Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Homeless in Hokkaido

In Tokyo last week, I was returning by metro from a frenzied but largely unsuccessful shopping trip in Shibuya when another Westerner entered my train compartment. He looked like Santa Claus in a lumberjack outfit, with a great beard stretching to the middle of his chest and kindly blue eyes.

‘You look familiar,’ he said as he sat next to me, which immediately marked him as either a jocular fellow whitey in a sea of Japanese or a common or garden public transport full bull goose looney. And he turned out to be a little of both.

Once seated, he immediately began removing clothes, a process which continued for most of the journey, so many layers was he wearing.

‘Where are you from?’ He asked.


‘Oh, I’ve heard that’s a great place. But a hard to place to retire in. Do you think they’d let someone like me move there?’

I said I didn’t know. But that wasn’t what I was thinking. He then said something about immigration to Australia and black people which I didn’t quite catch. I couldn’t be sure it was racist but I felt myself tense. Regular train loonies are amusing as long as you don’t have a three-hour journey but racist camel-jobs* are no one’s idea of a good time.

He asked me if Australia had any troops in Iraq. I said that we did but he wanted to know if they were actually shooting or just building bridges. It seemed somehow important to me that he not confuse us with the kindly Czechs, Koreans or whomever, who are solely there to dig latrines and get shot while dispensing oral hygiene leaflets.

‘No, we were there for the actual war,’ I said. And he seemed doubtful of this, miming the shooting of a rifle to make sure I understood. I assured him Australia had been in Iraq for the combat phase (as opposed to the current ‘non-combat phase’) but I don’t think he believed me. He probably thought there are only two countries, other than Iraq, dumb enough to have been there from the start.

He asked me why I was in Japan and I did something I don’t normally do with camel-jobs: I lied through my teeth. I knew the truth about my job would just cause more and more questions so I told him I was there for a wedding.

‘Oh I’m a protestant minister,’ he said, ‘I’ve done two weddings this week already.’ I imagine he does look like the Japanese ideal of a godly Christian priest.

I had my story roughly sketched out but he side-tracked back to war, saying that Australia had been there in Vietnam, now that he recalled. He told me an anecdote about having been around an Australian infantry unit who were stuck without their supplies and he tried to get them into an American mess tent for a feed. He talked them past the soldier on the door – an, er, black soldier – only to be challenged inside by a cook, to whom he replied: ‘I reckon we need all the men we got to do the fighting. You want to go up country to fight? Neither do I. But these men will. So let ‘em have a meal.’ Apparently this did the job.

Then he started talking about a friend who had been sleeping in Ueno park (which is the park around all the Tokyo art galleries and museums). And I was suddenly now sure that he himself was homeless, looking down at his enormous cheap plastic bag and his layers of clothing.

He showed me a photograph of his friend, who was a Japanese man with a long black beard lying on the foothpath. Inexplicably, the old man I was talking to also featured in this photograph, leaning into the frame and holding a banana in front of his friend’s grinning face. Go figure.

He never actually said he was homeless but he said that a hotel cost ‘two hundred Australian dollars’ a night and he could think of a lot better things to do with two hundred dollars than a bed for a night.

We parted a Ginza station; he to change trains and me to take my sad purchases back to my three hundred dollar a night hotel.

(* ‘Camel-job’ is a term invented by British comedian Jasper Carrot to refer to public transport loonies (as in the person sitting on his own, rocking gently, and saying ‘camel camel camel’ over and over) and is not to be confused with a racist epithet for a person of arabian origin.)

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