Escape of a Salary Man

Read Time:
3m 13sec

Memoirs of a Tokyo Day Laborer.
By Oyama Shiro. Translated by Edward Fowler.
Cornell Univ. Press.
139 pp. $21

This memoir was published in Japan in 2000, after its author, a day laborer with a history of homelessness, submitted the manuscript on a lark and won the Kaiko Takeshi, a top literary award. The prose is so precise and dispassionate that one might suspect a put-on, but Oyama Shiro—not his real name—is as committed to what passes for failure as most men are to what passes for success.

Born into a middle-class family in 1947, Shiro got off to a conventional start, graduating from university and becoming a “salary man.” His yearning to fit in with corporate culture was overpowering but short-lived: “A sudden and unmitigated desire to absent myself from work would be accompanied by some psychosomatic disorder, which made me feel physically out of sorts.” The process repeated itself in office after office, until, in 1987, he joined the ranks of the least skilled, working on cleaning crews and as a gofer on construction sites. Since forsaking his white-collar career, he has lived in squalid lodging houses or on the street.

“I have gone to very great lengths . . . to avoid the frustration and disillusionment that is brought about—inevitably, as far as I am concerned—by the kind of human interaction that accompanies nearly any job,” Shiro writes, adding later, “When the time comes to take stock of things, it hardly matters to me if my existence has not been blessed by events that can be put in the ‘plus’ column. I will con­sider my life a success if I have reduced to the bare minimum—as close to zero as possible—those events that must be relegated to the ‘minus’ column.”

Upon winning the prize, Shiro took the money (some $20,000) but refused to be lionized. In a postscript, he reports that he has stopped working as a day laborer and, to stretch his savings as far as possible, has moved out of the flophouse in Tokyo’s most notorious slum where he’d shared a room with six other men. Instead, he announces almost cheerfully, he’s back on the street. He buys his meals but figures he’ll soon be scavenging food from the garbage: “I could then afford to buy a movie ticket. I’d take in one of those American suspense thrillers I like so much.”

All of this is recounted with a careful formality that keeps the reader at a distance. Shiro was every bit as pleased to learn that he needn’t accept the Kaiko Takeshi in person as he had been to learn that he’d won it in the first place. The real Oyama Shiro, he writes, is “an even more dull-witted and unattractive person than the one who appears in the pages of this book.”

In fact, the man in these pages is neither unattractive nor dull witted. He’s a pathological loner who has slept only with prostitutes, has never formed a friendship that lasted, and has avoided his family for more than 20 years. But such failings are hardly uncommon in the economic stratum he inhabits. Nor—and this is odd—does he seem rebellious or even difficult. When children stone him in the park, he mildly observes that high school boys don’t do this, only middle school boys “who think of the homeless as hurdles to overcome in the quest to secure their identity.” And he never tries to shake off the stigma of his marginal existence:  “One’s true self is that which exists in the gaze of other people.”

Oyama Shiro may be living on the street, and perhaps rummaging through the garbage for dinner, but to those who read this splendid book, his true self will seem a model of decorum and restraint.

—Benjamin Cheever

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