The day was hot up in Harlem, the kind of heat which, mixed with the social erosion and neglect there, makes you feel drab and beaten, on the edge of nowhere. Rocky had worked the whole night before, jumping in and out of cars, parking them, inhaling gas fumes until his stomach began to travel toward his head. On this afternoon in 1960 he was tired, so he parked his Mr. Softee truck, the one in which he hustled ice cream during the day, in the shade. A police car suddenly pulled up, and out came a cop with his ticket pad. "Double parking, eh!" the cop yelled to Rocky, the little Japanese who had become a familiar figure on the streets of Harlem because of his burr haircut and cauliflower ears. "I no double park," said Rocky, his eyes flashing. The ticket was handed to him, and Rocky tore it into small pieces.
Angered, the cop reached up and pulled Rocky out of the truck. Soon there were hundreds watching Rocky, the cop and finally his partner rolling in the street. They eventually put the cuffs on Rocky behind his back, and there before the crowd and the shocked eyes of the patrolmen the little man contorted his body in such a way that his cuffed hands were now in front of him. After a night in jail he was taken before a judge on a charge of resisting arrest but the case was dismissed.
Move ahead 14 years to the elegant El Morocco Club in Manhattan. The tiny Japanese sits across the backgammon table from champion player Oswald Jacoby. Rocky Aoki is wearing a close-fitting designer suit, and a shaggy haircut covers any traces of his misshapen ears. A $12,000 star-sapphire ring beams like a small light from his right hand as he fingers his wispy mustache before shaking the cup for the final time. He seems out of place, the game being firmly rooted in old and sophisticated money, in a Palm Beach ambience and corroborating what Hemingway wrote: "The rich people were dull and they drank too much, or they played too much backgammon." The dice dance out, and Aoki wins the $10,000 Seagram's Cup.
In his customary way, his political foot not far from his mouth, General Douglas MacArthur once described the Japanese as having the mentality of 12-year-olds. Until then the general's benevolent rule of post-war Japan had been in high favor, so much so that his every deed, every appearance, was invested with celestial significance; the general's comment dropped him several notches from divinity. Ever since, according to Writer-Diplomat Ichiro Kawasaki, the Japanese have been badly put upon, even outdoing the Americans in being criticized around the world. The list of complaints is long: they are the biggest bores on the planet; they are forever grappling with an inferiority complex that nearly eats them up; they are physically unattractive; they can't stand to be far from Japan; and those who emigrate to America hoping to find their fortune seldom do.
March 1, 1976
High up in an office on New York's East Side, these thoughts pass vagrantly through the mind, and then are dismissed as one of those collective portraits of a people that are often unfair. An argument against the stereotype, Mr. Softee from Harlem, the David who slew the great Jacoby, sits on a leather couch, surrounded by tons of expensive Oriental art objects, by edifices of strange flora, by all the things stumbled upon or pursued because of the whim of a moment—and by a beat-up bass fiddle won from a music-shop owner over a backgammon table. This office—surely unique in high and free enterprise—on any day witnesses schemes and pitches and dreams fit for the Ripley portfolio, all the schemers and seekers seemingly trying to prove that indeed the twain shall meet. The West goes East here with a fever that not even the sometimes ice-water passivity of Rocky Aoki can cool.
Success attracts people in New York like monkeys to a banana tree, and Aoki, sleepy-eyed and as perpetually quick of mind as he is of body, sits like a true capitalist astride his empire, the $25 million Benihana restaurant chain. If he is a bore, nobody is saying so. If he is as unattractive as a gargoyle, nobody would whisper as much. And if he has problems with his id, why isn't that charming—a man that successful feeling so inferior? Rocky Aoki is the latest and one of the most indefatigable in a growing line of men who, having achieved distinction and money in business, turn to sports and games to satiate an obsessive urge to compete, to be somebody, thus supporting the long-held suspicion: making money is dull.
