How did I get here? February traditionally marks the beginning of spring, but the worst of winter was yet to come. Failed at business and saddled with massive debts, I fled Osaka twelve years before, leaving my family behind to cast about from town to town before finally landing in Tokyo. No place to stay, much less anything to eat, too sapped of strength even to despair, I subsisted on water for three days straight. Another day and I’d have been rummaging through garbage bins for sure.
I found myself sitting on a bench in Shinjuku Central Park, dazed like a junkie, when the wind plastered a sports tabloid to my legs and an advertisement jumped out at me.
Taxi drivers wanted. Earn 100,000 yen or more a month. Training and lodging available for Class One licence holders with three years’ driving experience. 3,000 yen daily allowance during training period.
I didn’t have to think. I grabbed the paper and made for Shinjuku Station. As I walked, a doubt crossed my mind: would the company even hire a Korean? I figured I’d better ring them up first. But no sooner did I come upon a public phone and reach in my pocket than I realized I didn’t have a coin to make the call.
I went to pawn my overcoat, but the guy at the shop wouldn’t take it. In those boom years, who wanted a pawned overcoat? My scruffy stubble and weeks without bathing didn’t help matters. The pawnbroker eyed me with disdain, like I was some kind of bum begging for bus fare, but I kept insisting so shamelessly that he eventually gave me eight hundred yen. Pathetic. A measly eight hundred yen for an English twill overcoat that cost a hundred thousand new not four years before. Still, eight hundred yen was a lifesaver at the time. I rang up the company and they told me foreigners were OK, so I hurried to a stationery store and bought a blank résumé form, then visited the offices near Tokyo Tower.
There were three other interviewees ahead of me, all about my age or maybe older, but I looked the most dishevelled. I tried to put on a semblance of calm, as if they wouldn’t see through me. I wanted a cigarette like crazy. The simple ten-minute interview was excruciating. Although everything in my résumé was true, I’m sure they thought I made it all up.
Whatever, I got taken on as a trainee, and that’s how I became a taxi driver. Honestly, I have to confess, while I never scorned the lowly hack, neither did I harbour any goodwill toward cabbies and certainly never wanted to be one.
My friend Han, former firebrand turned loan shark, is one of the few who remembers.
We swim into a maze of back-alley bars and izakaya and grimy little eateries all waiting for people to stumble along. The quarter is a miasma of piss cascades, vomit, blood and broken teeth. Long-haired hippie rejects and androgynous creatures, tricked up in the latest fashions, jounce to the rhythms of Soul II Soul. Good citizens drift about aimlessly. A gigantic totem pole belches flames, neon spatters like firecrackers. ‘You there, sir, tonight’s our grand opening, so our girls aren’t wearing panties. C’mon in, they’ll do you special,’ spiels a young rake in a bow tie, his chameleon tongue making quick work of mirror-thralled drunks.
Suddenly, from the shadows of a love hotel hedge comes a gut-wrenching moan. Down on the ground clutching her belly, a woman unleashes a throaty screech as a yakuza grinds his shoe into her bleeding lips. Passers-by gather to watch the spectacle from a safe distance as she clings to the yakuza’s legs and he dumps the contents of a plastic rubbish bin onto her face. ‘Whad’yall think this is, a show?’ he growls at the crowd, ‘Go piss off somewhere!’
‘Bullies like that really burn me up. Time was we’d never let a chimpira get away with those antics,’ notes Han. ‘We must be getting old.’
Passing by Koma Theater, we stop and examine movie stills in the showcase. A pageant of suggestive expressions and self-mortified contortions. ‘You ever get it on acrobatic? When I was new at it, I tried all sorts of ways out of curiosity, but nowadays I’d just throw my back outta whack. Not that I care what all headstands or underwater positions they go in for. Me, I’m too lazy. Too much trouble to even take off clothes. Pretty soon it’ll be no more sex for me,’ Han is saying, when his eyes rivet on to a fresh young trout tail who wriggles by. ‘Seeing arse gives me a hard-on. Nothing to do with personality, can’t do a thing about it. The more I fight it, the more it wants to explode. Kinda like a popular uprising against repression.’
Drawn in by a display of dozens of crabs and skewered prawns roasting over charcoal, we enter a shop where hand-clapping grill chefs in headbands shout a vigorous welcome. We find seats at the counter and look over the menu. I order a beer to lubricate my throat, but before I can even raise my mug, Han starts to yammer. ‘Tonight is on me, so dig in,’ he insists as each new dish arrives – tuna toro, squid sashimi, bonito tataki, lobster on the half-shell, salmon hotpot, paper-thin slices of flounder – though just the sight of the spread is enough to stay my meager appetite.
Han, meanwhile, clicks his tongue in distaste. ‘What is this? Doesn’t look a thing like the samples,’ he complains to the shop staff. ‘Back on Cheju Island, nobody’d look twice at rotten fish like this. Never been to Cheju? Unlucky you . . .’ He extends token sympathy, then launches into his usual reminiscences of boyhood in Korea. Legions of bright red crabs at ebb tide, Mt Halla rising taut as a strongman’s sinews, springs bubbling along the coast, schools of leaping silver sardines calling whole villages to wade out with sieves and buckets and shovels in hand – he sometimes still dreams about them scooping and scooping no end of fish, drying or salting them, using the rest for fertilizer. Big monster pumpkins and gourds, watermelons and aubergines. No wonder Cheju Island men are so lazy – who needs to work? All they got to do is kick back and drink local brew, play chess and nap. Let the industrious womenfolk plough the soil and dive the sea and bear children. Even now, decades later, his first love still figures in memories of home, her face framed deep inside as if everything since has been an illusion.
