Skip to main content

Saipan the Shoeshine Man

ISSUE:  Autumn 1984

Saburo Yamashita huddled in the cold staring straight ahead. He sat on his heels on a cushion which slightly softened the hardness of a small wooden pallet four inches above the street. He wore many layers of clothing and two pairs of gloves. A long scarf was wrapped around his thin wrinkled neck several times, and his bald head and ears were covered with a schoolboy’s knitted cap. On his left was a clay pot with wire-frame bucket handle, and in the center of the pot a charcoal fire glowed red. Still, the old man was not warm, but he did not think about the cold of this night.

In front of the old man was a jam of dark pant legs. He looked at his watch. It was almost time, a little after nine. The last of the commuters were still coming home from their jobs in Tokyo. A minute later he saw them: two pant legs walking briskly among the others, a briefcase swinging alongside. The old man was close enough to the briefcase to speak to the man, but he did not. Nor did he look up at the face above. He didn’t have to because he knew who it was. When he saw the pant legs walking briskly and the swinging briefcase, he didn’t notice the cold anymore, or the weight of his age.

Saburo Yamashita thought it might be a good night. The streets were crowded, the music and the voices were loud, and he could smell the beer. In the doorways under blinking lights, women in heavy makeup called out into the streets. But the best part of all was the jam of pant legs. They belonged to American sailors on liberty from their ships lying at anchor in Yokosuka, 30 miles down the coast from Tokyo. Even though the last war the Americans entered in this part of the world, the one in Korea, had been over for more than 10 years now, there were plenty of American ships in Yokosuka, sometimes as many as 50. Recently he had been hearing many of the young Americans in the street talk about going to a war in a new place, a place called “Bed-Nam” or something like that. He had never heard of such a place, but that didn’t mean a war couldn’t happen there.

It was perfectly possible for a big war to happen in a place he had never heard of. Saburo Yamashita already had some experience with that sort of thing. When the Great Pacific War had been declared by the emperor, he had been sent to a place he had never heard of before the day he arrived—the island of Saipan—and a big war had developed there. The Americans had come to take the island and had done much killing. So many had died, so many. The blood of his friends and comrades had turned the lush green jungle and clean white sand red. There was something wrong about that— making something beautiful into a place of death—and Saburo Yamashita hoped Japan never made that kind of mistake again. But Japan was Japan, and other countries were foreign. If it were true that the Americans were getting into another war in that “Bed-Nam” place, then more ships would come to Yokosuka, and that would be good for business. One had to be realistic about these things, depending, of course, on one’s station in life.

Saburo Yamashita’s station in life was directly tied to the American ships in Yokosuka, directly tied to the pant legs that surrounded him every night in the street. Attached to all those pant legs, of course, were feet in shoes, and the U.S. Navy had a regulation which stated that all shoes worn by sailors would always be highly polished. All the polishing on the ships and inside the navy base was, of course, done by the sailors themselves. But if they needed to have them shined on liberty, as they always did after one of the many brawls in town, Saburo Yamashita and a few others like him did it while the sailor stood right there in the street. He had a good location in Yokosuka—at the corner of two alleys in the part of town where all the bars and whorehouses for the Americans were, right across from the main gate of the base. All he had to do was look straight ahead at the street full of pant legs moving back and forth. When one pair stopped in front of him, he assumed a customer had come. He simply pointed to the footrest before him where the sailor should put his shoe and reached to his right, into the box of rags and brushes and cans of polish. He didn’t even have to ask what color the man wanted. All navy shoes were black.

In the early years Saburo Yamashita had tried to be polite to his customers, even the loudmouthed drunks, but it never got him very far. His politeness was rarely returned. Some of the sailors asked what his name was, but he never told them. He doubted if they really cared, and he was sure they could never pronounce it right. If any Americans asked, he would tell them the only foreign word he thought they would understand, the name of the island where all his friends had died. “Saipan, me Saipan.” Saipan the shoeshine man, that’s what they called him.

Saipan didn’t like being surrounded by American sailors. So many of them were such bullies, always yelling and pushing until they got what they wanted. They did not know how to walk through a crowd without bumping into everyone. They did not know how to greet their elders. And the way they talked sometimes while having their shoes shined was really awful. “Hey, Saipan. How many girlfriends you got? I’ll bet you got a whole whorehouseful, you old stud. I’ll bet you’re gettin’ more ass than me and all my buddies put together, eh?” They didn’t know how much of their talk he understood. And that is why Saipan never looked up at the faces of his customers. He talked to pant legs and the shoes below them.


