Bodhisattva of the river road

A tale of uncertain times

by Hillel Wright

“Have another drink, Boss!”

Yes, Saburo Yamada was the boss, the company president — and yes, he would have another drink. And why not? Business was good. His small but productive company made ships’ propellers and marine metalwork and had contracts with Mitsubishi, one of the world’s great conglomerates. Mitsubishi Shipbuilding here in Shimonoseki, the so-called Gateway to Japan on the southwestern tip of the main island of Honshu, was booming. Japanese tankers and freighters roamed the world. Japanese fishing boats and research vessels worked tirelessly to satisfy the appetite of the world’s No. 1 consumer of fish.

Today Yamada and his employees were celebrating the delivery of twin propellers for the University of Tokyo’s research vessel, Hakuho Maru. It had been a big job and a stressful one, especially creating a mechanism allowing the propellers to feather — to vary pitch — both in forward and reverse gears. But Yamada, who was a born mechanical engineer — at least that’s what his workers said — had personally supervised the final operations and trials.

Reiko, owner of the cozy little bar near the waterfront where Yamada and his crew were regulars, enjoyed serving the Boss his drinks. He enjoyed drinking, especially when she poured, bending over his sake cup just enough to expose a glimpse of her ample cleavage — keeping her flirtatious curves in his direct line of sight while lighting his cigarette. And the more Yamada drank, the more his workers did too. It was, after all, not polite to lag behind the Boss in his celebrations.

Of course flirtation was as far as things ever got between Reiko and Yamada. After all, she had many other valuable customers to keep happy and satisfied, or to console and sympathize with when things were not so good. There were the skippers of the big offshore trawlers and long-liners, the accountants and buyers from the fishing companies whose chaotic offices loomed over the bustling loading docks of the harbor. There were the foremen and section chiefs from the Mitsubishi shipyard — the executives had their own favorite bar in downtown Shimonoseki — and the managers, brokers and wholesalers from the cavernous Karuto fish market.

Besides, Yamada had a wife of his own in a nice two-story house with a garden full of fruiting and flowering trees overlooked by a wide and south-facing balcony, almost in the countryside on the outskirts of the city where the famed Yamaguchi Prefecture rice paddies began. And Reiko had her boyfriend and patron, the yakuza boss Miyamoto, who’d bought the bar for her and stopped in four or five times a month, unpredictably, but always in the early hours just before she was getting ready to close. The Boss knew he was too drunk to drive home. He was tempted — he liked doing things for himself — but lately the TV news had been full of stories of drunken drivers causing horrific accidents. The blood and bent metal and bouquets of flowers at the accident sites stayed with him long after the TV was turned off and often haunted his dreams.

Not only that, but Yamada was a Buddhist, at least as he invariably made a pilgrimage to the temples of the Shichifukujin, the Seven Lucky Gods, in the first week of every year, and visited his grandparents’ graves during Bon, the Festival of the Dead. Then, in the heat of summer, he’d go bearing flowers — red, white, purple and yellow chrysanthemums, which would stay fresh for many days — and their favorite food and drink: Ritz crackers from America for grandma, Kubota sake from Niigata Prefecture for his father’s father. Most of all, as a Buddhist, Yamada believed he should never kill or even strike another human being in anger.

So Reiko called a taxi, bundled him in and stood at curbside waving until it rounded the first corner and disappeared into the predawn darkness.

If she felt any real affection for Yamada she might have been a bit concerned — he seemed to be drinking more than ever these days, maybe because business seemed to be good. But the more that he — and consequently his workers — drank, the better business was for Reiko too.

But all is sometimes not as it seems — and, as they say, “Nothing lasts.” Far out at sea in the western Pacific, the ocean temperature slowly, steadily began to rise. Whatever the complex of causes, researchers tracked a host of consequences. At the bottom of the food chain, simple plankton life-forms began to die off in great numbers. Newly hatched larvae of small oceanic fish such as anchovies and sardines, which depended on these tiny life-forms for food, likewise died, of starvation. Next, the larger predators — the marlins, the swordfish, and especially the tuna — found their food supply greatly diminished, and those that didn’t starve on the way crossed the ocean, to the east and south, where food could still be found.

At Shimonoseki, Choshi, Kushimoto and Oma-machi, at fishing ports all across Japan, landings began to drop. First the sardines, then the mackerel and saury, after that the tuna. Scientists at the University of Tokyo’s Ocean Research Institute begged the government to act. Bureaucrats reduced the Total Allowable Catch. Leaders of fishing cooperatives taught their members how to apply for unemployment payments. Drinkers at the waterfront bars ordered beer instead of sake or whiskey. Or they stopped going there entirely and bought cheap jars of sake from the vending machines and lit their own cigarettes with cheap disposable lighters.

Soon, business at the big shipyards went slack. Orders for new boats dried up. The work shifted from construction to repairs. But as time went by, fewer fishermen could afford the costly repair work done at the yards, and many struggled to do their own. Others could not afford to go fishing at all, tied their boats up at the quay and looked for part-time work that was all but impossible to find.

And as orders for marine equipment dropped, and after Mitsubishi cancelled his company’s contracts, Yamada turned up at Reiko’s place alone — he had laid off more than half his workers. In fact, he spent more and more time there, as there was little to do at his office or around the workshop.

Going home was not an option. Yamada’s wife had firmly established her own routine, now that their son was in university and their daughter had recently married and was expecting a child of her own. She had her flower-arranging class, her lunchtime gatherings with her closest friends, her shopping excursions to Fukuoka, sometimes even to Osaka or Tokyo. Her spending money didn’t diminish — not yet. Yamada was too fearful of his wife’s temper to cut her off. Indeed, although he couldn’t believe she was unaware of the growing financial crisis around them, he continued to act like “business as usual” during the few hours he spent each day at home — mostly just beer, bath and bed — and continued to turn over to his wife the generous amount of money she’d been accustomed to receive.

So Yamada spent many hours sitting alone on a stool in Reiko’s bar, pursing his lips, telling himself — and sometimes her — that one day soon this “downturn” would be over, business would bounce back, the fishermen would go out to sea again and orders for his company’s propellers would return.

But as much as Yamada longed for the economy, and with it his business, to recover, in reality the crisis only widened and deepened. Every day, thousands of lost jobs added up to thousands less customers and the unemployment rate spiraled up. “Okubo, what are you doing?” Yamada exclaimed in surprise as he headed down the empty street parallel to the docks on his way to Reiko’s bar after a long, lonely day in his office. He had tried to keep himself busy by emptying all his file cabinets, removing any papers he deemed expendable, returning the “important” documents and burning the rest in a brazier made from a big old oil drum on the workshop floor that his workers used to gather around for warmth during their lunch or coffee breaks on winter mornings. Okubo was one of those workers . . . former workers.

“Building my room, Boss,” was Okubo’s reply through clenched teeth as he unfolded a tatty old cardboard packing case for some household appliance and spread it out under the eaves of an abandoned machine shop. Yamada knew it, of course. It belonged to his friend Shimoyanagi. It was a small factory that specialized in chrome-plating fittings for yachts. It was one of the first businesses along this familiar waterfront road to go under.

“But Okubo-san . . . ” Yamada began to say, but could not think how to continue, as Okubo rolled a greasy, oil-stained overcoat into a makeshift pillow and spread a threadbare blanket over his cardboard mattress. Finally, Yamada proposed buying Okubo a drink.

Okubo rose up from the floor of his “room” and stepped a couple of paces to within inches of Yamada’s face, where a sour, powerful stench assaulted his nostrils. “Do you think I’d bring Reiko a gift of this perfume, Boss? That’s my bar over there,” he said, pointing to a bank of brightly-lit vending machines glowing incongruously in the gloom of the darkening, deserted street. “Can you spare me a couple of hundred yen for a jar of sake, Boss?” As the months passed and the economy worsened, Yamada found it harder and harder to keep his wife in the dark as to the desperate reality of his company’s situation. Finally, while still supporting her in her customary high style, he fell behind on the rent for his company’s workshop and office. The bank refused him a loan. So, heart in mouth, he tried to explain to his wife that his business had gone belly up, that he’d given up his building, that they’d have to live off their dwindling savings as long as they could — and that he’d have to go to the government office in town and stand in line in the faint hope of finding part-time work. All that, and both of them would be spending more time together at home. “At least,” he offered, not realizing how alien a concept he was trying to communicate to her, “we still have a home.”

After weeks of fruitlessly lining up for jobs that didn’t exist, Yamada gave up and stayed at home, drinking. Of course he could no longer afford to spend tens of thousands of yen at Reiko’s bar, having his sake poured and his cigarettes lit. At first he drank the contents, bottle by bottle, of his well-stocked bar. It was interesting at first, as it harbored many souvenir bottles of exotic liquors and liqueurs from Seiko’s various travels — sugarcane shochu from Okinawa, mescal cactus liquor from Mexico, fragrant anise-flavored absinthe from France. But as Yamada sat smoking and drinking in his chair, Seiko seethed in anger and frustration. She punctuated the air around her with explosions of exasperated sighs.

