By Ayako Ishii, The Big Issue Japan
Shuzo Goto is 65 and sells The Big Issue Japan, from 10 in the morning until 3pm, near Tokyo’s Hibiya subway station. He says “Encounters with people and memories of my parents keep me going.”
The day I go to interview Shuzo, there is a tall Western man standing beside him, and the two of them are chatting familiarly. Several customers come and buy magazines while they are together.
The Western man, Damon Farry, turns out to be a friend of Shuzo. The two met a year and a half ago. It was Damon who first spoke to Shuzo one day whilst he was sitting in front of a supermarket in Azabu Juban [a residential area in central Tokyo] where he often goes. The first few times they just said hello to each other. In time, they started chatting outside the supermarket.
When I arrive, they are talking about Shuzo’s favourite baseball team, and where he lives under a bridge. This is how, over time, the two have become friends. They get on so well that they now meet two or three times a week.
Shuzo has been homeless for 20 years. He tells me that he has changed a lot since becoming a Big Issue vendor.
“Before I started selling The Big Issue, if I got hold of any money I used to spend it straight away. I was a rough person and I talked rough too. Now, I try to save and not waste money.
“And the way I talk, it’s like I’ve learnt from my customers – they are polite to me, so now I can say ‘Hello, thank you very much, take care.’ I smile most of the time now and I feel happy.”
Shuzo was born in Toyama Prefecture [an area in Japan’s Honshu Island], and is the youngest of five brothers. He lost his father at the age of five. After that, his mother brought up the five boys on her own.
As soon as he finished Junior High School, he went to Osaka to work as an apprentice, but he did not earn much, so he decided to become a cook, and went to live and work in a restaurant selling oden [Japanese hot-pot] in Kanazawa, near his home town of Toyama. Here he learnt basic cookery skills such as filleting fish and using knives.
When he was 22, his mother died. “It was like my Mum held my family together. Once Mum was gone, it was no fun going back home, and now I don’t even know if my brothers are alive or not,” says Shuzo. He has never been back to his home town since.
Shuzo heard that it was possible to get a cook’s license by joining the Self-Defence Forces [Japan’s armed forces], so from the age of 23 he served in the SDF for two years.
After two years he hadn’t got his licence, and when he was told it would take another two years, he left thinking, “I’ll succeed by my own talents, without a licence.”
After that he worked in all kinds of eateries – traditional Japanese restaurants, noodle bars, barbecue-style yakiniku restaurants and pubs. After a while he realised that he could earn more working on building sites than in restaurants, so he became a construction worker, staying in bunkhouses [accommodation provided on construction sites], drifting from one job to the next.
“I was only ever in one place for two or three months at the most. I always liked travelling, so I went all over the place, from Hokkaido to Hiroshima, working and travelling, always penniless.
“It’s not in my nature to settle down – maybe I’ve got an instinct to travel.”
A few years ago he ended up in Azabu Juban, where he lives now on the streets. This time he wanted to work to save money in order to travel.
When he mentioned this to Damon, he suggested The Big Issue, which he knew about from when he lived abroad. Incidentally, as a result of meeting Shuzo, Damon has started a social movement supporting homeless people called ‘Suspended Coffee Japan’. This is a scheme whereby customers at a cafe can pay in advance for a coffee for someone in need.
Now, three months later, the reason Shuzo has continued selling The Big Issue is so that he can go on the Hokuriku Shinkansen [high-speed railway] to revisit his home at last.
“I’ll be able to get to Toyama in two hours on that train. When you get to my age, you don’t know how much longer you’ll live, so I want to visit my parents graves while I’m still alive. I’ll carry on doing this job until I can afford to do that.”
We share a vendor story every Wednesday. You can explore many more international vendor stories here.