Roaring Twenties

All in a Days Work

Kanekichi’s introduction to the Toyo Club, while surprising and violent, was not atypical. Neighborhood collections of “protection money” happened weekly. After that introduction to the business, he oftened went but not regularly. That said, he realized that the Toyo Club was far more than gambling in Seattle. Officially and publically, the Toyo Club was a Seattle gambling and social club. It operated a restaurant and a nightclub that hosted Japanese music and dance performances. However, underneath that public façade, it was far more diverse in scope and geography. The Toyo Club was a front for a large diverse syndicate of mostly illicit activities that included gambling, prostitution, extortion, narcotics, canneries, fishing, and labor relations. This was not immediately revealed to Yamamoto. Sometimes information came haphazardly and serendipitously; some times it came explicitly, as he became more familiar with the organization. After his initial afternoon and introduction “walking the beat” of the Toyo Club Syndicate, he found himself working at the club itself. At first, much of it was mundane work – busboy, waiter, bar help, bartender. It was an opportunity to learn about the club from the “ground floor,” bottom up. Then, Kanekichi spent much of his time as a card dealer at the Toyo Club. While his card skills were valuable, his forceful ability to mitigate disputes at the table, sometimes with his .38, even more so. He quickly became a valued floor manager at the Toyo Club.

Yamamoto spent increasingly more time with Yamada. When Yamada traveled, Yamamoto was typically at his side. His accuracy with the pistol was what first made Yamamoto a favored guard. However, as he spent more time with Yamada learning the business, his smarts and his ability to convince, control, and intimidate others proved to be increasingly valuable. Yamada spent time away from the Toyo Club at other gambling clubs in Tacoma, Spokane, Portland, and Wapato. He occasionally traveled to Alaska to keep tabs on cannery operations, to Tacoma to oversea a sawmill, and to various locations up and down the West Coast to nurture a growing narcotics operation. Yamamoto all most always came along for protection.

Because he was usually at Yamada’s side, Yamamoto was quickly introduced to the many businesses of the Toyo Club Syndicate’s “underworld.” Further, Yamada knew of Yamamoto’s relationship (or possibly his father’s relationship) with Mitsuru Toyama but he did not know the extent or details. While Yamada knew of Toyama, respecting and fearing him, he only met him once or twice, and his relationship with him was that of an acquaintance, not a friend or colleague. It was a relationship that Yamada wanted to cultivate, and he wanted to use Yamamoto to bring him in closer to Toyama’s orbit of influence. Hence in addition to his skills and cunning, his connection to Toyama provided Yamamoto an opportunity to embed himself deeper into the Toyo Club Syndicate. Eventually, it would provide Yamamoto leverage to expand the Syndicate’s business.

In the early days, Yamamoto was likely involved in much “dirty work.” When there disputes, problems with businesses, or others that wanted to “muscle” into the syndicate’s business, they needed to be dealt with. “Roughing up” or even “disposing (i.e. killing)” low level, uncooperative people was part of the daily business. Kanekichi needed to get his hands dirty or find others to take care of these problems. That said, I’ve found little direct evidence (as his grandson, maybe I don’t really want to know) of how many people my grandfather killed, had killed, or treated badly in general. He had been accused of murder occasionally, as reported in the Seattle Daily Times on February 28, 1924 and January 28, 1925, but he was never found guilty.

Seattle Daily Times, Feb 28, 1924 

Seattle Daily Times, Jan 25, 1925

Because Seattle was a gateway to the East (like Los Angeles and San Francisco), the Toyo Club grew in prominence during the 1920’s as the first stop to America from Japan for a wide variety of activities, legitimate or not. Whether it be drugs, women, gamblers, or money, much of it found its way to the Toyo Club and Yamada’s control. Consequently, the Toyo Club grew in size, scope, and power. As the organization grew, Kanekichi spent more time away from the Toyo Club and Yamada. In addition to his roles managing the Toyo Club, protecting Yamada, and collecting protection money, Yamamoto became involved in the growing and sprawling businesses of the Toyo Club.


