Until that day, I had never thought 130 yens (about $1) could make such a difference.
It was one of those hot Japanese summer days. I went to Yokohama for some shopping. Back in those days, I would go to Yokohama quite often because it was on the way to my high school. Yokohama was a medium-sized city with 3.6 million people and there were several places of interest to me, conveniently located on the same train line. My routine started from a bookshop in Kannai, followed by a big library in Sakuragi-cho, and finished in HMV, the record store, in Yokohama. The whole itinerary was covered by three stations but I often walked to save money.
It was a holiday. I started off with the bookshop in Kannai. I loved bookshops and still do. They had always been my favourite place in the world and I would easily spend hours there. Some of my friends also liked bookshops but I always outstayed them whenever we went together. It was like the internet in real life. I didn’t always buy books – just browsing was fun and besides, being a high school student, I didn’t have much money.
But that day, I bought a book: after browsing through various book shelves – from travel literature to philosophy – I got curious about one particular book that cost 10,000 yens, or about $100. Obviously, it was very expensive for me. The decision came slowly: flipping through the pages with careful deliberation, calculating my level of satisfaction after buying the book, doing a comparative analysis of the outcomes of action and inaction, not to mention measuring the risk/reward ratio of the investment. The execution of my decision was far from speedy: I picked up the book, made my way to the cashier only to have second thoughts, turned around, almost changed my decision, and finally plucked up the courage and bought it.
When I got out of the bookshop the sun was already setting. I was hungry after going through all these highly complicated, multi-variable decision-making processes.
It was a busy shopping street and food wouldn’t be hard to find. I saw First Kitchen, a Japanese fast food chain, something between KFC and McDonald’s. (Also, if you want to know, a popular abbreviation of First Kitchen is Fakkin, which sounds like ‘fucking’. Some people deliberately say it because they know it sounds like swearing and think it’s funny.) I didn’t like any of those fast food restaurants even though I secretly enjoyed some of their stuff. First Kitchen, for example, have cheap-tasting chips (fries) with various cheap-tasting flavours. They are rather tasty just like those cheap-tasting cup noodles.
Not having much money was a perfect excuse to go for fast food. I bought a simple hot dog and ate it with ketchup and mustard. It cost 130 yens in total.
Being less hungry, I decided to walk to Sakuragi-cho where my favourite library was. Sure, I had just bought a 10,000 yen book, but I could look for more books, and why not for free? At the library, I borrowed some books and decided to head to Yokohama, my final destination. All the places were within walking distance although it could easily take 30 or 40 minutes. Taking a train would definitely be quicker but again, I wasn’t exactly a rich student.
It was then that I had a thought: I didn’t have any notes in my wallet. I had spent all of them on the book. Also, the last time I looked inside my wallet – when I bought the hot dog – I didn’t see many coins. So, how much money did I have?
I took out my wallet and opened it. Indeed, I didn’t have any notes, which I already knew. Then I checked the coins. I counted them: one, two three. I only had 150 yens. My return ticket would cost 210 yens. I would need 60 yens more.
I realised that I made a terrible mistake. I had overspent. I shouldn’t have bought the hot dog. Now I wouldn’t be able to get home. I tried hard to come up with a solution.
I knew the answer: vending machines!
It is well known that Japan is a vending machine nation. The last thing you need to worry about when wandering about Japanese streets is dying from dehydration (this is, of course, assuming you have enough money). But what’s not so well known is that people are often too lazy to make sure that they collect all their change. Every child in Japan knows this. Finding uncollected change is one of their favourite pastimes.
I searched every single vending machine I encountered on the way to Yokohama. Finding vending machines was no challenge. I put my fingers into the small boxes where you collect the change, hoping to find some coins. Once, my fingers touched something hard and round. Please, I prayed, give me 100 yen. But it was a 10 yen bronze coin, glittering dimly.
Disappointed, I continued on my way to Yokohama. I didn’t find anything else in the vending machines and now I had 160 yens – 50 yens less than I needed for my ticket to home sweet home. How would I find 50 yens more?
I decided to pretend that the problem didn’t exist for a while. I went to HMV and listened to music. Obviously, I didn’t buy anything. Before I knew it, it was 7:30pm. It was time to go home – only I didn’t know how.
Now, you may think that I could have just called my friends. There were a few problems with this. First of all, people came to high school from all over the prefecture. An hour’s train ride wasn’t unusual so it wasn’t likely that there was somebody living nearby. Secondly, I didn’t have a phone and a public phone would cost money, which I didn’t have. But the other problem was that I didn’t really have friends.
My eyes were desperately searching the ground hoping to find a 50 yen coin someone had miraculously dropped. One didn’t come across such luck every day. There was not a single shiny object in sight.
I had one final thought: what was in abundance in Yokohama’s street wasn’t free money, but people, and people had money. It was their money but, I thought, it could become my money if I asked nicely. All I needed was 50 yens and for most people it would be nothing.
The idea of asking strangers for money made me uneasy. You don’t talk to strangers in Japan (at least in Tokyo), let alone for the purpose of obtaining cash. How did I do it?
I remembered an important lesson I had learnt in India, where I had spent two months some time earlier. I had never seen beggars before I went there. It was an unfamiliar sight but I soon learnt that they were part of people’s everyday lives; they had known local beggars for a long time. Indian beggars were quite hard-core: amputated legs and arms, body parts grossly swollen by elephantiasis, deaf and blind. I had never seen so many variations of visible misfortune. But my most interesting observation was that some beggars were more skilful than others.
There was one man who impressed me in particular. He positioned himself in a train station near the ticket counter. Just when people took out their wallet to pay for the ticket, he would beg. People were already holding money. All they had to do was hand some of their money to the beggar. Clever. I was fascinated. I would often pass a beggar without giving him anything because I wasn’t happy with the idea of taking out my wallet in the middle of a busy street, even though I would be perfectly happy to give my money away otherwise. His tactic totally solved this problem. I gave him some rupees.
This technique would surely work in Japan too. I went to Yokohama station and positioned myself by the half-dozen ticket gates. It was a busy station – there was a constant flow of people. But as I watched them, I faced new anxiety: approaching strangers was scary.
What if they said no? What if they were bad people and beat me up? Maybe they would get annoyed. They might not want to be bothered. I didn’t want to talk to young men – too much fresh testosterone. Young women were out of the question; I didn’t want them to think I was hitting on them. What about older women? No, they looked intimidating.
I settled on mature men wearing suits. I was still hesitating but it was getting dark and I was hungry. I wanted to go home. I approached the first guy.
‘Excuse me, I don’t have enough money to get home. I only need 50 yens more. Would you please spare me 50 yens?’ I said.
‘Ah … well … I don’t know, this is … well … I am also …’ He became uneasy and apologetic. ‘I’m sorry’, he said, and left. I got rejected.
Oddly enough, getting rejected was not as bad as I thought and I was now more confident and less hesitant. I spotted another middle-aged guy wearing casual clothes. I liked that he looked a bit nerdy and not intimidating at all. I approached him right after he bought a ticket.
‘Well let me see’, he searched his wallet. ‘Uh, I think I only have 100 yen coins. But, what the hell, it’s yours.’ He handed me the coin and took off.
‘Hey, I have change’, I was about to say. But he had already gone. I had 100 yens in my hand and 160 yens in my wallet. I bought a 210 yen ticket and took the train home.