"The Beggars Who Do Not Beg" -- Soeda Azenbô

posted Saturday, April 23, 2005

All of the beggars one sees in Asakusa have their own individual personalities, which is most pleasant. Indeed, it almost seems inappropriate to call these ladies and gentlemen "beggars" at all. In this essay I shall speak of their achievements as "artists of life", glorious flowers who give Asakusa its color. On the stage known as Asakusa, each of these characters appears and vanishes in their turn.

The Man Who Plays Shamisen Without Any Fingers

He sits on the public benches. All four fingers are missing from his left hand. With the remaining thumb, he holds the mouthpiece end of a broken pipe, and by applying its bulging and sunken places skillfully, presses the strings against the instrument's neck. To pluck the strings, he uses not a pick but a matchstick.

If one listens from a distance, it sounds not the slightest bit different from regular shamisen playing. Crowds of people gather, follow the moving pipe with their eyes in wonder, and listen intently. Some of them sit down beside him on the same bench.

When he finishes playing "Tachiyama", he says, to no-one in particular, "Guess I'll play "Harusame" next. A cheerful song beats a gloomy one." He sounds as though he is enjoying himself immensely. If someone puts money by his side, he says "Oh my, thank you very much!" as cheerfully as you please -- for all the world as though he was greeting a close friend. And his voice is so pleasant no-one could possibly dislike it.

He does not beg. He tells no sob stories. He never, ever brings up the topic of his missing fingers. If an obstinate fellow insists on asking him about it, he simply says, "Oh, this? Happened in a factory. Nothing to be done about it. I was laid up for a while, thinking, 'Well, that's it; I'm a cripple now, no good for work any more,' and then I just had the urge to give this a try. Ha! all a bit pathetic, isn't it?"

Then he begins to play again, singing along quietly. The group that forms around him is completely free of ill-feeling. They simply listen, rapt, to the music his broken pipe-end and match bring to life, without once sneering at him him. And if someone puts some money down for him, he says "Oh, my, thank you!", as if they were old friends.

The Old Man and the Organ

He was slender, and perhaps fifty years old. He wore an old, fraying cape. He was always sitting cross-legged at the base of the telephone pole by Shimousa-ya, the restaurant on the ward office road. He had an old-fashioned organ with bellows that he pumped and pulled as he sang along -- but the way he sang was quite startling.

"I'm withered pampas grass on the dry river bed," he would sing, then add, "goddamn!" He had two hats. One was a hunting cap, which he wore. The other one was a dirty school cap. He would place this before him, by his knees. It was for coins.

If someone tossed some change in, he showed his appreciation by bowing his head slightly as he sang. But if their donation looked silver, he would stop playing the organ entirely, doff his hunting cap, and bow so deeply that his head touched the school cap on the ground. Another dandy, he was. His face was clean-shaven more often than not.

"In lonely mountain ways of this world's trial and care..." -- sometimes he sang hymns. But then, with no warning -- "In a boar-tusk bo-o-oat, yah!" -- he would return to "Fukagawa River Song".

Even when the cold winds blew harder and fewer people passed by, he was there, alone, watching the wind, working his organ and singing. He looked lonely. But he also seemed to enjoy his singing immensely.

Sometimes people made gentle fun of him, but to me he somehow seemed like a man who knew true loneliness and true happiness. But eventually he no longer showed himself in Asakusa. I wonder where he is now, and what he is doing there.

The old man and the organ -- sometimes I simply cannot help remembering them.

Eating Compassion

In the hustle and bustle around the Kannon-sama temple, a man drags his rags behind him. He is "sagebrush-haired and dirty-faced", as the saying goes, and he mumbles to himself as he wanders slowly around.

He is speaking. Moving. Then someone from the crowd abruptly thrusts a nickel coin into his hand. At this, person after person suddenly begins opening their purse to give him some small change. All at once, his hand is full of coins.

Dear readers, let us consider this carefully. This unpleasant-looking man is certainly not "begging". He is simply mumbling to himself as he walks along. Seeing this, some do-gooder -- or perhaps simply an absent-minded passer-by -- feels pity, and opens his wallet. Then everyone follows suit.

That is the pattern. A fine script to work from! This is an intelligent man, a man who has learnt how to "eat compassion".

A crippled beggar woman walks with her child through the bustle of the stalls outside the Shintô shrines. She wears a white robe covered with the stamps of the eighty-eight-shrine pilgrimage. For many years, she sat on Azuma Bridge, letting her child's tears do the begging, but she recently changed her costume and stepped forward into the glaring electric light of the Nakamise arcade.

Ringing her bell and singing her goeika pilgrimage song, she walks to and fro along the Nakamise, like a stake driven into the flow of people.

A pretty geisha avoids the woman as she walks by.

