It was 6:15. I stood back to let Nishikawa concentrate on trying to get a job. Up went the shutters—there were not as many jobs as the day before, maybe thirty or so. He surged forward with the rest. He was in the second row. I thought he ought to get one, but he wasn’t pushing hard enough and others were pushing in from behind and getting their application cards in ahead of him. In a minute all the jobs were gone. But he hung on in while others were turning away in disgust, and managed to snap up a late job offer which cropped up in the hand of the clerk standing just in front of him.
He showed me the paper. “Workers, 1. Nishikawa, Kimitsu, 53, construction worker [dokō].” The job was in Mitsukyō, about 45 minutes away by foot and train. It paid 12,500 yen, plus 500 yen for lunch.
“Carrying stone,” he explained, gesturing lifting up paving slabs and loading them onto a wheel barrow.
“Is it a good job?”
“Hard labor! Punishment!”
He laughed loudly and said it again.
With that, he was off. I thought: He will die at sixty, in the year 2000, the last great un-seen existentialist hero of the 20th century.
THE FIRST CONVERSATION
February 3, 2007
My name is Kimitsu Nishikawa. I was born in Kumamoto city in1940, the 15th year of the Showa era. Others born in that year include John Lennon, Al Pacino, Peter Frampton, Raquel Welch, Jack Nicklaus and the great sumo champion, Taihō.
My parents gave me a very pompous name. They called me “Norimitsu” (紀光), meaning something like, “light of the century.” […] When I was young, a fortune teller told me it was an unlucky name, because the character kawa (川) in Nishikawa had three strokes and the character nori (紀) in Norimitsu had nine strokes, and three plus nine equals twelve, which signifies a bad life, easily getting neurotic, likely to have difficulty in getting married, etc., etc.
The nishi (西) in Nishikawa is a problem too. It means “west,” and in Buddhist cosmology all bad things come from the west. The realm of the dead is always in the west. In English “gone west” means somebody died, right? The Dalai Lama’s looked into this, you know, and I too am interested in this kind of thing. It’s a strange dialectic. Does the cosmos itself undoubtedly exist? That’s a pretty crazy question. G. K. Chesterton looked into it too, in his own way,
with that characteristic humor of his. I reckon that’s why Chesterton has been so popular in the Orient. His discussion on the death penalty is interesting. He writes somewhere, “If you are opposed to the death penalty, don’t hang around screaming about it outside the prison—get into the prison, embrace the man who is due to be hanged, shed all your tears and say, “You should not have to die!” In other words he was an empiricist. In the sense that he paid attention to individual human beings rather than the generality.
THE SECOND COVERSATION
February 17, 2007
I think we’re seeing a regression phenomenon among humans today. People run away from the truth. The worst of all is the authorities, the state. Thanks to the state, all sorts of absurd, irrational things have cropped up. That was the biggest theme of the twentieth century. We just couldn’t live in a relaxed, calm sort of way anymore. Even now we don’t know when North Korea might drop an atomic bomb on Japan. It’s an uneasy, Franz Kafka kind of feeling. Kafka was lucky he died before Hitler took power.
The people who’ve had the biggest influence on me are the likes of Guru Nakazawa and Colin Wilson. Then there’s Herman Hesse, John Steinbeck, Somerset Maugham, and Dostoevsky’s writings from prison in Siberia. Quite a mixed bag, isn’t it? There’s no consistency—because I have no education.
There are Japanese people I admire. My father. Guru Nakazawa. Particularly excellent foremen down on the docks. Heroes whose names I don’t know. They are real heroes. […]
Guru Nakazawa took a lot of heat over the Aum Shinrikyō problem, but I think any scholar should be allowed to make one or two mistakes. Paul Kammerer got so heavily criticized by William Bateson that he committed suicide. George Orwell, Arthur Koestler—they’ve been heavily criticized too. Guru Nakazawa is an enthusiastic scholar. Look how many books he’s published. And he’s an empiricist. He’s got a lot of detailed knowledge about myth. I reckon his key works are The Mozart of Tibet, Lenin for Beginners, Barcelona, The Sacred Number 3, and Green Capitalism. Those books constitute the core of his work, I’d say. And the key elements in his thought would be symmetry, oppression, and knowledge—latent, unconscious, flexible knowledge.
