Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 7, March 2002

Kazuo Gotô,
'I am carrying a heavy loneliness on my back'

Yongmei Wu

  1. Deeply inhaling the fumes of a cigarette, the seventy-seven-year-old Mr. Gotô began to narrate his life story. He was paralysed in the left side of his body because of a cerebral infarction five years ago. After receiving rehabilitation in a hot spring hospital for nearly a year, he had an operation to remove cancer in the colon. Since then he had lived in Sazanka and received monthly pocket money from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. He was a recipient under the Livelihood Protection scheme.
  2. Mr. Gotô was born as the second son in a wholesaler's family in 1922 in Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo. The family came from a well-known tea producing centre in Shizuoka Prefecture, and a lot of relatives were engaged in growing tea, so his mother ran a tea wholesale business. He was brought up in a family whose economic condition was quite stable. He was the boss of the children in the neighborhood because he had the money to make other children follow him. He hated study and often skipped school. Because of his bad scores, he was unable to enter a public middle school, so he went to the private Waseda Vocational School [Waseda jitsugyô gakkô] to learn to be a barber. But he did not do well there either. His parents worried that he would become a delinquent so they enrolled him in the army. He was nineteen years old that year. In the next year, with the beginning of the Great East Asia War [daitôa sensô], Mr. Gotô was sent to Manchuria to fight against the Chinese army.
  3. Ten months before the war ended, he was dispatched to the Pacific battlefield. Since the American Army already dominated in the air and there were air raids here and there, the soldiers of his unit were forced to enter the jungles in the Philippines. About one month after the war he became a captive, interned in the camps for Japanese captives in Manila. He stayed in the camp rendering services for almost two years.
  4. Mr. Gotô returned his home in 1947 when he was twenty-four years old. His eldest brother had already been killed in a battle against the Soviet Army and his other two brothers had been back home. Tokyo was in turmoil at the time when he was back. Black markets were brimming with vitality everywhere. As the companies and factories were not reconstructed yet, there was no place for him to work. And his parents had sold nearly everything they had to get food. He had no choice but to join the black market business. 'As we had just returned from the battlefield, we had plenty of guts to do that,' he said.
  5. In order to be dutiful to their parents, Mr. Gotô and his brothers went to Niigata, a rice-producing district, to lay in provisions. Half of the rice they bought was for consumption at home, the other half was sold on the black market. Mr. Gotô and his friend also produced soy sauce by using the thick base of the sauce and salt. They made a big profit by selling the product to restaurants and hotels. However most of his money went on gambling which he enjoyed.
  6. With the increasing social stability, Mr. Gotô began to think about getting a proper job. However, according to an order from the General Headquarters of the Allied Occupation Forces (GHQ), no former military officer above the rank of non-commissioned officer [kashikan] was permitted to work in public offices. Since Mr. Gotô was an officer on probation [minarai shikan], he had to wait for two years to apply for a position in the city office of Yokohama City. He was employed as a barber in the welfare department in 1949. As the welfare department was a section in charge of the welfare for staff members and their families, there were many chances to get hold of goods such as clothing, food, charcoal, etc., as well as chances to do bad things. Five years later he was demoted to a ward office on account of his questionable conduct in the department. Considering that he would not be able to get promoted any more should he go to the ward office, he was angry and began to think about doing business with his friend in Tokyo. He eventually did so, leaving his second wife and an apartment in Yokohama. Mr. Gotô recalled his old days,

      I was twenty-nine that year. I did the same thing three times. Every time when I said good-bye to a wife, I only took with me a suitcase with the necessary clothes. To think about it now, it was pitiful for my wives. My first wife was forced to leave me because of her inability to have a child. Though we had married for love, my parents didn't look kindly upon her [ii kao wo shinai] because of her sterility. As a result, we could not get along and had to separate from each other. The second one was divorced by mutual agreement. I left everything to my wife and came to Tokyo alone.

