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.