Scenes From Behind The Bamboo Screen: The Junkman

(Originally posted Wednesday, April 26, 2006)


Good things are cheap.
Japanese proverb

Fall arrives in Japan like a long-forgotten friend, suddenly and without prior notice. One day, the sun is pounding down on you from an opaque sky the color of sour lemonade. The next morning, you wake to a chill north wind and a sky so deep and so blue that you could almost drown looking up.

And it is this north wind I’m fighting as I pedal up the bike path along the Tama River to our apartment in Ikuta. I’m on my way home from Higashi Kitazawa where I work as a translator in a small translating company run by an eccentric German fellow. After eight mind-bending hours trying to turn Japanese-language technical articles into passable English, the exercise and fresh air feel great.

There is a station in Ikuta, of course, but the trains are hopelessly jammed with commuters. By cycling to Noborito Station, I can catch the express and shave 15 minutes off my commute.

The river is wide here. With it flows the wind down from the mountains in the far north. It is the restless wind of the coming winter. Combing the grasses on the near shore and creating wavelets on the water, it seems to be hurrying the river along on its path to the sea. Behind a spillway, young couples float about on rental rowboats. Along the shore, vendors sell noodles and grilled squid from ramshackle huts. Small children play hide-and-seek in the pampas grass, and old men, like night herons, fish stoically from the riverbank. It is a set piece. Everything is in its place. Once again, it occurs to me what a peaceful and orderly country Japan is.

It was somewhere around here in 1948 that the beat writer Osamu Dazai committed double suicide with his mistress, a married woman. I’ve been trying to track down the exact location for some time but with no success. The younger people haven’t read him, and the older folks seem vaguely embarrassed by the whole affair and are disinclined to discuss it.

The title of his most famous work “No Longer Human” translates into English literally (and more accurately) as “The Failed Human.” It begins with the words: “I never met the madman who wrote these notebooks….” He is, of course, writing about himself. The novel deals with Japan’s postwar identity crises and the author’s inability to live something akin to a normal life in a disintegrating society. Old Japan had been destroyed, yet new Japan had yet to fill the void. It was an era during which only the strong would survive.

Between the river and the small hill on which our apartment is built are a hodgepodge of pear orchards, small workshops, and homes. Zoning laws do not exist here, and machine shops coexist peaceably with tiny farms and single-family dwellings.

The area is crisscrossed by winding paths and narrow roads, and I make it a point to explore a different route every day. Taking a right where I usually turn left leads me to a small junkyard. An old man is squatting on his haunches next to a dead heat exchanger, removing the more valuable copper tubing from the mundane steel.

An inveterate scrounger, I can never pass by a junkyard without giving it at least a brief perusal. In fact, I look forward to the day when advancing years excuse me from doing real work and I can do what I please, which is to have my own motorcycle junkyard.

“Konichiwa,” I say in greeting. “Looks like fall has arrived.”
“It’s about time, the heat was getting unbearable.”
“Man, that washing machine over there looks brand-new,” I say.
“Yeah, Japan is too rich now. People just throw everything away. That’s not the way it was when I was growing up.”

I’m trying hard to ignore the Suzuki GS750 that is laying on top of a pile of old bicycles right next to us. It looks like it’s all there-a few scratches on the tank, a few dents in the pipes, but good tires and only 27,000 km on the clock.

Few people have garages on these overcrowded little islands. When old things are replaced with new, the old goes in the trash or to the junkyard. Most of my foreign friends have furnished their homes and apartments almost entirely with cast-offs rummaged from the sodai gomi, large-item garbage (I haven’t done too badly there myself.) The areas around the train stations are littered with abandoned bicycles and slowly rotting motorcycles, most of which need only a little TLC to be put back into service. In Japan, there is little demand for hito no mono, other people’s possessions. When the Japanese buy, they buy new.

The dreaded shaken also takes its toll. These biannual inspections are expensive and provide a convenient excuse for dumping the faithful old hack and replacing it with something new and shiny. Of course, one can perform the work oneself (as I do), but even more so than their Western counterparts, most Japanese riders are mechanically illiterate–unwitting victims of modern motorcycle technology.

“Those were hard times back then,” he says, putting down his tools and rolling a smoke. “In those days, we took care of what we had.”

Then, after a pause, “Still, losing the war was probably for the best. Back then, you couldn’t even walk along the river without the police stopping you and asking what you were up to. Things are much better now.”

I ask him if he knows where Dazai went for a swim.
“Yeah, it was a few miles downstream, by the big dam. Some people said he lost his nerve, but the girl pushed him in and then jumped in herself.”
Noticing my surprise, he gives me a look that says that scrap metal has not always been his profession.

“So, how much would you want for this beat-up old bike here?” I say, nudging the Suzuki’s rear tire with my foot.
“Well, I can only get Ň≥5,000 for it as scrap metal…”

Trying to conceal my excitement I casually peel a 5K note from my billfold and hand it over. With a jumpstart from his truck, it fires right up. Leaving my bicycle to be picked up later, I ride home on my latest find, giddy with my good fortune–a perfectly running 750 Suzuki for only 50 bucks!

Well, not quite perfect. The engine sputters and coughs badly at low rpm. Opening the seat tells me why: no air cleaner. Without the intake resistance of the air filter, the engine is running too lean. To test my theory, I clamp rags over the carb intakes and punch a few holes in them to simulate intake restriction. Suspicions confirmed! She now runs fine. There is probably some dried fuel residue in the low-speed circuits, but not enough to justify a full carb strip. A little fiddling with the air screws, a can of fuel injector cleaner in the fuel tank and a good hard thrash through the empty late-night streets has Big Suzi screaming in pleasure.

After riding her around for a few weeks to make sure all is in order, I load it into my tiny van and take it to the docks. In Bangkok lives a German acquaintance who earns his living translating my English into German. He will be stoked to get such a fine machine for only $1,700.

A few months later, I make another detour to the junkyard, only to discover that it is no longer there. In its place is the freshly poured foundation of an apartment building. A small group of workers are busily bending rebar and nailing up forms. No one knows what became of the old man.

Though I hadn’t noticed that fall had arrived,
I suddenly realize from the sound of the wind
that it has.

From Ancient and Modern Japanese Poems, 10th century


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