Dame-Ren (No Good People)

A glimpse into Japan's embrace of Western-style capitalism.
Dame-Ren (No Good People)

The Japanese language is often indirect, characterized by suggestion and context, undecipherable to the foreign ear. Translation can seem futile.¶ But one word whose meaning is incontestable is karoshi – “death from overwork.” Japan’s first case was reported in 1969, when an otherwise healthy 29 year-old newspaper laborer suddenly keeled over with a stroke. The word gained popular usage during the rise of the economic bubble. In 1982, three Japanese physicians diagnosed and analyzed the illness in a book called Karoshi

As Japan embraced Western-style capitalism, it, in turn, started suffocating the Japanese. The corporation eclipsed every community in Japanese life, providing living spaces, arranging marriages and social engagements, and, most importantly, promising full-time jobs that would last a lifetime.

Except they didn’t – at least not for everyone. By the late 90s, Japan’s long-burst bubble had politicians scrambling to emulate the west again, this time adopting the latest US models of profit-margin efficacy: outsourcing, part-time labor, low wages and scant benefits.

Lo and behold: the scourge infecting Japan today has less to do with working too much and killing oneself than not working enough – and killing others.

This year, Japanese police have officially reported at least eight incidents of what they call “random assaults,” indiscriminate stabbing sprees perpetrated by pathologically lonely, underemployed younger Japanese. Part-timer Tomohiro Kato stabbed 17 and killed seven in June; in July, an underemployed laborer stabbed two women in a bookstore, killing one, and a week later, a frustrated young woman stabbed seven on a busy Tokyo train platform.

In each case, the perps had little or no job security, and nothing else in their lives to provide stability or satisfaction.

Enter the Dame-Ren – another Japanese term that loses nothing in the translation. It means “the No Good People,” and refers to a loosely knit organization of university graduates who are devoted to ‘dropping out’ of Japan’s capitalist, consumerist systems. Founded by Waseda University graduate Koichi Kaminaga in the 90s, the Dame-Ren get by on odd jobs, low overhead living (cheap duds and eats), and not a little bit of pluck.

One thirty-something member of the Dame-Ren making a name for himself in 21st century Tokyo is Rikimaru Toho, aka The Manga Man. Toho is an iconoclast to behold: all flowering curls held aloft by a bandana, his long face furrowed beneath a generous goatee. He looks nothing like his salaryman brethren, and even less like the studious hipsters of Shibuya and Harajuku, whose garb is magazine-manufactured.

“See, I was a classic hikikomori (shut-in) and NEET (“Not in Education, Employment or Training”) type of person. I knew from an early age that I just couldn’t fit in,” Toho tells me on a patch of grass beneath a railway bridge. “I was a singer with a guitar, but I really liked manga. Suddenly, I realized my guitar could turn into a manga book. It was my new instrument.”

Toho carries his crates of manga books to street corners and park benches, opens their pages, and acts out the stories with grimaces, growl and howls, and whispery, almost silent utterances. He whirls the books through the air like Pete Townshend windmilling across a Gibson. He’s a one-man band singing of his people’s yearnings and fears, yawping over Tokyo’s rooftops for a few yen and faces wet with tears and smiles.

“My favorite thing from America is the song called The Boxer by Simon and Garfunkel,” he tells me as we both head home. “I especially like the last line: ‘I am leaving, I am leaving, but the fighter still remains.’ That inspires me.”

Toho’s a No Good Person – and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

22 comments on the article “Dame-Ren (No Good People)”

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Indy

A surprising underground sub-culture acts just the way Toho does. In the U.S. and Canada. from ferrel cats, hobos, anarchists to punks, you've got a culture for a country with only 200 years of history. Yet the society sees them as scum, well fuck them the shit rises to the top too. It's a different life, squatting in a foreclosed home that "society" had ejected the family who may have loved it and were mind fucked into debt. We ride the back of the Railroad, hiding from the bull, and do it for the thrill, and life free from any man above. No god, no money, and loving it. http://www.northbankfred.com/ Indiana Man

Indy

A surprising underground sub-culture acts just the way Toho does. In the U.S. and Canada. from ferrel cats, hobos, anarchists to punks, you've got a culture for a country with only 200 years of history. Yet the society sees them as scum, well fuck them the shit rises to the top too. It's a different life, squatting in a foreclosed home that "society" had ejected the family who may have loved it and were mind fucked into debt. We ride the back of the Railroad, hiding from the bull, and do it for the thrill, and life free from any man above. No god, no money, and loving it. http://www.northbankfred.com/ Indiana Man

Anonymous

Beautiful. I've been living on the peripheries of this form of mindless american consumer totalitarianism for years. I would never spend (end) my days in a cubicle or an assembly line precisely because of the lack of social contract and the degrading form of exploitation that life entails. Not because I'm lazy but because I have already done it and there is nothing to be gained except frustration, sickness, and eventual elimination.In that sense I concur with the Manga Man and also in america I am a no good person.

Anonymous

Beautiful. I've been living on the peripheries of this form of mindless american consumer totalitarianism for years. I would never spend (end) my days in a cubicle or an assembly line precisely because of the lack of social contract and the degrading form of exploitation that life entails. Not because I'm lazy but because I have already done it and there is nothing to be gained except frustration, sickness, and eventual elimination.In that sense I concur with the Manga Man and also in america I am a no good person.

Anonymous

I dont understand the point of this article. A few stabbings, a few strokes, and street performers illustrate the evils of Japanese capitalism? Seems like the article is to short :/

Anonymous

I dont understand the point of this article. A few stabbings, a few strokes, and street performers illustrate the evils of Japanese capitalism? Seems like the article is to short :/

eddieshap

In the 60's the Dame-Ren would be called hippies. The difference being hippies did more drugs (I'm assuming) and were less violent (except when they needed more drugs). But I don't buy into the "new" violence of young people. I think the Internet allows anyone with a cell phone to post a picture that can go viral and cause havoc or stardom. We've always had people go crazy and it's not because they're young or jobless. As for Toho, I'm happy for him if he can eck out a living playing guitar for cash. Dame-Rens can go two ways, end up homeless and mumbling to themselves when society shuts them out or they can wake up one day and decide a nice bed and money in their pockets is a better life. I guess you'd have to ask some Silicon Valley types who were American Dame-Rens if that was a better life.

eddieshap

In the 60's the Dame-Ren would be called hippies. The difference being hippies did more drugs (I'm assuming) and were less violent (except when they needed more drugs). But I don't buy into the "new" violence of young people. I think the Internet allows anyone with a cell phone to post a picture that can go viral and cause havoc or stardom. We've always had people go crazy and it's not because they're young or jobless. As for Toho, I'm happy for him if he can eck out a living playing guitar for cash. Dame-Rens can go two ways, end up homeless and mumbling to themselves when society shuts them out or they can wake up one day and decide a nice bed and money in their pockets is a better life. I guess you'd have to ask some Silicon Valley types who were American Dame-Rens if that was a better life.

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