Illegal gambling remains big business in Japan
Last in a two-part series
TOKYO — Underground casinos have been another staple of Japan’s illegal gambling scene, dating back to the early postwar era when a pair of gamblers from the USA named Ted Lewin and Jason Lee introduced them to the city of Tokyo. Lewin opened up the Mandarin casino in the Nishi-Ginza area in 1952, after paying a $25,000 bribe to a Japanese politician. On the second floor of a Taiwanese restaurant, down a long corridor behind double layered walls enclosed by iron shutters the pair had set up was a Las Vegas style roulette wheel, imported by Lee from the U.S. gambling equipment manufacturer T.R King along with craps, blackjack and baccarat tables. Patrons included the diplomatic crowd, Japanese politicians and black market bosses. The police eventually shut it down, but the Mandarin subsequently opened up in another location and then another after that in the wake of a second raid. The Japanese were hooked and many underground imitations followed over the decades, as did the subsequent police raids.
Both Lewin and Lee were larger than life characters. Lewin was a former heavyweight boxer from New York who had a knack for gambling. After working on floating casinos off the coast of Los Angeles during the 1930’s, Lewin fell into trouble with the L.A. police who wanted to question him regarding a number of murders and fled to Shanghai where he learned Chinese gambling and eventually set up shop in Manila, where his Club Riviera became the go to place for politicians and celebrities.
When the Japanese invaded in 1941 Lewin joined the U.S. Army on Corrigedor and endured the Bataan Death March, as well as a stint at the infamous POW camp in Cabanatuan by teaching his captors how to play poker and blackjack. He used his winnings to buy medical supplies for fellow prisoners. Lewin also survived the so-called Death Ship Ryukyu Maru, which set sail for Omuta, Kyushu from Manila, packed with prisoners. Lewin was forced to stand alongside of hundreds of other sick POW's in a tiny hold without food or water. The ship was bombed by American planes and Lewin swam to shore, saving others in the process. Japanese put him on another packed ship for Omuta. Many died on the two-week voyage but Lewin survived.