Interview by Ryoko Kin, The Big Issue Japan
In front of the Expressway Bus Terminal at the west exit of Shinjuku station in Tokyo, Hiroaki Kashiwagi sells copies of The Big Issue Japan. The 66-year-old stands from 8-10pm on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and from 5pm every other day. While big stations are popular spots for vendors, it is quite rare to find someone selling The Big Issue at night in Japan.
But why does he sell at night? Because Kashiwagi is busy during the day. From 8am – 5pm, he does cleaning work at seven different parks in Tokyo. Then he travels to Shinjuku to sell copies of The Big Issue to commuters making their way home. But his day doesn’t end there. After returning to his neighbourhood late at night, he voluntarily cleans up the litter from a local bicycle shelter before finally heading home for the day.
When asked why he pushes himself so much, he replied: “Fortunately, thanks to the support I received, I was able to find housing after being homeless for about a year. That’s why I would like to help other people by doing whatever I can.”
Kashiwagi was born on Awaji Island in Hyōgo Prefecture in 1948. His father was already absent when he was born. His mother remarried when he was 13 years old. He felt that there was no space for him, so he began to avoid going back home.
“I was a homeless kid. I picked up anything I could exchange for money. Back then, lots of people used to push around carts full of things they wanted to sell and to collect scrap. I used to push other people’s carts up hills to get some extra money. This money helped me to buy some food. I didn’t ask my mother to give me some money. I just couldn’t.”
Before he graduated from junior high school, he had left his home and had started working as a carpenter. “I used to stay at one job site for four to five months. We’d build buildings and then move on to the next site,” he recalled.
Kashiwagi had worked for his last employer for about 20 years, but after the recession he was only offered low paying contracts and, eventually, he had no choice but to quit his job. After that, he searched for a new job while living off his savings, believing “It will be alright.”
Work was about to get even harder to find as his hearing deteriorated. “I remember seeing homeless tents on my way to work, and I always thought to myself that I didn’t want to join them,” he said.
In October 2003 Kashiwagi found himself homeless and living in Toyama Park. When he became homeless, he promised himself “Never steal from anybody,” and “If I find something with the owner’s name written on it, I will return it to them.” After Toyama Park, he moved to Shinjuku Central Park, where he was introduced to The Big Issue. “I started selling on 23 December 2004, so 2014 was my 10th anniversary. It was a bit of a memorial year for me.”
Kashiwagi feels he has seen all aspects of Japanese society while living in Shinjuku. He is sometimes harassed by drunks in Tokyo’s biggest downtown area. But even when someone laughs at him and say he is a beggar, Kashiwagi never shows anger. He simply holds out the magazines and says, “Please check it out if you want.”
“My wish is for all vendors to become self-sustaining. I believe it is possible after the kindness shown to me over the last 10 years.”
He added: “Recently a young man grabbed a magazine from my hand and threw it away. When I tried to reach out and pick it up, the man spat on me and ran away. Of course I felt annoyed, because that means that some people don’t accept us as part of society, but I have to keep my chin up.
“We are not selling the magazines inside book stores. We are selling it on the street. Some of my peers can’t take a bath every day. Some can’t wear proper clothes. That’s why I respect people who come to me and buy the magazines to help them.”
Kashiwagi feels concern about the way he and his peers have been harassed by drunken people. He feels that today’s Japanese society needs a “heart and dreams”. He attracts customers in his own unique way, writing down a poem on a Japanese folding fan to convey his message to the people he meets. When selling the magazine,” he says that he feels part of INSP’s international network. “From Hokkaido in the north [of Japan] to Kyushu in the south… From our neighbouring country Korea and from Norway. Magazines like it are sold in 36 countries all over the world.”
His voice is really rhythmic and pleasant to hear. “I mention the different countries street paper are sold in when greeting people in the street to let them know how big the network is. I feel that raising public awareness of the good things street paper have achieved will help my fellow vendors around the world feel better. My wish is for all vendors to become self-sustaining. I believe it’s possible after the kindness shown to me over the last decade.”
In the end, there’s one message he wants to tell all customers: “I appreciate from the bottom of my heart everyone who has helped me in the last 10 years and those who continue to do so.”
Translated from Japanese into English by Chisa Nishikawa
INSP publishes an international vendor story every week. Come back next Wednesday to read another story from one of the thousands of inspirational men and women who sell street papers.