Our vendors: Toyoji Yoshizawa (The Big Issue, Tokyo, Japan)

Interview by Miki Tsuchida, The Big Issue Japan

Toyoji Yoshizawa (65) was born in Tochigi Prefecture, just north of Tokyo. It seems he was born a wanderer.

As soon as we met, he said, “Do you know who I really am? I am Mr Tora. The Vagabond Mr Tora.” He then proceeded with his tales with a wrinkled smile on his face.

Big Issue Japan vendor Yoshizawa Toyoji

He got a job in Tokyo upon graduating from high school when he and a high school classmate talked each other into moving somewhere different. After seven – eight years, the two left for Nagasaki. “Let’s go to somewhere warm!” they said.

They pair had fun hotel-hopping in Nagasaki, but ran out of money. Luckily, at the last place they stayed, someone told them about a good job opportunity. After the Osaka World Expo, the economy of Japan was growing at a fast pace and there was a labour shortage everywhere.

“I got a job in telephone industry. I worked with three people in a team, and the team visits about 15 places a day. Many places you visit would say ‘thank you for your hard work’, and give you a drink. I worked there for about five years. But because I missed Tokyo, I went back in 1975.”

This pushed the pair of over ten years to go completely separate ways. Yoshizawa went to Tokyo, while his friend stayed in Nagasaki to carry on with the telephone work. The friend that stayed has done well, having bought out the company he worked for and becoming the head.

“Because I am an optimist. I have always thought that ‘things will work out’.” Yoshizawa’s words, just like his way of talking, conveys overwhelming cheerfulness to the people he sells to. He regularly checks the employment ads in the newspapers and one day on 1996 an ad from a Tekiya [an itinerant Japanese merchant] jumped to his attention.

“Buttered potatoes, chocolate bananas, grilled squid, oden, mixed spices, juice, goldfish scooping [a traditional Japanese game in which a player scoops goldfish with a special scooper]…we do different things each time. We learn each one of them from the veterans in that area.”

The festival market goes from one town to the next. Perhaps it was befitting Yoshizawa’s character to have lived daily among bustling atmospheres. Before he realizes, he has worked almost 15 years of his life at the tekiya. This shows the true meaning of his statement – “I am the Vagabond Mr Tora.”

Yoshizawa Toyoji selling from his spot in Tokyo

“I quit in 2010 because working there was a world of strict hierarchical relationships, I still hear from the people there, and get free drinks if I go drinking with them. I also helped them a bit last spring, but I have not considered going back.”

He started selling The Big Issue at the start of May last year. Thinking “I’ll give it a try,” he contacted the office and started selling the same day. All the bewilderment and hardships went away.

“I thought I was born for this job, although I sound like a bit of a show-off.”

Standing at the same spot every day, Yoshizawa felt the joy of connecting with people. It was not just the customers, but also daily conversations with the cleaners and guards of the nearby buildings, and the shopkeepers of convenience stores.

“I will tell myself every morning that ‘I should be thankful to the customers and should not become arrogant,”

Yoshiwaza likes translated foreign novels. Some people would give him books. But most are attracted to him for deeper reasons.

“Almost all people that pass me by would not make a purchase. So how can I grasp the remaining people that will buy? That is the important question.” Yoshiwaza is very skillful at getting the measure of people, and whether they would like to buy a copy of The Big Issue.

“I would not make noises. If you were on your way to work in the morning and someone yells out loudly, you would only find him annoying, wouldn’t you? People who want to buy will buy even if you are not calling out to them.”

Experts in marketing and sales would probably agree with his theories. In any case, Yoshizawa continues his exceptional average sales record of 600 copies per month. The end of the May holidays marks his first anniversary as a magazine salesman, by which time he would like to move into an apartment instead of staying overnight in manga cafes.

“I will tell myself every morning that ‘I should be thankful to the customers and should not become arrogant’,” he said, eyes glowing sharply.

“I have had customers telling me, ‘it is fine so long as you are here’,” said Yoshizawa, whose entire face immediately lights up with happiness. He stands at his spot without missing a single day.

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.