Saburo Yamashita’s transformation from Imperial Army soldier to Saipan the shoeshine man began in the darkest season of his country’s long history. Defeat and foreign occupation had come to Japan for the first time. When the Americans brought him back from the prisoner-of-war camp, Japan lay in ruins. Cities had been reduced to piles of rubble. The stench of burned homes hung over every neighborhood. His father’s house had been burned to the ground, and there was no trace of his parents. Hunger was so widespread there was no need for the word. Formerly wealthy families traded priceless heirlooms for a cupful of rice grains. The poor traded their daughters to brothels and scraped the insides of garbage barrels. Jobs were as rare as full stomachs, and stealing was an acceptable method of survival.

The worst part for Saburo Yamashita was not just watching the suffering of others or feeling the emptiness in his own stomach. The worst part was watching his own family weaken and fall apart in its desperation. His wife had been sick even before the war ended. The lack of food and the strain of caring for two young children were enough to make doubtful her own full recovery, but the return of her husband made it even less likely. He had returned to Japan as a living veteran of a defeated army, and that was a disgrace. The rumors were widespread before the war had been over even a few weeks: returned veterans were not welcome in their hometowns, and some had been stoned by neighbors enraged over the loss of sons and homes. “Why couldn’t you soldiers keep the American and British devils away from our homes?” they asked all over the country. He knew there was no acceptable answer, and so he did not try to give one.

The desperate veteran gathered his sick wife and hungry children and left his neighborhood in Tokyo. He wanted to go far enough that no one would recognize him and yet not so far that the trip would kill his wife. He would go somewhere near the Americans; there would be work of some kind near them. It didn’t matter which way he took his family; the Americans were everywhere. For a reason he could not remember he led his family to the south.

For two days the desperate family walked under a leaden sky through a country without hope. Somewhere between their old home and their unknown destination Saburo Yamashita’s wife collapsed. He laid her in the weeds beside the road. Her wasted body needed food, and they gave her what they had: a potato. But it was too late for potatoes. She fell into a delirium. She called for her children but did not recognize them. Her breathing was too weak to bend the blades of grass in front of her dry mouth, and she died after a night of raspy moaning. The father led his children away from the still form in the weeds amid the pink of dawn. There were many others on the roads in that harsh autumn after the war, and many other still forms in the weeds.

The family without a wife and mother walked for another day and asked a fisherman where they were. The man answered “Yokosuka,” and the father decided he had gone far enough. He knew no one in Yokosuka, and he even saw a measure of promise in the area: there were many more houses and buildings still standing than in Tokyo. But the first home he found for himself and his children was not one of those houses that had survived the American bombers and their fires. It was a cave. A cave full of other desperate people. There were many hills around and in Yokosuka, and after the Americans had proved they could bomb Tokyo and Yokohama, people dug caves in them for shelter from the B-29s. The first few people to enter the caves were naïve enough to think they could return to their homes after a night of bombing. But when they saw the smoking ruins of their neighborhoods, they learned to value their tiny spaces in the caves and never left them unoccupied, for that would be an irresistible temptation for other desperate people. Some families had lived in the caves for nearly three years by the time the war ended.

During the day, the men or widows left the caves to look for food and work. While Saburo Yamashita wandered around Yokosuka following rumors about jobs, he saw many American soldiers and sailors. The mere sight of them scared him: they were so big, so well fed. It was obvious they had never been hungry. They also laughed so easily, and that reminded him of another measure of his desperation in these recent years: it had been a long time since he had laughed and a long time since he had heard his children laugh. The widowed father promised himself that as soon as he found work and had some money he would laugh in front of his children and see if he could make them laugh again.

It was during his wanderings around town that Saburo Yamashita heard about the American Navy’s regulation on shined shoes. He talked to some other poor men who looked like they knew where they were going. “Follow us,” they said, “if you don’t mind being around the Americans.” He followed and was shown corners of Yokosuka he didn’t know about before. He walked through narrow mazelike streets full of tall foreigners in uniform. Some of the foreigners walked normally but most reeled drunkenly. The streets were lit not only by daylight but by blinking signs of many colors. The signs were all in English so he couldn’t read them, but he guessed what kind of messages they blinked at him. Under the signs were doorways open to darkness and loud music. In front of most of the doorways Japanese girls wearing too much make-up and perfume chewed gum and called to the foreigners and sometimes pulled at their arms. “This is where the Americans play,” one of the men explained. “And where we work,” another added. The newcomer kept his reaction to himself: my daughter must never see this place.

