Kei Ochiai is a rag-and-bone man for the Kanto region. He drives his small truck through neighborhoods in Tokyo and Yokohama, circling the areas while sounding his pitch with a loudspeaker: “Furniture, bikes, fridges, anything big and heavy, I’ll take it.” His jovial demeanor instantly wins him hearts and lots of business. He helps people get rid of the things that they would otherwise find difficult to throw out. As he flexes his communication skills — along with his arm muscles — he’s straightforward about his colorful past that has included both great hardship and high points. He’s suffered drug abuse, been to parties in Ginza clubs, worked as a member of the yakuza — and has even spent time in prison. Twenty years ago he finally made a clean break from crime and has been on the right track ever since.

A good upbringing does not guarantee a life of decency. Once the environment changes, so do people. My parents were the most honest and hardworking folks I know. My father was an executive and my mother was sweet and elegant. I was spoiled with love and gifts. How did I end up in a gang? Although my home environment was good, the bad outside influences won me over. I touched drugs. That was my undoing.

Drugs will ruin even the best life. And they’ll do it very quickly. Even trying it just once can turn you into an addict. Trust me, I know. I was 19 and had money to blow. Tragically, I tried kakuseizai (methamphetamine), a drug so powerful that I got hooked immediately. I lied to everyone about my habit. By the time I turned 25, my wife had left me and I knew that I would either die or end up in prison. I had to quit. But no matter how many times I tried, I couldn’t give up the habit. I heard that some yakuza groups didn’t touch drugs. I figured that if I joined their ranks, I’d be saved. In a way, I was.

Without the yakuza’s help, I might not be alive today. I was saved by the gang. Once I joined, they helped me kick my addiction. It was simple: I had guys with me all the time, watching my every move. I was never left alone, not even in the toilet or in the bath or on the futon. That was smart, as drug addicts always find ways to get their next fix. But if guards are with you 24/7, there is no way to do drugs. Thanks to them, I kicked the habit.

The law is rigid and old, while criminals are flexible and smart — you do the math.

In Japan, more than ¥9.4 billion a year is cheated out of the elderly through phone fraud. The criminal calls them and pretends to be their son who just caused a car accident. He begs them to pay the other driver so that he won’t have to go to jail. Of course, the parents rush to the ATM and wire all they’ve got. The fraudsters are rarely caught because everything is done online and many of them are unknown, even to their own gang. A pretty nifty scheme, but I would never do it.

The crime reflects the criminal. I don’t lie and I don’t cheat people. My crime was always straight, too: I made money as a bookie for horse races. Our yakuza group ran the betting business in the same manner as the government does. Of course it’s illegal to do that, but the clients didn’t mind. I worked honestly and I took bets for a smaller fee than the official rate. Once the folks won, we paid them the same percentage as the official rate. Everyone was happy, except the government. We stole from them and this is why I ended up in jail.

Every beat-up dude has a brilliant story worth a Bollywood or Hollywood flick. Mine has many ups and downs and tragedies, but I’ve been living through it like it’s all been a comedy. I see everything from a positive and funny viewpoint.

It’s dangerous to try to protect kids too much. Japanese parents are always warning their children not to do this or that: “Don’t climb trees, it’s dangerous! You may fall!” So the kids end up doing dangerous things when the parents are not around, and then they sometimes break their necks. Children do whatever they want to anyway, so I think it’s better they do dangerous things in front of you. I told my son: “Climb when I’m standing under the tree. Then I’ll catch you!”

Japanese prison is not so different from normal life. I was incarcerated for two years and 10 months for running an illegal gambling operation. Once I was locked up, I decided to enjoy prison life. I think humans can get used to any circumstances, but Japanese prisons are so comfy, it’s actually easy to like them. I had my own room, a fun job making furniture, karaoke parties, good food and time to read. The only minus is that we couldn’t have girlfriends.

If a story may help others, it must be told. I feel a lot of shame about my past, but if my stories help others, I must share them. I told my children first, and I think they learned from my mistakes: They are hardworking and I’m very proud of them. I want to save young people from drugs and crime. Children are treasures.

Judit Kawaguchi loves to listen. She is a volunteer counselor and a reporter on NHK’s “journeys in japan.” Learn more at: juditfan.blog58.fc2.com Twitter: @judittokyo

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