Tales from the commune, part 4

Osaka, 1997

It’s a hot and humid day. They have sent me to pass out posters and beg for money again.

The process is always the same, every weekend they pick the most manageable kids and relegate us to “witnessing teams”. The criteria for being on these teams is very low, it requires not running away.

Being 12 years old and a rigid rule follower, I have no plans to run away. I am on a witnessing team comprising of 6 people. Besides me there is Gracia, a single mom and the adult in charge. Her son, my stepsister, my younger sister and a questionable 13 year old boy who is the son of a man Gracia, is being made to date.

In this cult they’ve been known to assign you to have sex with the people you don’t get along with. Even if those people are other people’s spouses. But that’s a whole other story.

Once you hear which adult is on your team, you know how your experience is going to go. Gracia is kind, I’ve never seen her lose her temper, plus we’re always safer out of the house because the adults don’t beat us where other people can see. I know I’m in for a good day.

Our team is heading to Umeda, which is a bustling train station in downtown Osaka. Three major train lines connect here, the JR, Hankyu and Hanshin lines. We usually go to the building on a plot shaped like a V with a large cross walk at the end of it. People get trapped at the end of the V while waiting for the light to turn green, and that’s when we get them.

We are only allowed to be on the concrete sidewalk, not the sleek tile that frames the building. We come so often, the building has hired a security guard who patrols the tile line and ushers us off if we cross it. We have a name for him, it’s Penguin.

Penguin is the code name for all security guards, Crocodile is the code name for police. If we hear the words “Crocodile” or “Penguin” we must immediately hide what we are doing, and wait for the danger to pass.

We pass out posters with pictures on the front and a message from our cult leader, or Jesus, on the back. I approach people with a “dozo yonde kudasai” which translates to “here, please read this”, and an outstretched arm. Once people politely take the poster (the Japanese are very polite.) I launch into a spiel saying I am a missionary and would they mind giving a donation? Then I thrust out the donation box which hangs around my neck like a yoke.

After 3 or 4 hours of this, my line would shorten to a simple “dozo”. Which means “here”, and I would hold up the box, which had the same spiel I would say pasted on the front of it. I would wait with dead eyes until they either declined with a wave, or reached for their wallets.

Today I am in a competition with my stepsister. She usually makes more money than me, but today I am determined to make more than her.

We each get 20 posters from Gracia who has separated them into 2 piles of 10. Every time we run out of posters we go back to her to re-up. She will stay where she can keep semi-track of us as we run around begging, but she won’t beg herself. My stepsister and I have decided to pass out 50 posters and then count our money and whoever has the most money, wins.

30 posters in and I’m feeling good. The string from the box is beginning to dig a red ring around the back of my neck, but that means I have a lot of coins in there. I watch my step sister smiling at someone while inviting them to accept christ as their savior.

Ugh, she’s getting souls too.

I look at her neck. There are no red rings forming, but that doesn’t mean she has less money, just less coins.

40 posters down. I’m supporting the box with my hands now. It’s still around my neck but it’s gotten so heavy that I am mostly carrying it. People are still dropping coins for me, I even got a 1000 yen bill! I’m for sure going to win this.

I am on my last two posters. My stepsister has already finished her 50 and sits with Gracia counting her money.

I give my second to last poster to a man who doesn’t even stop walking. Rude. Why did he take the poster if he wasn’t going to listen or give me money? ugh. I wasted that one.

I scan the crowd for my last target when I see them, a couple! Couples are the best to ask for money, because a man can’t be rude to children in front of his love interest. This couple looks rich too. Jackpot.

I stride towards them, sure this will work. Just as I am about to bless them with my full line and final poster I hear the word “PENGUIN” in a shouted whisper. I freeze and scan. I see the security guard hurrying towards me and realize, I am on the tile.

The penguin is pointing and shouting at me now. I quickly hide my money box and step off to the concrete. The rich couple passes me by without so much as a glance. The penguin catches up to me and stands with his feet on the tile and his upper body leaning above me on the concrete. He demands I point out my adult, they know our pattern well. But Gracia is hiding, I am alone. Plus, I explain to him, I don’t understand Japanese. He tells me I am not allowed on the tile and points me aggressively towards the sidewalk.

I slink away and squat on the concrete with my final poster. I don’t have it in me to beg anymore. From my crouch I push my arm up with a “dozo” to a woman who startles at the sight of me, but graciously accepts. I don’t get any money for that one, but I don’t care any more.

Gracia comes back 10 minutes later with the whole team to find me, she asks me if I still have the money box. I do. She’s happy and we shuffle away to break for lunch and count the money on a park bench.

I didn’t win. I am 900 yen short from breaking even with my step sister. I swear that rich couple would have given me a 1000 yen bill. But I don’t have time to sulk . The sandwiches we brought for lunch are gone and it’s time for the afternoon push. If I’m not smiling no one will give me money. I’m going for another competition because it breaks the monotony of begging. But this time I’ll go up against the 13 year old. And this time I think I’ll win.

I grew up in an apocalyptic cult. I tell those stories.