Shoemaker Masahiko Harada left his sliding doors open to the breeze. It’s unusual for a Sunday, when he normally pushes the old frames shut to go play shogi, Japanese chess, on the other side of Asakusa.
From the crossroads by Kototoi bridge, you can just make out the open doorway of his rust-clad workshop, the corrugated siding, beyond the tropical fish store, the percussion shop and police box. You wonder if everything is all right.
He turned out some beautiful shoes, in soft leather, from his stock of old materials. A softness you can’t get anymore, he said. He never had a brand, but made shoes in red, brown and black. Once he signed your insole with a ballpoint pen. You asked him to fix a pair which began squeaking. It seemed like air was trapped in the glue. He remade both boots in a week. He handed them back with a sigh and said, Making shoes is very difficult, you know!
Born at the start of World War 2, Harada was the youngest of three brothers, then sister Takako came along, seven years younger. There were another three siblings who passed away. Father was a rice salesman in Yokohama before moving to Asakusa to start in shoes after the war. The six of them lived upstairs. They did well through the boom years around the ’64 Olympics.
Harada lived alone. He didn’t cook, ate irregular convenience meals or whatever Takako could drop off from her home in the next prefecture. He moved with a cautious shuffle, putting one foot forward, stopping uncertainly, sliding the other one up to it. Each step took about two seconds.
His own shoes were low-cut, like slippers. His style was beyond fashion, his colours earthy and well worn. The first time you met, he had on two different shoes, and only one sock.
The floor was strewn with leather pieces, newspapers, a can for an ashtray, pots of glue and polish. An organic, unself-conscious mess. Stacks of shoe lasts, a spattered radio-cassette player. The shoes on the rack he put out every morning, with their almost illegible price tags, were so old they seemed more like faded props than merchandise.
He won’t be coming back, unfortunately, she says, surveying the mess.
You would sit on the low stool as the radio played, drinking 7-Eleven coffee. He told you about a young woman who found him by chance; a design student who wanted to learn shoemaking. She began to come once a month and he called her his apprentice. He would say to you, Come next Saturday and meet her!
You talked about personal stuff. Men should be able to dance, he said. He brought a girl to meet his mother, and she didn’t approve. After that, he never married. He may have cut a bit of a dash.
Gradually, walking became difficult. He once told you how he fell over when he went to play shogi, both hands flat on the footpath, and someone helped him up.
At the shop now, a woman is putting things into boxes. She sees you at the doorway; you say you are a friend. She calls upstairs, and another woman appears. Harada’s younger sister Takako. The first woman turns out to be the wife of his older brother. The sister says, He has been in hospital for two months. Sensoji Hospital just down the road. It’s his high blood pressure. She has a sunny air and speaks good English, in fact she used to teach grammar at Waseda University.
He won’t be coming back, unfortunately, she says, surveying the mess. I found a nursing home that will take him in Chiba, near my place. He won’t be able to make shoes again.
So this is the transition point. A life in shoes. Gone…like that. What would you do?
You help her pack up a plastic storage drawer and carry it to the 7-Eleven to courier to the nursing home. There is a photo album. Cute sepia days. He hasn’t changed much. Same button nose. The main road and the Showa-era streetcar that no longer runs; dressed sharp in a three-piece suit; karaoke; posing proudly beside his shoe rack.
At the hospital, he looks healthy. He might be depressed at never going back. But he seems grateful. He says, I’ve been getting regular meals here. How does he feel, looking back? He says, All I wanted was to make something people would buy. His father didn’t actually make shoes; just the business. Harada says he learned shoemaking by visiting shoemakers and stealing techniques. Never went to trade school. I’d drop in and sit with them and talk about sumo and baseball while watching them work, he says.
They say single men live less long. So at this stage, an institution may have its benefits. He is fed, bathed, shaved and manicured. He wheels out to the lounge area by the window overlooking Sensoji temple. Sometimes he turns pensive.
The apprentice has been to visit and given him some photographs she took, and a soft and heavy leather tissue box that she made, on which she stamped his name. You talk about what he can do in the home. He can’t make shoes, but maybe he can make something like this.
The nurses like him. He may be alone, but he’s not the sort of guy who gets abandoned. You ask about what he said, about his mother telling him to drop the girl, and that’s why he never married. Did I say that? He laughs and shrugs. There’s no telling how your life will turn out.
See also: New Boots