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Angel in the Subway

Note: The other day the local TV station did a feature on this year’s job hunting college students. Seeing the young people’s plain dark suits and faces—full of hope and uncertainty, fear and anxiety—reminded me of long ago, when I was among them. I wrote this article in retrospect, interspersing the text with photos of Ginza, Tokyo where the story happened. Stylish and elegant Ginza is now one of my favorite places in Tokyo. But many years ago, the very thought of the place intimidated me. This would have made a nice Christmas story, but since I don’t really celebrate Christmas on December 25th I thought I might as well publish it today.

Buildings and blue skies of Ginza

Do you believe in angels?

I’ve always wanted to write about this small incident that happened to me while I was job hunting in college. It was more than a decade ago, but I have not forgotten to this day.

I was finishing my undergraduate degree at a university in Japan. Companies would do a mass hiring of soon-to-be-grads each year, so the tradition was for students to start job hunting on the 3rd and 4th year of college. That way, the diligent student would have a job ready and waiting right after he or she graduates. I went through the entire shushokukatsudo or Japanese-style job hunting process, a long, physically demanding, spiritually draining and financially taxing affair.

It was just after the IT bubble burst; the economy was in recession and companies were cutting down on new hires so competition was tough. I’d been going to one kaishasetumeikai or briefing session after another, taking written exams with different companies, and for those with whom I passed the first round I would then qualify for an initial interview.

At that time I was living in Nagoya, a city in central Japan. But on this particular day the company I applied for held interviews only in Tokyo. Mine was at 9:30 in the morning.

The night before I took the six-hour, all-night bus to the megalopolis, sleeping (that is, trying to sleep) inside the vehicle as I didn’t have the money to stay at a hotel the day before, or take an early morning bullet train to Tokyo. The closest station to the company’s headquarters was a few minutes away from a subway station at the tony Ginza district. I headed for the subway’s washroom to clean up and change to my business suit.

A variety of windows at Ginza

Standing in front of the mirror, I put on my make-up and then tried to do my hair. I had been wearing it long, and brought bobby pins for putting it up in a chignon. I was never good at doing my own hair, but I figured it wouldn’t be so bad as I had done it before.

I was wrong.

I don’t know if it was due to the lack of sleep, or skipping breakfast, or nervousness about the upcoming interview, or simply the morning chill, but my hands were trembling and I was making a mess of my hair.

“I swear, I’ll lopp you all off after the interview”, I cursed at my own long, overly smooth and hard-to-style mane.

“For heaven’s sake,” I growled internally as I yanked at the pins and tried again.

I was getting angrier (and clumsier) by the minute. I had an interview waiting. I didn’t have all the time in the world. But somehow, being in a dank subway restroom kept me from doing a task I had passably done in my own little apartment.

While this was happening other women were going in and out of the restroom. There I stood, tugging at my hair and cursing under my breath. What was wrong with me? I was on the verge of tears.

Old and new at Ginza

Suddenly, soft, warm hands took the pins from my hand. I looked in the mirror and there was a well-dressed Japanese lady in her fifties standing behind me. I stood teary-eyed while she did up my hair with quick, confident hands.

“There you go,” she gave my chignon a final pat and I was all set.

“Thank you so much”, I blurted out shyly, looking at her with a mixture of astonishment and embarrassment. She gave me a kind smile and then she was gone.

Random Ginza views

Looking back, I must have been a pathetic sight: a skinny young foreigner in a cheap dark suit dressed like the thousands of college students looking for a job, standing in front of the smelly subway restroom’s mirror trying to add a bit of sophistication to her plain getup.

It was a busy weekday morning on a busy train station. Yet somehow, this lady saw me and understood, and unlike the others who simply passed me by, she took pity on me and did an act of kindness.

It had been more than a decade since, but I have not forgotten what happened.

Do angels exist?

Yes, I think so, sometimes in forms and places you would never expect.

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2 comments

  1. Ah, the kindness of strangers! Bless that woman.
    Now I wonder, I have been that angel to anyone? Sadly, I can’t think of an instance (but I hope it’s just my awful memory!)

    • beverlyclaire /

      I’m pretty sure you did random acts of kindness :) I think it’s better if we don’t remember what we did for others, because that makes it more altruistic. Of course, it is always good to remember what others have done for us, to keep us grateful to and believing in angels :)

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