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Wanderer of the Alleys

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Jiro is 11 years old and wanders the neighborhood like a stray cat, lapping his milk from the bowls left for him in the neighbors' houses.

They take him into their homes, feed him leftovers and fruit, serve up the love he cannot find at home.

Jiro's father is in jail; his mother ran away, leaving him to live in the care of his 17-year-old brother and the brother's girlfriend, who spend their free time in a gang that Jiro wants to join.

Someday he will be old enough to ride a motorcycle with them. But for a now, Jiro has a bicycle. He rides aimlessly along the narrow paths between the rice fields.

The men in the neighborhood keep their eye on Jiro and try to be a model for him.

When Takao Nishimura walks down the block from his factory for lunch or after work and meets the boy, he treats Jiro as if he were his own son. "Jiro knows that he has to behave when he is in my house and that here he has someone he can talk to," he says.

Where else does Jiro go? I see him sometimes when I take my walks at night. He sits on the steps by the sake shop with a few of the younger gang members, one of whom has what they call a "Yankee haircut" (a Mohican).

I want to take Jiro's picture, but I usually bump into him at night when he's prowling and it's too dark for my Minolta. I could take a picture of him indoors at the Nishimura's when he comes to visit with Yoshihiro or Takao or with the kids who take private lessons in English and mathematics. But Jiro is not a house cat and such a portrait would be unsuitable.

On my last day in Kudamatsu, I take his picture (seated, below) in the city recreation center built to supervise "latchkey" children whose parents work or are away for other reasons.

I am sitting in a coffeeshop next door to the Tokyo Industrial High School and the baseball stadium that is home for the Yomiuri Giants, the New York Yankees of Japan. I am waiting to interview a teacher, but she is late because she has many chores after school.

At another table, a group of students from the school--two boys and two girls--are having ice-cream sundaes. They seem familiar. Was it their class I spoke to a few hours ago, trying to get some answers to this James Dean business?

I had asked the students why they like James Dean so much. Do they consider him handsome? Is he admired because he represents the lost youth or the rebel in a society where few children have cars, work, or go out on dates and where school exerts such pressure to conform? Does his early death move them, I ask--the young samurai dying in the prime of life, the falling cherry blossom?

One of the students said it's not so surprising that Japanese kids are interested in our 1950's hero. Don't Americans still think most Japanese women are geisha, he asked?

I look across the coffee shop at the booth with the high-schoolers in their uniforms. The girls with pony tails, the boys with short-cropped hair. Am I in a shop on Main Street, U.S.A., in 1955 with James Dean running loose somewhere?

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