Recently, the subject of poverty in Japan came up, so, uh, let me tell you about my friend Emi. She’s a dancer. We’ll get around to the poverty in a minute. Don’t worry, it’s not going anywhere.
“Want to come to my flamenco performance?” she cooed. We were sitting on the riverbank drinking cans of malt liquor and watching the sunset. Emi does this thing with her eyes that makes every crazy thing coming out of her mouth sound like an excellent idea.
“Do I?” I blurted out. “In Japan? I thought they were only in Florida?” I love pink birds!”
“No, you dolt, flamenco. Like the dance?”
“Oh.” I tried to hide my disappointment by downing half a can of Kirin. Watching dance is second only to baseball on Ken Seeroi’s List of Stuff I’d Rather Spend Time Doing Anything Other Than. “I’m kinda busy then,” I mumbled.
“I didn’t even tell you when it was!” she pouted.
I hate when she does that, so of course I ended up going. And really, the performance turned out great. I went to this Showa-era bar beforehand to give myself the fortitude. I knocked out an order of edamame, some lovely dried squid with mayonnaise, and several glasses of Hoppy, which is a beer-like beverage only without alcohol. When you get it, you mix it with ice and alcohol. I guess that’s kind of pointless really, because it just turns into like watery beer. Actually it tastes, well, pretty shitty, but it’s cheap so whatever.
Anyway, after all that Hoppy, flamenco was the most interesting thing ever. Lemme tell you, that dance has got everything—lots of stomping, guys in funny pants, women with umbrellas, and a dude on guitar. Emi wore this flowing black and red dress that looked amazing, and a little tiny hat pinned to her head.
Poverty in Japan
Dance is what Emi lives for, and she spends what little money she makes on evening classes after finishing work at the nursing home. In real life, Emi’s a healthcare worker. She went to trade school for it, after six months studying abroad in England. I know she speaks English, although she’s kind enough to speak only Japanese whenever I see her. Which is rarely, because all day, six days a week, Emi lifts elderly Japanese folks from their beds, assists them with the toilet, guides them down the hall, lowers them into the bathtub, and helps lift them out. Her back hurts all the time, and she fears she’ll eventually have to find another line of work. Job prospects for middle-aged women are not good.
There are millions of Japanese men and women like Emi, working low-wage jobs with no hope of promotion and a grim future. Call them what you like—blue-collar, middle-class, working poor, any flavor of sugar coating will do, but Japanese society is borne on the backs of such workers. In fact, it’s why people rave about their vacations here. Such prompt service! Such polite people! See, told you we’d get back to poverty in Japan.
What’s unique about Emi is the bargain she’s made. To afford dance classes, she lives without electricity or gas. Every day it’s a cold shower, washing clothes by hand in the sink, and using a flashlight when she needs to see something after dark. If you saw her strolling through Shibuya in heels and a skirt, you’d never know this is a woman who has no heat, no a/c, no TV, no refrigerator, and cooks in the dark over a gas camping stove. I’m not too worried about her reading this, since she has no internet.
The Japanese Working Poor
It’s easy to read reports and statistics about poverty in Japan and miss the obvious. Which is to say that every single person who’s ever visited has seen it. What’s weird is how easily it’s explained away. The grandmother scrubbing urinals in the public restroom, the old guy sweeping up leaves and carrying away boxes of dead puppies left in front of the civic center—-why, they’re just cheery, hard-working senior citizens! The restaurant cooks standing ten hours a day in rubber boots to chip ice for my Hoppy and to grill dried squid to perfection, well they all work out of pride, honor, and dedication, not because they need money like normal human beings. They’re not like everybody else, you know, those Japanese. They’ve got samurai culture.
Of course, if you saw it in your own country, you’d recognize it for what it was—people working their asses off, even well into old age, not out of some perverse industriousness, but simply because they’ve gotta eat. Ah, who wants to peek behind the Wizard’s curtain anyway? Japan makes for a great vacation, that’s all that matters. Thank God there’s a nation of folks acting all enthused about serving tourists. Because really, who doesn’t like waiting on foreigners? Japanese people could not be more thrilled.
