As you clear up after Christmas and prepare for New Year, spare a thought for American Vincent Dodson. He is spending his “holiday” as he passes every day, sleeping rough in the park beside the JR Yamanote line near Shibuya Station, and demonstrating against what he describes as “the wantonly wasteful habit of using disposable chopsticks.”
It is not so long ago that all Japanese carried their own “ohashi” (chopsticks), and every family member had their own pair at home. Now it’s different, and you can bet that over New Year the use of “waribashi” (throwaway chopsticks) will soar, as households indulge in the very minimum of household chores.
I found Vincent on one of the main Shibuya crossings — a lone figure muffled against the cold holding up a placard written mainly in Japanese, with a collage of used waribashi and associated trash. “Gosh, you’re brave,” I said. Later we drank hot soy milk in front of a coffee shop. He was reluctant to go inside, because (in his own words), “I think I smell a bit ripe.”
He wants us to realize that every day Japan throws away 56 million pairs of waribashi (with 26 billion a year trashed worldwide). His statistics, taken from the Internet, are old — 1989, he admits — but things will have worsened rather than improved, with the proliferation of convenience stores in Japan, and developmental changes in China and Asian society at large. “I’ve added a zero to the figures, to help bring them up to date. We Italians like to exaggerate.”
It is his mother, “a yummy cook,” who has the Italian ancestry. Before his parents’ divorce, his father was into gardening, filling the house with flowers and greenery, which Mom inevitably forgot to water. “I always loved nature. I remember a friend of my Mom’s who was a photographer, took a picture of me when I was 7, tracing the outline of clouds in the sky with a stick.”
A troubled teenager, he was packed off to his father. But this only made things worse. “My stepmother ran a frugal house.” So Vincent was sent to a Catholic home for boys. “It was a good move, really. With 60 hectares of pine forest, I could jog every day. I became very calm.” Now his brother lives with Mom in New York, his sister with Dad in Florida. “I call them at Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year. We’re close.”
Eleven years ago, aged 20, Vincent came to Japan. “I’d had this Japanese roommate who said, if I ever came over, I could stay with him. Well, I was the worst house guest ever. I’m still trying to learn from the mistakes I made.” He is vague about the intervening years, saying only that he spent five years in South Korea, teaching English. Also he married a Chinese university student met in Hawaii.
Asked how long he has been back in Japan, he counts nine months since “running away from China.” It seems he went there to try to understand Chinese culture better toward improving his relationship with his wife, now in Chicago. “I had a job teaching in Jiangxi Province. But first I got sick, then I got cold. One day I woke up and the whole town was frozen over.” He had a good apartment, good students, even (by Chinese standards) good money, but missed his wife. “So I made my way to Shanghai and took the boat to Osaka.”
He found Japan much changed and for the first three months felt lost. Why was he here? Then his granny died and left him $5,000. Believing the rich should give to the poor, he gave some away, and invested the rest in Korean stainless steel chopsticks and other stuff to sell online.
But the chopsticks business went awry. “I discovered, through getting ill myself, that many were inferior quality, allowing chemicals to combine with food to create toxins. Will you please ask anyone who accepted free chopsticks from me in Osaka, or bought a pair in front of Shibuya Station to check them carefully. If the metal is bright, shiny, fine. If not, throw them away. I’m really sorry to think I may have caused trouble.”
Vincent says he tried every conceivable way to make an honest living, without success. When his money ran out, he was reduced to sleeping in the park. “To survive I help collect and resell trashed magazines from train racks and dust cans. A positive aspect of being homeless is you can look back to when you think you had sunk real low, and realize you were living in the lap of luxury.”
Because homelessness took away a lot of distractions, he found himself thinking more and more about the degradation of the natural environment. “My parents taught me the importance of judging how livable a place the world is by its trees. Deforestation means less oxygen, more stress, more landslides, sickness and death all round. And to use the argument that waribashi are made from waste wood is a red herring. Thousands of trees are cut every week just to feed this crazy industry.”
With such ideas being reinforced, Vincent remembers waking in Miyashita Park to find himself in the middle of a protest against the war in Iraq. “The sight of people holding up placards gave me the idea for making a sign about owari-wari-bashi.” Now Vincent believes his life has a purpose. “This is how I’m making up for all my mistakes in the past. Call it retribution if you like.”
There is some ridicule but most passersby who say anything are encouraging. “Because the soul of Japan is still attuned to nature, something resonates. Occasionally someone will slip me some money, which I use to go to the bathhouse and buy a hot meal. Otherwise we rely on handouts from restaurants and cafes. We only take what we each need though. That is the unwritten code amongst us.”
He finds it hard to look into the future. He dreams only of getting back together with his wife, extending his campaign and seeing sales of waribashi decrease as we take personal responsibility for the health and survival of the environment upon which we depend. “It starts with just one person. It starts with yourself.”
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