  7. He helped a good friend with his real-estate business in Setagaya-ku. There was a time when the Taiwanese had to leave Japan, so Mr. Gotô and his friend bought a lot of houses owned by the Taiwanese in Shinjuku and Ikebukuro at low prices, refurbished the houses and sold them at good prices. It was in his thirties that Mr. Gotô was the most successful. He made big money, opened a beauty parlour and built a three-storey house in Ikebukuro. It was during that period that he came across his third wife, a cosmetician twelve years younger than him. Despite her parents' strong objections, they got married. The marriage came into being because Mr. Gotô was powerful: he bought his wife a beauty parlour to run her business. Soon a daughter was born to them.
  8. One never thinks about the future when one is at one's peak. That went for Mr. Gotô, too. His friend died soon after the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 1964. Without a good partner, he lost his direction and his business gradually collapsed. He liked gambling for big stakes [ippatsu shôbu]. In addition to horse racing, he crazily invested some tens of millions of yen in stocks. It was the stocks that made him bankrupt. He lost everything: three shops, house, wife and daughter. After that, he worked as a driver, or a cleaner to make a living. As he advanced in age and fell ill several times, he became unable to do physical jobs so for sometime he did some day labour such as delivering bills [chirashi kubari] in Ginza and waiting for orders [junban-tori] in the golf practicing fields. If there was no job, he begged for food money. He slept in corrugated cardboard [dan bôru] inside the stations of Shinjuku and Ikebukuro when he had no place to go. Finally he found himself in Sazanka.
  9. Obviously Mr. Gotô was nostalgic about the golden age he experienced in his thirties. He had never thought he would end up in a home for the elderly about which the only knowledge he had was that it was a place for group living. He was obliged to the welfare office of Tokyo Metropolis. And he seemed to be quite satisfied with the treatment he had received from the government. He said, 'My fate was decided on the day when I was taken to the hospital for a cerebral infarction and the officer came to investigate my background. I was sent to a great rehabilitation hospital with a hot spring. When I became better, the welfare office again took the whole responsibility of looking after me in my later life. I received the highest care from the welfare office: entering expensive hospitals free of charge and receiving pocket money every month. I am really very lucky. So I think the welfare in Japan is good.'
  10. When talking about his life in Sazanka, he said he was living in ease and comfort. He did not need to worry about food and a place to sleep, and he did not need to work to make a living for himself. Also he did not have the obligation [giri] to socialise with his neighbours [kinjo no tsukiai]. Even if there was some socialising in the home, since all residents were in similar circumstances, it was not worth mentioning. Since everything was done for the residents, Mr. Gotô thought he could live an easy life without thinking much. But, he commented,

      It is a good thing that I have become disinterested after I was put into such an environment. However, without the necessity to use my brain and survive, I am afraid I will get dotty quicker than those who live by themselves. You see, even a chicken or a bird has to feed itself! Here one needn't think about survival and ambition, so one's capability keeps on declining. And since I have handicaps in my leg and arm, I cannot move about freely. All I do every day is sleep, eat, smoke and watch TV. I have become gradually isolated from the life of ordinary people and so I become senile little by little.

      People are strongest when they have the ability to work. Since the cells of my brain are sleeping, I cannot make any progress. This is the end of my life [jinsei no o-shimai]. There is no necessity to speak ill of politicians because old folks like me haven't any power to change the world. It is really sad to become old. What I hope now is to live peacefully with my roommate, not to be a burden to others, and to keep my independence as long as possible. I am not the type to presume on other's goodwill so I rarely ask for help from the matrons.

  11. As Mr. Gotô explained, there was not much socialising among the residents, especially among the men. So except for his roommate, Mr. Gotô had no close friends on the floor. He never spoke to the female residents since he had come to dislike women after he was divorced by his wife. He was willing to teach the tacit rules of the home to newcomers. On the whole, he kept a distance from both his peers and the matrons. The only duty he did in Sazanka was to bring the bucket of washing to the laundry. He had done that for three years. Sometimes he felt it was not worth doing because nobody appreciated his conduct. But when occasionally someone said, 'Thank you very much', he felt very rewarded. He said he would continue to do it for it was necessary to get some exercise.
  12. When I asked him whether or not he missed his daughter and his wife, he became gloomy. 'It's difficult to talk about my feelings towards my family,' Mr. Gotô said, inhaling a mouthful of smoke.

