Sometimes attitudes towards work – especially work considered by some Americans to be “menial” – can offer insights into Japanese society. Recently I was chatting with a Tokyo taxi driver when I asked him how long he’d been a cabbie.
“Five years,” he answered.
“And before that?”
“I was a regular salary man.”
“Why did you decide to become a taxi driver?” I asked, wondering whether economic hardship had forced this man, who looked to be well into his sixties, to delay retirement.
“After sitting in an office all day long for so many years, I wanted to experience a different way of life, and I’d always wondered what it would be like to be a taxi driver,” he said.
“But what about retirement? Don’t you want leisure time to relax?”
The taxi driver waved his hand dismissively. “Nah, I don’t care about leisure. I want to lead a productive life. Being a taxi driver I get to meet many different people and be a part of the working world,” he said. “Work has true meaning, leisure does not.”
Very wise, I thought.
Later I was at the New Otani Hotel when I came across a elderly shoeshine man working in his cubical in the hall next to the hotel’s shops and restaurants. My shoes were a little worse for wear and in need of some polish. After exchanging some small talk, I asked the man how long he’d been in the shoeshine business.
“Twelve years,” was his answer.
I was surprised. The man looked to be in his seventies. I assumed that elderly shoeshine men had always been shoeshine men, having started out in their youths as shoeshine boys.
The man explained: “For 40 years I worked as a salaryman but I had always had an interest in shoeshining. Having shined my own shoes for so many years I decided it would be fun to have my own shoeshining business. I rent this space for the hotel, can work my own hours and get to meeting interesting people. This is much better than retirement.”
The man held forth with pride that his shoe polish, made from the finest oils, came from France and was rarely available in Japan.
“There, much better,” he said with evident satisfaction as he put the finishing touches on my shoes.
I handed him 700 yen and thanked him, thinking that more than shoes radiated light from this man.