Editor's note: This post was originally written by Yuki Sakaguchi for Ignition.co, a Japanese online magazine who also covered one of our stories. Why the exchange? Because perspective is beautiful. Yuki's story is from a different place but the context is something anyone in the world would connect to. It is a story of human perseverance, of being down and out but finally rising...
Confined to a single, 50sq-foot room (1,200 yen a night), I toil away every day with nothing to show for it.
Nowadays, I travel the world while building websites. But from September 2011 to April 2012, back when I'd just started doing web design and wasn't making any money off it, I lived in the slums of the Airin District in Osaka.
The following is the story of how during that time I got to know a fellow tenant and ex-Yakuza lieutenant (I shall refer to him under the alias "Mr. Nakajo") who gave me valuable work advice that has guided my life since.
Confined to a single, 50sq-foot room (1,200 yen a night), I toil away every day with nothing to show for it
At the time, my life consisted of endlessly building website after website while cooped up in my moldy, 50sq-foot room (1,200 yen a night). I didn't have a desk so I had to go to BOOK-OFF (a second-hand shop) to buy some books and stack them together to make an improvised table for my laptop. That's where I did all of my work from.
Needless to say, my earnings were virtually nonexistent. So there I was, with no money, and living in the Airin District. How was I not to think of myself as worthless human garbage? Once I came to the realization to the kind of life I had been leading, I could almost hear my heart crumble away into nothing.
In the troubled Airin District, also known as Japan's only "slum quarters," disheveled laborers and vagrants lying in the streets, drinking, and getting into fights have become a common sight."
As an outsider, I was uncomfortable both outside and inside my apartment, but especially in the bath. We had a shared bath which anyone could use as much as they wanted between 5 and 11 p.m. One night, I went to take a shower at around 8pm and I found myself surrounded by scores of middle-aged men with sinister tattoos depicting things like demons, ogres, and one man had a peacock with magnificent wings that made it look like it was about to take flight at any moment. I felt like they were going to eat me alive. That was it for me. Since then, to avoid this type of situation, I would only use the bath near closing time, after everyone was already done with it. Every night I would come in around 11 p.m., take a quick shower, and hurry back to my room. My life was like something out of "The Secret World of Arrietty."* But this wasn't a Studio Ghibli movie.
It was then that I first met Mr. Nakajo, a former top lieutenant in the Yakuza.
* "The Secret World of Arrietty": An animated feature film directed by Hayao Miyazaki.
One day, a jovial middle-aged man came barging into the bath
"How you doing, sonny?!"
An energetic middle-aged man came barging into the bath and greeted me with his ridiculously booming voice that made the whole bath shake. Momentarily dumbstruck and unable to move, all I could muster was, “Are… are you talking to me?" Before I could even start to regret getting in the bath in the first place, the man skipped the shower and joined me in the tub, blocking my escape.
The man said, "Don't think I've ever seen ya here before, sonny! You hiding from something?!"
I replied, "N-no! Why would I?!"
The man went on, "Well, the only young guys we get around here are the ones that have made some kind of mess of their lives." He let out a boisterous laugh.
I thought, "You're not entirely wrong there..."
He then asked me, "How long ya been living here?"
"About two months."
"Right, right, it was about two months ago!"
So they have noticed me, I thought to myself, but it didn't bother me. The man in front of me was in his mid-30s, strongly-built with a dark complexion and a gleaming, burgeoning face. He looked a little like a laborer but he wasn't giving off that pessimistic vibe like all the other laborers from around here. Maybe it was his vigorous laughter but he clearly had an aura about him unlike any person I've ever met.
The man told me, "You know, sonny, everyone was wondering what you are even doing here!"
I responded, "I thought they might," and laughed.
The man asked, "I mean, this just doesn't seem like the place for someone like you. You do realize that, right?"
"Yeah, I guess."
"Every young guy here is either in construction, on drugs, or in the Yakuza, so ya attract attention just by walking down the street. Be careful, alright? So, what are you doing here?"
I got the feeling that he would know right away if I held anything back, so I decided to throw caution to the wind and just told him everything.
I told him how I got depressed last year and quit my job.
I told him how I decided to start my own business because I felt that I could no longer work for a large corporation.
I told him how I came to the Airin District to claw my way up without anyone's help.
I told him how I wasn't making any money but would like to move abroad in the near future.
I told him all of it.
The middle-aged man seemed to be enjoying my story. When I finished, he laughed intensely and said, "I see, I see. You sure are giving it your all. Well, everyone fails and is hard up for money in the beginning. But when you get over that, that's when ya really become an adult." Those were the first kind words I had heard since coming to the Airin District. I almost began to cry.
