Photo: Valerie Kor / JT

Fishing Your Way to University

Even if it stinks, if it’s tasty, someone is willing to pay a good price for it

Featured    - 17 min read

Date: December 7, 1990
Age: 15 years old

Satoshi was tired of Kawasaki high school. The mundane local school presented no challenge to him. How could he make his mark on the world in such a stagnant place?

After some research, he decided he wanted to transfer to the elite Keio Senior High School to improve his chances of getting into Keio’s new computer engineering school. Sadly, to do so, Satoshi needed money. He knew his parents didn’t have the financial capacity to pay the tuition fees, which cost millions of yen. In fact, between the two of them, they barely earned enough income for a single year of tuition.

However, since need is the mother of invention, and Satoshi desperately wanted to enter the computer industry after his initial experiences with gaming, hacking, and the internet, he had one choice. He had to get a job.

Unfortunately, securing a job proved to be more difficult than Satoshi anticipated. He was a gawky 15-going-on-16 year old kid who was supposed to be studying for the following school year’s University entrance exams. Satoshi figured he could work about 3-4 hours a night and then cram study on the weekends. He started scanning newspapers for job openings and talked to a few friends through the Internet email system he was secretly accessing at Keio University. His friends offered a few suggestions.

“There’s a ramen shop that needs a cook up in Musashi Koganei,” one wrote, “But they’re only paying 600 yen an hour.”

Not enough money, Satoshi reasoned.

“My friend is looking for someone to wash cars on his used car lot in Shinagawa,” offered another, “The pay is about 500 yen per car–so maybe one an hour? They’re kind of fussy.”

Sounds like a hassle, Satoshi thought, and the pay isn’t even good.

“Hey, you could be a host for a Mama’s club up in Shinjuku. Great pay, about 700 yen an hour and tips if the Mamas like you,” schmoozed another.

Seven hundred yen caught Satoshi’s attention. He immediately emailed his friend back for more details, but was disappointed with his discouraging response.

“What? You’re only 15? Get out of here. You’ll get them shut down if you even poke your head in through the door!”

Satoshi sighed in frustration. With these kinds of wages he’d need to work about three years of part-time work to pay for one year of tuition. That wasn’t going to work. He’d need at least 2,000 yen an hour. Where was he going to find a job like that? Would he have to do something illegal? Maybe. But he wasn’t sure he had the stomach for something like that again. After all, the monks told him that karma was a tough task to master and there were no shortcuts. Plus, the revenge plan he carried out against Tsutomu still nagged at his conscience. He silently cursed to himself. What should he do?

Tsukiji Market
Tsukiji Market (Photo: image_vulture / Shutterstock.com)

Today was a national holiday. His classmates were probably happy to have a day off, but not Satoshi. He was depressed about his inability to pay for a brighter future. Instead of moping around the house though, he decided to get some fresh air and strolled south to one of his favorite haunts, the bustling Nanbu food market. The market was a short less than kilometer walk from his home, and soon he reached the front gates.

The market was a large old fashioned retail space that was run by the city and designed to cater to the area’s working class. The bustling mart was filled with lots of small stall holders who couldn’t afford shops of their own and customers who wanted to chat as much as they wanted to buy products.

Satoshi could smell Nanbu market well before he entered it. The rich aromas of fish, sodden packing crates, and forklifts exemplified the market’s indifference to its appearance. The spot was basically a mini version of the famous Tsukiji markets up in Tokyo. Satoshi liked Nanbu market because it was always a hive of activity. Old-time stall operators competed with each other. “Irashai!” “Hey, our fish is the freshest!” For Satoshi, the noise, stink, and bustle of human commerce were great distractions that helped get his mind off his own troubles.