Aoki is the newest face on the offshore powerboat circuit, the ultimate sport for the new rich, a haven for the flush competitor. There is South American coffee money here, wealth from real estate, medicine, electrical fixtures, all of it adding up to an atmosphere colored by rum-on-the-island laissez-faire, by men in blue blazers and no socks; the people play hard here. Looking at the red eyes in the morning sunshine, one might believe it to be the most frivolous of pursuits, except that people get killed and battered. The entrance of the emperor of Japanese steak into this swirl of speed and high risk, his deadly intent to be a world champion in another year, has left some observers believing that MacArthur was right about the Japanese and their mental range; the thought of $25 million in traction or bobbing on a wave is not pleasant to Aoki's sober associates. "Why can't he play chess?" says one of them. "Or stick to backgammon? Nobody ever falls off a chair and breaks his neck. He doesn't belong out there."
Aoki has been in two races since he joined the circuit last summer. He was not allowed to enter the $25,000 Benihana Grand Prix—formerly the Hennessy Grand Prix—this past July, the event he sponsors at Point Pleasant, N.J. In the races that he did enter, he did extraordinarily well for a rookie. In his first start he won the Miami-to-Nassau race, setting a new speed record. After that, Aoki began to talk of competing on the world circuit, entering races in Argentina and Brazil, but the political situations in those countries caused him to change his mind. He was wary of being kidnapped; money, you see, does have its burdens.
Staying on the American circuit, Aoki and his 35-foot Cigarette ran into 10-foot waves—and his own inexperience—in the Key West race. The pounding by the seas left him with a severely bent hull and a two-hour tow back to shore. Through much of the winter his boat was in 14 pieces, while being repaired for a new and more concentrated run at the U.S. title. "I plan to race once a month," Aoki says. Perplexed employees, who know he is sound of mind, are wagering on what month Aoki, who is entered in the Marina del Rey race this weekend, will be broken into pieces. "I tell them no month," says Aoki. "I will be American champion. They may think I'm crazy, but I'm not. Racing makes me alive. Most people don't even know they alive. I was getting like that." Then, smiling: "It is also good advertising."
Aoki appears too toylike to be driving a sleek vessel over rough seas, to be holding onto the steering wheel of a berserk, violent machine. After a race his body speaks of the wear from the mismatch of boat against sea. He is unable to close his hands, he has bruises the size of pancakes and his muscles are as tight as a closed vise. "I hate speed," says Aoki. "It kill you quick. But I like feeling of gamble." He was not crazy about Japanese steak, either, and the result was a coast-to-coast chain of 27 restaurants.
So far his fear of speed has cost him close to $200,000 as well as caused him a lot of irritation as he tries to grasp the subtleties of the sport. While the engine is a large part of success in powerboat racing, the driver and navigator are not incidental. Once several astronauts, men trained in the navigation of space, were taken on a powerboat course, and were quickly lost. The boat must pass certain buoys and stationary boats called checkpoints during the running of a 150-200-mile race; Aoki has missed some. "Tricky," he says. "Very tricky, the checkpoints. Make me very mad."
Experience will correct that fault, but only hard work, he thinks, will make him a better driver. He recently went through the Bondurant race car driving school in Sonoma, Calif., hoping it would improve his reflexes, and at least three times a week he can be found at the Clinic of Sports Medicine in Manhattan. There, along with pro football players and several New York Yankees, he curls himself up in intimidating contraptions, the weird Nautilus machines that are designed to increase strength and muscle tone; he resembles a fly crawling along the steel girders of a bridge. In his office he is constantly squeezing hard rubber balls to strengthen his hands as his mind bounces back and forth like a pachinko ball over business details. "I want to bring to powerboat racing what I did to my wrestling," he says. "My wrestling days were happiest of my life. Things much simpler then,"
A note of wistfulness is evident. It is as if he would like again to be the flyweight wrestler Japan sent to the 1960 Olympics or the champion who won titles for the New York Athletic Club in 1962, '63 and '64. Wrestling was his passion until he started to lay the groundwork for his first restaurant. In 1964, by parking cars, washing dishes, peddling ice cream and borrowing, Aoki had scraped together $30,000. "I made $10,000 from the ice cream," he says. "Nobody wanted to go to Harlem to sell ice cream. I put little umbrellas on the ice cream. Nobody do that before."