Gambling in the Japanese American community was rampant up and down the West Coast during the early 20th Century. It was a large part of the way-of-life for many Japanese Americans. Gambling clubs, some officially licensed by local governments some not, were found from Anchorage, Alaska, Vancouver, British Columbia, down to the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles, and into Mexico. Gambling was also a mainstay of “free time” activity in both the sawmills and canneries where many Japanese found work. Gambling was mostly local, independent operations only a loose connection/affiliation among them. Those running the gambling operations, typically the same people operating the sawmills or canneries in addition to the clubs, were able to exploit those participating. Gambling and livelihood were often intrinsically co-mingled. Gambling winnings were often not paid in full – the house manager controlled the payouts -- with the remainder issued as “credits” for future use. Oftentimes workers had to pay for room and board and other goods, and paid in credits. On payday, workers were often strongly “encouraged” to gamble, where encouragement was the end of a gun. Hence, a days work was transformed into a gambling debt, further enslaving workers to the cannery/sawmill as well as the gambling club. Gamblers from outside the work camps, sometimes professionals, came to working dens, where workers were easy prey. Disputes were common and often settled with weapons, violence, and murder.

In addition to being the largest and most important gambling club in the Pacific Northwest, the Toyo Club had interests in many of the other clubs. In the 1920’s, their presence was a “light touch.” Yamada and his successor Mitsugu Yokoyama kept an interest in other clubs. He visited them often or sent proxies to check in. The goal was to exert more control and eventually take them over. However, the clubs were poorly organized, both internally and as part of the larger syndicate. Individual clubs wanted to and were able to exert much independence and autonomy. Poor management and lack of control resulted in only moderately profitable businesses, disorganized operations, and chaos. Personnel changes were frequent, disputes with customers even more so, and murders more common than unusual. It was unclear whether this disfunctionality made it more difficult or less to assert control. When there was no one in charge, the control point (i.e. who to extort) was not obvious. Attempts to take control of clubs often ended violently. Sometimes Yamada was successful, sometimes not. More often than not, “success” was only temporary. Oftentimes Yamamoto had to double back to clean things up. The clean up efforts often only resulted in more confrontation, bloodshed, and new bosses. However, no greater control accrued to the Toyo Club.

From Los Angeles, the Little Tokyo Club, a Southern California gambling syndicate similar to the Toyo Club exerted similar force on clubs as far south as Mexico and moving north to the Pacific Northwest. Because of the geographical separation between the Toyo Club and the Little Tokyo Club, conflicts between the two were initially minimal. But, the consolidation and federation of the clubs during the 1920’s made cooperation and competition inevitable. It was unclear which syndicate was larger or more powerful. Historical records show that sometimes the Little Tokyo Syndicate was subordinate to the Toyo Syndicate, other times vise versa. Other times, it seemed both syndicates operated in parallel. As the decade wore on, the Toyo Club members were increasingly active in California and Little Tokyo Club members were increasingly present in the Pacific Northwest. It was not just gambling where interests collided – but all business aspects, prostitution, narcotics, fishing, canneries, etc. The Toyo and Little Tokyo Syndicates were on a collision course where much blood would be spilled, unless a truce could somehow be reached. What common ground could possibly unite these two growing and competing empires?

Canneries and Fishing

Regardless of the difficult working conditions coupled with illicit gambling, fishing and canning were seemingly legitimate businesses. Perhaps it was their affinity for fish that drew immigrants from Japan to these industries. Canning and fishing were often the first and only employment available to new immigrants (in addition to farming or sawmills). As part of a portfolio of diversified businesses, fishing and canneries were profitable operations for the Toyo Club Syndicate. Further, because so many Japanese worked in these jobs, canning and fishing enabled the Toyo Club control and access the Japanese American population. The syndicate was able to organize and control an entire labor force. If the Toyo Club ever needed more or specific personnel, a steady pipeline of people was available. Gambling and debt were the tools to indenture Japanese to their jobs and consequently to the Toyo Club. Employees were loyal, subjugated, and had few options.

