Friday, 26 October 2012

a man with no talents

 A Man With No Talents/San'ya gakeppuchi nikki, Oyama Shiro's highly engaging memoir from 2000 covers the period of him moving from Kamagasaki, one of the largest quarters in Japan for day labourers in Osaka, to San'ya in 1987, which was then Tokyo's equivalent quarter, the memoir covers his experiences during the period before and after the bubble economy burst, and throughout  what  Oyama refers to as the Heisei recession. He initially begins in describing how he came to be a day laborer, finding himself unable to face the life of a salaryman, he begins to describe his life of disassociation from what many see as the conventional life, steady job, wife, children, the presence of this disassociation is an aspect that is never to distant in him relating his experiences. Oyama appears as an outsider not only in his perspectives of mainstream society but also in his observations and relationship to San'ya, although in San'ya Oyama reflects - 'One's true self is that which exists in the gaze of other people. Here in San'ya, I have continually practiced the technique of bringing my inmost self closer to the self that others have come to expect; for someone like me who must live out his days in San'ya, there is nothing more to do in life than refine this technique'. He tells us of the close living conditions in his doya, (bunkhouse), at first he lived in a cramped communal room, eight to a room, with one tatami mat for each worker, but was unable to tolerate the lack of privacy, he managed to move into a room where the bunks were divided with curtains, Oyama describes using additional cardboard to strengthen the flimsy partitioning. He describes the smell of the men, those who have come off the streets, and also the sounds of the men, which becomes a part of the portrait of the psychology of men living in close quarters, the slow testing of each other.

The main source of work for the day laborers was through the San'ya Welfare Center, where men would queue up in the early hours, (2-3 am), in anticipation of it opening, Oyama describes these episodes which sometimes could turn violent, Oyama reflects on the before and after of the bursting of the economic bubble, and it's impact on the day laborers. The nature and at times complex relationship between the laborers is described, an episode where he encounters a couple of Korean workers who tell him that they feel sorry for him, Oyama gives portraits of the transient workers and of those that remained for a longer length of time, Tsukamoto, a man that similar to Oyama led a life that was completely cut off from his previous life is determined that he'd wander off and end up in Aokigahara, Oyama points out how this route he has taken has severed himself from the past, noting I think in the added post script that the last time he had seen any of his family was three decades previous, (he mentions the last time he  saw his niece). Although at times his opinions of his fellow workers dips into the caustic, it's also imbued with a wry sense of humour, (in his relationship with Saito for instance), and also a sense of incredulousness at their desire to still partake in ideals that Oyama is trying to distance himself from.

In one of the chapters Oyama charts his taking up walks along the Sumida River and across it's various bridges, and describes the emergence of the blue tarp covered shelters, and in particular a Murota who built a hut on the bank of the Arakawa Canal, this mixing of descriptions of his life in the doya and those homeless living on the streets occupies the latter part of the book, the dangers facing the homeless, of being robbed from the mogaki, who prey on drunken workers after they've been paid, and in one episode of a gang of 12-13 year olds throwing rocks at him. In his post script he describes his thoughts and feelings at actually finding that he had won the Kaiko Takeshi Prize with the manuscript of the book, the award also came with a cash prize which he intended to make last as long as possible, he ponders on how his family in all probability remain unaware that he won a literary prize, and also of his intention of moving out of the doya and living on the streets of Shinjuku, the reader can't help on pondering Oyama's fate or current situation. The memoir was translated by Edward Fowler who has also written on his experiences of living in San'ya in San'ya Blues, Laboring Life in Contemporary Tokyo.

A Man With No Talents at Cornell University Press


No comments: