—— As a “handyman” what kind of work do you do?
It doesn’t matter if it’s cleaning a ditch or having tea with someone, perhaps accompanying someone on a trip... I’ll do anything. I’ll go anywhere in the world I’m requested to go. One client was a rock collector, collecting rocks from all over the world and he told me, “I haven’t been able to go to the South Pole. Can you go there and pick up some rocks for me?” So I went there and did as he requested. Recently, I have received many requests to accompany people on overseas trips. Just during the last year I’ve been to more than 10 countries. In three months, I’ve only stayed at my home for a couple of days.
—— What gave you the idea to start this kind of business?
When I was 26 I began my trek around the world with no money and by the time I finished circling the globe I was 38. After that I thought I’d like to take a company job so I went to an interview. I was hoping the interviewer would think “Wow, you went around the world!” but the reaction was more like, “Oh you were just a vagabond doing nothing!” I was very disappointed and decided from that moment on that I was going to stop looking for a job and went back home. By chance, while I was watching a TV drama a handyman company in the show really caught my attention. Besides, I wasn’t doing anything else, so I thought I’d give it a try... and that’s how it all started. I had also promised my wife that I was going to start doing something by that September
—— So since you have been providing this service, have the requests changed?
Well, we’ve been doing this for 24 years. Back when we started we got requests to take trash to the dump or to take care of a dead dog or rat. We got many requests like that. After awhile though, I received more requests to give speeches at various occasions such as weddings, funerals, and things like that. Now, I get many requests to have dinner or go for a walk with people, probably because we have more lonely people around nowadays. Once when I was on TV, I mentioned that I would take care of all types of problems such as people living as shut-ins or kids who don’t want go to school. After that I received many requests from all over the country. Like this time, just before I came to San Diego, I got a call from a mother whose child wouldn’t go out and she pleaded, “Mr. Ukon please help me.” So I thought I really wanted to lend a hand. Recently, many parents in Japan have many of those kinds of problems.
—— So for that kind of request, what do you do to take care of it?
For somebody who has shut themselves in the house, I go to their place and try everything and anything I can to get them out of their room. If I can’t see them that day then I will stay there over night and take advantage of any opportunity I can, for example, when they go to the kitchen to get something. I will say “Good morning, I’m Mr. Ukon.” and try to say hi to the person. After I try many, many times the person will look strangely at me at first, but then little by little we will start having conversations. After that I may tell the person I’d like to have some sushi and ask them if they would take me to get some. Many times they will really take me.
There was a young man, 32 years old, who was shut-in for 14 years. When I went to his home I got absolutely no response for about a week. I was running out of ideas, so when he came out from his room I confronted him and we scuffled, then he started talking to me. Following that I told him, “I’m going to the United States, do you want to come with me?” and he replied, “I would like to have you take me there.” After staying for 2 weeks in the United States, we returned to Japan and surprisingly he started looking for a job. His parents were shocked; they couldn’t believe it. I once had a 26-year old man who had shut himself in his home and then suddenly said to me “Let’s fight!” I was surprised and said, “Okay then let’s go out.” So we had our fight and after he said, “I want to go to the United States.” so I took him too! Every two months I bring people like that with me to Los Angeles. For some reason after they come to the United States everybody becomes healthier.
Maybe there are some things their family can’t do for them and I will, maybe some things they can’t talk to their families about, so maybe they feel more comfortable to talk with me. That 26 year-old, his family would never hurt him, so they would’ve never had a fight with him. No matter what kind of person you’re dealing with you have to talk with them as equals. I think the most important thing is to develop a friendship with the people.
—— What kind of goals did you have when you were young?