In addition to being legitimate businesses in their own right, canning and fishing had a secondary benefit – it provided a transportation channel between Japan (typically Yokohama, Tokyo, Yokosuka, and Kyoto) and United States. Fishing boats, some capable of travelling over 6,000 miles without refueling, were under the control of the Toyo Club Syndicate. When such boats came to port, they came, of course, to the canneries also owned and operated by the syndicate. But the fishing fleet and canneries were not just used to capture and process fish. Using a network of fishing boats and canneries on the Pacific Coast, people, goods, money, and ideas flowed easily from Japan to the United States and back, oftentimes undetected with little scrutiny from government officials. As the Toyo Club empire grew larger in size and diversity, the fishing and cannery business as a supply channel grew as well, making it even more valuable. As a larger and more sophisticated supply channel, it provided even greater value to the Toyo Club businesses allowing them to grow even bigger. Moving in the darkness of night, drugs (usually opium and sometimes heroin) and girls (aka prostitutes) increasingly became cargo of choice. Destinations abroad grew from Japan to China and beyond. In 21st century business parlance, a virtuous cycle/feedback loop between the Toyo Club Syndicate’s illicit businesses and the fishing/cannery channel was built – each part reinforcing , strengthening, and feeding each other.

Yamamoto visited the canneries and fishing fleets often. First, accompanying Yamada, then on special missions himself to handle problems. Eventually, Yamamoto was responsible for overall operations of the cannery and fishing businesses – both in processing fish and, more importantly, in building and developing the channel to Japan.


In the early 20th Century, prostitution did not have the same stigma as it does in the 21st Century. As a mob activity, prostitution seemed to be just another typical business. And it was a lucrative one at that. The women (actually girls) were usually treated horribly – oftentimes coming from Japan destitute, surviving a brutal sea crossing in class barely better than cargo, and forced into brothels as prostitutes. Sometimes they came on passenger ships (a humane passage), sometimes on cargo ships (less humane). Sometimes, under dubious circumstances that could be describe best as kidnappings or slavery, they came via fishing boats.

The Seattle red light district was located in a 2X2 block in what was now Seattle’s Chinatown/International District, between Weller and King and 5th and 7th Streets. It’s been noted that several hundred prostitutes worked the area. Brothels were segregated by clientele (Japanese or not), and the girls were not just Japanese but black and white as well. The brothels were in two or three story buildings with a gambling den, liquor store, pool hall, restaurant, fruit store, coffee shop, beauty parlor, or drug store – basically typical businesses – occupying the first floor.

With regards to prostitution, Yamamoto managed the “pimps” that were loosely the bosses of the brothels in the Toyo Club’s ecosystem. Not surprising, pimps were not the most upstanding characters. As the club was involved in women trafficking, both Japanese and not, many ended up at the brothels, ripe for abuse and mistreatment. Disputes between pimps and prostitutes were frequent and violence against prostitutes from patrons was common. The girls lived in horrible conditions and were often beaten by both pimps and Johns alike. And, not surprising, many of the girls were addicted to booze and drugs (at the encouragement of their pimps), enslaving them to a system that they could not escape. “Managing” pimps and brothels were difficult, and “success” meant minimizing the worst of circumstances. Murders were frequent but not publicized. The horrible treatment of the girls was ignored. As long as the money was collected and murders stayed out of the newspapers, Yamamoto tolerated a lot. It was unclear what he could do to improve the situation, especially for the girls.

Thus, prostitution was a particularly morally suspect and personal business for Yamamoto. He had misgivings about the abuse and violence towards women. For better or worse, he often took a hands on role in settling issues, whether it be unscrupulous pimps or patrons that “got rough” with girls. Non-payment was certainly an issue. But hurting women was a moral one. Pimps mysteriously disappeared and were replaced. Johns that misbehaved often found themselves on the receiving end of a gun. That said, it was a profitable business. Pimps often aggressively recruited prostitutes on their own, not relying on the flow of girls from Japan that came through the Toyo Club. Demand was high, and a steady supply of girls was not obviously available. The pimps and their associates sometimes stalked the local high schools to recruit and kidnap young girls for their business. Franklin High School was a particularly target rich environment – many Japanese girls attended here because they lived in the area (Beacon Hill to be exact). And, as in today, it was not far from the Red Light District in Chinatown. Further, many girls took dance lessons from Fuku Nakatani, who, by the 1920’s, established herself as the pre-eminent Japanese dance instructor in the United States. Through dance and music, these girls had grace, knowledge, skills, and beauty that were highly desirable attributes. Perhaps their training closely resembled that of “geisha” from Japan. Girls of this demeanor were highly sought by Johns, and hence, they were girls were highly sought targets of pimps. While recruiting schoolgirls was in general abhorrent to Yamamoto, preying on dance students of Mrs. Nakatani, who he regarded as a family friend, even more so.