As he strolled down the fish aisle he realized he was following his mother’s usual shopping route. He walked past old man Iwai, who was frying up 2-day old fish in an effort to profit from otherwise worthless stock. He knew his mother never bought from Iwai for fear of getting sick. Further down the path was “aunty” Shizuko, who had some of the tenderest awabi (abalone) in Tokyo. Of course, the Nakamotos couldn’t afford anything that fancy. When Satoshi walked by, he closed his eyes and envisioned what the prized seafood would taste like.

Deeper inside the market, the stall rental fees were lower, meaning that only the cheapest customers would shop there. As Satoshi meandered through, he noticed that the Watanabe’s stall was closed… Well, sort of. The Watanabe’s daughter, Shinobu, was packing some polystyrene cooling boxes. She was about the same age as Satoshi and often helped her parents at the market in her spare time. Satoshi quickly stepped into the shadows to plan his approach. He was still a little embarrassed to talk to girls, but Shinobu was cool. She went to the same school as him and was more so a shopkeeper than a girl. That distinction made her okay and not a threat to his 15-year old ego. With this reasoning, he breathed deeply and made his way over.

“Umm, how come you’re not open today?” Satoshi asked in his most normal voice.

“Uhh, Satoshi… Taihen dayo. Dad cut himself really badly last week. Mom’s taking care of him and doesn’t have time to run the stall and make our special deliveries,” she replied, disheartened.

“But, I thought you were doing really well? I remember last time we were here, your dad was talking about those rich bankers up in Kabutocho ordering live lobsters from you,” he responded, trying to lighten the mood.

“Yeah, well, someone needs to get the lobsters up there, and no one else in the market is interested in running around. They’re all busy with their own stalls. Anyway, they know Dad will get compensation from the city,” she answered, before continuing somberly, “It really is a shame though. I was planning on getting into university with those tips.”

“Tips? Who is tipping? I thought only American tourists tip,” Satoshi asked, intrigued.

“Not these banker guys. They’ve been crazy for the freshest fish for a couple of years now, and Dad gets his seafood directly from the City markets,” she said proudly and threw her arm in the general direction of the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Markets in Ota, northeast of Route 1.

Perhaps he was just bored, had a natural instinct to help, or sensed an opportunity. Whatever the reason, Satoshi was interested.

“Hey!” he blurted, though upon hearing the high volume and over eagerness in his voice, he readjusted his tone, and then continued, “I have some free time after school. I’d be happy to make some deliveries for your dad. It’s just for a few days, right?”

Shinobu sniffed and responded, “Hmmm, they’re a bit scary to deal with, and you’re just a kid. I mean, I’d do it, but Dad said it wasn’t a job for girls,” she rolled her eyes at this statement and then continued, “But I do want to get into that new fashion university… Okay, I’ll talk to my dad. Come back tomorrow, and I’ll let you know what he says.”

Photo: Cindy Chan / Unsplash

At exactly 5pm the next day, after school and a quick snack at home, Satoshi stood waiting in front of the Watanabe’s stall.

“Ho, Satoshi!” Mr. Watanabe’s deep voice called out. Satoshi quickly noticed the impressive bandage wrapped around his left hand. “Shinobu tells me you want to help out.”

“Yes sir,” Satoshi responded in his most professional voice, “It’s still the beginning of the school year, so I’m not too busy.”

“Did she tell you that you need to haul our deliveries up to Tokyo and that you’d be taking the train? We don’t have anyone who can drive,” Mr. Watanabe continued.

“Yes sir. I’m okay with that,” Satoshi said enthusiastically.

“Can you read a map? Some of these buildings are difficult to find, and since they’re banks and investment companies they’re hard to get into after 5pm,” the older man said while gauging Satoshi’s reaction

“Yes sir. I should be fine,” Satoshi assured him.

Mr. Watanabe shrugged and then put his good hand on Satoshi’s shoulder.

“Okay. Let’s give it a try then. You look fit enough. Are you working out or something?” He asked.

“I joined the wrestling team last year,” Satoshi said proudly, and on impulse, he flexed his arm.