The Wonders of Japan
When I first moved from the U.S., it all seemed fantastically romantic. Old wooden houses without insulation? That’s “traditional culture.” A family of four in an apartment the size of an American kitchen? Efficient use of space. People raising their own vegetables? Health consciousness. Sleeping on futons, eating on the floor from a table 14-inches high? Exotic. Riding rusty bicycles through the rain, and driving tiny, cheap cars? Hell, that’s just cute. What a great nation, all for my amusement.
No adult’s going to explain it to a foreigner, so that got left to the children.
Back in the Japanese School
“What’s your dream? Write it down.” This was Ken Sensei conducting what’s known as an English lesson. Forty boys and girls sitting in a freezing elementary school classroom staring blankly back at me. So I explained it in Japanese and everybody seemed relieved.
“Write anything you like,” I continued, handing out pencils and paper. “Maybe you want to be an astronaut, a doctor, or a fire fighter. You could even be an English teacher!”
Hey, just trying to be motivating. The responses I got back were equally amusing.
“My dream is to sleep in a bed,” wrote one girl.
“Soccer cleats,” wrote a little boy.
“I want to eat until I’m full,” said another a little guy. He was blue with cold. Hilarious.
Statistics on Japan
It’s hard to say how many Japanese people are technically “impoverished,” but there’s certainly no shortage of people living hand to mouth. Who chooses to reside in a massive government housing block or get up early every morning to prepare a lunch box? Plenty of Japanese folks, apparently. Where you draw the line between poverty and middle-class I don’t know, but single mothers and families living with everything they own crowded floor to ceiling in one room, recycling the bath water for laundry, waiting on a paycheck to buy groceries, and huddling around kerosene heaters for warmth is pretty far from anybody’s idea of wealth. From the big cities to the small villages, Hokkaido to Okinawa, Japan’s got its share of people taking payday loans. Not everybody’s fishing because it’s a fun hobby.
The wonder of Japan isn’t that there’s no poverty; but that it’s hidden so well. At night, armies of men pull out cardboard boxes and lay down to sleep on the sidewalks. Day laborers crowd into rooming houses, and whole tent cities spring up in parks, then disappear with the dawn. The hungry line up outside of soup kitchens. If you weren’t looking, you might mistake them for customers queuing for the latest ramen shop.
Maybe all poverty is hard to see when you visit a country, like stepping into a dark room until your eyes adjust. But gradually it comes into focus—-children living with their parents well into adulthood. Women desperate to get married. Grandparents escorted out of stores for shoplifting. A population of gamblers lost in mazes of pachinko parlors. The massive organized crime networks. Loan sharks. Hostess clubs, strip shows, snack bars, girls bars, and prostitution absolutely everywhere. Welcome to the world’s oldest wealth-distribution system. At least trickle-down Abenomics is working somewhere. You know, everyone enjoys a little economic stimulus.
Helping the Poor in Japan
So I was out walking a few months ago, and ran into this couple in their 70’s. This was during one of my periodic bouts of health, when I was trying to see how long I could delay the inevitable watching of Netflix and consumption of booze and potato chips. They were standing in the dirt lot that passes for a park in our neighborhood, staring at a tree losing its leaves. I was like, Sure is windy, huh? And they were like, Sure is. After that we got to talking for a bit until they said, Hey, why don’t you come over to our place? And I was all, Okay. So I did.
Their house seemed kind of a dark, spooky place, but by then it was nighttime, so perhaps that’s normal, I don’t know. They also had had a hole in a corner of their roof, but they didn’t seem too fussed about it, so I thought maybe that was normal too. I sat on their couch and they showed me an album full of pictures of their dead dog and served me glasses of shochu with water, along with potato chips and processed cheese spread. Oh, and squid intestines. Well, so much for the health program.
Now I drop by to see them every few weeks. Once in a while, I’ll take a carton of shochu or some pickled vegetables. The old woman gathers bags of aluminum cans from the trash. She’ll dangerously balance them high on the back of her bike and pedal unsteadily to the recycle center where they give her a handful of change. Every bit helps, I guess.
So these days, instead of taking my empty cans of malt liquor and chu-hi out on trash day, where some octogenarian might get them first, I take them directly to their house. You should see the old woman’s face light up when I arrive with a massive plastic bag gleaming with the radiance of a hundred pristine cans—-she beams like Santa himself just descended from heaven on a reindeer-powered sleigh. Well, Merry Christmas, old Japanese lady. I can’t guarantee God loves you, only that Ken Seeroi does.