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Sunday, Oct. 25, 2009


Bodhisattva of the river road

A tale of uncertain times

"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, as much 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.

News photo

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.

Yet 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 he had 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 on the workshop floor made from a big old oil drum 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.


Yamada sat stunned. Seiko stood a few feet behind him with the remote in her hand with which she'd changed channels. 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.


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