attention to it either. Then I met her father, a somewhat taciturn man who asked what I’d 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. He’d 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 psychologist’s 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. I’d have a chance to live in Japan for four or five months. My salary for the picture came to almost twice what I’d 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, I’d 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 he’d correct my pronunciation until, after the hundredth or so time, he announced that I was speaking very well.

The speech I’d 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 we’d 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 I’d had a restful flight. He hoped I didn’t 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, I’m 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 me.

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 ignorance.

Thank you.

I bowed slightly without standing.

I turned back to Carl and said, "If they have any questions..."

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 they’d 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. He’d been looking at the paper as I read and couldn’t understand a word of what I’d written - I’d done it phonetically. What seemed to impress everyone was that I had almost no accent.

I’d 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. I’ve 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 owner’s 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 servants.

To get to my suite, I entered the Inn’s 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 I’d find a pair of clean shoes in a low rack. Otherwise, they were just placed in the rack.

I’d 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 they’d 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 couldn’t 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 I’d made in Hong Kong when I’d 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 he’d 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 didn’t 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. He’d 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, Nicola’s, in an exclusive section of Tokyo called Rappongi.

"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 didn’t 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 wouldn’t 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 mother’s recipes for everything.

Nick passed on some years ago, and only recently I’ve 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 couldn’t take care of yourself physically, you didn’t 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 full.

He was arrested and thrown into solitary confinement for five days because he wouldn’t 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. He’d 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 Cherry’s 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, he’d 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 didn’t 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. He’s a redheaded Texan, as tough, in his quiet, smiling way, as Nick, and they were inseparable.

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. It’s called Tokyo Underworld by Robert Whiting, published by Pantheon in 1999.

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