Book Reviews

A Man with No Talents by
Oyama Shiro, translated by Edward Fowler

Cornell University Press

"I am, in short, a man of no talents who is incapable of relating to women or coping with work. I do not say this out of self-reproach." So writes Oyama Shiro in a memoir of his life as a day laborer in Tokyo’s Sanya district. However, unlike many in Sanya, Oyama is a special case. He is, by his own admission, a dropout from life. Although university educated, he is unable to cope with the demands of a middle-class working existence and so joins the day-laborer class in an attempt to be as true to himself as he can given the circumstances of his Japanese society and the quirks of his personality.

Oyama writes about the shiftless world of the day laborer in Sanya. Composed mostly of ageing men living on the day-to-day wages they eke out from unskilled labor, Sanya is a world of bunkhouses known as doya and temporary employment offices. Oyama writes as the consummate insider. He describes life in the doya in the cramped bunk bed compartments separated from the others by only a thin curtain. His struggles to achieve privacy in this environment are interesting. The men in Sanya are loners whose capacity for relationship is limited. Cut off from family because of misfortune or unremitting vice (alcoholism or gambling), they have little to offer even to themselves. Oyama documents his encounters with fellow Sanya insiders and scrutinizes their personalities. There is the noble Tsukamoto whose only reason to court Oyama’s friendship is to find out whether Oyama believes in ghosts. It turns out Tsukamoto is afraid of his ghost haunting the family from whom he has cut himself off if he commits suicide. His deepest desire is to vanish off the face of the earth without a trace. Then there is Kato-san, a failed labor activist whom Oyama characterizes as a "spoiled, middle-aged alcoholic and no more." Masked Man is precisely that—a man who, for fear of being identified, wears a cotton face mask just below his eyes, over his nose, and above his mouth.

While immersed in this world, Oyama is also very much the lucid thinker and observer. Near the end of the book, he makes some surprising conclusions. He says, for example, that it has been fortunate that he has lived in an advanced capitalist country such as Japan in which he could choose this life. He is grateful for the collapse of the "socialist fantasy" wherein he feels he would have been otherwise institutionalized. He believes in the importance of education after rubbing shoulders with the baseness of his colleagues. And yet of those who would romanticize the life of the day laborer as in the media, he would say it was their education that would permit them to see intelligence where there was none. Ironically, it is Oyama’s own intelligence that sets him apart from the rest of his crowd. 

At age 53, after having lived for 15 years in this demi-monde, he decided to write an account of his life. As a lark, he submitted the manuscript to a prestigious literary contest in Japan. To his surprise, the book won. But in keeping with his hermitlike self, Oyama (pen name) did not show up for the award ceremonies and to this day remains anonymous. A Man with No Talents is the translation of the original manuscript published in 2000. 

Reviewed by Sally Ito