The men stopped at the corner of two alleys, and Saburo Yamashita saw his next job. Half a dozen men were kneeling on a wooden pallet shining the shoes of American sailors standing before them. “There are plenty of American sailors so there is plenty of work,” his guide explained. If my father could see me shining the shoes of foreigners in this place, he would feel the deepest shame, thought the hungry man with two children and no wife. In this respect alone it is good that he died in the war.

When he began shining shoes, Saburo Yamashita had nothing but two hands and the desire to work born of desperation. He shared a box of rags and brushes and polish with two other hungry men. After ten hours of polishing and waiting and polishing, he had sore stained fingers and arms and a pocket heavy with coins. He walked away from the garish streets thinking about his hungry children in the cave. He hoped they were sleeping, but it might be too cold. A cave wasn’t much of a home, but now that he had some money there would at least be some food. It had been a long time since his children had laughed. Surely if they had something to eat besides a few small potatoes a day he could hear them laugh again.

The father’s thoughts about his children were suddenly interrupted by a form that rushed at him from a shadow between two buildings. The form knocked him to the pavement. The first thing the newest shoeshiner in Yokosuka focused on was a knife pointed at his throat. “Give me the money,” demanded the gaunt face from the shadows.


“If you want to live through this night, give me the money,” the face repeated.

“But my family has nothing to eat.”

“No one has anything to eat this winter. Give me the money.” Saburo Yamashita reached for his money but not fast enough for his attacker. The man from the shadow grabbed the pocket and slashed it open with his knife. When he saw the coins fall out, the attacker dropped his knife and lunged for them. He grabbed handfuls and stuffed them in his pockets as fast as he could, his bony fingers scraping the cold pavement. His victim did the same, and for a few seconds the two hungry men ignored each other as they scrambled on their hands and knees after coins rolling away. With most of the coins picked up, the attacker stood, turned, and kicked his victim in the face, then ran back into the shadows.

Saburo Yamashita was on his back, blood coursing down his mouth. He pulled himself to his knees slowly, then to his feet. He looked up and down the cold dark alley and saw no one. Bending down to pick up a few stray coins, he saw the knife his attacker left. Again he looked to see if anyone was watching, then snatched up the knife. If another desperate form came out of the shadows, he would be ready. Walking back to the cave on legs weak with fear and anger, he licked his fingers and wiped at the blood on his face, trying to erase the evidence of his latest humiliation. His children must not see.


That first winter after the war was the most difficult anyone could remember. There was not enough food or clothing or jobs, in addition to the cold wind and snow. And for Saburo Yamashita and his children, and several thousands more, there was a cave or a street instead of a house. A bath was an unheard-of luxury. They built fires in the cave, but it was never warm, and some did not survive. There were no dramatics connected with the occasional deaths, no tearful declarations about not being able to take it anymore; just a quiet letting go on a pile of dirty rags in the darkness. And in the morning someone pulled the stiff silent form out of the cave.

As the months and years passed, Saipan learned how to survive as a shoeshiner. There were plenty of shoes to shine, and they put caluses on his fingers and hardness in the muscles of his arms. He saved his money and learned how to avoid another attack in the night. He found several different routes back to the cave and never took the same two nights in a row. And he always carried his knife.

In time there came more food, better clothes, and an occasional bath. Eventually the day came when he could once again see his children smiling and hear their laughter. Saipan joined his son Ichiro and daughter Sachiko in their joy on the day they left the cave and moved to a tiny room in a “long-house,” a row of one-story apartments under the same roof. The long-house had been built before the war, partially destroyed during it, and patched up after. The building might have kept out more wind than it allowed in, but one could not be sure. And the location was hardly ideal for growing children. They were close enough to the alley where Saipan worked that they could hear the loud music and the shouts of drunken sailors. And two women lived at one end of the long-house, and at night they brought sailors into their room for what they called a “short-time.” But the father did not think of complaining to the landlord. In Japan in 1948 one took what one could get.