When Nakazawa talks about symmetry, he means that if you observe from a great distance, the differences between people, or between people and animals or plants, do not seem particularly significant. Humans are not a particularly outstanding thing. That’s the kind of amusing viewpoint you get with Nakazawa. He spent three years in Tibet, so he does have a certain persuasive power. I envy him. […]
THE THIRD CONVERSATION
February 25, 2007
I well remember the day the war ended. That day, there was the bluest sky I’ve ever seen. It really moved me, as a kid. It was incredibly quiet. You could have heard a pin drop. And the sky was blue. Pure blue. […]
I hate authority. Authoritarian teachers, priests, and so on. Christ or Buddha would never have behaved the way they do. Real gods are not authoritarian.
THE FOURTH CONVERSATION
March 3, 2007
You know they found those fossilized skeletons in northern Italy. They seemed to be the skeletons of a young man and woman who’d been killed while locked in an embrace. I saw it in the Sunday Mainichi. An Italian archaeologist dug them up. They’d been having sex under age, so they were stoned to death. Because they threatened the social order. They were from different tribes so their love was forbidden, something like that. I think that says it all. You can’t violate the laws of God, or the orders of your parents. In the end, it’s all wrong when the authority of the father is too strong.
Anyway, Yokohama was a pretty interesting town, and there were lots of Americans there. So I figured I’d quit the SDF (Self Defence Force) and go to Yokohama. I felt I’d had enough of the SDF anyhow—let’s do something different, I thought. I wanted to be like Samuel Johnson—pile up all sorts of experience and become a human encyclopedia. Because that’s the more relaxing way to go— being a generalist rather than a specialist. Someone like Johnson, or maybe H. L. Menken.
Actually when I first came down to Yokohama, I worked for a spell at the Nissan Motor plant at Namamugi. I lived in a cheap apartment not much different from a flophouse, and one day the guy next door said he could get me some laboring work. So I went along with him. I started using the day labor market at Harappa in Kawasaki, later Kotobuki in Yokohama and for a few years, San’ya in Tokyo.
THE FIFTH CONVERSATION
March 10, 2007
I noticed a mistake in the record of our last conversation. You wrote, “It was all I could do to stay alive from one day to the next. Every day a dance of fools. No time-outs.” But I didn’t say “dance of fools” (ahōdansu), I said “affordance” (afōdansu). It’s a biological thing really. A kind of natural science that goes beyond genetics, beyond Darwin. J. J. Gibson, the American psychologist, came up with it. What he says is that people don’t actually see things with their eyes or hear things with their ears—rather they are shown things, or allowed to hear things—afforded those experiences. The earth beneath our feet affords us the act of walking; a chair affords us the act of sitting. When a child gets born in the natural world, it has to be protected from lions. There are no walls in the house to afford protection. And when I was a kid, there was no affordance for me to think about the higher things; in the post-war chaos, we just had to struggle for survival every day.
It’s related to the concept of autopoiesis, which is being studied in Brazil and Chile by the likes of Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. Shinichi Nakazawa takes those concepts seriously too. Affordance and autopoiesis are the biggest discoveries in natural science since Watson and Crick discovered DNA. Professor David Bohm at London University was involved too.
The matter of Armageddon is related too. Once in a thousand years you have some colossal natural disaster, and after that the human race has to start again from zero. The likes of Aum Shinrikyō and David Koresh made good use of this concept. […]
THE SIXTH CONVERSATION
March 24, 2007
I love Latin music, especially the bossa nova, and I much enjoyed taking a cigarette break and listening to that music with the Brazilian ship-hands. (Mimes bossa nova dancing). I felt as if I were connected to Brazil, and I really felt like diving into the sea and swimming to Brazil. The ship hands all had these cassette players that they’d carry on their shoulders while they listened to the music. The other ships were good too, but the Brazilian ones were the best.
On the day Princess Anne married Captain Mark Phillips, I happened to be working on a British freighter that had just arrived at Yokohama’s Yamashita port from Cape Town with a cargo of coffee bags. I went up on the deck and offered the captain my congratulations. He invited me to join him for a glass of wine during the lunch break. Those were the days.
