Yesterday, I had a couple of drinks with four women who happened to study Japanese with me about nine years ago. One of them currently writes her MA-thesis in Japanese Studies, about “Hanami” (cherry blossom viewing). One of the best known Hanami locations in Tokyo is Ueno Park. In 2000, about 1.5 million people were estimated to have gone there for flower viewing. Ueno Park now also houses many blue plastic tents of homeless people, after they were chased away from Shinjuku station. During Hanami season, so I learned yesterday, these groups blend in a curious way: homeless people are “employed” to go and get more drinks when eager celebrators have finished their provisions too quickly; in return, they are invited to share drinks and join the celebrations.
Scenes I like to picture.
The annual cherry-blossom-viewing of Mr. Tanaka’s sales department of Yet Another Japanese Company. Ms. Sawano, the OL, had been camping in the park the night before, just to secure a good picnic spot. She looks a bit tired when in the morning she arranges beer cans, huge Sake bottles and smaller Sake cartons on the blue plastic sheets. Plates of picnic food. Chicken wings. Potato salad. Musubi. Disposable chopsticks.
Soon Mr. Iwata, the most recent arrival at the company, joins her and installs the Karaoke box. Yes, he answers Mr. Tanaka’s impatient call on his cell-phone, we are ready now, you can come. And they do, already quite exhilarated, since bathing in the huge mass of people that flows through Ueno Park already seems to clear off some inhibitions that otherwise regulate office social life.
Sitting, eating, drinking, singing. Time and again, someone points out particularly beautiful cherry blossoms around them, and then everyone joins in discussing this season’s blossom quality. Somehow, they don’t seem to blossom so nicely anymore. Perhaps global warming? Or did this year’s early rain have something to do with that? Ah no, those Aum guys have bewitched the trees. Poisoned them. And, you know, there’s too many homeless guys around, can’t really enjoy the beauty anymore. Mr. Tanaka sings his usual blend of Old Wartime Tunes, which make everyone embarrassed though noone ever complains, and sentimental Enka howlers, which also make everyone embarrassed, but just because Tanaka-san simply can’t sing. But there’s so many people around, you know, you don’t even have to pretend to listen. That’s why we always come to Ueno for Hanami picnics: it’s so crowded we don’t have to feel embarrassed for our boss. And there’s just so much going on. Look over there: a salaryman down on his knees singing to a homeless guy wearing a kimono. Funny, eh?
A Korean TV-team walks past and films the jolly drunken crowd (this must be Chinese and Korean ultimate revenge for Japanese Pacific War atrocities: show Japanese drunkards rolling around in Ueno Park). Mr. Tanaka invites them for some drinks. Alas, the drinks are finished. Hey, says the assistant manager, ever-so eager Mr. Yoneda, there’s this old homeless guy around. He beckons the guy. The Korean TV team start filming. Mr. Tanaka pulls out his wallet. Hey, homeless-san, get us some booze from over there, will ya? Couple of Kirin lagers, and some Sake. If you get them back in time, you can have a few drinks with us. Homeless-san makes a slight bow. Yes, Boss-san, I’ll be back as soon as I can. The Korean TV start asking questions. Do you come here every year? Sure, Mr. Tanaka blurts out. Here you can see our most beautifulll Japanese cherry-blossoms. Beautifulll, aren’t they. But they used to be much more beautifulll. Ah so, the Koreans nod. How come, they ask.
Does anyone among the Tanaka crowd doubt that Homeless-san will in fact return? If they do, they don’t show. Perhaps desire for more drinks overrides anxieties to lose money. And, after all, it’s Mr. Tanaka’s money, and losing a bit of it might serve the tight bastard quite well.
About fifteen minutes later, Mr. Kimura, the homeless guy, returns with booze and change. Oh, keep the change, Mr. Tanaka says generously, smiling somewhat clumsily into the Korean TV camera. Have a few drinks with us. Mr. Kimura sits down on the blue plastic sheet.
Ms. Sawano hands him a paper cup. A Korean journalist hands him a plate with a few chicken wings. Disposable chopsticks. This year’s blossoms are beautifulll, aren’t they, Ms. Sawano says. Yes, Mr. Kimura nods politely, sipping some Sake. But, you know, I’ve been living here for three years now. I know them all. AAAH, SOOOO, the Tanaka people nod. The Korean TV team take notes. And Mr. Kimura tells them about how blossoms near the north side of the park are usually much more beautifulll than those near the south side. How different kinds of soil affect blossom blooming. How this year’s late snow froze not only the cherry trees, but also the homeless people in their tents underneath. How every morning over the past few weeks he got up, hoping that the blossoms would start blooming so that he could earn a few thousand yen cleaning away picnic garbage, or going shopping. Aaahhh, sooo.
- yes, these are the kinds of scenes I like to picture.
Factoids: as of August 2000, about 5700 homeless people were estimated to live in Tokyo. 60 percent aged between 50 and 64, 98 percent male.
Frank Eckardt walks Tokyo’s homeless districts.
Edward Fowler (1996): “San’Ya Blues: Laboring Life in Contemporary Tokyo”. (Cornell University Blues) (German review, leaning towards the academic; English review, less academic).
Tom Gill (2001): “Men of Uncertainty: The Social Organization of Day Labourers in Contemporary Japan”. (SUNY Press)