How I Lived In Japan On Minimum Wage And Started A Fight Club

How I Lived In Japan On Minimum Wage And Started A Fight Club
Image: Joel Zico / Supplied
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“You’d have made a great Wookie” are the only words George Lucas has or likely ever will speak to me.

I’d already made up my mind to leave Sydney. I was on the set of Revenge of the Sith, standing next to Ewan McGregor while he had his hair coiffed, waiting for Bruce Spence to be transformed into Tion Medon. Working as 2-metre tall lighting double with foppish hair, this was the closest I’d come to achieving my acting dream.

But the night before, I’d been chased by a gang in Top Ryde wielding hammers trying to kill me. The pain in my leg from pulling a muscle had set in, and it showed.

“Really rocking that double denim hey,” McGregor said.

I nodded, struggling to make small talk that Obi-Wan wouldn’t have cared about anyway.

A shot of the author in the Sydney CBD, prior to leaving for Japan. Image: Stefan Raycanovski

I’d moved to Sydney from country NSW at the age of 19, working night fill at the local supermarket and waking up at 2:00 PM for acting classes in Kings Cross. Any spare time in between went to the gym, then work. My sleep patterns weren’t conducive to making friends or relationships.

This carried on for two years, leaving me very alone in a city that never resonated with me.

The people at my work were hardly normal, but that was my only real social outlet. And there were some real characters: a powerlifter convinced I was sleeping with his girlfriend, someone I knew nothing about and had never met; a middle-aged man who retold the same story every day about how shampoo could easily be replaced with body soap.

One evening, the night captain caught me eating some chips on shift. I froze like a deer in headlights, terrified of losing my job. He laughed loud enough for the whole store to hear, then opened a bag of chips and sat down next to me, still laughing.

Somehow our mutual dishonesty had earned his trust. My social life was already non-existent, so I welcomed his friendship. From there, I quickly found myself in a world of petty crime and drugs — my captain later lamented that we never smoked meth together — and it wasn’t long before a few scary encounters had me seeking an escape.

That escape, as it turned out, was Japan.

The Nova building housing teachers, including the author, was around the corner from the old SEGA office in Tokyo, Otorii. Image: Kotaku

I saw a job offer for a company called Nova in Japan teaching English. The requirements were a bachelor’s degree minimum. All I had was a Journalist Diploma from a private college I’d paid $500 for. The course took six months and I was given a dodgy certificate and a signed photo of Simon Townsend for my troubles.

That didn’t seem sufficient, so I called the college and asked for a statement saying their course was a three-year equivalent. They agreed.

Amazingly, Nova accepted my certificate and offered me the job. A 21-year-old Woolworths night filler with no real qualifications would teach English in a world that demanded quality tuition.

Certain I would never return, I made my way to Sydney airport, threw my Nokia 3310 in a nearby bin, and left Australia behind.

Image: Joel Zico

I arrived in Taiwan that same day without a connecting flight to Japan’s Narita airport. (I hadn’t read the itinerary properly and wondered why Narita wasn’t listed on the flight booking.)

So a few days of fumbling later, I made my way to Japan.

With no one to greet me, I called Nova and asked what I was meant to do. I took a night bus from Narita to my assigned home in Ootori, behind the old Sega building. I was met by a disgruntled Nova staff member who opened the door to my dank apartment.

“Well, uhh, good luck with everything.”

Her disgust was barely concealed as she handed me the keys.

Before I had a chance to ask anything, she was on her way. I turned the lights on and no less than five cockroaches scuttled into the recesses of the kitchen.

The sliding door to my sharemate’s quarters were open and a man lay silent, reeking of booze. I assumed he was alive, but it was clear my welcome wasn’t going to be any more ceremonious this evening.

I quietly put my effects away and took to cleaning the couch, which required a night’s worth of scrubbing and cleaning. Looking back, setting the apartment on fire would have been more hygienic than airing the years of sin this thing had endured.

After a night of intensive cleaning to bring the apartment’s standards up to the level of a somewhat lazy 21-year-old male, I slept.

I awoke to the laughter of my British sharemate who was still coming to grips with the idea of a man cleaning a house. I think he was somewhat proud of the apartment’s previous state, and we became fast friends despite his perversely dogged sense of humour.

After not contacting my family back home — I rarely used email then — I called my parents in Australia. It was only then that Nova and the Australian Embassy had reported me missing, saying I’d missed a connecting flight and was likely still in Taiwan. Apparently, nobody knew where I was, explaining the lack of greeting at the airport.