Mr. Watanabe laughed, leaned forward and gave the muscle a squeeze.

“Perfect,” he chuckled, “Come back tomorrow at exactly 5pm, and I’ll give you the first order.”

On his way home, pleased as punch that someone thought he could do a man’s job, Satoshi realized he’d forgotten to ask Mr. Watanabe what the pay was. He facepalmed himself. Well, no matter. The job’s only for a few weeks, and he was doing something good to help out the family. What goes around comes around.

The next afternoon, he told his mom that he was going to help out the Watanabe family. Toshiko considered Satoshi’s words for a moment before speaking.

“Okay, you can help out, but not for too long. You do have your studies. I’m sorry to hear about their situation though. Please take these pickles I made, and tell him I hope he gets better soon.”

Satoshi snorted quietly. Of course his mom would make him give a gift to someone, when he was the one that was supposed to be getting paid. Typical. However, he did as he was told, and Mr. Watanabe was very pleased.

“Pickles, eh?” The fishmonger said, “We’ll eat them tonight.”

In return for the pickles, Mr. Watanabe handed Satoshi a plastic padded carry bag that contained an awkwardly long rectangular polystyrene box–the type that fishmongers used to hold their best products. Mr. Watanabe had secured some slightly illegal “over quota” Hokkaido crabs, which were very much alive as he had just fished them out of the discretely covered salt water tanks behind his stall.

“Now, son, this is an important delivery, you need to go straight to this address, and don’t dawdle. When you get there, go around to the side entrance, and tell the night guard you have a delivery for Mr. Aoki. Make sure you get a signature on this nihonsho (delivery note),” Mr. Watanabe explained carefully as he handed Satoshi a sheet of faded fax paper showing the map and a delivery note already stamped with a pretty vermillion stylized kanji image. Satoshi admired the imprint of Mr. Watanabe’s company hanko (seal).

Satoshi knew that Kabutocho was where the stock market brokers had their offices. The brokers had been in the news for ages. First, for the amazing bonuses as the 1980’s stock market bubble expanded, and then later for the suicides when the markets crashed. Although many suffered, some continued to party, profiting off of others’ misery. Satoshi didn’t know many details though. At 15, his top priority that night was to successfully make the delivery without the cooling bags of ice melting or dropping the box.

Photo: Kawasaki Station – Jun Takeuchi / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Satoshi caught the Keikyu Line directly from Kawasaki station, and rode it all the way to the Nihombashi Kabutocho district station, which of course is why these customers were using Watanabe. They knew the trip was fast, which meant fresher delectables. The Watanabe’s could provide produce that others could not.

Luckily, the setting sun cast just enough light for Satoshi to read the faded map, and soon he found the nondescript concrete building a couple of streets in from the Kamejima canal. As anticipated, the front entrance was already locked. Before Satoshi left, Mr. Watanabe explained to him that regular finance staff start early when the markets open and, thus, end early.

Satoshi headed to the side of the building as he was instructed, knocked on the side door, and then opened it. Inside was a small counter, and a tiny hatch containing an elderly guard.

“Excuse me sir, I have a package for Mr. Aoki. It’s from Watanabe Shacho of Watanabe Fish,” Satoshi said with as much confidence as he could muster.

“Another one?!” grumped the old man. “Well, I’m busy. You’ll have to take it up yourself.” Satoshi looked at him quizzically. “Fifth floor. The elevator’s around the corner,” the guard added.

Satoshi nodded his thanks to the guard and entered the lobby. While the building’s exterior looked kind of old and dumpy, the inside was very nice. Colorful original-looking paintings decorated the walls. Satoshi felt his cheeks grow red when he noticed a marble statue of a half naked mermaid at the back of the hall. He entered the elevator and was amazed to see a small chandelier in the space. He pressed the fifth floor button and ascended to Mr. Aoki’s office floor as a scented air deodorizer whirred quietly in the background.

