Friday, January 22, 2010

Cross Section

In my neighborhood Monday is the day everyone puts out their scrap metal and aluminum cans (of which there seem to be a disproportionately high amount of empty beer cans in relation to the recent census population figures) for pick-up. For the men who live in makeshift tents along the local river and elsewhere it's a treasure trove. All day long they ply the streets on bicycles upon which they balance mountainous loads of flattened cans to sell at the local scrap metal yard. Among the host of adjectives people use to describe the sight, the one that falls off my lips first is, "amazing." Usually one person will stake a claim to a garbage collection spot and proceed to flatten all the cans they find with their hands, pressing the aluminum with their thumbs until it's as thin as a dime. The cans are then packed into bags of all sizes and varieties that are precariously placed atop a bicycle that they carefully maneuver along side people, buses, trucks and scooters all vying for individual space as they race off to their separate destinations. It doesn't seem to be an easy task.

For some reason the City of Yokohama passed an ordinance against collecting cans, so technically this is an illicit activity. Quite a few people view it with the same kind of disdain that many folks in America view panhandling, even though it clearly falls into the category of labor. Come to think of it, I've never really seen panhandling in Japan. It's not at all common and I'm not sure why. Actually there was one time when I was approached by a fellow American in the Yokohama train station who was essentially begging for money. I remember him distinctly because of the snake he had tattooed on his neck that pulsated as he related his tale of woe. He explained how he had lost all his money (which because of the nature of the tattoo I imagined was in some den of iniquity) and that he was living at an all-night Internet cafe until his mother arrived from Seattle in the next couple of days with money to rescue him. I didn't even know people with snake tattoos had mothers, but that just goes to show you how limited my view of the world is. Generally I don't trust anyone, and even though this guy's story had more holes than a pound of Swiss cheese and smelled as fishy as a mackerel, I was so mesmerized by the snake on his neck that I handed over all the money I had in my pockets (which was only about 500 yen or roughly five dollars), apologized for the meager amount, and slithered away as fast as I could. I think about that guy from time to time and hope that he was really just trying to hustle me and not an innocent lost abroad (although memory flashes of the tattoo usually lessen my doubts).

I don't know how much it would be possible for a panhandler to collect from the hordes of commuters passing through a major transportation hub like Yokohama train station but I heard that as of about a year and a half ago one thousand cans would net a can man about 200 yen (roughly two dollars). That was before the bottom dropped out of the automobile industry. Most of the recycled aluminum in Japan gets bought up by automakers both in Japan and abroad (the US in particular). When the economic tidal wave hit the auto industry, the ripple effect really walloped the can collectors who witnessed the price for aluminum  drop by more than half. When hard times hit, nobody gets knocked on their cans harder than people like this.

To learn more read:

Auto Industry Gloom Crushing Japan's Poor Recyclers by Toshi Maeda from Reuters

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