Week in the life: Hi, I'm Akira and I'll be your human punchbag today

AKIRA HARERUYA, SITTING DUCK

SINCE THE collapse of the Japanese "bubble" economy, many Japanese businessmen have taken a beating, but none quite so literally as Akira Hareruya. A year ago, he was the owner of a small restaurant and an electrical business in Tokyo. But falling business and debts of pounds 93,000 forced him to seek alternative means of making money.

Today, Mr Hareruya, 36, spends his nights in Tokyo's seediest district, Kabukicho, as Japan's first human punchbag. For 1,000 yen (pounds 6.20), anyone who wishes can physically assault him for one minute. Depending on the weather, he makes as much as 30,000 yen (pounds 185) a night.

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ON THURSDAY evening, just before 9 o'clock, Mr Hareruya takes up his regular position next to a famous theatre in Kabukicho. A friend holds the stopwatch to time the designated minute. Another helper is on hand in case excited or over-refreshed punters get out of control. Mr Hareruya, a former professional boxer who once ranked 17th in Japan, dons his gloves and protective mask, and plays the recorded message that announces his presence: "Hit me as much as you want! Rest assured I never hit back ... Roll up, roll up."

Within half an hour the first customer arrives, a drunk who proves incapable of penetrating Mr Hareruya's parrying hands. The second man is more of a challenge - like 90 per cent of punters, he is an amateur martial artist, keen to test his skills on a live target.

"The first customer is the most important," says Mr Hareruya. "Once one person has done it, then everyone wants to have a go. Sometimes I have 15 people queuing up in line."

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DURING THE day, the human punchbag works as a freelance electrician. His current commission is a discotheque called Club T, which he is rewiring.

Business has never been Mr Hareruya's strong point, hence his disastrous accumulation of debts. "I'm too kind, that's my problem," he says. "I'm too generous. When it comes to business I'm just stupid, and in the end the debts got so bad that I couldn't support my wife and kids. The restaurant and the electrics weren't enough, so I decided to go back to my old skill, which is boxing."

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WEEKEND EVENINGS, when the money and alcohol flow most freely, are the busiest time of the week for the human punchbag - one Saturday, he took on 55 punters. "If I stayed here all night," he says, "I could get a hundred customers. But it's impossible - you get so tired." At 3am, or earlier, he retired to an all-night noodle shop to nurse his bruises. In general, his headgear and footwork protect him from injury, but in the space of a year he has been to hospital twice, once with a broken rib. "But I've only been knocked down twice, both times by martial arts experts, and no one has ever KO'd me," he says, rather proudly. "This is the legend of Akira Hareruya: he never gives up and he never dies."

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IN AN EFFORT to pay off his debts, Mr Hareruya works seven days a week. At first he kept his new line of work a secret from his family, but they saw a feature about him on television. "When my kids found out what I was doing they cried," he says. "They still cry when I speak to them." These days, he lives for most of the time with a friend,and rarely goes home. The last time he saw his wife was on their wedding anniversary, six weeks ago.

On Monday, the human punchbag receives a visit from the local police. "They ask me if I have a permit, and obviously I'm not going to get a permit for something like this," he says. "So they ask me to leave, and I pack it in for that night. The police know me and, because I co-operate, they know I'm all right. They only act when they've had a complaint."

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ON TUESDAY, the Brazilian side Palmeiras lose one-nil to Manchester United in the final of the Toyota Cup, held in Tokyo. The streets are full of football fans, some of whom patronise Mr Hareruya. "One of them was a good fighter," said Mr Hareruya. "Bam! Bam! he came in hard. But he was no match for Akira Hareruya."

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ON WEDNESDAY, it rains and Mr Hareruya stays in. He speaks on the phone to his wife who tells him, as she always does, that they have no money. "I told her, `Please be patient. I will do my best.' I told her I was OK." He talks to his children, who cry when they speak to him. "Please stop this, Dad. Take care of yourself."

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