Saipan wanted to think of the young sailors America sent to Japan as the finest representatives of their great country. But it was difficult sometimes, it was difficult. Some of the sailors thought it was funny to spit or pour beer in his box of polish and rags while he worked on their shoes. And when they paid, many sailors made sure he knew they didn’t like the idea, as if the equivalent of 25 cents were too much to pacify three stomachs and pay the rent. Some threw a handful of pennies in his rag box, and a few even dropped coins in his fire pot. But not all the sailors paid. Some slapped Saipan on his bald head as he bent over their shoes, then ran away laughing. Some just sneered and walked away, daring him to tell the Shore Patrol.

One sailor paid in a way that made him impossible to forget. While Saipan brushed and polished, he noticed how quiet his customer was. A quiet sailor was so rare in Yokosuka that Saipan wondered what one looked like. He raised his eyes from the shoes, a rare acknowledgement of a customer. It was a young face, too young to be so far from home, Saipan thought. He probably didn’t even shave yet. The sailor forced a hasty smile. When Saipan finished, the sailor turned to his buddy. “He ain’t gonna like this.”

“The chief wasn’t gonna like your shoes the way they was, either. You got no choice if you wanna keep your liberty. Go ahead.”

The young sailor reached in his coat pocket and handed Saipan a small dog-eared book. “Uh . . .sorry, Saipan. This is all I got. I’ll come back and pay you day after tomorrow. Honest.”

Saipan looked past the book at the young face pleading for understanding. “You pay. U.S. money okay.”

The young sailor looked desperately at his buddy, then back at Saipan. “I’m broke, Saipan! I’ll come back day after tomorrow and pay. Honest!”

Saipan took the book and stared at it. He couldn’t read any of the English words on the cover. What possible use did a Japanese shoeshiner have for a book printed in English? He looked up at the desperate young face again. Something in him wanted to trust the sailor, and he did not threaten to call the Shore Patrol, He put the book in his box and watched the two Americans walk back to the base.

The next day Saipan took the book to a man who could read English. The man made a living translating letters exchanged by Japanese bargirls and American sailors. He told Saipan the book was published by the American military and contained sentences chosen to reduce misunderstanding between Japanese and Americans, things like “Good afternoon,” “How much is that?” and “Where is the toilet?”

“Just as I thought,” Saipan said to the translator. “Useless.” That night he took the book home, put it in a drawer and forgot about it.

But someone else in the Yamashita family found a use for the phrase book. Not long after the family moved into the long-house, Ichiro entered elementary school, followed a year later by Sachiko. Both children liked school and brought home happy stories of friends and growing up. One night when few ships were in port, Saipan came home early and found Ichiro trying to read the old phrase book the young sailor had given him years before. At first Saipan laughed at his son for trying to decipher the English words. But a few weeks later, when Ichiro announced that with the help of a teacher he had worked his way through the entire phrase book, the father was in awe. He couldn’t remember anyone in any branch of the family demonstrating so much intelligence.

And the phrase book was only the beginning. Ichiro had a book in his hand everywhere he went. Even when he played baseball, his books were never far away. Center fielders who read instead of watching the ball aren’t very useful to a team, but his friends still let him play. They called him hon no mushi, “bookworm.”

In the fifth year after the war, Ichiro entered junior high school. The father was very proud, for he had never attended junior high school. His parents had decided long ago that six years was enough education. Sometimes as he watched his son go off to school in the morning, Saipan allowed himself the cautious hope that Ichiro could have a better life than he.

One day the son’s teachers sent for the father. Saipan couldn’t imagine why he was being summoned. He had raised his son, both his children, to be honest and work hard. They had never done anything wrong. Yet the teacher had called for his presence, and so he did as he was told. He put on his best clothes and went to his son’s school. Before he was prepared, he was standing in front of the school. He looked at the big two-story building and felt clearly his lack of education. He didn’t even know how to talk to a junior high school teacher. He was sure the students would see the shoe polish stains on his hands and laugh. But this thing had to be done.

Saipan could hardly believe his ears when he heard the teacher’s words. “Your son has potential. He learns faster than the other students. He must be encouraged. He should prepare for a good high school and then go on to university.”

Saipan stared in disbelief at the man behind the glasses. “To university? My son?” He could not have been more shocked if the teacher had ordered him to pick up Mt. Fuji and move it a hundred miles.

