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Kath Weston: The Homeless Readers of Tokyo

August 18, 2009

Kath Weston

Remember that old party game in which everyone has to grapple with a deceptively simple question: If you were stranded on a desert island, what book would you take with you? In the working-class suburbs of Chicago where I grew up, answers ranged from the classics (The Souls of Black Folk, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare) to the religious (the Bible, the Qur’an) to the voluminous (War and Peace) to the cliché (Robinson Crusoe, ha ha ha!). It was a question meant to entertain and perhaps to reveal something about a person’s values. Who would have thought that, thirty years later, the same question would be posed in earnest by people caught in a global economic meltdown?

Dispossession in a place like Tokyo has come to be symbolized by the archipelago of blue-tarp tents that dot the city, islands of homelessness tucked away into the recesses of parks like Ueno and Yoyogi. Around the city’s train stations people who have lost their jobs patch together even more makeshift lives, heading to the underground arcades for warmth and shelter, then heading out again in search of work or small change. Many of these scenes would be familiar to people who have watched the rise of inequality in the United States. As the sun descends behind Shibuya’s skyscrapers, men fish aluminum cans out of trash barrels to redeem for cash. Women scrub vegetables for the evening meal in public water fountains. Bedrolls spread out on the grass. A recent flurry of news reports professed shock at discovering such islands of need in the midst of plenty. In truth, these tent cities have been occupied for quite some time. And there are some scenes that never seem to make it into the coverage of financial crisis.

At the beginning of the Japanese economy’s ushinawareta junen (“lost decade”), my partner and I had a chance to visit the capital city. I wanted to show her daily life in a neighborhood where everyday people go about their business, so we booked a room in Asakusa. Located in the shitamachi, or lower city, Asakusa long served as a pleasure district where people could go to forget whatever ailed them. These days, it is best known by tourists for its Kannon temple, Sensoji, as well as its drum museum, where they can try their hand at one of the massive taiko drums played at festivals. Away from the temple district, little shops offer bowls of noodles and housewares at prices working people can afford.

One day after we paid our respects at the temple, we wandered down to the Sumida River. A row of improvised shelters lined the riverbank, tarps neatly folded into modest one-room homes. No one seemed to be about. My partner and I are both avid readers, so there was one tent in particular that drew our attention. Spilling out from the interior were stacks of books, balanced precariously, like sentinels guarding the door in their master’s absence. There were manga, the Japanese comic books that can be frivolous but also illustrate serious subjects. There were nonfiction titles on everything from physics to the fate of the nation. There were novels in bindings so exquisite it made you fear for them in a heavy rain.

It is not uncommon, in economically insecure times, for people who have regular meals and a roof over the table to worry that all this could be taken from them due to the machinations of markets over which they have very little control. When they imagine such a future– or when they end up living such a future– if they are readers they also have to cope with a loss of another sort. For some of us, there is an intangible comfort that emanates from a room filled with books. For those accustomed to going online to read before falling asleep at night, living under a bridge means doing without or developing another strategy. Even if you manage to take a few treasured volumes with you, you’ll have to make some tough decisions, leaving entire chapters of your life behind.

It’s true that Japan has a higher literacy rate than the United States, but people who refuse to let dispossession discourage them from reading can be found here, too. While I was doing the research for the book that became Traveling Light: On the Road with America’s Poor, I encountered many readers among the impoverished passengers who ride cross-country buses. In contrast to their counterparts in Japan, they often felt compelled to hide their interest in books. They would whip paperbacks from carry-on bags and jacket pockets, but only after waiting to see if I thought reading was cool.

Writing is an act of dedication, but so too is reading. It means something to me when I see people turn the page in the face of adversity, because the way I grew up taught me something about what that takes. Adversity can take many forms, including the fatigue of working too long and too hard. I think about my father, who came home from his postal route on the days he wasn’t working a second job, took a 30-minute nap, then sat down with the Great Books of the Western World, which he had purchased from a door-to-door salesman. He might occasionally have nodded off, but the point was, he picked up the book. He couldn’t help but pick up the book. For those who cannot imagine living without the word, the search for something to read can rank right up there with the search for medicine, housing, and food.

Last year I returned to Tokyo to live and teach. The blue tarp village along the Sumida had disappeared, its inhabitants scattered to other parts of the city. In a world obsessed with numbers, no one had kept track of whether the occupants or their treasures survived. When classes ended and it was time to head back to the States, I packed a department store bag with towels, candles, food, Japanese-language books, and snacks that I would not be taking with me. Then I hiked over to the west entrance of Yoyogi Park and placed the bag on top of a trash container. An elderly man who lived in the park sat nearby under the eaves of one of the public restrooms, absorbed in a magazine, waiting for the drizzle to stop. As I turned away, he called out to ask if it was really okay to take the things I had left. He rummaged around in the bag, pulled out the books, and said thanks. Iie, I told him, kochira koso. It’s me who should be thanking you.

This post originally appeared on Beacon Broadside.

Kath Weston grew up working-class, dreamed of becoming a writer, put in time on the street, and trained as an anthropologist on scholarship at the University of Chicago and Stanford. She has taught at Arizona State, Harvard, Wellesley, Brandeis, and Tokyo University. She is the author of Traveling Light: On the Road with America’s Poor.

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