Soon she quit making his meals, disappearing at lunchtime. Yamada made cup noodles from the convenience store down the street. He was expected to wash his drinking glass, his chopsticks, his bowl, the pot he made his soup mix in.

Seiko eventually began to realize that the state of their finances — including her own dwindling savings — was dire and not likely to improve in the foreseeable future. So instead of long, expensive lunches with her friends, she turned to long hours in front of the TV, watching gossip shows and soap operas. Yamada retreated to his small workshop behind the house and tinkered, fixing broken clocks, toasters, cassette players and other appliances he retrieved on recycling days from neighborhood junk piles.

He didn’t really mind the soap operas, but the level of tension ratcheted up uncomfortably when he and Seiko were in the same room together, and the gossip shows, with their inane worship of talentless “idols” and breathless devotion to the romantic frustrations of over-the-hill songstresses, made him very close to being physically ill. Worse yet were the ubiquitous cooking shows — especially now that his own meals were Spartan and unappetizing — with marginal celebrities from the worlds of sport or entertainment exaggeratedly gushing over fried chicken or curry rice with the never-varying cry of “Oishii!!” (“Delicious!!”) and the disgusting closeups of balding 50-something comedians masticating boiled pork and Chinese noodles.

One afternoon, when Seiko had gone shopping, Yamada was enjoying a rare moment of peace and relaxation in the living room’s reclining chair, bought in better times, watching a sumo tournament on the box. The broadcast had begun at 4 p.m. with bouts between lower-ranked wrestlers — young hopefuls on the way up, or taped-up veterans on the way down. Then it broke for a short newscast and change of ringside judges at 5, and afterward continued with bouts between classier competitors.

At 5:55 the final bout of the day was about to take place between the highest-ranking champions from the ceremonial East and West corners of the sumo ring. Yamada settled back into the easy chair as the two huge athletes faced down each other in the pre-bout series of warmups, posturings and staring matches. Finally, the referee turned his ceremonial fan toward the crouching wrestlers to indicate that the fight was ready to begin. Yamada took a long swig of beer from his bottle. The superfit hulks sprang at each other, colliding with a bone-jarring crunch. The one wearing a black mawashi loincloth grabbed the other’s blue one, only to have his grip wrenched away by a powerful hip twist that threw him dangerously off balance.

“Oishii!!’

Yamada sat stunned. Seiko stood a few feet behind him with the remote in her hand. Her fingernails were newly polished and bejeweled.

“Look at this mess!” she shouted. “Couldn’t you even wipe the table?!?”

Yamada slowly, like a man in a trance, rose from his chair and approached the kitchen table. There was a faint ring of moisture where the cold beer bottle had rested after he’d taken it out of the fridge. His first impulse was to lash out, to slap the remote out of his wife’s imperious yet ridiculously lacquered hand — and then to strike again, to slap her face, to color it with the blood-hot red of rage, rather than the pale pink of blusher that now flushed it. But he did not strike. He forced his anger back down his throat and into his body, where it vibrated wildly in the atria and ventricles of his injured and insulted heart.

Yamada was a Buddhist. He would not strike another human being in anger. Such was his firm belief. But his rage immediately turned to the instrument of his despair — the new, flat-screen, high-definition TV. With robotic inexorability, Yamada crossed the living room to the television, grabbing it with one hand and yanking its cord out of the wall. With the other hand he slid open the glass door to the balcony and, with the panache of a sumo wrestler executing a perfect uwatenage overarm throw, he dispatched the offending electronic malefactor to its death on the stone walkway bisecting the garden below. On the shinkansen bullet train to Tokyo, ticket bought with the dregs of his bank account, Yamada overheard two half- drunk office workers talking and laughing about the homeless. “So many live along the Tama River in Kawasaki,” one of them explained, “because they can get better prices for beer cans in Kawasaki than in Tokyo.”

Yamada had planned to head for Ueno Park in Tokyo, to join the community of homeless people camping there and to learn the ropes of living rough, but this overheard snippet of news piqued his curiosity and he decided to see for himself what this beer-can business was all about.

Pockmarking the riverbank he observed dozens of ao manshon — the “blue mansions” built with varying degrees of skill and refinement by the homeless, with blue plastic tarps the chief structural component. Here and there, some of the more enterprising had managed to scrounge up gray felt fabric and sheets of plywood and had built rather substantial dwellings with framed windows, clotheslines, gardens, storage sheds and, in one, even a welcome mat.

