A Man With No Talents

Talk About Bleak

Oskar here, again, to share another InterLibrary Loan gem -- A Man with No Talents: Memoirs of a Tokyo Day Laborer. Maybe "gem" is a little strong because this book gave me some trouble with its extremely introverted and destitute characters, most of whom lead a zombie-like, meandering existence. So how about "find" or, better yet, "warning"?

Japan's always fascinated me with some of its 180-degree-from-the-Western-world approach to life. "The nail that sticks up gets hammered down" there, whereas individualism and non-conformity seem to be assets here. Slurping is not considered bad table manners. And, speaking of food, I recall dining at a tempura restaurant in Kyoto whose chef insisted that I eat the salad last. Even dialing 911 is backward. When reporting an emergency in Japan, someone needs to call 1-1-9.

The protagonist in this work doesn't work. He (Oyama Shiro, a pseudonym) is a college graduate who embarked on the typical path of a salaryman. After a few years, though, of what Oyama deemed a boring existence with long hours at the office, he dropped out of society and into San'ya, an area of Tokyo known for its day-labor and odd job opportunities. As he puts it, "[I am] a man with no talents who is incapable of relating to women or coping with work." So is everybody else we meet in this glum account. There's a guy who wears a mask all of the time for no given reason. And another who wants to commit suicide and leave no trace with his family of having lived except that he's afraid of ghosts and does not want his ghost to bother his family.

Written in 2000, the book chronicles Japan's fall from grace during the 1990s as it relates to the itinerant sect. Japan's status as darling of the world in the 1980s (when the Nikkei was close to 40,000 and movies like Black Rain and Rising Sun extolled the country) plunged rapidly due to a housing bubble and a deliberate pegging of its lending interest rate to zero. (Hmmm, sound familiar? There exists no reason or supporting data for our own Dow to be any higher than 6,000. And, I might add, Japan's rate has hovered at or near zero for over ten years.) The result gave rise to a subculture of peripatetic mendicants.

Oyama tells us about the end of Japan's greatness, a time in which there existed a plethora of temporary day jobs for the unemployed and a small number of applicants. From there, we hear this situation quickly devolved into one with a dearth of jobs and too many seekers. It used to be that someone could get a job by waking up at 7 in the morning and strolling to the placement centers while leisurely examining the multitudinous offerings. A few years later, job hunters had to get in line at 2 in the morning -- and then at 6 the night prior -- to stand in line, only to push and shove one another before scaling the shuttered walls and fences of the job centers. This sad, dismal rendering goes nowhere but down a deeply depressing and precipitous spiral.

The author's postscript indicates that Oyama plunged even further into voluntary destitution just three years after winning the Kaiko Takeshi Literary Prize. (On a lark, Oyama submitted this book to the committee and was shocked that he won.) Despite the modest windfall he garnered, Oyama dropped out of society and became homeless. He was and remains an anonymous figure who has not opted to reveal his true identity.

Written by Oskar on October 20, 2011


Lisa F. on October 21, 2011


Wow, Oskar. Sounds like some Wellbutrin is in order for this fellow. Nice review!

Canada on October 31, 2012


Actually Oskar, you got a few things wrong, in your account. Namely, Shiro does work. Probably longer and harder than you or I could ever endure. He is highly intelligent and knows he does not fit the 'norm'. He is deeply grateful that Japan allows a quarter for the marginalized where he can quietly live out his lonely (I believe autistic) life, with independence and dignity of a sort. He deeply feared being dependent on his family, or being institutionalized by the state. He fears people and social control.

He is profoundly insightful and well informed. I found his descriptions of his peers to be sensitive and respectful, although he (the nature of his illness) shuns intimacy.

He would not say he 'plunged' more deeply into destitution. Rather, he chose to leave his modest accommodation to wander freely. He was very happy to not have to work any longer - not because he eschewed work, but suffered from having to relate to other people in this arrangement. He was extremely grateful to have money in the bank in that he was freed from anxiety that had tortured him all his life.

With his prize money, he budgeted very carefully (compulsively?) to be able to support himself without the insecurity of scrambling for day labour, until he would be eligible for government pension.

There is a lovely dignity and serenity to this man that we all could learn from. Here is a man who has accepted his illness, is managing it responsibly, and is living his life asking for nothing and hurting no one.

I am very happy that he is now unencumbered and finally free.

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