He chose Benihana, which is a wild-flower in Japan, as the name for his first restaurant. The place, which seated 28 people, was located on Manhattan's West Side. Working 18 hours a day, Aoki sold his customers on the notion of putting strangers at the same table, an idea that at first glance might seem as objectionable to Americans as a communal bath. The quaint little place, with its sorcerous chefs and their culinary show, lost money the first three months. "My friends say Americans won't sit down and eat with strangers, but I think different," he says. "Americans like to be entertained." Apparently so.
Throughout the late '60s the restaurants sprang up across the country. The food was much like the proprietor himself—Americanized. Aoki may have been raised in Tokyo, but he observes few Japanese traditions. "If I try to start Benihana, or other business in Japan," he says, "I never would have gotten off the ground. In Japan no one moves to top until someone dies off. Americans, they very aggressive, they put business ahead of family ties, ahead of friendship." Severing traditional ties to the homeland, Aoki believes, is the only way a Japanese can succeed. Toward that end he has immersed himself in American culture, ranging from slang to investing heavily—and unluckily—in the Broadway theater.
Broadway also satisfied his zest for gambling. Besides competition, action was the main purpose for all the hours he spent at backgammon tables. During the height of his passion, he opened a club called Genesis with a large, opulent backgammon room. His interest was stimulated by Prince Alexis Obolensky, the Russian soldier of fortune who is a confidant of those in The Social Register and the game's Pied Piper. Aoki began playing in various tournaments. He carried a portable board wherever he went, and he played at a large table next to his desk. The results were mixed. He won the Seagram's Cup and the World Intermediate Backgammon championship. But he lost $850,000 on Club Genesis and at least $30,000 at backgammon tables last year. It was understandable that frequently he would receive calls at his office, the voice saying, "Rocky, do you want to come out and play a few games?"
Since then his interest in backgammon has tailed off. "Too much luck," he says. "Only 10% skill." He has returned to promoting, to making things happen. He had not staged an event since the Ali-Mac Foster fight in Tokyo in 1972. He is drawing up plans now for a "Dream Mile," which would bring together the top milers after the Olympics. Promoting is his forte, and it is well to remember it. Don King did not. Aoki wanted to put kick boxers on the card of the Ali-Frazier light in Manila. King wanted Aoki to back it. "If I do that," Aoki said, somewhat astounded, "why I need you, then? I'm a promoter." For once King was silent.
Aoki is a hard sell in business, and his eyes, his voice, are always on top of his holdings. He sleeps only four or five hours a night, and he spends little time at his New Jersey estate, where the garages are filled with vintage Rolls-Royces and other touring cars. The estate reminds one of a Japanese watercolor, with its rock gardens and feathery trees. "I can't rest even there," he says.
"He's always been in competition with himself," says his mother, whom he brought to this country. "When he was in high school, he refused to participate in a relay race because he didn't want to share the glory."
Aoki laughs, but the truth is not lost on him. "Basically, I'm a lonely and unhappy person," he says. "I want to do so many things in life. Man never uses much of brain power. I want to compete until I lose my life." A public-relations man sitting next to him winces. But Rocky does not miss a beat, and continues: "They find man in some country, 127 years old. So little we know about mysteries of world. To me, life is a 100-yard dash with wall at end of it. You can't go through wall. Sports like boat racing give me happiness during race."
He gets up from the couch and goes to his desk, which is covered with papers. He says, waving a photograph, "I have new idea. Go to top of Mount Fuji and jump off on a hang glider with a Benihana flower on it. What you think?"
Was MacArthur right or wrong? Or, so much for the excitement of making a fortune.