Soon the elevator decelerated and came to a stop on the fifth floor. As the elevator door slid open, Satoshi straightened his chest and held his chin high. However, the door opened to an empty office floor. He relaxed his posture and then jumped when a woman’s voice rang out across the floor. Her loud exclamation was followed by happy shrieking and clapping hands as people shouted, “Iki, iki! – Drink up, drink up!”

Photo: jazz3311 / Shutterstock.com

Satoshi followed the sounds of merriment and nervously crept to the open door, which appeared to be a meeting room. The room certainly wasn’t being used for a meeting right now though. In fact, a raucous party was in full swing. He tiptoed into the lively get together and was immediately greeted by a slightly tipsy woman dressed in a short, but fashionable miniskirt and scant gray silk top.

“You’re a bit young to be here, aren’t you?” She mused with an alcohol-influenced smile.

Satoshi bowed and said, “Sorry Miss, but I have an important delivery for Mr. Aoki.”

She giggled at the seriousness of the young fellow, and yelled across the room, “Aoki-sama! Special delivery for you!”

One of the older men, very well dressed, but sporting a vibrantly flushed face, looked over, saw the boy, and made his way through the boisterous crowd. Satoshi thought the man’s red face matched some of the vermillion temples and shrines he had visited.

“So, who are you?” he asked.

Satoshi smelled liquor on his breath. “I have a special delivery for you sir, from Mr. Watanabe.”

“Ha!” responded Aoki, “Watanabe, about time! Well, let’s see it then.”

Satoshi extracted the polystyrene box out of the carry bag. Aoki smiled, took a Montblanc pen from his suit pocket and slit the tape around the box. Half way around, a feathery crab claw suddenly pushed out through the gap, and he laughed in delight.

“Our racers are here!” he announced to the crowd, and several younger men bounded over to help him grab the two giant crabs as he cleared a space on the floor.

Satoshi watched in amazement and disbelief as the crowd of well dressed bankers proceeded to have the crabs race across the floor. They placed bets and hollered when their crabs reigned victorious. They reminded Satoshi of the unemployed bettors that gathered outside the housing projects near his school in Saiwai-ku. He hadn’t expected the same behavior from professionals. He wasn’t judgmental. He just thought it was funny. Even rich people wanted to have fun.

Satoshi enjoyed the spectacle for about 15 minutes and then started wondering if he should head home. Though first, Mr. Aoki needed to sign the receipt. He sidled up to the drunk banker, bowed, and said, “Aoki-sama, can you please sign this receipt, and I’ll be going.”

Aoki regarded him briefly and then motioned over his secretary, who was the woman Satoshi first met when he entered the room.

“Look after the kid,” he muttered distractedly before turning back to his losing crab.

The secretary smiled at Satoshi and then led him out of the room and down the corridor to Aoki’s office. When they reached the office, they heard Aoki shout, “Damn, that was one expensive crab! I hope it tastes better than it runs!”

The secretary inked and pressed the Aoki company’s hanko on the delivery note and handed it back to Satoshi.

“Well, that was fun! Also, the boss wants you to have a little bonus as well,” she grinned as she handed Satoshi a small envelope. “That’s for you, kid, not your boss.”

Satoshi tried not to smile too broadly as he thanked the woman and bowed again. He desperately wanted to see what was inside the envelope, but did not want to appear rude. She waved him off smiling, and then made her way back to the party. Satoshi calmly walked back to the elevator, but as soon as the doors closed, he dove into the envelope. His heart skipped a beat. There, in a neat pile, were five completely new 10,000 yen notes! That was 100 hours of pay for a two and a half hour round trip!

He now understood that there were many paths one could take to achieve one’s objectives in life. According to the foundations of good karma, if one started with pure thoughts and intentions, then the most unexpected things could happen. Yes, he thought, as he strolled through the shadows and across the bridge back to the station, maybe the fish business wouldn’t be so bad after all.

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