Akira Hashimoto, 63, has been selling a weekly magazine, The Big Issue Japan, at a stand a few minutes’ walk from Sendai station for four years now. The Big Issue, which got its start in London in 1991, is a magazine produced to be sold by homeless people to the general public. The Japanese edition was launched in 2003, and sellers like Hashimoto are entitled to keep half the cover price. Hashimoto was once employed, but the company he worked at succumbed to bankruptcy 15 years ago. Five years later, he returned to his home town of Sendai, about 300km northeast of Tokyo, and began a life on the streets. These days, he spends about eight hours a day selling The Big Issue Monday through Saturday, with about another four hours on Sundays. Sometimes he does this work at Sendai City’s Motoderakoji Cathedral. Once, at a cathedral bazaar, Hashimoto found cell phone wrist-straps being sold to benefit Latin America. He bought some to use as promotional items. “The only people who will go to a church bazaar are church people, right? So I thought it might be good to spread the word (to others) about such support activities.” Hashimoto was at one of his regular sales locations when the earthquake and subsequent tsunami hit the region on March 11. He escaped unharmed, and was able to resume sales on April 1. Whereas a typical day before would fetch him about 15-16 customers, as many as 40 showed up on his first day back on the job. These were all regular customers who came to see whether he was safe. Not only that: this display of concern lasted longer than Hashimoto expected, with both old and new customers—some as good as homeless themselves, in evacuation shelters—boosting his sales. However, he is also anxious about the whereabouts of 20 or so regulars who have not shown up since the disaster. Sendai City is now largely back to normal, but Hashimoto says: “There’s still the problem of people’s hearts.” He has observed a change in people’s attitudes and ways of speaking in the time since the earthquake. “I guess it must be their memories of the departed and their own thoughts, as those left behind…” He remembers feeling uncomfortable at the “overflowing” encouragement people offered each other using the word “Gambatte!” which means “do your best” but is sometimes used to try to cheer people up. He explains, “It’s OK to tell someone to ‘do their best,’ say, to sell magazines. But it’s a little different when you’re talking to disaster victims, isn’t it? In that situation, what it is that they should be ‘doing their best’ to do? I feel like some people just don’t understand what it’s like when just getting by is hard enough.” For his part, he shows his own feelings of solidarity with the victims by hanging a poster near the corner where he works. It reads “Natural disasters, man-made disasters: we won’t be overcome.”
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