Yamada spent the remainder of the day walking along by the river, collecting and organizing flotsam that could be used for building. In the evening he made the acquaintance of a man named Maeda who was outgoing and drinking canned sake but, most importantly, was living in a well-constructed felt-covered shack.

Eventually, Yamada completed his abode, about the length of a football field upstream from Maeda. He intended to quit drinking and sooner or later re-enter society. He knew that friendship with another alcoholic was not something he could afford.

Yamada also learned how the denizens of his new community earned their living, such as it was. Early each morning, mounted on formerly castoff old bicycles, they would fan out and scour the neighborhood garbage dumps and recycling sites, picking out cans and collecting them in large burlapesque plastic sacks, which they would pile onto carrying racks above the bike’s rear fender — often extended to accommodate a bigger load — and secure with black, heavy-duty bungee cords. Around noon, they would begin returning to the riverside and, after a lunch — most could rustle up some rice or instant noodles — begin the arduous task of smashing cans to compress them and fit more into the sacks. At the end of the week they would strap the sacks of flattened cans to their bike racks, pedal to the scrap-metal dealers and get the ¥3,000 or ¥4,000 payment ($30 to $40) that would have to last them the week.

Joining this humble workforce didn’t appeal to the Boss, Yamada, but something else did. All along the riverside, sometimes in the river itself, were discarded bicycles, motor scooters and cycles, fishing gear and an astounding variety of household and office items people had thrown away there to avoid paying a recycling fee to have them disposed of. Together with all the myriad objects of wood and plastic that washed up after periodic flooding or bimonthly high tides, Yamada was presented with a veritable Aladdin’s Cave of a workshop from which he could earn a living and at the same time immerse himself in enough physical and mental activity to distract him from his need for alcohol and the agonizing ordeal of quitting drinking.

From sunup to sundown, day after day, he walked the riverbank, collecting, sorting, recovering, spending hour upon hour in front of his shelter, cleaning, fixing and rebuilding the treasures he’d found and building something of real value to his homeless neighbors, something to turn them into customers: bicycle trailers and handcarts, for it was the rare homeless man who could skillfully build a balanced load of sacks of cans on his bike rack.

Yamada — or Sasaki as he’d renamed his new, riverside self to ease the pangs of remembering the way things once were — observed many such overloaded bicycles wobbling dangerously along the city streets, some falling over or spilling their loads. Many would pay him on his self-devised installment plan to obtain a trailer they could load and pull behind a bicycle, or a handcart they could push or pull through the streets on foot. This, along with bike repairs, provided him with a small but steady income.

His life fell into a humble but satisfying routine. Nothing lasts. The global warming that raised the seawater temperature and killed the plankton that had fed the sardines that fed the tuna was also responsible for the rising strength of typhoons and hurricanes across the globe. One summer, about five years after Yamada arrived at the Tama River, a giant typhoon struck the Kanto Plain. Many blue mansions simply blew away, driving the homeless under the bridges seeking shelter. But in the face of super strong winds and horizontal fusillades of rain, they found scant protection there and an exodus across the highway and up to Shin Maruko Station began.

Those like Yamada, who lived in more substantial felt-and-plywood structures, huddled in their rooms, hoping to weather the storm. But while this kept them temporarily dry, it denied them views of the rising river, and when the dam upriver at Minami Tama burst and a wall of water surged southward toward the sea, many of these homeless were instantly overwhelmed.

The river now covered the baseball fields, the wildflower gardens, the tennis courts — the entire riverside submerged and the river continuing to swell. Yamada found himself being swept in the muddy brown surge toward the now hidden Chofu-seki dam. But there was a small island with some trees on it between his shelter and the dam and he managed to grab the whipping upper branches of a half-submerged willow and, hand-over-hand, haul himself to its trunk. There, with every ounce of strength in his body, he clung to life.

Hours passed. The river was a roiling torrent of flotsam and debris. Whole trees, small boats, roofs of sheds and houses and dead livestock all rushed by the willow, but Yamada saw nothing — all his energy concentrated on keeping his hold on the trunk.

Then, little by little, the wind abated, the water level lowered, the speed of the rushing river decreased. Looking around him, he could see other human forms clinging, like stylites in a desert of foam, to the trees on the invisible island. They were his neighbors, and more than that, his friends and customers — Aoki, who was lame and probably thought he couldn’t run fast enough to reach the high ground; the old man Kobayashi, who had managed to save his pet cat, a stray he’d adopted and seemed to love as a mother loves her child. The third survivor, closest to the surging torrent was Maeda — the drunkard. He had probably been drunk when the flood stuck and dumb luck had pasted him to the thick branches in which he was entangled, but alive.

