My Japan Connection to “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”

July 5, 2016
A fun note about “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” I first learned it in Japan and out of necessity. In the 1980s, it and the Tennessee Waltz were the two most requested English language sing-alongs. In between the enka (演歌) — Japanese popular music that sounds traditional — I would nestle a few of these.
Patrons would send over $150 bottles of Nikka to me after singing these numbers — something that occurred repeatedly. But the man who liked to hear me sing the most, other than my mentor and dear friend Hayano-san 早野 (whom I miss terribly to this day), was not an ordinary every day kind of person He was a made member of the Osaka yakuza and as tough and crude a man, smiling constantly, as ever I have met. And I met him by chance. I was briefly hospitalized (a reaction to the gold flake in sake, I am told, or my drink had been spiked) and he was in the bed next to mine.
Covered neck to waist in colorful tattoos, which he proudly displayed and explained to me that included a jinja (shrine), a beautiful and barely dressed blonde and markings that showed where he belonged in the organization. And, of course, he showed me his pinky, which he’d severed at the first joint, in ritual fashion and without anesthesia. I was grateful when he taught me how to curse like a gangster in the Osaka dialect. It actually got me out of a scrape once.
Being young and adventurous (I’m still both, but wiser), and actually liking this guy a good deal, I accepted his invitation to his club, where I got up and sang, after some heavy drinking. Thinking back on this, he could have been setting me up for a huge bill — drinking whiskey at a club routinely cost many $100s. But he didn’t. Instead, he had other of his black-suited gangster friends along to toast our collective health as we all sang, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” It was a great night.
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