By Sawa Kurotani / Special to The Japan News On the seedy side of Tokyo, tucked away in a narrow alleyway, is a small diner that opens at midnight. Nocturnal creatures — yakuza, night workers, cab drivers, bar girls and the like — find momentary refuge from their hard-scrabble lives over comfort food prepared by the master, a man of few words whose colorful past is implied but never spoken. To leave the hustle and bustle of the main street and wander into this dimly lit little place is to travel in time, away from the glitter of the current Heisei era into the nostalgic past of the Showa era (1926-89).
“Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories” (Japanese title: Shinya Shokudo), a popular TV show now distributed on Netflix, is a study in contrast: fast-moving traffic on the modern streets against careful steps one must take in the dark, unpaved alley; the harsh white lights of passing cars and illuminated buildings against yellowish, dim light from a bulb hanging in the middle of a dingy room; people who walk on the sunny side of life against those who can’t, or won’t; cold and unforgiving modern society against the fleeting, yet reassuring, human connection of yesteryear.
With the special legislation for the Emperor’s abdication having been passed, the hankering for that warm glow from the past oozes through this depiction of the Showa era.
Oddly, while I was watching “Midnight Diner,” I kept thinking of a face I hadn’t thought about for a very long time — of a man with deeply wrinkled dark skin around deeply set emotionless eyes, under a grease-stained gray cap. Then I pictured him hunched over a workbench in a dark room, sparks flying everywhere. Suddenly, I knew who he was: the machinist who had a little shop right around the block from my parents’ house.
I grew up in public housing in a working-class neighborhood in the industrial area south of Tokyo. The machinist had his shop next to my housing complex, against the side of a steep hill. It stood right along small makeshift houses that sprung up during the chaotic post-war period and eventually became permanent dwellings. No larger than the kitchen of the town house where I live now, his cluttered cave-like shop had no window or ventilation of any kind, so his door was left wide open year-round while he worked.
Neighborhood kids would stand just outside the door, only a meter away from him. We would squint our eyes at the bright sparks that flew from his lathe and cover our ears to block the screeching noise of the metal pressed against the lathe. His knobby fingers, just like everything else in his shop, were black with grease. He never said a thing to us, or even looked up from the lathe. I don’t remember him ever wearing any kind of protective gear, and no one told us it was dangerous to be so close to a man who was operating industrial machinery. I remember seeing a woman from time to time — his wife, I imagine — working in the corner; for a short while there was a young man working side-by-side with him, his face strangely pale and smooth against the machinist’s dark, wrinkled face.
The machinist seemingly worked all the time, turning and turning the metal pieces on the lathe. The only exception was when the man in the station wagon came. One by one, the machinist carefully stacked cardboard boxes full of metal parts in the back of the car, while the man smoked a cigarette in his driver’s seat. When he was done, he took his cap off and bowed deeply as the station wagon drove away. Once the station wagon disappeared around the corner, he would put his cap back on and go right back to his lathe.
It was much later in life when I came to understand the terms of his existence in the modern Japanese industrial structure. As the lowest rung of a tight-knit family of companies called keiretsu, the machinist made a living by producing highly specialized parts for a well-known auto manufacturer that had a large plant in my town. The middle man in the station wagon probably paid him a fraction of a penny for each piece, turned around and sold them to a mid-range manufacturer, which used his parts to make a bigger automobile component, which were then sold to the assembly plant. Lowest-level suppliers like him made a living by obeying the larger corporate patron, always filling their orders and never complaining.
They had to work long hours to fill orders when the economy was good and cars were selling well; when it slowed down, they had no recourse against shrinking orders or dropping part prices. If they complained, the middle man would threaten them into compliance, reminding them there were many other small shops for whom no orders were too small or too large, no price too low.
Tragic stories of these small suppliers — of becoming disabled by terrible accidents, working themselves to death, or committing suicide after losing their business — were a dime-a-dozen in the so-called “corporate castle towns” around Japan.
Their stories are as much a part of Showa as old-fashioned comfort food and the basic human emotions that make up the world of “Midnight Diner.”
Back then, life was a little simpler, perhaps, and human connections were less fleeting. I do feel fortunate to have grown up during that era when I see millennials struggle through a much more complicated social environment. At the same time, the other, less comforting truth about Showa is also etched in my memory like the machinist’s deep wrinkles.
(The next installment will appear Aug. 12.)