One day, a pimp had meticulously stalked girls for a period of a few weeks. He watched them arrive at school in the morning to take inventory. He waited for them to depart in the afternoon and noted which went to dance lessons at Mrs. Nakatani studio. He took meticulous notes of age, beauty, and potential desirability for his business. After he had identified the targets of choice, he figured out how to approach them -- when they were alone, perhaps in the late afternoon, before dance lessons. One by one, day after day a girl would go missing. Kanekichi caught wind of this – he was making the rounds collecting protection money. Distraught store owners would tell a disturbing story of the disappearance of their daughters.

After several days of terror in the Japanese community where girls were going missing, Kanekichi found himself at the corner of Rainier Avenue and Empire Way, across the street from Franklin. He was on a routine stop at a grocery store. It was mid afternoon, afterschool. A girl, targeted by the pimp, had just left campus and was headed to Mrs. Nakatani’s studio for dance lessons. While walking without much care, the girl was approached by a slow moving car. The car abruptly came to a halt, and the passenger door flew open. From the car, the pimp jumped out, and tried to push the girl in. She struggled and screamed for help. Yamamoto heard her screams, just as he was exiting the store. He looked up, and then looked directly at the pimp, making eye contact. The pimp recognized Yamamoto and now he was now terrified, as Yamamoto had established himself as a brutal enforcer of the Toyo Club. Yamamoto did not avert his glance. The pimp pushed the girl out of the car and sped away. Kanekichi approached the girl and helped her to her feet. She was not hurt but she was quite shaken. Kanekichi asked her where she was going. “To the Nakatani Studio,” she whimpered. But instead, he offered her a ride home, which she accepted. She was now crying uncontrollably after the incident but was also terrified she was now in a fancy car – Hupmobile -- of a man she did not know and did not recognize. She told him where she lives, and Kanekichi took her there. It was only a few miles away, on Beacon Hill, a few miles away from the Toyo Club.

When they arrive, her mother was waiting at the front door. She saw the car coming –Kanekichi’s Hupmobile was well known. Most knew it was best to steer clear – usually trouble waits if it stops for you. While the girl’s mother watched behind the screen door, assuming it will just past by, she became nervous as the car slowed to a halt. Her daughter quickly got out of the car, ran around the front and up the stairs, into her arms. Kanekichi looked to the mother to catch her eyes. She recognized him and gave a glance of gratitude but concern. She turned to her daughter, and while holding her with one arm, she turned and closed the door behind her.

Nothing more was said by the mother or Kanekichi. He drove away, back to the Toyo Club.

The next day, the pimp was found dead in an alley. Shot twice – one in the head, and once in the chest. Nothing was ever said. No students of Mrs. Nakatani were ever harassed again.

Mrs. Nakatani was of course grateful. If girls were in danger (perceived or real) because they were dance students, it would obviously be detrimental to her studio, her livelihood, and her art form. While dance was a favored art in the Japanese community, parents surely would not endanger their daughters to crime and prostitution. When students began disappearing, Fuku knew she had to proceed carefully. She was keenly aware of the prostitution practices of the Toyo Club as well as the appeal for her students. Could she approach the Club, or Kanekichi for help? Actively enlisting Kanekichi would be problematic as it would bring her too close to the Toyo Club. And, she was concerned; what would a “favor” cost? That said, Yamamoto was a friend, a patron/supporter of Japanese dance and music (especially performances produced by Fuku). This circumstance fortuitously allowed Kanekichi’s a discrete (and discreet) action to solve this problem. It was silently appreciated by all– the young girls, their parents, Fuku, and the Japanese American community in general. Menacing pimps backed off and, through fear and respect, never approached young girls again.


During the 1920’s drugs became an increasingly successful business for the Toyo Club Syndicate. Japanese and Asians in general, had an affinity for opium and heroin. From a revenue perspective, drugs perhaps rivaled the business of gambling for the Toyo Club Syndicate. Usage by Japanese immigrants was rampant from Alaska to Mexico. Most of its business was in the Pacific Northwest. Workers in its existing businesses (canneries, fishing, prostitution, gambling) were willing customers. It was a steady, profitable business – a solid performer in the syndicate’s portfolio of enterprises.

