Keeping your money alive and kicking

by Kaori Shoji

Because I come from a family whose men are confirmed gamblers, I grew up thinking that a chronic shortage of o-kane (money) was the normal state in any household. The grownups didn’t even call it o-kane but o-ashi (honorable legs), which accounted for the attack of wanderlust money seemed to get when residing under our roof — its feet would itch, it’d hem and haw and fidget around. The next minute it would be gone, sprinting off in the direction of the nearest pachinko parlor without so much as a backward glance. In my own case, the o-ashi seemed to wear Rollerblades, exiting from my wallet with the enthusiasm of a 10-year-old turned loose in Yoyogi Park.

So you can be sure that money was a big topic, discussed heatedly and at length, leaving the children to glean its secrets and mysterious subtexts. For example, cash was never just cash, but divided into three categories: ikigane (living cash), shinigane (dead cash) and sutegane (disposable cash). The third, meaning the kind of cash one took to the race track, changed into tickets and tore up in a fury a while later, was the common specimen in my house.

Dead cash pointed to either a stash hidden away in an underwear drawer where it sat without collecting interest or doing anything else worthwhile, or it could be a sweater bought on impulse, never worn and left to rot at the bottom of an underwear drawer.

“Don’t kill your money like that,” my grandmother would chide. “Make it live, make it grow, show me some ikigane!”

A much tried woman who never sat down unless it was to still a crying baby (and that not for long), her maxim in life was drummed into us from an early age: “Kane ga nai no wa kubi ga nai no to onaji (Being moneyless is the same as being headless).”

She also taught us that money was the defining factor in any earthly relationship and said that out in the real world, “Kane no kireme wa en no kireme (If the money stops, so does the relationship),” which rather blatantly contradicted her own married and maternal state.

When her husband came home after a rare winning day at the track, she would watch in silence as he handed out candy and presents, then mutter “Abukuzeni (foam money, or money that disappeared like foam).” Or lash out with “Akusen mi ni tsukazu (Ill-gotten money never sticks to you)” and scuttle off to the kitchen to wash some rice.

My cousin never listened to her virtuous nuggets of wisdom. Having spent the whole childhood observing at close quarters how gambling just doesn’t pay, he decided that the only way to wealth, or zeni no hana o sakaseru (coaxing the money flower to bloom), as everyone said around here, was to go for an ikkaku senkin (a thousand coins at one catch) — the Japanese version of a get-rich-quick scheme. He invested most of his earnings, starting from his first job at 15, in one scheme after another, turning his life into a giant wastebucket of sutegane.

But he was a man with a dream, the dream of becoming a shonarikin (small-scale nouveau riche), the type of rich guy Japan has in abundance. He wanted to own two cars (a Mercedes and a BMW), with two cell phones jutting from either pocket of a Trussardi jacket. He wanted to stride into a Ginza bar in Gucci loafers and have the hostesses come running up with delighted shrieks of “Look who’s here girls, the shacho (company president)!” Clearly, however, he comes from the wrong gene pool and to this day drives a Corolla.

On the other hand, the girls in the family learned to work for a living and keep quiet about their earnings. One of my sisters kept a hesokuri (nest egg) — which literally means money hidden inside the navel — for many long years without revealing its whereabouts. Not even my grandfather could get to it, though his nose would shame a bloodhound when it came to tracking down hoarded cash. By the time she left home, she had saved enough for a down payment on her own condo, causing my grandmother to weep with joy. (“That’s what I call ikigane!”)

Most impressed, I asked her what her secret was. She quoted the words of the great money-making god, Kyu Eikan: “O-kane wa sabishigariya (Money has a lonely heart). Just make sure it has friends to hang around with, then it’ll feel secure and invite more friends.”

I’m telling you, the learning never stops.