Suddenly, a strong gust hit the river, the trees shook violently and Yamada saw Aoki lose his grip and plunge into the rushing river. Aoki screamed out “Sasaki!” and instinctively Yamada dived in, swam mightily with the current and managed to get a hold on Aoki’s bony wrist. With the super strength of adrenaline and desperation, he reached what remained of a shoreline and deposited the limp but living Aoki on the cement steps that led down to the baseball fields and the river from the embankment above the highway.

Exhausted from his efforts, he had then begun to stretch out on the highest step when he saw old Kobayashi frantically flailing in the water trying to reach his pet cat. The gust had shaken them from their precarious perch. Without stopping to think, he plunged into the flood and angled out ahead of the cat, which immediately, upon bumping into his body, buried its claws into his shoulder, where they stuck in the fabric of his shirt. With both his arms free, Yamada was able to corral the old man before he hurtled past and, with a supreme effort, haul him to the embankment — with the cat still hooked to his shoulder.

Yamada’s heart pounded like a jackhammer. But before he could make a move he heard the ungodly screams of Maeda, the drunkard, piteously crying for help. Yamada had no time to think, no choice but to act. As soon as he reached Maeda, the drunkard threw both his arms around his neck. Yamada struggled briefly to break the hold, but his depleted strength was no match for the panicked power of the drowning man. Yet, drawing as deep a breath as he was able, Yamada struggled shoreward with his burden. Scientists from the Earthquake Research Institute at the University of Tokyo later explained that a low-intensity earthquake beneath the ocean near Hawaii triggered a small tsunami that hit the Pacific coast of Japan at the same time as waters from the burst Minami Tama dam were raging seaward against a floodtide — strengthened by the full moon — that was coursing up through the estuary from Tokyo Bay. This, they said, caused the anomalous rogue wave that crossed the highway and deposited the body of the homeless man Sasaki in the courtyard of the Buddhist temple just across the highway at the feet of the statue of Ebisu-kami, God of Fishermen, Farmers and Business — one of the Seven Lucky Gods. But the homeless along the banks of the Tama River and the residents of the neighborhoods around Shin Maruko believed it was a miracle.

After the flood waters receded and traffic on the highway resumed, the city of Kawasaki donated tents to those homeless who wished to return to the riverside. Many of them did. They had nowhere else to go.

A few weeks later, as life along the river slowly returned to normal and the bicycles reappeared on the riverside at the noon hour bearing sacks stuffed with beer cans on their carrying racks, and the afternoons were once again punctuated by the sounds of scavengers — the can-smashing of the homeless, the cawing of the jungle crows — a movement began among the survivors of the flood to memorialize Sasaki, who had saved three people and a cat at the expense of his own life.

A small delegation approached the manager of the Nippon Ham Fighters baseball team’s training ground located just west of the Chofu-seki dam. Indeed, it was on the steps leading down to their baseball field that Sasaki had delivered Maeda the drunkard before losing consciousness and becoming lost in the flood. Soon, the Nippon Ham company commissioned a stonemason to create the memorial statue.

A few months later, the statue, sculpted of green marble, was erected with a modest ceremony at the Ebisu temple where the Boss’s body had come to its final rest.

The statue depicted a small group of figures. In the center was Sasaki (people knew nothing more about him than his alias) portrayed as somewhat resembling a jizo, the popular bodhisattva of Japanese Buddhist mythology, with a shaved head and a benign and peaceful expression. To his right was a figure leaning on a cane, meant to represent Aoki, the cripple. To his left was a figure holding a tokkuri, the traditional sake flask, representing Maeda, the drunkard. And standing at the feet of the revered Sasaki was a bearded figure holding a cat, symbolic of the old man Kobayashi and his beloved pet.

There was also a small collection box by the statue, and every day the priests would collect the coins, mostly go-en (¥5 pieces), because goen also means “good luck” in Japanese. Offerings were also left — seasonal fruits such as apple-pears, persimmons, loquats and Japanese plums — along with packages of instant ramen and jars of cheap sake.

Every day, it seemed, homeless people came to pray at the statue commemorating Tamagawa-no-bosatsu — the Bodhisattva of the Tama River. Some prayed for safety from future typhoons and floods. Some prayed for a job, so that they could leave their tents or blue mansions and return to society, with four strong walls, and a roof over their heads.

And some prayed only for another jar of cheap sake to help them make it through another day.

Hillel Wright’s latest book is “off beat: the Allen Ginsberg interview” (Printed Matter Press, Tokyo; 2009).