“Yes. To university. Is anything wrong?” The stunned father could not answer. No, there was nothing wrong with telling a poor, uneducated man that his son can go to university and escape poverty forever. Nothing at all. But yes, there was something wrong at the same time. To prepare for a university entrance examination a student had to take extra classes, and a poor man could not afford that. The teacher continued. “Of course, he should be taking extra classes after school and there are a number of fine schools in this area. Will the tuition be a problem? By the way, what is your job?”

There it was. The one question he was unprepared to answer. Now he knew. This whole meeting had been planned to throw that single question at him, to lay bare his failings, to underline his inadequacy. He knew he should have gone to the alley as Saipan the shoeshine man instead of coming to the school today. His eyes moved from the teacher sitting across the table to his polish-stained hands to the grain lines in the bare wood floor. The silence was as devastating as the admission of his job with the sailors would have been. Fortunately, the teacher was in a hurry. “Oh well, we can work something out. Just make sure he does his homework every night.”

“Yes, sir. Of course I will. Thank you, sir,” said the relieved father, rising from his seat and bowing at the same time. He bowed himself out of the office and promptly bumped into another teacher in the hall, which touched off another round of bowing and backing away. So great was his pride in what his son was becoming that he did not remember the walk back to the long-house.

Like the teacher behind the glasses said, something was worked out for Ichiro. A tutor was found, and he came twice a week to lecture on science, mathematics, and English grammer. Saipan was embarrassed about the neighborhood the teacher had to walk through to reach the long-house, about the simple room in which he lived, and about the fact that he had no wife to give a proper greeting at the door and fix tea. Even when he closed the windows to give teacher and student a measure of privacy, they could still hear the loud music and the shouts of the reeling, brawling sailors and the enticements of the painted girls in the alleys. But the teacher never asked any embarrassing questions, and Sachiko could make tea as well as any grown woman.

In the following years, the evaluations of the teachers proved correct. Ichiro learned quickly and compiled an impressive scholastic record. He went to a first-class high school, and before the first year was over his teachers were urging him to prepare for a top university. The proud father began to think there might be a reward for all the suffering and abuses he and his family had endured over the years. The father’s hopes were answered when Ichiro was 18. He took the entrance examination for the most prestigious school in the country, Tokyo University. A degree from Tokyo was more highly prized than a degree from any other school in Japan. It was a ticket to the best jobs in any field, to fast promotions, and a guarantee of the most secure life. And all of that meant Tokyo University was the most difficult school to enter. But on the day he went up to the campus and studied the big board listing examination results, Ichiro found his name. When the father heard the great news that night, he felt even more joy than his son. If the son of a shoeshiner can enter the finest university in the country, then life was not without hope.

When Ichiro moved into the dormitory in Tokyo, Saipan began his secret fund. He could afford to add only a few nickels and yen a week to the fund, but he thought four years would be enough time to build up the right amount. The man with the stained hands judged right. Two weeks before his son was to graduate, Saipan took him to a tailor. He would not have his son graduate from the best university in the country wearing an old suit from a pawnshop. It was all right for the father to wear his pawnshop suit, for he would be lost in the huge audience of parents. But the son couldn’t wear a pawn-shop suit, for he would have to walk across the stage to receive his degree, and then everyone could see. Besides, the young graduate needed something appropriate for his new job in a big trading company: a dark suit.

When the big day arrived, Saipan put on his pawnshop suit, an old brown double-breasted three-piece. On the train from Yokosuka there was no one prouder. Nor was there anyone prouder during the graduation ceremony. When his name was called, Ichiro walked straight across the stage, bowed, and took his degree from the dean. No one in the audience could tell that the young man in the dark suit on stage had lived in a cave 20 years before.


Saipan the shoeshine man huddled in the cold staring straight ahead. The fire in the clay pot on his left glowed red. Saipan was not warm, but he did not think about the cold of the night. He looked at his watch. It was almost time, a little after nine. A minute later he saw them: two pant legs walking briskly through the others, a briefcase swinging alongside. The man passed close to Saipan, but neither man spoke, and both understood. No man who had graduated from a famous university and wore a white shirt and dark suit to work would talk to an old shoeshiner sitting on the street. One simply cannot act in public as one acts at home.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading