Down and out, but not defeated

SUN JOURNAL

Boxer: In Tokyo, a former professional fighter facing bankruptcy has attained popularity by offering himself as a human punching bag to help pay his debts.

October 23, 1999|By Sonni Efron | Sonni Efron,LOS ANGELES TIMES

TOKYO -- In a concrete and neon canyon in Japan's most famous drinking district, the boxer stands ready to become a human punching bag.

"Please hit me," he calls out to the crowd of gawkers that quickly forms. A one-minute all-you-can-slug session costs $9 for men. Women may vent their aggression for half-price. The boxer wears a mouthpiece and headgear, but he doesn't raise his fists to block the blows. His defense is limited to ducking, at which he excels.

Since February, when financial desperation drove him into the streets, Akira Hareruya, a former professional boxer once ranked 17th in Japan, has suffered bloody noses, black eyes and broken ribs. He has been harassed by the police, threatened by debt collectors and knocked down, but never knocked out.

Recession victim

The 36-year-old fighter has become something of a media superstar and a folk anti-hero. His electrical contracting business fell victim to Japan's worst postwar recession, he is broke, and he is taking punches to try to pay off a $1.3 million debt.

At a time when personal bankruptcies are soaring and despairing debtors are killing themselves in increasing numbers or fleeing into the night, Hareruya would rather be slugged than surrender. In a country where bankrupts continue to be stigmatized and most believe they have a moral duty to pay off their debts, Hareruya is seen by many as taking a noble, if quixotic, approach.

His popularity -- he has been featured in at least five major Japanese newspapers and appeared on almost every top TV news show -- stems from the espousal of an old-fashioned but still highly prized Japanese value, "gaman," meaning grit, endurance or the willingness to bear suffering in silence.

The boxer brushes off such comments. "I don't have any honor. That's why I'm doing this," says Hareruya, who uses a stage name in part to protect the privacy of his mortified wife and his three children. "I just would like to repay my debts without going bankrupt."

He says he hasn't ruled out declaring bankruptcy, and his friends have been encouraging him to do so. But he thinks he can hold out a little longer.

He has been buoyed by the admiration and encouragement of many of his customers, and the hope that he might land a job, get a permanent spot on a TV show or make a commercial. He has had nibbles, he says, but all have fallen through. "They think my image is too dark," he says with a laugh.

Help has come from unlikely quarters, including one of his first customers, Mitsuo Izumi, the tough-talking president of a small construction company. After paying to go three rounds with Hareruya and learning of his troubles, Izumi lent the boxer about $5,000 on the spot.

Izumi, too, knows the bitter aftertaste of Japan's soured economy. Three years ago, his company nearly went bankrupt. "The worst was my daughter's birthday, when I couldn't afford to buy her a cake," Izumi says. "She was 6. She cried, saying, `Why can't I have a cake?' If it hadn't been for my daughter's tears, I would never have been able to pull out of it."

Legacy of the `bubble years'

Like Hareruya, Izumi is deeply in debt, a legacy of Japan's "bubble years," during which banks shoved loans at often-unsophisticated owners of small businesses, who were left holding the bag when the economy collapsed. Izumi was helped by a stranger he met, and he says he wanted to pass along the favor.

He hired Hareruya as a construction laborer for about $100 a day and is urging him to quit street boxing as soon as possible.

The boxer has tried working the streets in various sections of Tokyo but has found the police to be most tolerant in Kabukicho, a neighborhood of bars, movie theaters, cheap restaurants, strip joints and "soaplands," the Japanese euphemism for brothels.

On a weekend, Hareruya is out working a small plaza. Nearby, several homeless men sleep on cardboard, ignored by tipsy "salarymen" in wilting white shirts, young women in the gaudiest fashions waiting for dates, tough gangster-looking types grunting into cellular phones and neatly dressed young moviegoers.

Hareruya offers his customers a pair of clean white gloves followed by a pair of boxing gloves, and he explains the rules: no hitting below the belt, elbowing, butting, biting or hitting him when he is down. He tries to avoid customers who are too drunk. "They come out and pop me before I've even had a chance to explain the rules," he says.

`Beautiful memories'

Then the boxer invites them to shout out their names, ages, occupations and the kinds of stress they are feeling, and he tells them to "make beautiful memories to take home."

"The world sucks," screams Eiken Kudo, 22, a university student majoring in international economics. Sporting an Ungaro T-shirt and a murderous expression, Kudo chases the feinting boxer around the plaza for a minute without landing a punch. Panting, Kudo reveals that he is a fencing instructor and is shocked that his fists found only air.

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