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Toshie Kobayashi

by Judit Kawaguchi

Toshie Kobayashi, 76, has been working six days a week, since she was 14 years old. As a highly skilled typesetter, she made a good living until the 1980s, when digital systems replaced her and analog typesetting machines. At 54, she registered with a cleaning service, and ever since then she has been mopping and sweeping and emptying garbage at department stores, publishers, insurance companies and so on. Currently, she works at a luxury high-rise in Tokyo. In her free time, she is an enthusiastic gourmet, and on most afternoons she can be found roaming department-store food sections, searching for tasty new treats.

There was a time when it was a shame to be single. I always told people that I stayed single because I had to take care of my parents, but that’s not true. I just didn’t want to be a housewife who cooks and stays at home.

Suicide kills more than one person. I still miss (the late Hong Kong singer/actor) Leslie Cheung. I saw him in concert twice and I waited for him outside Tokyo International Forum after a show. It was during the winter so it was very cold and he took a long time. My feet were frozen by the time his car finally appeared. I waved and he waved back and smiled at me.

Your horizons broaden when you have skills. I was very fast at typesetting and was often headhunted by other printers. I changed companies six or seven times in my 39 years as a typesetter. I also moonlighted, doing difficult jobs such as making phonebooks. I was getting good money and life was swell.

The body is faster than the brain. When I stood in front of the metal types, my hand reached out for the characters even before my mind registered which kanji I had to grab. I was like a machine, with my mind racing to catch up with my limbs.

So much can be conveyed in a letter. There was a man that I used to work with, side by side, for over 10 years. I was in my 20s and he was in his 40s. He was perfect. What I didn’t have, he had — but he also had a wife so we couldn’t be together. This is the first time I’ve told anyone about this. Every day he would arrange some letters in one of the boxes we would put the text in and he would put it on the floor. I would pick it up and read them. “How are you? I read a nice poem. Here it is.” I would answer by filling the box with my letters. “I like the poem. Thank you.” We barely spoke. Once we did go to see “On the Waterfront,” starring Marlon Brando, but we never touched each other. He bought me books and I gave him rice cakes. When he died, his son invited me to his wake, and his wife asked me to attend his funeral.

Sometimes it’s good that the bus doesn’t come on time. Now it is always punctual so it is hard to meet new people. A long time ago we had many bus strikes so people were often kept waiting for the bus. When it didn’t come, we would say, “OK, let’s go get something to eat.” I met many people that way.

One day after work, I met two women at the bus stop who also clean in nearby buildings. Since then, on most days we eat lunch together. We talk about work. Talking cleanses our minds.

I don’t like Sundays because that’s my day off. For the elderly like me, work is our only activity. I must move my body. Otherwise, it gets stiff and painful.

All the good men are on the screen or dead or both. Robert Taylor, Keiji Sada, Gary Cooper, those were gentlemen worth swooning for. I can separate reality from dreams but why should I? Life is more fun when one is dreaming. I never stop.

I don’t have many wrinkles because I have the mind of a child.

I’ve had a great life as a working woman. I never felt discriminated against or harassed. I worked with men and when they teased me, I took it as a joke and I also made fun of them. I guess it all depends on how you look at things.

Victims of certain crimes are also to be blamed. I know I’ve been cheated, but I find it so difficult to get out of scams. Salespeople are so charming and insistent. They say that I only have to pay 1,000 yen for a face massage, but I know it is not true. Still, sometimes they grab my arm and take me into the shop. It’s hard to resist them . . .I also got roped into buying a health drink for 6,800 yen for four bottles, two boxes a month.

Whether there’s a building boom or not, the economy must be getting worse. Three years ago I got 1,000 yen an hour, but now I get 950 yen. I used to work for 4 hours, but from this April my company asked me to finish the same amount of work in 3 hours and 15 minutes so they can save money.

Challenges keep me young. I clean everything in the lobby, from the toilets to the marble floors, and then I collect all the garbage from every floor, from the 19th to the 2nd. Then I clean the back entrance and sweep the leaves. And then I have to separate all the plastic from the paper garbage. It was hard to do it all in 4 hours, but I have already come up with new ways to work more efficiently so I can do as good a job but faster: in 3 hours and 15 minutes. It’s not hard.

I work so I can eat well. I never buy cooked food in supermarkets, only in department stores. I love the small portions, which are perfect for single people like me. I can buy delicacies from famous restaurants from all over Japan and from foreign countries. I might spend 2,000 yen on sweets and 2,000 yen on other things. Takashimaya and Matsuya Ginza are nice.

Life is great. I am independent, healthy and working. I have friends and a cozy apartment where I can watch old movies on cable. I am so happy. I hope I can live much longer.