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Review/ By Sam
Homeless in San’ya
A Man with No Talents: Memoirs of a Tokyo Day Laborer
By Oyama Shiro (translated by Edward Fowler ’69)
Cornell University Press, 2005 • 139 pages • $21.00
“A man with no talents” is how Oyama Shiro, a Japanese businessman who
left the corporate world to live as a day laborer in a Tokyo slum,
describes himself in his memoir A Man with No Talents: Memoirs of a
Tokyo Day Laborer, translated into English by Edward Fowler ’69.
Fowler’s translation offers those who don’t read Japanese a rare look
into life in San’ya, the most famous day-laborer quarter in Japan.
Fowler also happens to be the ideal translator of Oyama’s memoir: his
last work, San’ya Blues: Laboring Life in Contemporary Tokyo, was
a study of the San’ya area.
Oyama’s account tells three fascinating stories. Oyama himself is the
subject of the first. He tried his best to adapt to the life of a
“salaryman” but the pressure to conform to company life led to absences
and to the realization that he was “not suited for human life.” He not
only quit his job but also cut all ties with his family and has not been
in touch with them for over two decades. Oyama eventually recognized
that he suffered from depression, and San’ya became the “perfect hiding
His portraits of his fellow day laborers comprise the second story.
There was the confident Tsukamoto, so intent on hiding his identity that
he planned to die in the wilderness, undiscovered; Masked Man, who
always wore a dirty surgical mask; and Kim, a Korean worker, who looked
forward to the day when Korea would “go ahead of Japan.”
The tale of San’ya and other day-laborer districts is the last story. As
Fowler explains, the demand for day laborers was greatest during the
“high-growth era”—from the 1950s through the 1970s—and has been
declining ever since. Oyama actually entered the day-laborer world after
it had begun to decline, so his account is all the more valuable.
Oyama’s story took an unexpected turn in 2000 when he submitted his
jottings to a publisher and his manuscript won the Kaiko Takeshi Prize.
True to form, he asked to be allowed to accept the prize without
appearing in public. Since then, Oyama has left San’ya and has been
living as a homeless person in the Shinjuku area in Tokyo, eating,
sleeping and, as he puts it, avoiding “all contact with other human
beings.” It is, to Oyama, the perfect existence.
Sam Yamashita is the Sheffield Professor of History at Pomona