Tobi, the Aristocrats among Day Laborers

Tobi [鳶 ‘kite (bird)’, or ‘steeplejack‘, the latter short for 鳶職 tobishoku ‘high-rise scaffolding work’] are the aristocrats of San’ya. In the same way that it is possible, in Europe, to distinguish the aristocracy from the common folk by how they look, so it is possible to distinguish tobi from common day laborers by their appearance (their faces more than their physique). The training required to nurture their skills to a level worthy of their calling and the confidence gained through having those skills recognized by their peers give them a commanding presence and bestow on their countenances a certain poise. All in all they cut a very dashing figure. There is a certain crispness about their movements and indeed about their entire demeanor. I would imagine that their individual abilities vary considerably, but the best have a truly unmistakable aura about them. One can tell at a glance: yes, this man, without question, is a tobi.

Carpenters and ironworkers are not employed as day laborers or as contract laborers, so there are none in San’ya. Here, the word shokunin—skilled worker—means only one thing, and that is tobi. Men like Saito (Mr. “One-Man Salvation Army”) and Ikeno (the former stockbroker) are exceptions; you could never surmise from their characters what the typical tobi is like. I have never actually met a tobi who treats laborers like slaves, barking at them and driving them into the ground; I have, however, run across several who were proud to the point of arrogance—so much so that they never paid us laborers any heed. (It was as if we never even entered their field of vision.) And I must say that I was not necessarily put off by their arrogant pride.

My hatred of working as a tobi’s assistant and being hounded on the job lives side by side with my admiration for the tobi “race.” Yet when all is said and done, it seems to me far preferable that the haughty arrogance of these men live on than that it wither away—these men who work closer to death’s door than any other group of skilled workers in Japan. There are among tobi some men (although admittedly few in number) who actually consider themselves works of art. I would much rather that such men never vanish from the scene. More and more of late I hear stories of this or that tobi doing the work of a common laborer. I fervently hope that these men—San’ya’s very own aristocrats—will be able to ride out this terrible recession. Speaking as a common laborer from San’ya’s “plebeian class,” I pray that San’ya’s spiritual patricians, defending their manly pride and honing their reputations in the face of great danger, manage to survive these hard times and live another day.

SOURCE: A Man with No Talents: Memoirs of a Tokyo Day Laborer, by Ōyama Shirō, trans. by Edward Fowler (Cornell U. Press, 2005), pp. 61-62

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