The Birth of My Kitchen Table Fiction
Since I hated the idea of working for a company, I decided to open my own establishment, a place where people could go to listen to jazz records, have a coffee, eat snacks, and drink. It was a simple, rather happy-go-lucky kind of idea: running a business like that, I figured, would let me relax listening to my favorite music from morning till night. The problem was, since we had married while still in university we had no money. Therefore, for the first three years, my wife and I worked like slaves, often taking on several jobs at once to save as much as we could. After that, I made the rounds borrowing whatever friends and family could spare. Then we took all the money we had managed to scrape together and opened a small coffee shop / bar in Kokubunji, a student hangout, in the western suburbs of Tokyo. It was 1974.
It cost a lot less to open your own place back then than it does now. Young people like us who were determined to avoid “company life” at all costs were launching small shops left and right. Cafés and restaurants, variety stores, bookstores—you name it. Several places near us were owned and run by people of our generation. Kokubunji retained a strong counterculture vibe, and many of those who hung around the area were dropouts from the shrinking student movement. It was an era when, all over the world, one could still find gaps in the system.
I brought my old upright piano from my parents’ house and began offering live music on weekends. There were many young jazz musicians living in the Kokubunji area who happily (I think) played for the small amount we could pay them. Many went on to become well-known musicians; I sometimes run across them in jazz clubs around Tokyo even now.
Although we were doing what we liked, paying our debts was a constant struggle. We owed the bank, and we owed the people who had supported us. On one occasion, stuck for our monthly payment to the bank, my wife and I were trudging along with our heads down late at night when we stumbled across some money lying in the street. Whether it was synchronicity or some sort of divine intercession I don’t know, but the amount was exactly what we needed. Since the payment was due the next day, it was truly a last-minute reprieve. (Strange events like this have happened at various junctures in my life.) Most Japanese would have probably done the proper thing, and turned the money in to the police, but stretched to the limit as we were, we couldn’t live by such fine sentiments.
Still it was fun. No question about that. I was young and in my prime, could listen to my favorite music all day long, and was the lord of my own little domain. I didn’t have to squeeze onto packed commuter trains, or attend mind-numbing meetings, or suck up to a boss who I disliked. Instead, I had the chance to meet all kinds of interesting people.
My twenties were thus spent paying off loans and doing hard physical labor (making sandwiches and cocktails, hustling foul-mouthed patrons out the door) from morning till night. After a few years, our landlord decided to renovate the Kokubunji building, so we moved to more up-to-date and spacious digs near the center of Tokyo, in Sendagaya. Our new location provided enough room for a grand piano, but our debt increased as a result. So things weren’t any easier.
Looking back, all I can remember is how hard we worked. I imagine most people are relatively laid back in their twenties, but we had virtually no time to enjoy the “carefree days of youth.” We barely got by. What free time I did have, though, I spent reading. Along with music, books were my great joy. No matter how busy, or how broke, or how exhausted I was, no one could take those pleasures away from me.
As the end of my twenties approached, our Sendagaya jazz bar was, at last, beginning to show signs of stability. True, we couldn’t sit back and relax—we still owed money, and our sales had their ups and downs—but at least things seemed headed in a good direction.
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