However, the business of narcotics outside of the Japanese community was too inviting. The Toyo Syndicate desired to expand its user base outside of the Japanese community and the West Coast. Opium and heroin were the increasingly the drugs of choice in non-Asian communities as well. However, Yamada knew that a retail operation would be difficult; Caucasians would be skeptical and leery of buying drugs from a Yellow man. So instead of building a consumer business, it would build a wholesale business and a distribution channel to the rest of the United States. Finding partners in addition to building the channel would be key to success. Further, Yamada knew the retail drug business was dirty, messy, and less lucrative. Profit margins were lower, “marketing” was expensive, and the personnel needed to sell to end users was large. Further, violence, at least in numbers, was far more problematic – murders would be more common, more grisly, and more publicized. Last, Yamada, and Yamamoto, rationalized retail dealing would be morally burdensome and personally taxing. Facing addicted opium (or heroin) and seeing them in their desperate, dilapidated state would be a psychological toll that neither Yamada nor Yamamoto wanted.

How would the Toyo Club Syndicate find a retail partner? This was not obvious. Such alliances were not part of the Toyo Club’s competencies. It was much more comfortable building an end-to-end supply chain that was vertically integrated. Such integration allowed the Toyo Club to maintain more control of the business. Further, the Toyo Club needed to build a distribution channel. This would be challenging as such a channel did not exist. However, they were confident they could find the personnel and relationships to scale up such an operations.

Yamada had tasked Yamamoto to figure this out. He was the right man. He had proven himself as amply capable in running gambling and prostitution operations. Further, while it was not publicly known, Yamada suspected his own days as Toyo Club boss were numbered. His tenure as boss had run a natural course. Syndicate bosses survived for only a few years and were replaced. Either they left on their own accord, retired by other forces from Japan, or were killed – killed either because they became too powerful or ironically lost power and hence control. Yamada did not have the time or energy to build out this important new practice.

So, it was up to Yamamoto make the wholesale drub business successful, while continuing to grow the retail business. How would he do this?

Fortuitously, at this particular time in the 1920’s, another organization was looking for a complementary partner – an organization that had access to Caucasian and Negro drug users but not access to a steady supply of product. The partner?

Alphonses Capone, aka “Scarface.” Yes. Al Capone.

Al Capone

Al Capone
Like Yamada, Capone wanted to diversify his businesses. Like the Toyo Club, gambling, extortion, and prostitution were great businesses. His core competency however was alcohol. Capone astutely knew that the repeal of the 18th amendment – prohibition -- was coming. Alcohol was a force so strong that it could not remain illegal. Without an illegal business, the profits would falter, and his empire would crumble. Drugs were the way to diversification. Capone had the customer relationships through alcohol. Transitioning to a new product would be easy, he rationalized. However, Capone knew he had a supply problem. How could he get access to the product – Opium and heroin?

Yamamoto had little contact with the Capone organization. Given that the Toyo club was in a similar line of business as Capone, this may have been surprising. However, I suspect the geography and possibly race created natural boundaries that separated the organizations. That said, a collision (or pooling) of interests was inevitable. But at this point, it was unclear how Yamamoto would go about making inroads and a high level connection to set this up. His plan: hop a train to Chicago and figure it out.

Yamamoto was meeting with Yamada, in the inner sanctum of the Toyo Club – a secure room on the 3rd floor of the Toyo Club, reviewing his plan when a buzzer from the Club’s “silent” alarm system chirped. It was a signal from the watchbox at the cigarette stand downstairs. The silent alarm system allows the bouncer to communicate from the front door to the Yamada in his office or the Inner Sanctum on the third floor. When the alarm sounded a police raid, the lights on the second floor were raised, all of the evidence of gambling at the tables was quickly removed, and all booze was cleared from the premise. In this case, the three quick chirps of the buzzer indicated something else – a special guest had arrived and was being brought up to the 2nd floor. Yamada instructed a Yamasaki, one of his henchmen, to go to the first floor. Yamamoto pulled on his suit jacket that was sitting behind his chair, adjusted his tie, and straightened his Stetson hat just above eye level. He patted his pistol that was hidden beneath his jacket, walked outside of the office, and closed the door behind him. Neither he nor Yamada knew who had arrived but they readied themselves for that person. It could be friend or it could be foe. Two minutes later, Yamasaki returns, escorting the unannounced visitor and one other of Yamada’s men from the first floor. The visitor was a Caucasian in his late 20’s, dark in complexion, and, like Yamamoto, dressed in a dark grey pinstriped suit and a hat that covers his eyebrows.