      I have neglected my family for a long time. When I was young, it was a tradition for an adult man to marry a woman, so I took it for granted that I should get married when I attained manhood. You know, a man is inconvenient without a wife, because he needs a wife to do the washing, cooking and so on for him. A wife is a kind of security in life. Figuratively speaking, a wife is a side dish to have with one's rice.

      I miss my daughter. But how can I dare to ask her to meet me? So I pull back [hipparu]. To tell you the truth, I want to beg my daughter's forgiveness [ayamari-tai], even though it is disgraceful to me. Do you think an apology will help? I don't think so. I cannot work anymore; neither do I have any money. If I still had a lot of money, the situation might be different. If I had enough deposit in addition to the money for my own funeral in the bank, my family might be glad to accept me. Nobody will take care of a relative without a penny.

  13. Mr. Gotô felt fortunate that old people like him still had public institutions to depend on. He could not understand why recently elderly people who had families also came to live in an institution. His explanation was that the younger generations were neglecting their responsibility for caring for their old relatives. At the bottom of his heart, he missed his daughter and wished she would forgive him. Since he separated from his last wife fifteen years ago, he went to see his daughter several times in secret. Once in a while when he happened to think about her, he went to see her, from very far away, for he did not want to interfere with her and his former wife's life. His daughter never knew he was there. Mr. Gotô guessed that she might have gotten married and had children. He thought she had forgotten him, for if she really thought about her father, she would have looked into the family register [koseki] and found him.[1]
  14. He had not had any information about his siblings since his bankruptcy, either. He did not know whether his brothers were still alive, and he did not think they would come to see him even if they were alive. 'There is something strange in Japanese families,' he said, 'they do not want to show bad things or defective relatives to strangers. In the old ie system, there were humane feelings [ninjô] to some extent. But there are none in modern families. Everyone is selfish: one only thinks about one's own life.' He did not think there were good points in the current family system. He was sad when talking about his family and his future.

      When I think in the dark, I feel miserable. I have no future except to wait for death. Though I have relatives, I cannot enjoy their company. I have to do everything by myself. Do you understand the feeling of loneliness? You may find I am cheerful on the outside [omotemuki], but I am carrying a heavy loneliness on my back [senaka niwa omoi sabishisa ga shotteiru]. It cannot be helped even if I cried out loudly with regret. So I would rather hide my feelings deeply. You cannot imagine how heavy the loneliness is! I attribute my misery to the sins I have committed in the past. By doing so, it becomes tolerable to think about why I am unable to eat delicious food, why I cannot move about freely, and why I have to end up here. I am eating the punishments for what I have done long before! When one approaches Buddha, one will understand naturally [ningen-ga hotoke-ni chikaku-ni naru-to, shizen-ni satottekuru]. So now I can accept my fate honestly.

  15. However, Mr. Gotô never thought about death. He wanted to die in sleep or to die abruptly with little pain. As he did not think he would have any connection with his family when he was alive, he thought he would become a muen-botoke when he died.[2] He planned to have the home do a funeral service for him. Among the 20,000 yen pocket money he received monthly, 12,000 yen was spent on cigarettes, and the remainder was for his funeral fee. As he could save 60,000 yen every year, he thought he would have enough money for his funeral which usually cost 250,000 yen. 'Possibly this will be the place for me to die,' Mr. Gotô sighed with a sad smile and ended his story.


    [1] The family register under the Law of Family Register (1947) is a kind of official document that certifies a Japanese individual's relative relationships by blood and marriage. It is also a means for the national government to maintain control of its people for the purpose of ruling over the country. The family register is compiled by treating a certain scope of relatives of the head of a family as a unit. In principle, recording the creation, alteration and extinction of an individual's relationship with the household is made on his/her notification [todokede]. As the household is treated as a whole unit, even though a couple's marriage ends with a mutual agreement divorce, its record remains on the household's family register. So it is possible to locate a family member by examining his/her family register if his/her relatives really want to find him/her.

    [2] According to Robert J. Smith, Ancestor Worship in Contemporary Japan, Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1974, p. 41, muen-botoke refers to wandering spirits or buddhas without attachment or affiliation. Gaki [hungry ghosts] are a kind of muen-botoke. The souls of those who are not worshipped by their descendants are also muen-botoke.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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