A young gentleman gives her a silver coin.

After thirty or forty trips back and forth along the paving stones, she will have earned enough for tomorrow's rice, as well as some sashimi and a nightcap. Her husband, who died four years ago, was a Godfather figure among the beggars. When new beggars come up from the countryside, they were sure to show their face at his house in Shimotani Yamabushi.

Even though her husband is dead, she is still the "Godmother".

The Begging Philosopher

The Begging Philosopher is a short man who wears a long rubber boot on one foot, and on the other a wooden sandal. Only one of each does not make for a good combination. His face looks like the actor Gokurô's. He might be found anywhere. The edge of a pond, a bench, the corner of a house, an arbor -- any location can become his lectern. And when he begins to speak, an audience gathers in a ring around him.

"Nobody even knows yet whether the universe is round or square. So what's a human lie or two? 'Professors' and 'teachers' and people like that, they're all just lying through their teeth. Newton, Einstein, they talk about 'gravity' and 'the theory of relativity' -- they just make up some complex-sounding name, knead in some logic, then make a living off of it. It's all bullshit. We didn't need Einstein to tell us this stuff -- we knew it all before breakfast! As soon as you fall behind on the rent, some trouble starts up. You get evicted or just plain kicked out -- that's a phenomenon that depends on the observer! That's how we know about 'relativity'! Otherwise you wouldn't get into trouble no matter how many years you fell behind in arrears."

Ha ha ha ha ha! The circle of spectators surrounding him shakes with laughter. A passer-by mutters, "What the hell is he talkin' about?", and cranes his neck to see as he joins the crowd.

The philosopher picks up a half-smoked Golden Bat cigarette lying at his feet, and searches his pockets before finally asking, "Could someone possibly lend me a match?"

A man gives him a match. Then a woman who looks like somebody's wife says, "You like cigarettes, huh? Here, take these." And she gives him a box of Shikishimas.

"Much obliged," he says, pocketing the box. Then he lights the Bat butt and reopens the lecture as he smokes.

"Why can't we have even one Carnegie in Japan too? You know I myself planned to become that man--" (the audience laughs) "-- No, really. I made a discovery, you see, but I couldn't do anything with it because I had no money. So I found a partner. And then, guess what: Huge success, huge hit. But he only gave me a tiny share of the cash. And now he's out there riding his bicycle every day, shoom shoom--" (he makes bicycle-riding gestures here) "-- and the man who made the discovery, by which I mean me, has ended up like this. Right. But I'm a big-hearted man. That's not even shit to me. If he likes riding bicycles so much, hey, let him ride them."

The ring chuckles, fufufufufu. But the philosopher looks deadly serious.

"It's true! Begging, working at Mitsubishi -- there's no difference! Sleep, wake up, eat, hold your woman, drink -- nothing more anyone can do with their time than that, no matter how hard they try."

"Beggars don't have women to hold!" a young man jeers.

"Are you kidding me? You don't know what you're talking about. I just don't feel like doing that kind of thing. Everyone has a wife, even beggars, and some of us can even keep mistresses too. That guy right here in Asakusa who smacks time out with his walking stick while he sings naniwa-bushi songs? -- he makes I don't know how many ryô that way. He's a big cheese. You people can't see anything but the front side of social phenomena. That's why you're in trouble. That's right... even begging is a fine career."


"Stop that! It's not a laughing matter! You must have serious problems if you get so happy over nothing at all. Like your novels and your story-telling, Higuchi Kuan and Mikkame Otokichi -- they're like brown sugar on hard candy, all sticky, and you eat them right up! Listen, the... the parade of life, it's all about science. Learning the tricks. You're all going to have to become scientists. Otherwise you'll just have to drop out and become hermits... or maybe beggars in Asakusa."

"Give it a rest," a woman says as she gives him a handful of silver coins. He bows slightly, then continues. These crazy lectures of his can go on forever. The woman who gave him money leaves, talking to another woman that she's here with.

"That beggar was definitely from a good family," she says. "If not, he wouldn't be able to use so many big words." They leave while the second woman is still nodding at this unsuccessful attempt at piercing insight.

People don't call him crazy. They call him the Begging Philosopher.

Then there is the beggar who can bend his legs in peculiar, ugly ways, folding it up back to his posterior, offering his very self as a tourist attraction and claiming that his parents' sins have been visited upon him. Even as one watches, the wrapping paper he spreads out fills with coins thrown in by amused spectators.

These people are definitely not begging. But they are getting by just fine anyway. How pleasant a thing this is.


『乞はない乞食』 (Kowanai Kojiki), by Soeda Azenbô (添田唖蝉坊), 1872-1944.

Aozora Bunko version entered by Watanabe Tsuyoshi (渡邉つよし) and proofread by Kadota Hiroshi (門田裕志).


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