The grateful outcast — feeling good to be needed


“You ask who I am? I’ll tell you,” I declaim, being a bit horoyoi kigen (ほろ酔い機嫌, tipsy). “I am the eternal nokemono(除者, outcast)!”

Nōnashi (能無し, good-for-nothing) is more like it,” retorts one of my new friends to a chorus of approving laughter.

“Like us!” More laughter.

Ma, nan de mo ii (ま、何でもいい, have it your way).” I’m laughing, too. “You, at least, have accepted me as one of yourselves, and for that I’m kansha shimasu (感謝します, grateful). “Yes, gentlemen, for a man like me to be able to walk into a bar like this, unknown, friendless . . . “

?”Is this your first time in Sanya?” one of the men asks. His age is hard to guess. A hard life ages a man, then finally makes him ageless. Sanya is Tokyo’s main yoseba (よせば), a backstreet neighborhood where hiyatoi (日雇い, day laborers) are cheaply hired when there are jobs and cheaply lodged, if they have the money for lodgings. If not, they live homeless — an increasingly necessary alternative as the fukeiki (不景気, recession) rolls on.

“First time? Oh no. I come here . . . well, now and then.”

“Why?” asks another (there are seven altogether). “Wareware ni wa dō shiyō mo nai (われわれにはどうしようもない, we have no choice), but you . . . “

“For nagusame (慰め, comfort), gentlemen! For solace! Reassurance! Kampai! (乾杯!Cheers!)”

“乾杯! What’s your name?”

“Keyes. Ex-professor Keyes. Igokochi ga ii (居心地がいい, I feel at home) with you — more so than with most people I know. Forgive my drunken kanshō (感傷, sentimentality). Mukashi mukashi (昔々, once upon a time) I was a scholar, a historian, a student of Japanese history. The best period in the history of the world, if you ask me, was Japan’s own Edo Jidai (江戸時代, Edo Period [1603-1867]).”


“Edo Jidai!” The surprise is general. “No democracy, no freedom — a samurai (侍) sees you on the street and doesn’t like your face, he grabs his sword and chops off your head!”

“Very early on,” I say, “that’s true. But soon Bushidō (武士道, the way of the warrior) gave way to the life of the chōnin (町人, townsman), and once that happened, there was a lot more byōdō (平等, equality), and more genuine friendship too, than there is now in our own increasingly kakusa shakai (格差社会, society with a wide gap between rich and poor). Believe me — ordinary people were happier then than they are now. Much happier. You want proof? In the Edo Period, 30,000 people a year didn’t commit suicide (jisatsu shinakatta, 自殺しなかった), as they’ve been doing now for the past 10 years.”

“No, that’s true.”

Sono tōri da (そのとおりだ, he’s right).”

“And I’ll tell you something else” — I almost feel I’m back in the classroom, arguing with my students. “Unlike us today, Edo people kankyo wo mamotta (環境を守った, took care of the environment). Theirs was a mottainai seishin (もったいない精神, a no-waste attitude). Everything was recycled. An umbrella, re-papered over and over again, would last three generations. And something else: There was true, restful leisure. People worked hard, very hard; but after work, they y?chō ni kamaeta (悠長に構えた, took it easy). There were no constant distractions, no . . . ah, shimatta! (しまった! damn!)”

Speaking of distractions — my cell phone. “Keyes. Hello? … About my son? Mondai wo okoshita n desu ka? (問題を起こしたんですか, Is he in trouble?) . . . I see. Yes, certainly, I’ll be there in an hour . . . I understand. Thank you … Guidance counselor at my kid’s school,” I explain as I hang up. He says the boy wants to study in the United States. News to me. I’m afraid I have to . . . What the . . . !” My phone’s ringing again. “You see how popular I am all of a sudden! Hello! … Reiko?”

My wife. That’s odd. She never calls during the day, and my first thought is, something terrible must have happened. She’s certainly kōfun shite iru (興奮している, excited) about something, but it takes some time before I can make out what.

“You’ve received a what? A yobidashijō (呼び出し状, summons)? From whom? What for? … No! But . . . it’s impossible! How can you serve as a saibanin (裁判員, lay judge)? You work, you take care of your mother . . . All right, let me get home, we’ll discuss it . . . Oh, but wait — I just got a call from Peter’s school, I have to meet his guidance counselor. Did he say anything to you about wanting to study in the States? … Ichinan satte mata ichinan (一難去ってまた一難, When it rains, it pours). All right, Reiko. I’ll get home as soon as I can.”

“Keyes’ Point” appears on the first Bilingual page of each month.