Japan has had to be a very structured society for centuries. A relatively small country with very little in the way of natural resources (even with the abundance of fishing, over 60% of the food used by the country is produced elsewhere), the will of the self has by necessity had to take a back seat to the will of the collective. This attitude continues today, with the stereotypical 'salaryman' position being a prime example.
But what happens when, for whatever reason, a person simply can't make himself fit into that mold? Some people simply fall out of society altogether, and that is what happened to our narrator, who goes by Oyamo Shiro, in A Man With No Talents.
He is very careful to lay the blame for not fitting on his own shoulders, and not blaming society or his parents. Rather, he sees himself as simply unable to cope with the stress of a normal job and life in modern Japan, so he gave up on that part of life. Instead, he works as a day laborer on the streets.
He started this life fairly late, at around 40 years of age. He did try his best to keep up the appearances of a normal life. he went to university and was able to get decent jobs. But without fail, eventually he would 'get sick' and not be able to keep going to work. Later on he reads up a bit on psychology and decides that he might have something of a mental illness rather than being simply weak-willed, but eventually he gives up on mainstream jobs, gives up on his former life, and takes up residence at a bunkhouse in the San'ya district of Tokyo. Here, he falls in with the day laborer crowd, and begins to take jobs with them.
Officially unemployed, he has a card that, when he works a certain number of days for the month, he can turn in to a government office for a stipend for the days that he doesn't work. This gives him enough money to get by, living in a doya, or bunkhouse. He shares a room with six other men, receiving a bunk bed with a curtain around it to sleep in, a TV with a headphone jack at the foot of the mattress, and a locker in which to store his belongings. While this would seem spartan at best to most, he sees this existence as freeing, allowing him to live without the responsibilities of a normal job and apartment that had made his life so unbearable before.
The book is a really interesting look at one of the subcultures of Japan that many never see. the outskirts of Toyko has is boxtowns and its truly homeless who sleep on the streets, but rather than rail against the uncaring government, our narrator is grateful to live in a country in which he is able to choose a path in life that he finds more suitable.
He chose a good time in Japan's recent history to become a day laborer. At the beginning, during the housing boom, laborers like him could be choosy, only picking the types of jobs that they preferred, or even taking a day off, confident in the fact that there would be work waiting for him the next day.
After the bubble economy collapsed, however, work became more and more scarce. Men would line up at two in the morning outside the job offices that open at six, and even this would guarantee a job for the day. Besides this, our narrator is getting older, and even though he has always gravitated towards the easier jobs, even these get harder and harder as one ages, and not everyone is able to keep up the work until he reaches the official retirement age.
The author submitted his memoir to a writing contest on a whim, and was stunned when it won. Shunning the spotlight, he refused to accept interviews after he won, preferring to continue the life he had chosen for himself.
Highs: A candid look at a way of life rarely talked about
Lows: At times frustratingly self-depreciating
Verdict: An interesting look at a different Japanese mindset
Further Reading: Shutting Out the Sun, North Korea Kidnapped My Daughter