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  • Yokohama Street Life: The Precarious Career of a Japanese Day Laborer by Tom Gill
  • David H. Slater (bio)

Yokohama Street Life: The Precarious Career of a Japanese Day Laborer. By Tom Gill. Lexington Books, Lanham, Md., 2015. xii, 149 pages. $75.00, cloth; $74.99, E-Book.

Ostensibly, this book is about Nishikawa Kimitsu. The book traces an arc of his adult life and, for the most part, the relationship between Kimitsu and the author, Tom Gill. They met during Gill’s dissertation fieldwork (1993) and have stayed in touch intermittently since then, and there is almost as much Gill here as there is Kimitsu. While in Gill’s earlier monograph, Men of Uncertainty (SUNY Press, 2001), Kimitsu got some mention, this book is mainly Gill’s rough chronological recounting of his meetings with Kimitsu over the years with rich discussions of the predicaments of Kimitsu being “precariously” employed in the day-labor market. The first chapters outline Kimitsu’s life in Kotobuki-chō, what Gill describes as a sort of American-style skid row of low-cost housing and day-labor markets (doya-gai/yoseba). Chapter 3 consists of a set of 15 interviews Gill did with Kimitsu in 2007. The first two chapters are told largely in the third person, but the third is rendered as a series of discrete meetings retold as something between a summary and a much-edited transcript. The final chapter is a “commentary” by the author on different parts of Kimitsu’s life and the narrative of his life. (A note: Gill published a slightly different Japanese edition of this book in 2013 with Mainichi Ahōdansu.)

The selection of a single individual as the focus of a full monograph is unusual for an ethnographer; our work is more often defined spatially, a “fieldsite” of some geographical boundedness, and/or by time, the duration of fieldwork. Maybe more than in other disciplines, the ethnographer’s work is dependent upon the goodwill of many individuals—who will talk to us when we wander in, introduce us to others, and share their observations. Nevertheless, the specificity of an individual’s history and voice, indeed, her or his life, is often rendered somewhat obscure in our telling, as we tend to focus on theoretical questions that preoccupy the discipline at the time of writing or else attempt to present the larger social dynamics of the fieldsite. Thus, although most of our data are derived from our relationship with individuals, whom we often get to know quite well, in our monograph we write through them but often not about them. This was equally true of Gill’s own early work, but this time he has taken a very different tack. It would have been interesting to hear some of Gill’s rationales for his editorial choices of focus and presentations of material on an individual. He mentions two other anthropological works that focus on individuals, but we are left to imagine [End Page 354] for ourselves their relationship to his own work. It seems that he expects the chapters to speak for themselves, in the same way that he has allowed Kimitsu to speak for himself.

Gill writes, “my aim here is to draw the reader into the life of an individual who, while unique, also offers insights into the society that made him. There are eight thousand very similar metal doors in the flophouses of Kotobuki. Let us knock on just one of them, and see who we meet” (p. xi). We can see that Gill eschews the scholarly pretense of the disciplinary, or indeed theoretical, apparatus that defines much scholarship within the academy today. (It is not probably by chance that Gill is a senior, established scholar with a secure academic position. I doubt that a junior scholar, one looking to use this book to move out of the precariousness of untenured academic positions, would have ever dared to write this sort of book for fear of being called “accessible” or, worse, a “popularizer.”) Gill has decided to present to us a very personal narrative, personal both in the sense of a narrative fully focused on a single person—Kimitsu—and also in...