Some of the foreign teachers employed by Nova, with the author second from right and Paulo (centre). Image: Joel Zico

After sorting that mess out, I attended Nova’s induction session. Sitting opposite me was Paulo, a Canadian-Filipino man who would share many memories of my early life in Tokyo.

Some friends in your life will become mentors. Others become rivals, and some become enemies. With Paulo, I knew we would be constantly trying to beat each other. We both wanted to be the heroes of this chapter in our lives. We both tried to be Nova Shinbashi’s most popular teacher; we both chased the same women. We both tried to outdo each others jokes, and every day prior to our 4:00-9:00 PM shift, we’d order a Hamburg and Egg set from Matusya, occasionally lording wins over each other.

“I kissed Saori last night,” Paulo said over one meal.

My heart sank: We’d agreed not to pursue anyone who harboured feelings for both of us. So naturally, Paulo took the opportunity to beat me.

“Dude, this is war… you can’t trust me,” he laughed, finishing his bowl. Before leaving, he fired a parting shot. “You’re just the anime side-kick who sacrifices himself… something like the love child of Dante and Spongebob.”

My frustration quickly turned to laughter; I was wounded but refused to lose the war.

A shot of the 32-inch TV that hosted many Halo sessions, although in this shot, it’s a 11-1 drubbing in Tekken 5. Image: Joel Zico

Our competitive nature bled into nightly Halo sessions. We’d picked up a local Xbox, and the 32-inch CRT TV was more than enough for matches between the other resident teachers.

“Let’s start getting some exercise,” I suggested.

There was a local park that had children’s equipment and a variety of apparatus to use. The nights were long, and Halo’s Wizard map was getting old. We invited other tutors to join us, plus any locals caught in our maelstrom. Some nights there would be 3. Others, 10.

Some nights we would sit on the banks of Tama River and pretend to be philosophers. A 300 Yen ($3.60) pack of cigarettes and six-pack of Suntory Malt beer each fuelling our thoughts.

“Why don’t we fight?”

Usually when Paulo suggested something, any kind of refusal would be a victory to him. The rules were simple. Don’t aim for the head.

A memory from the author’s time in Japan, capturing of one of the love hotels in the area nearby. Image: Joel Zico

At first, the club was a way to let off steam. Other times, it was a way to end a conflict. Most nights finished when someone got too heated. Sometimes the local policeman would stumble in, ordering us home while struggling to stifle a laugh.

One night, some local Japanese rugby players joined in. The biggest of the bunch, a monster of a human being, laid me out flat. Not wanting to take chances with his understanding of our rules, I didn’t push my luck.

Still, we drank together afterwards.

When foreigners come to Japan, they’re occasionally asked what they like about the country. For me, it was the relationships and stories. It was being the last one at the gyoza izakaya at 1:00 AM, drinking with the eldery owner who’d then take us to the local gym several hours later.

I’d moved to Sydney from the country in the hope of an exciting life. All I found was drugs, gangs and dark streets. In Tokyo, the city that never stops, I found misfits, the strongest friends, and plenty of debauchery.

Image: Joel Zico

Josh, a Tasmanian man built like a bear, later joined our crew. Quiet but with the wry smile of a man who silently knew the worst joke in the room. We invited him to our nightly gathering, which would be the last time we held our fight circle.

It started fine at first. Josh and I had a friendly fight which ended quickly. I guessed from how quickly he got involved that he had a short fuse. I didn’t feel like losing teeth in the name of fun. So in the famous words of C-3PO: Let the Wookie win.

Paulo, meanwhile, never let caution get in the way of his pride. Josh and Paulo duked it out for ages, with blood eventually spilling from Josh’s head. He lost his cool and began swinging, still grinning, but not from the joy of camaraderie.

Josh enjoyed the blood; Paulo backed off. We all stepped in, but it was too late. The police arrived, usually a sign the night was over.

But Josh didn’t care. He argued aggressively with the police. It didn’t lead to him being arrested but we knew we’d pushed it too far.

We broke the golden rule of being foreigners in Japan. We’d become pests.

Image: Joel Zico

We began living a semi-regular life after that. We still spent many evenings together, but the competitiveness subsided, replaced with the regular things people do in Japan.

Paulo now runs Funker Tactical, a Canadian military fight YouTube channel with over 1 million subscribers.

I’d say with some certainty that our days in Tokyo taught him a few things about fighting. We haven’t seen each other since then, but 17 years apart hasn’t erased one of the most memorable parts of our lives.

For me, my first Japanese foray ended with my Working Holiday Visa. But that was just the beginning of the many incredible stories that Japan would later bless me with.


Joel Zico is an indie filmmaker and writer. His random streams of consciousness can also be seen on Twitter and Instagram

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