The Bohemian Experiment

The Hakata Bums

Posted by beckert10 on July 30, 2009

At times life seems no more than a series of undertakings endured only so they can be gloated about after. It was Saturday night and I’d just arrived in Fukuoka, Japan, after a soggy seven hour bus ride. I’d come from Yakoshima, an island off the southern coast, where I’d been stuck in the mountains during a typhoon. After being drenched for three straight days all I wanted was a cold beer and a dry hotel. However, it turned out to be a holiday weekend. Every room in the area was booked. I considered pulling an all-nighter but knew I didn’t have the strength. Determined to lay my head down on a temporary empire I wandered through Hakata Station hoping an information booth might still be open. Everything was closed for the night. The only activity was from the local hobos staking out the ground for sleeping spots. The better prepared ones had gathered pieces of cardboard to make a shelter. Some laid down newspaper to keep warm while others just sprawled out on the bare ground. I studied them, fascinated. It was like watching a National Geographic special on a creature’s esoteric nocturnal routine. I burned with questions. Were they acquaintances? Did they come here to sleep every night? Was the prime territory under the air conditioners reserved for the older or fitter bucks? Did they engage in combat to determine status? Most importantly, would they take to a young, employed, foreigner in their midst? There was only one way to find out.

I stashed my valuables in a coin-locker then took a couple of laps through to scout out the remaining spots. There was one under an AC duct. I wasn’t sure if I should make such a bold move. I was too weary for a potential battle with a dominant male. Besides, it was right out in the open where people walked past, which wasn’t so much dangerous as embarrassing. I wondered if bums even thought about such things. Did these men cling to any standard of decency after begging and scrounging for discarded food all day? Does survival totally eclipse dignity?
First I wanted to feel the vibe and decide if it was safe. I chose a spot and sat down to write in my journal. For the most part I received nothing more than a few interested looks. After about ten minutes a middle-aged hobo approached and offered me a soda. He rambled on in Japanese, occasionally throwing in a random English word for what seemed like good measure. I opened my guidebook to a map of Japan and tried to reconstruct my journey for him. At the mention of the name Okinawa he got very excited. He kept saying the name over and over again, nearly frantic. I thought maybe his grandfather had been killed there during the War. In a moment he’d spread the word that an American swine was in their midst. They’d tear me to pieces.

As an American traveling abroad I’m often confronted with the effects of my country’s empirical aspirations. Nowhere was this truer than in Japan. Earlier in the week I’d visited Nagasaki and concluded that no tactical explanation could justify the horrors of nuclear warfare. Reading the testimonials of people whose friends and families had been vaporized, seeing the photos of peoples’ skin melting off, I glimpsed the possibilities of a world gone completely mad. Even though I’d personally done nothing to harm the Japanese I couldn’t help but feel there was blood on my hands, or at least on my conscience. I hoped my presence didn’t remind them of one of humanity’s darkest hours. Unfortunately, it was hard to be sure. The language barrier had often proven to be impenetrable. As I sat on the floor with the hobo I could only nod, smile politely, and acknowledge that this was at least a small step towards compassion.
As we were sitting there a group of drunk guys came storming through the station screaming, “Wake up!” at snoozing hobos. Their accents and demeanor revealed them as my fellow countrymen. They laughed and cheered each other on but as they saw me a look of confusion registered on their faces. For a moment I thought of asking if they had a place on the floor where I could crash for the night. However, at that moment, being able to speak the same language seemed inconsequential in regards to being a person worth talking with. People like this are the reason Americans are still widely considered condescending, buffoonish thugs. I suddenly felt quite fortunate to be on the floor with someone who could do no more to communicate with me than chant, “Okinawa good.”

After my visitor departed it was past 1:00 and most of the activity inside the station had come to an end. Police officers made rounds, their shoes clacking distinctly on the tile floor. Occasionally a person or two passed through, their pace quickened by the sight of so many misfortunate men. I unrolled my bag, got inside, stripped down to my underwear and made a pillow out of clothing. Sleep didn’t come quickly or easily. The ground was hard and I felt hot and slimy inside the bag. Restless, I sat up and looked around. Watching the hobos doze peacefully, I wondered if it wasn’t in fact my conscience causing my somnambulism. Despite paying lip service to altruism, my real motivation for being there was much less noble. I thought myself quite brash for spending the night alongside a bunch of homeless people. In reality I was just pursuing another conquest that I could regale friends with back at home. When morning came I’d roll up my designer bag, unlock my belongings and carry on thinking how down to earth I was. It didn’t occur to me until then that these men were sleeping here not because it was edgy but because they didn’t have a choice. Though more subtle than my drunken compatriots, I too had acted as if I were better than the hobos. Elitism takes many forms.

