In the wake of the March 11 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, former Shooto heavyweight champion and Pride veteran Enson Inoue
has been on a one-man charity mission, traveling to northeast Japan to directly help those in need.
For his next visit to the Tohoku region, MMA Fighting joined Inoue to document the journey and bring new light to the ongoing crisis in Japan.
On day one, we made our way from Tokyo to Fukushima through ongoing earthquakes, attempted to deal with massive funding issues and we met the man who introduced Enson Inoue to the Japanese underworld.
Enson Inoue is an interesting character.
Born in Hawaii and of Japanese descent, he is the former Shooto heavyweight champion and a Pride FC veteran. He is the man who brought Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu to Japan and submitted UFC legend Randy Couture in his prime in under two minutes. His fighting style and "Yamato-damashii" or "samurai spirit," led to him developing close relations with the Japanese mafia -- the heavily tattooed "yakuza." In 2008, Inoue (now also heavily tattooed) was caught by police with 16.9 grams of marijuana, and after 28 days spent in jail, was sentenced to a 10-month suspended sentence and three years of probation. With this resume, it would be easy to write Enson Inoue off as a violent gangster. But that is not Enson Inoue.
Inoue's work following the March 11 magnitude 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami in the Tohoku region of Japan is more indicative of his character. In an interview with MMA Fighting
, he revealed details of an astounding one-man charity mission where Inoue, despite many pleading with him not to travel through the radiation leaking from the badly damaged Fukushima nuclear power plants, traveled solo to devastated cities and evacuation centers, providing much needed relief to those left stranded and without support from charities organizations.
The response to the interview detailing Inoue's work was overwhelming. In one day, over 250 donations rolled in for a total of $14,000 and after two more days that total reached $27,000. Enson's promise that 100 percent of all donations would go directly to earthquake and tsunami victims was exactly what many people wanted to hear. It was also exactly what the victims needed.
This stunning influx of funds led to a couple of things.
Firstly, with almost 10 times the budget of his first trip to the Tohoku region, Inoue would be able to reach a lot more people and do a lot more work.
Secondly, it highlighted to me that the Western media was too focused on the nuclear problem at Fukushima and not focused on the ongoing human problem. The individual stories of the Japanese people were not being heard.
With these things in mind, I met with Inoue (during an evening in the infamous club district Roppongi that was fitting of a retired fighter with Mafia ties) and proposed that I accompany him on his next trip to the quake and tsunami affected Tohoku region to document his work and hopefully bring in more supporters of his cause.
Fast forward to Monday, April 11 when I received a call from Inoue.
"Hey bro," he started in his unique accent. A Hawaiian/Japanese hybrid. "Can you meet me in Utsunomiya in two hours?"
Utsunomiya was more than two hours away from my apartment in Shinjuku, Tokyo, but I said, "I'll be there as soon as I can," and quickly packed my bags and called my family in Australia to inform them that, "I'll be traveling around that nuclear power plant that is melting down with a fighter who has ties with the mafia. I don't know how long I'll be gone, and I may be difficult to get a hold of for a while."
It actually sat with my family surprising well.
Getting to Utsunomiya to meet Enson was much more difficult than I expected. Just as I made my way out the door of my Shinjuku apartment, a 7.1 earthquake hit Fukushima (my destination). To make matters worse, I attempted to withdraw money to fund my travels but was thwarted by my bank card. The expiring date read, "03/2011." I had around $50 in my wallet and no other way to get any money. The only way to get cash was to wire it to another Japanese account and that would take several days.
Still, despite my money issues, and the fact that my destination was currently shaking and glowing with radiation, I was determined to press on.
I'm not particularly proud of it, but due to my financial troubles I was forced to pull the "gaijin sumashu." The technique, which translates to "foreigner smash," is to initially buy the cheapest ticket just to get through the gates and to then, on your arrival, claim to have lost your ticket and pretend that came from a nearby station. If questioned by station staff you speak English very quickly and walk through the gates while the staff try to make sense of what you are saying. Hence the name: "foreigner smash." The end result is a journey costing only $1 or $2 when it usually costs much more. Again, I'm not proud of it, but I had no other option.
After many hours of illegally working my way north through ongoing earthquakes and subsequent train stoppages, I finally made it to meet Enson and his ominous looking black H2 Hummer. The CD in the car was "Celine Dion – My Heart Will Go On." I didn't expect that.
Enson was fuming when I met him. The $27,000 that was donated to his account had been frozen by PayPal as he had not provided proof that he was a non-profit organization.
"But I'm not an NPO! I'm just one guy and all those people wanted to give me money to help those people! I don't get it? I never tried to be a charity. I just said that I'm going to pass the money and support on!"
With his PayPal account frozen, Enson not only had no access to the donations, he also had no access to all his other money from his rosary making business. Funds that were also for the people of Tohoku.
Despite the wishes of the hundreds who tried to help, Enson would have to fund this trip with his own cash for the mean time. He was forced to return all of the donations, and had friends working on the PayPal issue, but as we were now making our way into Fukushima, it seemed folly to focus on legal matters.
Our first destination was Koriyama, Fukushima. Koriyama is the town that Enson first lived in when he came to Japan 21 years ago. A city of 340,000 that is situated around 45 miles from the radiating Fukushima power plants, Koriyama had a few buildings badly damaged by the quake but was not affected by the tsunami. Due to the ill-tempered nuclear power plant though, the town seemed largely deserted.
After arriving late and dropping off our things in a hotel, we went next door to a bar that Enson used to frequent during his tenure as an English teacher. After a couple round of sodas (despite his image, Inoue does not drink) we were joined by the owner of the bar and he and Enson took great delight at swearing at each other in English. I'm not bothered by foul language at all, but this was something special.
Enson later tells me that he taught the owner how to swear, and the owner was the one who introduced him to the world of the yakuza. The story involves Enson throwing two low-level yakuza members on a car during a street fight. With the bar owner's assistance, the situation was smoothed over, and Enson was in contact with the underworld.
Earthquakes rattled the bar every 30 minutes, and after a short blackout, sent us home. They were much stronger than in Tokyo and had grown much more frequent over the last few days.
For this first night, myself and Enson were to share a twin room. Enson disappeared into the night and left me to work as his two ferrets tore the hotel room to shreds. Fortunately for me, the dogs, snakes, monkeys and piranhas all had to either be sold or stay at home during this trip. He returned at 3:30 a.m., and we slept poorly as the earthquakes continued through the night.
Tomorrow, I will start to document the damage as we head to one of the evacuation centers closest to the damaged Fukushima power plant.