Talkin’ ‘grassroots social reform’


“Anybody got a question? Any question?” hollered a young spiky-haired man in a gray T-shirt and black chinos one evening the other week outside the ticket gates at JR Totsuka Station in Kanagawa Prefecture. The sky was darkening, and shoals of commuters were flowing in and out of the suburban station.

Six or seven people were drawn by the strident invitation. Young women sat down on four cheapish folding chairs. Men, both T-shirt-wearing student types and salarymen in business suits, looked on from behind. Then a woman spoke up in front of complete strangers: “Where can I find my true self?”

“Ah!” the spiky-hair guy responded cheerfully, jotting the question on a small blackboard. “Well, where have you looked for it before?”

And so the free-form evening of open-air questions and answers continued, with the answerer and three of his trainees trying their hands at solving some of life’s more nagging concerns, from “Why is romance short-lived?” to “What makes a woman attractive?” and “Why are you here taking questions?”

In fact, the last question was this reporter’s. A major Japanese daily had run a story on this burgeoning nationwide network of question-takers called Nandeya (literally, “Why? Shop”). Nandeya staff, it informed us, take a question from anyone on the street for a fee of 100 yen, plus any more the person may care to donate after hearing the response.

So, intrigued, I checked the Nandeya Web site and headed for one of that night’s locations, near a department store at a different station. But as soon as I introduced myself, the young stall-holder handed me a leaflet. This instructed me, as a journalist, to call the organizers if I wanted permission to speak to their representative.

Permission to cover street happenings? Confused, I called the toll-free number. Meanwhile, the guy was stopped by a department store guard for not having permission himself. “Oh, permission? From the department store?” the man asked. “Yes, but you won’t get it even if you apply. Go away,” the guard said brusquely.

The company staffer who answered the phone confused me even more. “You are free to watch and interview as much as you want,” she said. “But we give an OK to publication of stories about our activities only to those reporters who have followed us persistently enough.”

Then, while I was still on the phone asking her to explain this injunction, the wind suddenly got up and it started to pour. The Nandeya guy packed up his stuff, bowed to me apologetically, and hurried off.

That’s how I came to be at my second Nandeya site later that evening — the one run by spiky-hair. This time, I was skeptical about letting my motives be known. I didn’t take notes so I could blend in with the crowd and experience the whole thing.

Later, in an hourlong phone chat with Koji Kitamura, spokesman for Osaka-based architectural design firm and cram school operator the Rui Group, and by reading the group’s mission statement on its Web site, I got my question fully answered. These Q&A folks are part of the firm’s ambitious endeavor to achieve “social reform” in a solely grassroots style. They are media-shy because they want to retain that grassroots feel.

On its Web site, Rui Group takes a swipe at the “intelligentsia” — academics, artists and the mass media — saying that ordinary citizens have been force-fed “common perceptions” created by these people. Nandeya, accordingly, is an alternative attempt to create a new set of common perceptions, Kitamura explained. There are currently 100 Nandeya stall-holders, 90 percent of them run by the group’s employees. But it seems anyone can participate as pupils; then, after a period of training as assistants, they can — and a few actually have — set up on their own.

Meanwhile, back on the front line, things seemed to be taking some unexpected turns.

At the Totsuka Station stall, a small group of fans arrived at a little after 7 p.m. and stayed on well past the scheduled close at 9 p.m. Most just stopped for a short while to listen only, then left without chipping in.

Some listeners, however, would briefly take over the proceedings, like one chap who called himself “a homeless man.” Skinny and gray-haired, and dressed in a red-checkered shirt and soiled khaki pants, he wore a permanent smile as he squatted on the ground and kept refilling his tin cup from a 3-liter carton of Classic Hills red wine. Every time one of the four Nandeya guys completed an answer, the red-checkered man made brief congratulatory remarks, like, “Yeah, that’s quite a smart comment.”

During a break in questions, one young woman called out to him. “Oto-san, do you have any question in mind?”

“Oh no, I’m doomed, I’m an alcoholic, I live outdoors,” he said. “It’s great, this place. People listen to me. I’ll come back here tomorrow.”

“It’s only here on Tuesdays,” somebody said.

“Tuesday? Sunday, Monday, Tuesday . . . ” red-checkered man murmured in English.

Then he blurted out something about himself. People leaned forward to listen. Nandeya guys nudged him to take center stage.

“Let me introduce myself,” he stood up and said. “I was born in the 27th Showa Year [1952]. I’m from Fukuoka. I came to Osaka on a group employment contract, and I’ve been a day laborer for 30-some years . . .

“If you measure people by how much money they have, that’s the end of the world,” he continued.

Everyone listened quietly and intently.

“To be honest, I used to be a photographer. I had this Minolta camera . . . “

Confusion clouded people’s faces. Red-checkered man was nudged back to whence he squatted.

Then another man, a Nandeya staffer who had kept quiet, suddenly started answering his own question, as if he had been waiting for his share of the spotlight.

“I’ll answer the question, ‘What is charisma?’ ” he declared, his voice subtly trembling with tension. “I came up with this question because I met lots of charismatic teachers when I flunked college entrance exams and was studying at a prep school.”

He outlined several charismatic qualities — confidence, high self-esteem, composure and compassion. “So that was my answer. Was it OK?” he asked the senior Nandeya guy.

“No,” spiky-hair guy said firmly. “You should add that charisma is defined within the confines of our relations with others,” he said. He added that, if there were only one soccer player in the world, he wouldn’t be regarded as charismatic, no matter how well he played. (Rather begging the question, I wanted to ask, just how could he play soccer if no one else did?)

Untroubled by such trivia, though, a lanky, besuited, middle-aged man with a pointy chin and his hair combed straight back James Dean-style, jumped in. “I don’t think you can try and create charisma. It’s something people are born with.”

And so the debate went on. But while this “grassroots social reform” continued, the pointy-chin guy thanked a few people around him, bowed and disappeared into the bustling evening crowd.