Learning about "life" in the bath
The middle-aged man was called Mr. Nakajo. He told me he moved to the Airin District half a year ago for work.
Mr. Nakajo told me, "Before that, I lived in Kanagawa!"
I responded excitedly, "Really? I'm from there! I was born in Yokohama!"
By some miracle, we found something we had in common!
I asked him, "What type of work did you do in Kanagawa?"
"I was in the Yakuza!"
"Ya know, the mob! I was a lieutenant there!"
So much for having something in common…
More importantly, should people admit to being in the Yakuza just like that?
I always thought that all Yakuza looked more like this.
Mr. Nakajo was nothing like that! For one, he didn't have any tattoos. He was just the local middle-aged man who looked like he played a lot of sandlot baseball and the like! But that's precisely what made the real him so much more interesting.
Everything Mr. Nakajo told me next was simply incredible, like the part about the underworld and how they make their money. For example, he told me how to make 6 million yen a month running a scam dating site, or how to raise 800 million yet in profits by taking over a pachinko parlor, etc…
He told me, "Listen here, Saka! Do you have any idea how much money it takes to open a pachinko parlor in a prime location? At least 3 billion yen! Then there's all the paperwork. It's much cheaper to just take over an existing pachinko parlor! So what you do is, you make a deal with a company that wants to expand to that area, and you take over a pachinko parlor that's already there! That usually takes about 8 months. But first, ya have to..."
He also told me about his work for the Yakuza.
I asked him, "Wasn't it difficult to quit the Yakuza? On TV, they always have to cut off their pinkies etc."
"I made them plenty of money so there was nothing like that! If they made you cut off a pinky so easily, everyone would quickly run out of fingers."
"Wow. But, since you made them plenty of money, didn't they try to stop you from leaving?"
"Oh, yes! The boss man and I got into it a lot. But in the end, we came to an understanding. Sure was difficult though!"
"But you were determined to go straight, right?"
"I knew that if I wanted to do some honest work, I had to get out of the mob. Tell you the truth, the mob is all rubbish anyway! I couldn't stay there forever!"
Then there was this conversation…
I asked him, "What exactly did you do for the Yakuza, Mr. Nakajo?"
Mr. Nakajo replied, "I was their liaison officer!"
"Yup. If our guys got into trouble with someone outside the organization, it was my job to go there and fix it!"
"Wasn't that… incredibly dangerous?!"
"Sure was. Well, someone had to do it, ya know! So I'd get there and talk it out, and if our guys were at fault, then I'd look for a compromise. But if it wasn't our fault, I wouldn't give them an inch. Thanks to that, things did get hairy from time to time!"
"Was your life ever in danger?"
"Oh, yeah! I was out on the road one day when suddenly someone pulled up next to me and shot up my car. I got angry and tried to chase them but for some reason, I had trouble stepping on the gas pedal. I then noticed the blood gushing from my right leg! I appeared in the papers a couple of times!"
From the strange jobs he'd held to the inner-workings of the underworld, everything that Mr. Nakajo talked about was always exciting and fascinating. But, of course, it barely scratched the surface. I'm guessing Mr. Nakajo did plenty of things which he never told me about and which would probably fill me disgust. He must have had loads of brutal deeds on his conscience. But I didn't care.
I had no friends in Osaka, and since I broke my cell phone after coming down with depression, I had no one with whom I could have a casual chat; no one besides Mr. Nakajo.
"It's time for the New Year temple visit, Saka! Let's go!"
It was January 2012. Before I knew it, it had been 4 months since I started living in Airin.
By then, I had already gotten completely used to my apartment. I could even exchange pleasantries with the locals and generally interact with society.
One night, I went down to the lobby to wish everyone a happy New Year, but there was no one there. I hung around for a while when I happened to run into Mr. Nakajo as he came out of his room. "Let's go for our New Year temple visit," he said to me.
Mr. Nakajo told me, "You still haven't gone, right? Let's go to Sumiyoshi Taisha!"
I responded, "Are you sure you want to go together?"
"Sure, there ain't anybody here anyway!"
"Where did they all go?"
"To work. The New Year is a busy time for them. They're all setting up shop at Sumiyoshi Taisha!"
We got into Mr. Nakajo's car and headed for Sumiyoshi Taisha. The temple grounds were crowded with people. Mr. Nakajo explained that most people at the apartment complex work at construction sites, but when the work stops during the New Year, they turn to this type of work and just rake it in. I never knew that festival stalls were operated by these kinds of people.
