Salarymen old and new have made this country what it is. But what a price to pay.
Today I went to the poorest district of Tokyo called San Ya. Here homeless Japanese live on the streets. It was like walking into the backstreet’s of China not modern Japan. I was approached in a friendly way by gangs of men standing on street corners drinking Sake and beer.
These men’s misfortune came after the last recession in the late 1980`s. It is difficult to imagine that they were salarymen who believed they had jobs and pensions for life. For them, the collapse of the company meant not only a great personal loss but a mighty fall from grace. Funny that this area is the only place I’ve seen alcohol sold from machines in the streets. It felt like a caring gesture from this bustling economy to give something back to these men who had given their lives to Japan. Like anyone living on the street the alcohol numbs the cold and the pain of the past, but unlike homeless people in other countries the homeless in Japan still get up and go to work each day.
These men queue for whatever work they can get, employed on a daily basis, they said they can earn 8000 Yen for a days work, about $70, or £40. They sleep in day hotels that cost about 2200 Yen £12 a night if they are lucky… more often than not they live in cardboard boxes on the streets that have become their homes. Most of them have lost their families. I watch them standing around sipping from little cups of Sake bought from vending machines in the streets.
In the posh part of Tokyo where I stay I’ve also been watching the armies of modern day salarymen, visible by their black coats suits and ties, file in and out of trains, coffee shops, restaurants. I watch them sleep standing up in packed trains as they make their way home late at night. They often work 12, 14, 16 or 18 hours a day. It is their commitment and hard work that has made Japan successful. An economic army who work what ever hours are needed. I read today that the country is set to grow by 5% this year, coming out of recession with a vengeance. You can see why when you observe the salarymen and office lady’s whose dedication is at the heart of Japan’s success.
Being in Japan really makes me wonder about the quality of life. To me life seems hard in the world’s second largest economy – where the minimum wage is set at 750 Yen for one hour (about £5) and where the Governments set maximum working day is supposed to be 8 hours, but people regularly work 12 , 14, 16 ,18 hours. I was drinking at 2am in a bar last night (this morning) and got a call from Mayumi the office fixer, she was still working – as was the whole office!
Society here steamrolls ahead, this powerful economy is all about moving forward at whatever cost. It never stops to question or take heed from the past, it just moves ahead.
But wealth comes with a price. The obvious despair of the homeless salarymen is hard to accept in a country so rich. It is difficult to imagine them wearing the black suits and ties today. They look like any other drunk in any other country now.
The plight of the homeless salarymen and the tired army of modern day salarymen reminds me of a quote I read before coming here, ‘Japan has one foot in the future, one foot in the past and nothing in the present’.
Today it feels true.