As a matter of fact, I was a Yakuza member in Shinjuku from the time I was 14 until I turned 17. Back then, the only goal I had was becoming someone like Al Capone. Shinjuku was my territory and when I heard someone was fighting I was there right away and that’s all I did. So when I walked through Shinjuku everyone would get out of my way. One day I was walking, taking up the whole street, with 4 or 5 of my guys when an American guy didn’t get out of our way. My guy yelled, “Get out of the way!” and he still didn’t move... it really made me angry. So I decided to have a “talk” with him. Surprisingly he just looked at me and smiled, he had the most wonderful smile I’d ever seen. I found out he was an American Missionary who had just arrived in Japan and didn’t understand any Japanese. I couldn’t forget that wonderful smile, so the next Sunday I went to his Church. I spent all day there from 9 A.M. to 7 P.M. I really wanted to see his smiling face, so I started going to Church every Sunday. I was a Yakuza from Monday to Saturday and was in church every Sunday. So people were calling me the “holy” Yakuza (smiling). February 1958, when I turned 17, I received my baptism and afterwards I went to my boss and I told him I believe in Jesus and I’m not coming to Shinjuku anymore. And he curtly replied, “Don’t ever come again.” and I washed my hands of the Yakuza.
—— Is there a philosophy that shapes your life?
Regardless if you’re the Prime Minister, a celebrity, or an investor to me everyone’s equal. Now no matter who I’m going to meet I always wear my uniform. In the past, I might have worn a suit occasionally. The first time I met Miss Takako Doi (Chair of the Japan Social Democratic Party) I was wearing a suit. Once when I was invited to a dinner party given by the Governor of Saga Prefecture, all 250 of the guests were all dressed up, but I wasn’t. I was the only one wearing a uniform. It was then I noticed that people who were wearing suits didn’t really say hi to each other. That’s because it’s not acceptable to greet people of a higher status than you. For example even when Prime Minister Koizumi is standing in front of you, it’s very awkward for people to greet him before he greets them. At that dinner party everyone said hi to me, probably because they thought they were higher than me because I was in a uniform. Reflecting upon that, I thought that was good. Thanks to this uniform everyone feels more comfortable talking with me.
—— When do you feel joy?
I think it’s got to be when my clients say thank you. Once I received a request to find a woman who had run away and gone to Brazil. The family had said they heard she was probably in an area near the Amazon River, so I went there, but there was no sign as to her whereabouts. I visited the Brazilian Embassy and they told me they didn’t have information on anybody that fit her description. I was staying with a friend from high school who by chance was living in Brazil and I continued looking for her. Then one day someone mentioned, “There is a famous photographer in Brazil who everyone brings their film to and takes everyone’s pictures. Maybe you could get some information from him.” When I heard that I went right away. It turns out that he did know and she was working in a flower shop, so I was able to confirm that she was the person I was looking for. For this her family in Japan gave me 3 million yen and a heartfelt, “Thank you!” I was speechless when they said that. I think the joyful looks on the faces of my customers are much more important than the money.
—— Tell me what are your dreams for the future?
First of all I’d like to have a big house and in it I’d like to live with the shut-ins and help them to deal with their problems. Later when they become better I’d like to send them back to there parents. If it’s possible I’d like to live in the countryside of Kyushuu surrounded by nature, where I was born. I’d also like to help make Japan a country where foreign students want to come back to after they complete their studies. The other day I heard this interview with some disgruntled Singaporean students saying they would never ever comeback to Japan again. One of the services we provide are “gaijin houses”. From the beginning I’ve had the idea of assisting foreigners, so we created places for travelers from abroad to come and stay. While I traveled around the world, I received a lot of help so this time I’d like to be the one helping people. We have our brochures in every embassy around the world and so we get people visiting from everywhere. There is nothing special about what we do for them, but at 8:00 in the evening we have tea together and on Fridays we eat together. Whenever I see foreigners on the street I ask, “May I help you?” Sometimes if foreigners at our church are free I may invite them to my house to have tea.
—— Finally, can you give us some advice for the Japanese people living in America?
Living abroad can be very tough. I know that very well, but I hope that everyone can have confidence and try to do there best. The other day I met a female Japanese student in Tucson, AZ and I was concerned because even when she was on a picnic with her friends she was off by herself. It seems that because she couldn’t speak English well she was afraid to take part in the group. So I got close to her and we started talking and she ended up rejoining the group. I was very happy. I don’t think it matters if your English grammar is poor. You can put together a simple phrase and that’s okay. I heard there are many mixed marriages in San Diego and I want everyone to be looking ahead with open minds, acceptance and the willingness to get involved with people.