“He’s clean,” Yamasaki announced, meaning that he had all ready cleared him for any weapons.

“He says he’s here from Chicago. To discuss a business proposition. A deal. A deal we can’t refuse,” says Yamasaki.

Kanekichi gave the man a once over – a quick scan up and down, and then back up to his eyes. Each stared intently, as though in a contest to see who breaks first.

“I am Tessio,” the man announced in a surprisingly quiet way. He reaches out shake Yamamoto’s hand, which they do. “I come on behalf of Alphonse Capone.”

“Indeed, I would like to discuss a business opportunity.”

Yamamoto sized up Tessio. He was much taller than Yamamoto but whose stature indistinguishable from his own. He decided he an equal, among peers. In fact, he saw much of himself in Tessio – perhaps they were mirrors of each other in their respective organizations. After this assessment, Yamamoto led Tessio to another office and did not bring him to Yamada. Yamasaki followed, entered the office too, and closed the door behind him. As Yamamoto sat behind a desk, Tessio sat in the guest chair in front. With his back to the door, Yamasaki stood guard near the door with his back to it and faced Tessio’s back.

“We have a proposition,” started Tessio. “You have drugs – opium and heroin. We have customers.” Yamamoto listened, appearing casual and nonplussed. “We think can do business.”

“You supply the goods, we’ll give you 50% of the take.”

Yamamoto sat back in his chair. He contemplated. It was second nature not to bring Tessio to Yamada – a good call. The asymmetry of power would have been inappropriate. But, he himself did not fully have the authority to make the decision.

“Ten million up front, 60% to us, and you don’t enter west of the Rockies. And, Mr. Capone looks me in the eyes to confirm.” Yamamoto stated with authority.

“Steep but acceptable. Las Vegas. I’ll send a courier with details,” agreed Tessio.

Yamamoto nodded in confirmation, stood, and held out his hand to end the meeting. Tessio rose, and shook Yamamoto’s hand in agreement.

“Indeed it’s a deal you can’t refuse,” said Yamamoto. Yamasaki escorted Tessio out of the room, down the back staircase, and out to the street. He then contemplated the transaction. First, it’s an entry point into a broader consumer opium market. It provided new potential opportunities for adjacent businesses. It kept a future competitor at bay by becoming a partner. However, the Toyo Club was now engaged with a formidable and potential competitor of illicit businesses.

Yamamoto returned to Yamada’s office. “I’ve changed plans. I’m going to Las Vegas,” he said. He didn’t say anymore and he walks out. It was an important interaction. Yamamoto knew, but he did not reveal that he knew, Yamada was on his way out of the Toyo Club. He had caught wind of his pending departure the last time he visited the Little Tokyo Club. He had become aware of the retirement gift from that club -- $300,000 to get him to retire and return to Japan. A new boss, Mitsugu Yokoyama, would be coming on board in a week or so. Taking charge of the opium business allowed Yamamoto to take power in the syndicate without confrontation during the transition from one boss to another. It was a brilliant move.

Days later, Yamamoto received information from Tessio. Indeed a meeting with Capone was set in Las Vegas in a week at the Sands Hotel. The timing was perfect, if all went according to plan. A deal would be done, the club’s drug business would be strengthened, and Yamamoto would be in charge of a fast growing business unit.

Yamamoto traveled to Las Vegas with just one other man, Yamasaki. They took the overnight train and arrived midday. They had planned and anticipated a short meeting. They found their way the hotel’s offices and were escorted to another location more private and more secure. On entering a building off site from the main hotel, they were met by men. Dark suits. Italian. Menacing. Both Yamamoto and Yamasaki were cleared for weapons. However, as practice, Yamamoto gripped his pistol as the henchman finds it. The two men struggled briefly to take the gun, and Yamamoto gave a deep stare into his opponent’s eyes. The henchman relinquishes.