As we walked around, a lot of people called out to Mr. Nakajo. He explained that he still had plenty of contacts among all the hucksters. Every 30 feet or so, he'd stop for a pleasant chat with one of them.
I said, "You sure do know a lot of people!"
Mr. Nakajo replied, "I guess so? This job is all about contacts. You'll starve without ‘em. I may be clean now but keeping up these kinds of relationships is important!"
"Still, there's just so many of them!" I laughed.
"Ya know, Saka,.. All those people that bowed to me? They probably thought that you are my underling!"
Mr. Nakajo let out a big laugh.
It was all so strange and wonderful at the same time. After we were done with the temple visit, Mr. Nakajo said he'd treat me to some ramen so we got in the car and headed towards Kyobashi. We went to a small noodle shop not far from Kyobashi Station that only had a counter and a couple of tables.
Mr. Nakajo said he'd been coming there for years. He told me all about the secrets to its success, like its management, the prices, profit margins etc. It was almost as if he'd actually worked there himself. The owner greeted us with a, “Oh come on, give me a break, Mr. Nakajo!" and laughed. It felt like it'd been a while since I last had a hot meal. Back then, I was unbelievably poor. Eating out was of course out of the question, but even that bowl of ramen was beyond my means. I remember it being really delicious.
After we ate, we went outside and enjoyed the cool New Year breeze. That's when it all came bubbling to the surface. “The work I do… does it even matter?" I thought to myself. I loved listening to Mr. Nakajo's stories about his work and how businesses really operate, but at the same time, it always made me think: Compared to that, my work didn't seem to matter at all.
When I was 23, I left my company after coming down with depression. Being around people had started to frighten me but life had to go on so I decided to build websites for a living because it was something I could do all on my own.
I didn't become enamored with the Yakuza through Mr. Nakajo's stories, nor did I start to resent my job. It was all I had back then, plus, I've always been proud of the work I did.
However, listening to someone whose work involved dealing and butting heads with people, there were times where I couldn't stop being jealous of that because I threw it all away. For better or worse, Mr. Nakajo made me realize that there are so many ways to live and, because I still weren't making as much money as I would have wanted back then, it made me feel hopelessly inferior to those who were able to make it out there.
"The work I do…I don't think it actually matters," I murmured, betraying my real feelings.
"What are ya saying all of sudden?" Mr. Nakajo asked. I then told him the truth about what I was going through.
He didn't laugh. Now that I think about it, every time we talked, Mr. Nakajo used to always laugh away my concerns but that time he listened to me with a serious, kind look on his face.
"You know, Saka… I made loads of money in my life. I also spent loads of money in my life. And women? I had so many of them, they kinda bore me now. But all of that made me realize that work is not about money. Work comes down to whether ya get a sense of fulfillment out of it or not, no matter what it is you do. The one type of work you should never do is the type that doesn't fulfill you. That's something money can't buy. Does your work give you a sense of fulfillment, Saka?"
"Yes," I answered without thinking. Mr. Nakajo laughed. "Then you have nothing to worry about! Don't give up!"
Leaving the Airin District
Looking back at it now, my talk with Mr. Nakajo was when I finally stopped having doubts about the work that I did. Instead, I started concentrating on it and my dream 24/7. I tuned out all distractions and threw myself into my work. As a result, I started seeing some income after the New Year. 100,000 yen at first, then 150,000, and it just grew from there. Before I knew it, I was making 2, 3 times as much as at my old company.
In April 2012, I left the Airin District. When I went to say my final goodbyes to Mr. Nakajo, he was genuinely happy for me. He told me that he too will soon be moving somewhere else for a different job. “If you ever need anything, call me," he said as he handed me a piece of paper with his contact information. Fortunately, I haven't had a reason to call that number to this day.
Continuing the work that gives me a sense of fulfillment
In July the same year, I left Japan, taking the first step towards my dream. I would travel and work from different cities all around the world. I would lead a life where traveling and working were the same thing. I would rent an apartment, take language classes, and find a local girlfriend. I would have to do it all on my own but I was determined to prove that not being tied down to any corporation or organization would not stop me from traveling the world. In just a year and a half, the life that I envisioned while living in the Airin District has slowly come true.
But there are still times when I have doubts about my work or hit a brick wall; times where I'm afraid and find myself at a standstill. When that happens, I remember what Mr. Nakajo told me. I remember his booming, powerful voice and the way he used to laugh away all of my concerns.
"Does your work give you a sense of fulfillment?"
What would your answer be?