THE SEVENTH CONVERSATION
April 15, 2007
“No, if I couldn’t get back to Yokohama I wouldn’t be able to carry on living.”
THE EIGHTH CONVERSATION
April 18, 2007
I like stories about the sea. Like Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock or Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon. In the end, people are saved by the sea. Stories of the desert, like Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, are hard to endure. Oklahoma’s turning into a desert. In a way desert people are the most modern. Because they’re furthest from the sea. The sea—that’s what everybody yearns for. I love Turner’s seascapes in oils. That dark sea, caught in an instant of a storm. We humans are water-based animals. So the sea has a calming effect on us. […]
Autopoiesis? Something with no input and no output, like a bootstrap. A self-reproducing system. Reproduces itself without any connection to the exterior. Humans are made of proteins. Proteins make cells, cells make proteins, in an endless repetition that continues until the day we die. In the case of George Bernard Shaw, that would be a hundred years . . . in the case of Harold Wilson, a mere seventy. Autopoiesis, like a bootstrap or tensor field, continues endlessly in a Hegelian dialectic, until the cells commit suicide. It always expands upwards, having no reason to move sideways. It’s pure action. Shin’ichi Nakazawa is another who pays attention to it. He pursues it all the way until he achieves enlightenment. There is no extraneous noise, no extensive quantity. He carries on until at last he achieves enlightenment. Nakazawa calls it a “symplectic manifold.”
THE NINTH CONVERSATION
April 25, 2007
Nearly everyone in Kotobuki is anti-establishment. Not quite as much as the people in Kamagasaki though. People from Kansai have a certain special dynamism. I first came here in Shōwa 39; that would be 1964. It was a place made for poor folk like me. First and foremost, there was work to be had. Dock work, construction, truck driving. I’d be able to make a living. My survival pack was here.
The town was lively, like boiling vapor, like a typhoon, like a hurricane. I ate Korean-style roasted meat, I drank shōchū. I went drinking with foreigners in Chinatown. American marines, sailors from France, Germany, Britain, Indonesia, the Philippines. I had my regular bar. I learned English, but I was mostly drunk at the time, so I didn’t learn anything proper. Only “panglish”—the kind of pidgin English that used to be spoken by pan-pan girls, prostitutes who hung out with foreign soldiers and sailors. No grammar. Long ago I used to see American soldiers with Japanese girls that seemed to be hanging off their powerful arms. It seemed that way because the man was so big and the woman was so small. Well, we Japanese aren’t carnivores, so it can’t be helped.
THE TENTH CONVERSATION
April 28, 2007
The Outsider was a bestseller in Japan. The “Angry Young Men” were famous here as well. [Colin] Wilson was living in a tent on Hampstead Heath. He had a girlfriend and he was playing around like crazy. He wrote it all down in a sex diary and just about managed to escape when he was on the point of having the shit beaten out of him by her father. Well—he was an existentialist so that was just the sort of lifestyle you’d expect him to have. […]
Wilson is always searching for what he calls “the peak experience,” but I’m a bit concerned about what happens after that. After the high, there may be a comedown waiting. There’s a similar problem in Buddhism. After you’ve achieved enlightenment, what do you do next? Still . . . I guess you couldn’t lead a really depraved life after achieving the peak experience.
In the book Wilson discusses a number of culture heroes. Vincent Van Gogh, for instance. In the space of a single year, he painted Starry Night, an incredibly beautiful masterpiece that overflows with the pleasure of life, and found life so unbearable that he killed himself. The former of these two actions was a graphic peak experience; the latter was in a sense a similar graphic production. Van Gogh was an existentialist thinker, don’t you think? […]
THE ELEVENTH CONVERSATION
May 12, 2007
When I go to sleep, everything is totally black for a while, but after that I see dreams. Pretty dreams, dirty dreams. While we’re alive we are constrained by our bodies, but when we die we have no such constraints, so who knows what dreams we may see. A. P. Elkin, who did fieldwork with Australian aborigines, said that among the Barthagen and Ildawongga they have a myth where a man spills the blood of his pregnant sister, and a dragon comes surging up, meaning that if you defile nature, divine punishment awaits. The Ainu have similar myths. In Japan you can find that kind of myth on mount Koya or in Nagano. And Japanese do carry protective amulets of course.