Yamamoto and Yamasaki entered the back office, under the careful watch of the three men. They took their seats around a conference room table. The room was austere, dimly light, except for a bright overhead light that illuminates the center of the table. From a back entrance, three more men enter. One was Tessio. The other was Capone himself. A third carried a briefcase. The three sat down in their position – Capone sat in the center, with Tessio to the right, the man with the suitcase to the left. All men have their hands and arms on the table. I’m told “seeing hands” was a safety precaution; You can’t fire a gun if your hand isn’t holding it. Tessio cleared his throat; Capone remained silent. Yamamoto stared deeply into Capone’s eyes. The third man spun the suitcase around to face Yamamoto and Yamasaki and unsnaps its two latches – clop...clop! – the distinctive sound of the latches opening. Once unlocked, the man opened the suitcase to reveal maybe 1,000 $1,000 bill and thousands of $100 federal reserve notes. Kanekichi gave a quick glance – a stare – but does not blink; he knew it was not ten million dollars. One, maybe two million. Capone and Tessio knew that Kanekichi knows that it was not ten million. It was a gesture and a promise of good faith. “Yes, Mr. Yamamoto, your terms were difficult but doable. This is good business for all.” Yamamoto nodded to acknowledge. All men stand up, the brief case was closed, locked, and handed to Yamasaki, and handshakes were exchanged. No further words were spoken. Yamamoto and Yamasaki turn to leave through the front door as Capone and his men leave through the back.

Yamamoto maked a mental note of surprise he found in his meeting with Capone; Capone placed FAKE wooden hands on the table. His real hands were hidden beneath the table and, presumably he kept his hands on gun, finger in the trigger. Sneaky. And effective. It was a tactic that may some day come in handy.

Rising Sun

Meeting Capone in Las Vegas and securing customers in the lucrative opium and heroin business, Yamamoto had immediately created a problem – meeting demand. While the existing drug business to Asian customers had been steady and profitable, securing a supply of opium to support the business was all most an after thought. Ample suppliers throughout Japan provided a steady stream of the poppy product. But now, almost overnight, the Toyo Club would need to secure 10 times the product, and shortly, Yamamoto assumed, 100 times. Additional supplies outside of Japan would be needed – perhaps China, Thailand, and other places in Southeast Asia.

He contemplated this as he returned to Seattle. However, he had one stop on his return: San Francisco, CA. Isoroku Yamamoto was visiting Stanford University in Palo Alto, CA and Isoroku had arranged a meeting with Kanekichi. Isoroku, like Kanekichi had been spending a great deal of time in the United States, but under completely different circumstances. In 1919, shortly after Kanekichi made way to the United States, Isoroku also came to the United States to study at Harvard for 2 years. He then did two posts as a navy attaché in Washington, DC. where he learned to speak fluent English and learn the customs and business practices in America. He frequented the United States sometimes as part of a government delegation – such as his visit to the United States Naval War College in 1924 – other times he came on military business with less defined purpose. Today, he was visiting with Japanese students at Stanford. These students were at Stanford with the official intent to study English. However, their presence was highly suspect, as it was largely believed that they were here to spy on America. The FBI and Office of Naval Intelligence (O.N.I.) were keeping files on all of them.

Iroroku had now risen to the rank of Captain. He was the commander of the cruiser Isuzu and most recently appointed commander of the aircraft carrier Akagi. While his role was largely defined operationally as a commander, his studies at Harvard and time in the United States refined his thinking, though his political, diplomatic, and military positions were often controversial. It’s unclear whether his point of view was heard or how influential it was on the national or international scene, but those that listened respected and considered his point of view. Isoroku was weary of the rise of Japanese Nationalism and the Military Intervention. With the Meiji Restoration becoming a fading memory in the past and the succession of Hirohito to the Emperorship of Japan, a power struggle among the official government (lead by the Prime Minister), the military, and Nationalists emerged and grew. Isoroku was formerly a strong supporter of military adventurism as a means to capture resources for Japan from the rest of the world and a believer of Japanese Nationalism and Identity. Now, enlightened by Western thinking, a Harvard education, and exposure to the United States, his position had shifted. Military might and Nationalism were not the effective paths to built Japan. While General Tojo and his friend Mitsuru Toyama might disagree vehemently, he had taken a significant philosophical turn to Gunboat Diplomacy (“Speak softly and carry a big stick”), and diplomacy in general, in opposition to military might. Some argue that Yamamoto had become a Pacifist – I argue this goes too far.

Kanekichi arrived at 237 Battery Street, the address of the Japanese Consulate in San Francisco. It was 6AM, well before the Consulate official opening. He peeked to East through the many buildings lining Battery. The sun was just beginning to rise. This was his first visit to the Japanese Consulate in San Francisco. Upon entering the compound, officials were awaiting him. A scheduled meeting with Captain Yamamoto was enough to catch the attention of the Consulate. However, his notoriety as a rising operator of the Toyo Club Syndicate raised further interest, concern, and suspicion. A large dossier on Kanekichi had been assembled by the Japanese government. In addition to his business with the Toyo Club, the dossier contained detailed information about his (and his father’s) association with Mitsuru Toyama, Admiral Togo, and even/especially Emperor Meiji. While America was focused on the rise of Japan as an international power, internally, Japan was threatened by much internal turmoil. Factions and alliances among Nationalists, the Emperor, the military, and the official government potentially created much instability. It was never quite clear who was aligned with whom. The Consulate was well aware of the internal politics of Japan while its role was to manage its relationships with America. Maziko Ito, the Consul General of San Francisco with ambitions of his own, considered what role Kanekichi could play in any of this.

After checking his credentials at the entrance of the Consulate, Kanekichi was led to a back office. Seconds pass, and Ito enters. Formal introductions were made. Pleasantries were spoken and a few questions were asked;

Why was he in San Francisco? (Visiting Captain Yamamoto as he passes through.)

When was he last in Japan? (He had not been back since arriving.)

Does he know the Consul General in Seattle? (Yes, but while he had a great deal of interaction with the Seattle Consulate, he demurs that he had spoken with them only a few times, and superficially at that.)

Additional minutes pass, and there was a knock at the door. Without waiting for a response to the knock, a Consulate officer opened the door, with Captain Yamamoto following. Yamamoto was introduced, and the officer quickly left. More formal introductions were made, but the Consular quickly excused himself, “I will leave you to your business.” He left through a back door and closed it.

“It was good seeing you, Yamamoto-san,” Captain Yamamoto initiated. “It has been many years. You were yet a young man when you departed.” Kanekichi nodded in acknowledgement. He reflected on his past meetings with Captain Yamamoto. Years had passed since they walked Yokosuka and discussed their lives as second sons. Much had changed. Isoroku was a rising star (or may be was a Rising Sun/Son) in the Japanese Imperial Navy. Kanekichi was amassing influence and responsibilities in the Toyo Club Syndicate. Japan was fulfilling its destiny on the International stage. Much suspicion surrounded the murky intent of all, whether it be Captain Yamamoto or Kanekichi personally or the Japanese Navy, the Japanese government, or other political factions, such as the Black Ocean Society. It seemed their lives, and Japan, was at an inflection point. What would be next for each?

Isoroku came to the Consulate to deliver a message to Yamamoto: The Rise of Japan was not without cost. While proud of its successes economically, politically, and militarily, it was not without peril. We must be concerned with the means of industrialization and the implications of power. He asked as many questions as he gave answers. What was the role of government? What economic policies should government put in place? What were the threats of Nationalism? What was the outcome of revolution in Russia and China? Who was responsible?

Surprisingly, his message was diffuse, rambling, and lacking focus. Perhaps his thoughts were not quite fully formed; the answers were not obvious regardless of how important the questions. Further, while he mentions the rise of Nationalism in Japan, he does not name names – Toyama Mitsuru in particular. Because they were meeting at the Consulate, Captain Yamamoto assumed the room was bugged – and he does not want to implicate Toyama in any wrongdoing.

Kanekichi listened more than he spoke. Captain Yamamoto’s rise to power along with Japan and his own was as surprising as it was important. What would come next? How could one control his own destiny?

It was a short meeting, less than a half hour. Captain Yamamoto had to leave to return to his ship, set to depart in an hour’s time. In parting, he leaves with final thoughts.

“Oftentimes the course of events was settled by one person.” He rose from his chair, stares deeply into Kanekichi’s eyes and says with strength, conviction, and seemingly fear,

“Mitsuru Toyama.”

Did he expose his friend? Captain Yamamoto turned and walks out the front office door.

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