At around 5:30 the police started waking people up and telling them to leave the station. The hobos passively obliged except for one man who screamed and began throwing trash around. The cops showed no special treatment as they shook me and pointed towards the exit. At least in their eyes we were all equal.
The temporary shantytown was broken down and its inhabitants dispersed onto the streets of Fukuoka. I collected my belongings from the locker and went to the bathroom to freshen up. I was surprised to find it very busy. Many of those I’d slept alongside were getting ready to face the day as well. That they needed to shave, brush their teeth and wash their faces had never occurred to me. It felt like a youth hostel bathroom. Some of the men gave a friendly nod or smile as if we were acquaintances. They even cleared a spot for me at the basin. I was unable to imagine what they had to get ready for. They were bums, after all, a title which belies loafing around in dingy alleys, eating discarded food and being generally uncivilized. But there they were, preparing to put a fresh face forward into the world just like me. One man emerged from a stall with a satisfied look. Apparently the glory of the morning shit is transcendental as well.

When I finished it was just past six. I had nowhere to go for the three hours until my ferry left. A group of hobos had gathered in the central square outside the station to reconstruct their cardboard settlement. I considered sitting with them but didn’t want to push my luck. I decided instead to go to the Starbucks across the street, where people like me belonged. As the sun’s rays stretched out over the city they illuminated an established order that was too complex to undo. The morning light confirmed my suspicion that the differences between American and Japanese, employed and homeless, were too great to overcome. I might as well stop pretending that my exploits were anything other than something that made me feel good about myself.

I was walking towards the street when I felt a hand on my arm. I turned to see a man whose face I vaguely recalled from the lobby last night. He gestured for me to join them and I accepted. As we approached he said something in Japanese. Immediately a piece of cardboard was laid down for me. This man was clearly the Alpha bum. He strode around almost cockily, his large gut destroying the myth of bums as starving wretches. He said something else and a man came over with a bag full of bread. Just imagine how I felt, having homeless people offer me food! The boss sat beside me smiling. He gave instructions to the others like an Asian Tony Soprano. It soon became clear that these men did not just loaf around all day leering and talking to themselves. They had a highly organized can and bottle collection operation as well as a cleaning crew. I felt like the bum as I loafed around and ate their bread. After the area was cleaned the bottles and cans were carried away in bags. A few minutes later my pot-bellied friend returned with money and handed it out to the others. Soon they all had beer and snacks. One of them placed a can of cold draft in my hand. Beer… at 7:30 a.m….why not? Technically I was still on vacation. I admired the efficiency of their market socialism. The streets were packed with people rushing off to start work while these guys were already sipping brews and relaxing. I was trying to figure out how their system had come into being when I recalled reading about Japan’s sizable homeless population. It’s made up largely of men who lost their jobs during the Asian financial crisis of the 80’s. Many had worked at one company their entire lives and when it went down they were unable to find work again. Viewing them in this light I realized they were not so different than me or the swarms of people heading to the office. The reason people pack themselves into crowded trains and sterile offices is the same one that obliges hobos to freshen up and collect recyclables or a man to seek adventure in a foreign country. It is pride that compels people to face each day with purpose. The city coming to life around me could be explained by the simple fact that people want to prove they are good for something. Thus, I sat with my new friends not as an American or a white guy or a tourist, but as a human being united in the search for dignity.

There were only about forty-five minutes until my boat left. I ran to the shop and bought a round of beers. I raised mine in toast, proclaiming: “Arigato hazai mas”. Thank you very much. I longed to say more. As a substitute I bowed deeply in parting. “Goodbye,” some of them managed to say. When I was nearly to the road I turned back for one last look at the Hakata bums then walked out of their lives forever.

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