The shoe shiners of Japan, once a ubiquitous presence on bustling city streets, are now fading into obscurity. Yet they remain as living witnesses to the country’s past, a reminder of its transformation and development over the years.
History’s living witnesses
Each pair of shoes entrusted to these artisans is treated with the same care and skill as a priceless work of art. And indeed, the repair of a vintage leather shoe requires the same knowledge and expertise as the restoration of a masterful painting.
In Japan, the tradition of shoe polishing and repair has undergone a revolution, with new technologies and specialized techniques replacing the once-common sight of a shining shoe on every corner.
Today, only a handful of these skilled craftsmen remain, five of whom can be found in the streets of Tokyo’s 23 wards. They operate without a license, yet their presence is tolerated and even respected as a testament to the city’s history.
Among these five is Sachiko Nakamura, a woman of 85 years who has spent 45 of those years mastering the art of shoe shining. Day after day, she can be found on the sidewalk outside Shimbashi, her hands blackened by decades of polishing, yet still capable of working wonders on even the most weathered of shoes.
Sachiko’s technique is unique, for she eschews brushes in favor of her own fingers, which she uses to clean and polish each shoe with a level of intimacy that allows her to truly feel the material beneath her touch.
Her hands may be stained, but they are also a testament to a lifetime of hard work and dedication. For Sachiko, the art of shoe polishing is more than just a job, it is a legacy that has allowed her to raise five children as a widow, and to leave her mark on the world in a way that few others can.
Kenji Pablo, a man known to the residents of the region around JR Tokyo Station for the past 50 years, holds a story that tugs at the heartstrings. He has polished shoes for 200,000 individuals in his lifetime, serving around 20 clients per day, for nearly 200 days a year. The people who avail his services are not just any ordinary people, but those who have achieved great success in life. As per Pablo, shoes are often overlooked as compared to clothes, but those who pay attention to their shoes are the ones who are passionate about their work and their surroundings.
Pablo’s workweek begins with him lining up chairs by the north gate of Marunouchi and laying out eight different types of shoe polish. For him, every day spent shining shoes for his clients is an opportunity to listen to the “footsteps of the capital” as Tokyo progressed from the aftermath of World War II to the present day.
Through his work, Pablo has witnessed the ups and downs of life in Tokyo. He recalls the lively and energetic footsteps of the 1980s, when people encouraged each other to drink in Ginza and go skiing for the weekend. He also remembers the melancholic eyes of people after the recession of the early 1990s and the global financial crisis in the late 2000s.
As Tokyo continues to pave its streets and underground shopping malls become more prevalent, fewer people get their shoes soiled after it rains. However, these shoeshine masters continue to shine on, preserving the memories and stories of a bygone era.
Despite the changes in the industry, Sachiko and Kenji continue to ply their trade on the streets of Tokyo. They may be the last of their kind, but they are not alone. People from all walks of life, from all corners of the world, still appreciate the artistry and dedication that goes into shining a pair of shoes.
For those who take the time to stop and chat with Sachiko and Kenji, they will find more than just a shoe shine. They will discover a wealth of knowledge about the history and culture of Japan, as well as the personal stories of these two shoe shiners who have dedicated their lives to their craft.
As the sun sets on another day in Tokyo, Sachiko and Kenji pack up their tools and head home. They may be the last of the shoe shiners, but their legacy will live on. For those who appreciate the finer things in life, a visit to Sachiko or Kenji’s shoe shining station is a must. It is a chance to connect with the past and to marvel at the skill and dedication of two remarkable individuals who have witnessed the transformation of a city and a country.
The disappearing shoe shiners of Japan are more than just a memory of the past. They are a testament to the enduring spirit of craftsmanship and dedication that has made Japan a world-renowned leader in design and innovation. And they remind us that even in a rapidly changing world, there is still room for the timeless traditions of the past.
A Timeless Era of Shoe Shining: Nostalgia and Emotions from Japan’s Past
The year 1955 marked a decade since the conclusion of the Pacific War. Japan was in the process of restoration, with extensive rebuilding taking place across the nation. Middle-class homes were acquiring the “three precious treasures” – refrigerators, washing machines, and black-and-white TVs.
However, poverty was still widespread, and many young people had to take up shoe shining as a means of supporting their families. They could be found on street corners, in front of stations and beneath bridges, serving commuters and revelers alike.
For many, the interactions with these young shoe shiners or elderly street sellers were more than just a replacement for their worn-out shoes. It was an opportunity for lively discussions and to feel connected with the community.
The prevalence of shoe shining during this time was so significant that it even inspired writer Jiro Asada to convert the popular Showa-era song “Shoeshine Boy” into a book of short stories. The book was later turned into a movie of the same name, capturing the spirit of a time when even the simplest of interactions could bring people together in a meaningful way.
The Erosion of Japan’s Shoe Polishing Culture
As Japan undergoes an unprecedented wave of modernization, the once-vibrant social fabric that bound its people is slowly fraying at the edges. As an example, take the bustling railway stations of Japan National Railways, where human interaction was once a daily ritual. Here, ticket checks were carried out manually by station workers, and even the briefest exchange between passenger and worker was cherished as a precious moment of connection.
But with the relentless march of progress, these fleeting connections are now fading into memory. Automated gates have replaced the human touch, and shoe polishing has become another casualty of the age of convenience. As shoemakers give way to speedy repair systems like Mister Minit, and quick-drying waxes allow individuals to polish their shoes with ease at home, the traditional art of shoe polishing is slowly dying.
As society becomes more mechanized and impersonal, the number of isolated individuals in Japan has risen sharply. Yet, in the midst of this bleak landscape, a glimmer of hope has emerged. In the heart of Tokyo, on the corners of busy streets and railway stations, shoe polish stands have reappeared.
These humble stands offer not only a chance to shine one’s shoes but also an opportunity to connect with others. For those seeking solace from the stresses of daily life, a few moments spent chatting with an “Oyaji – 親父” or elderly gentleman while their shoes are polished can be a balm for the soul.