American Thought Today: Karl Taro Greenfeld ("Wild zero/I'm not a zero")

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Jeffrey Rubard

Aug 4, 2020, 7:34:19 PM8/4/20
From *Speed Tribes* (1994), a non-breathless cultural sociology of modern Japan:


What made seventeen-year-old Daisuke Kato so jumpy was his father downstairs in the family sushi shop, cutting green onions in steady slices—chop, chop, chop—while singing, of all things, “Splish, splash, I was taking a bath…”

The chopping was rhythmic, constant, pausing only momentarily as Minoru Kato, thirty-seven, finished the green onions and began on the daikon (giant white radish).

Daisuke, known as Dai (pronounced “die”), stood at his battered old JVC turntable. He had turned off the Shinehead record so he could better hear his father at work downstairs. Sixteen-year-old Aye (pronounced “eye-ay”) lay on Daisuke’s sofa-futon, her heavy wool, blue school-uniform blouse in a heap on the tatami floor next to the futon. She wore a light-blue bra—Dai had seen it before—and a skirt made of the same coarse material as the blouse. When the chopping resumed, Dai turned his attention back to Aye.

Her eyes were closed.

He figured as long as he could hear the chopping he was fine. That meant his father was occupied preparing the restaurant for tonight’s business while his mother was out shopping for vegetables. Not that his father would have been angry; Dai just wanted to avoid an embarrassing situation, like his father surprising them by bringing up a tray of Cokes or green tea.

Chop, chop, chop. He had heard that chopping thousands of times, as an out-of-sync percussion section to his reggae records, or as a reassuring reminder, when he woke from some afternoon nightmare, that he was home. Now, the hard thunk of knife-steel against cutting board sounded to Dai like a drum beat urging him to action.

Aye’s eyes opened. She stared at him, smiling faintly, her crooked teeth making her look less innocent, more like an accomplice than a victim.

“I’m cold,” she said.

Dai lunged for her.

His father kept chopping as Daisuke Kato lost his virginity.

* * *

Ohana-jaya, a sprawling suburban wasteland about an hour out of central Tokyo, is best known as a bedroom community of last resort for the armies of blue-collar and service sector employees who keep Tokyo fed, housed, clad, gassed-up, and on time. The suburb is also an industrial vassal community, where subcontractors and mechanics eke out livings from the scraps dispensed by world-famous manufacturing concerns such as Honda, Kawasaki, and Yamaha. The streets that extend outward from Ohana-jaya’s Occupation-era train station are lined with motorcycle parts subcontractors and motorcycle repair shops. The shop interiors are twisted masses of bike frames, plastic body fairings, bulbous gas tanks, chrome forks, black handlebars, white rims, tires, electronic ignition systems, and carburetors dangling fuel lines. The men who work in these tiny factories are the foot soldiers of Japan’s renowned just-in-time parts delivery network—the much-vaunted manufacturing system that enables large Japanese car and motorcycle manufacturers to keep down costs by understocking parts and calling on their subcontractors when they need, say, five hundred lower cowlings or twelve gross of regulator rectifiers. The substantial cost of keeping necessary parts in inventory is thus passed on to the small subcontractor, hired on a piecework basis by Honda or some other corporate giant. The subcontractor must come up with the parts as needed or risk being dumped by the manufacturer. When there’s a boom, or bubble, the subcontractor doesn’t share much of the windfall; when there’s a recession, the subcontractor is hit hardest, as it is his inventory, not the big manufacturer’s, that languishes on the shelf.

“We’re sometimes given two days notice for orders of outrageous size,” says a subcontractor who fills orders for a major motorcycle manufacturer. “They need the parts, and if we don’t have them, they’ll get them. So we make sure we have them, even if we have to buy from another contractor to make the order.”

When the neighborhood was busier, the streets were a cacophony of clanging machinery and buzzing welders, as workers in gray jumpsuits rushed to fill orders. The scrap metal dealers in the area also upped their workload during periods of heavy ordering, usually around the beginning of the year. It was in those good times that the run-down two-story houses, small empty shops, and numerous derelicts in the area could be ignored. In those booming times the myth of blue-collar Japan was alive and well.

But when it slowed down, as the inventory of windshields and cowlings and ignition cylinders sat on the shelves gathering dust, the neighborhood took on a different flavor. The thick smoke of scrap metal dealers melting down their stock filled the air. Bums and cough-syrup drinkers and butane sniffers and hookers suddenly seemed everywhere. The streets became a maze of broken-down cars that no one could afford to fix anymore and vandalized cigarette and beverage vending machines that had been looted by local kids who poured shampoo into the coin slots to coax the weight-sensitive coin counters into spitting out free change.

The police don’t have much of a presence in Ohana-jaya. They do have their koban (small police station) near the train station and a squad car that wends its way through the neighborhood once in a while, but the police, like most outsiders in this community, can’t find their way through the side streets that form an intricate warren of small shops, bike-part subcontractors, and tiny one- and two-family dwellings.

Last year, in Koto-ku, the ward that contains Ohana-jaya, there were 13,274 births, 12,996 deaths, 4 murders, 3 rapes, 87 cases of grand larceny automobile, and 1,284 cases of motorcycle theft.

Dai, holding a skateboard, bowed to Aye in front of the Kato Sushi Shop. A blue banner proclaiming the shop’s name fluttered in the smoky late-afternoon breeze. Aye smiled at him, her black hair whipping up behind her. Dai’s father shouted good-bye to Aye from inside the shop. He was washing the knives now, preparing the cutlery for tonight’s business.

Dai winked at Aye. “I’ll call you.”
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