I don’t have anything like that. No house, no homeland. Han’s talk sweeps over me like a wind from the steppes. His words spin and perplex. As long as we live here, we resident Koreans just better make money. Nobody’s going to help us out. Everyone’s got to stick together, I argue, that’s the only way we’ll shore up our group safe and secure.
‘You call yourself a taxi driver. That’s nothing you can do forever, you’re an octopus eating its own tentacles. Like I been saying, you oughta come on board with me. Seems you look down on money lending, but financing is a respectable trade. No one refuses money because it’s loan profits. Money comes first in capitalist Japan. Without it, everything’s just painted rice cakes. If you ask me, the whole idea of achievement without getting your hands dirty is petty bourgeois opportunism. Koreans lack self-sacrifice.’ It always unnerves me to hear him mention self-sacrifice. Not that I have anything against his notions of pouring capitalist profits into socialist programmes. No, I’m all for it. I’m simply amazed that this same Han, who suffered such a setback when the Japanese Communist 6th Plenary Congress opted away from socialist struggle, can still drum up self-sacrifice into a strange brand of catharsis.
The shop is packed to near capacity. Diagonally across from us camp two students from a notoriously rowdy college. Baggy school uniforms and high collars accentuate a loutish swagger; their hair is coiffed high in pompadours, and in their eye sockets glints not a fleck of intelligence. And up on the tatami mat seating, a contingent of girls, decidedly better-looking than the boys, are puffing cigarettes and getting wild with the sake.
From a table by Han I hear an elderly man and a middle-aged gent comparing how nice and diligent Taiwanese and Korean women are, how good in bed. The usual sex tourism talk. As if discussing some secret business deal, they whisper in each other’s ear and chortle obscenely – which seems to rub Han the wrong way. ‘Did I ever tell you,’ the elder assumes a nostalgic tone, ‘I was stationed in Korea during the war, in Kyongnam Province.’
Han’s ears prick up.
The older man was in the 184th Regiment, but all they ever did was polish their Murata rifles, bathe in the nearby stream and play hanafuda cards. A lazy summer idyll, quaint and pastoral. They kept five or six pigs, a few chickens and goats in a pen. The regiment also had a Korean coolie to feed the animals. Scarcely dressed in ragged trousers, his sunburnt torso was the colour of saddle leather. The Japanese soldiers with nothing better to do hung out around the livestock pen, joking and smoking. One time, a soldier proposed why not make the coolie screw a female goat? To which all the bored soldiers heartily agreed and immediately convinced the coolie to do it for three packs of Hikari cigarettes. It seems the coolie always scrounged up the soldiers’ discarded butts or else smoked grass clippings wrapped in newspaper, so he couldn’t resist the temptation. Soon everyone crowded the makeshift outdoor theatre to witness the spectacle, as the coolie managed with great difficulty to subdue the she-goat, push in his member from behind and begin pelvic thrusts.
‘And then?’ The other man leans forward, his curiosity piqued.
‘It was brilliant. The goat squinted, kneeled down on her forelegs and began to ba-a-a.’
‘Oh-ho, so it felt good,’ says the gent with a lascivious gleam in his eye.
‘Who can say? Maybe it did,’ scoffs the elder.
At this point, Han breaks in with an irked expression. ‘Then what happened?’
‘And then?’ stammers the elder, a little flustered though oblivious to Han’s intent, ‘Oh, about the goat? Then, uh, nothing special. That was the end of it.’
‘No, that wasn’t the end. There had to be more,’ presses Han. ‘A follow-up.’
‘More?’ the elderly man puzzles at the leading question. ‘What sort of follow-up?’
‘Say, gang-raping and slaughtering the village women, cutting off children’s heads with samurai swords, you know, that sort of thing . . .’
The elderly man is taken aback. ‘What are you implying? Why would we do that?’
‘Well, it was all the rage in China and Korea at the time, wasn’t it?’
‘I beg to differ, sir. Our regiment never fired a shot.’
‘I see, you never fired a shot, so there was no harm in forcing a poor coolie to perform bestial acts. Well as a Korean, I can’t forgive you treating one of my fellow countrymen like that. I consider that just as evil as gang-rape and massacre, though obviously you don’t.’
The elderly man falls remorsefully silent at this unforeseen rebuke from an irate Korean, prompting the embarrassed middle-aged gent to make excuses for his friend. ‘I realize from where you stand it wasn’t a very pleasant topic, but must you get so bent out of shape at casual remarks over drinks? Japan is at peace now, we coexist with you.’
‘We do not coexist. You Japanese always look down on us “unclean” Koreans, you hate us.’
‘No, I do no such thing,’ says the gent, sitting up straight as if to prove his innocence.
Having observed the entire exchange between Han and the next table, the two delinquent students now raise a cobra hiss. ‘Oy, Kimbo, ‘stead of talking your crap, why don’tcha jus’ go home to your country? Like we need your swelled head over here, huh?’ Putting on attitude, the one bro’ raises a sake cup to his thin lips, cocks his head and shoots us a snide glare. Then the other chimes in, ‘Like my man said, you all got a problem, we be glad to straighten you out. Any time, yeah?’
Their provocation only riles short-tempered Han even more. ‘Swell, then, let’s have a go, punks!’ He stands up, breaks the nearest beer bottle at hand, and wields it like a dagger.
This piece consists of extracts taken from two novels: Taxi Rhapsody (Chikuma Bunko, 1987) and Taxi Driver Diary (Chikuma Bunko, 1986).
Photograph © Old Tokyo