When white light is refracted, aum is white, bajira is yellow, sa is red, and to is green. Toba is blue. The last is blue. Light with speed is blue. […]
THE TWELFTH CONVERSATION
May 26, 2007
Getting into the habit of reading books was one positive outcome of the oil shock for me. If that hadn’t happened, I’d probably have got into a dull routine of working, earning, drinking and playing, and I’d have ended up in prison just like that. Just out of negligence. But as Hoffer says, “to think deeply about things, you need to be idle.” Libraries are free, so they’re ideal places for when you’re broke.
Japan today is in a kind of spiritual recession because people are so negligent of spiritual matters. It’s worse here than in America or Europe. I want to say “wake up!” to everyone, but if I did that a policeman would come and arrest me. Japanese society is sick at present, and even if I offered a prescription, it wouldn’t be accepted. […]
The differentials are widening, and we’re getting closer to the American model. But I have no ressentiment. In my own case it was my fate to become a day laborer—my karma. But Eichmann and Hitler are in hell now! They’re right there in Dante’s Inferno. Hideki Tōjō’s right there with them too. They’re all in hell! (Laughs). Receiving eternal punishment. It’s all planned, like mathematics. People are material things, so they’re always decaying, always getting closer to the end. But when you die, things can go into reverse. People who give food to stray cats and dogs when they’re alive, get their reward after they’ve died.
THE THIRTEENTH CONVERSATION
June 2, 2007
I first got interested in Buddhism by reading a German and an Englishman—Hermann Beckh and Christmas Humphries. They turned me into a Tibetan Buddhism maniac. Beckh’s book came flying to me. One day when I was past my fiftieth birthday, I was standing in front of the Kotobuki Labor Center and they were throwing out some un-needed books from the reading room they have there. In amongst the discarded books was Beckh’s Buddhism. It was a paperback Japanese translation in two volumes. It was one of three books I found in the pile of discards from the reading room that I wanted to read. Some Shakespeare research . . . a book on Sino-American relations . . . and Hermann Beckh.
Somehow the conversation got on to George Orwell.
His works have an idealistic, utopian streak. But his feet are always planted firmly on the ground. His writings are firmly grounded in experience. And he looks at the world from a worker’s perspective. He’s got it right. The human race is not making some kind of Darwinian progression—it’s actually regressing. I respect him for his experience. Shot in the neck in the Spanish civil war. 1984 is his masterpiece. Just as good as Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001. The key word is “telescreen.” A life with no privacy. The dictator can see everything you do. Centralized authority. Central power, central heating. There are a lot of surveillance cameras in our society today. I don’t mind having them around the Diet building, but it’s wrong to put them up in shopping districts like Ginza or Shibuya. I mean—if crime were to be completely eliminated, people wouldn’t be able to make detective movies or crime novels any more. Crime and gangs are part of culture, and they have their own nobility. Trying to crush them totally—that’s fascism. A merciful spirit, compassion—that’s the most necessary thing in a ruler.
The Fourteenth Conversation
June 10, 2007
The cosmic egg in the diagram is an idea I took from Deleuze and Guattari. We get born from the cosmic egg but remain immature; we suffer and undergo training for ten, twenty or thirty years, and then we have a second birth! Although there are some people who achieve enlightenment as soon as they’re born. […] In my own case, I haven’t got there yet. […] And when you achieve enlightenment, you go back to the woman. We are part of the universe, but at the same time we are creating the universe […].
THE FIFTEENTH CONVERSATION
August 13, 2007
[…] The only thing that’s going to make this world peaceful is an invasion by extra-terrestrials. A common enemy, that’s what we need. Just look at what happened in the old Yugoslavia. As long as dangerous enemies like Hitler and Stalin were around, all the different ethnic minorities managed to work together, but the moment those enemies were gone, it descended into civil war. The same principle governs the entire world.
[…] We are slow, and we live in a painful world. It’s a problem of speed. The operating principle. A problem of the mind. The mind is like a mirror, and it creates various images. One feels attachment to another. When you feel attachment to something, light becomes
Excerpt from Tom Gill, Yokohama Street Life: The Precarious Career of a Japanese Day Laborer [Asia World Series of Publications] (London: Lexington Books, 2015).
Copyright © 2015, Used by permission of Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group. All rights reserved.