Tokyo's Tiger Mask Man

Yoshiro Harada dares to deliver papers in costume - to the delight of many Japanese

AS the late-afternoon shadows of skyscrapers lengthen in Tokyo's Shinjuku ward, "salarymen" get out of work and head for a little shopping or an evening of entertainment.But amid this monochrome flow of dark suits and predictable behavior is one man who disrupts the orderliness of Japan. He is known as Tiger Mask - one of those few Japanese who actually enjoys breaking from the crowd, and has the courage to do so. He's not hard to miss: Tiger Mask is flashier than Shinjuku's neon lights and louder than the Rolling Stones blasting from his boombox. For clothes, he wears cherry blossoms, panda bears, scarves, dolls, soccer balls, or whatever else he can find or that fits his fancy. And, oh yes, he wears a tiger mask. Although his real name is Yoshiro Harada, he likes to be known for a fictional heroic wrestler made popular in an old Japanese comic book - who wore the same mask. Perhaps Mr. Harada is slightly eccentric because his job is so mundane. At the age of 42, he delivers newspapers. He's been doing it for 25 years, although he only turned himself into the flamboyant Tiger 13 years ago. He relishes his work so much that he hasn't missed a day since he assumed the new identity. As Harada rushes from door to door each morning and evening, delivering about 750 newspapers, he turns the eyes of many Japanese. "I wish he would come closer so I can have a better look," whispers an elderly woman to her shopping friend, in a failed attempt to hide her fascination about what she sees across the street. Wherever Tiger Mask goes, tired or frowning faces light up with curiosity and confusion, and even- tually turn into smiles and giggles. "It is such a rewarding experience to see people smiling," says Harada, which explains why he is putting so much effort into being different. Some 25 years ago when he was in college and didn't know what to do with his life, he started a newspaper delivery route. At first it earned him a scholarship. But it took on new meaning as he started to work in Shinjuku, a rather lively section of Tokyo. "There were some toy masks lined up for sale at a shrine festival," he recalls. "When I saw the tiger mask, it came to me ... I knew exactly what I was supposed to do." Harada grew up in a Japanese postwar pop-culture boom with strong American influence. He cherished Godzilla, Superman, martial-arts movie star Bruce Lee, Yujiro Ishihara (a late Japanese movie actor with a popularity similar to Elvis Presley's), and various comic-book characters. Elizabeth Taylor is his favorite actress. Through these heroes, he learned to cherish love, peace, and justice, and he decided to act out the fantasies of his youth in his adult life. "Back then, in the late '70s, the front pages were full of depressing news stories like murders and corruption. I decided to go around the community dressed as a hero to help create a brighter atmosphere," says Harada. His idea was met with some hostility at first. In a society where conformity is a virtue, people like Harada are not only rare but become victims of social ostracism. "People thought I was crazy and stupid," he says. "Once, when I was being filmed for a TV show, a man came out and kicked the rear wheel of my bicycle." Despite his embarrassment and anger, he got up and continued riding as if nothing had happened. "Violence only begets violence," he says. "I believe in Gandhi's teaching that nonviolence is the only way to achieve peace." Harada's stubborn adherence to his ideals, seeking a moment of peace and happiness in people around him, eventually has won him acceptance, and various news media have begun to do features on him. Harada rarely talks about hardships or anything negative. But when he finally does, his friendly smile turns serious. "This job requires much responsibility because there is no one to replace you. If I don't work, people don't get their newspapers," Harada explains. Sometimes, he speaks like a comic book: "You don't need a knife to kill a newspaper boy," he says. "Endless rain and typhoon would do the job fine." But to him, even hardships become an energy source. Harada receives about 300,000 yen ($2,300) a month, with free meals and housing. He spends most of his salary on his outfit, which he wears all the time in public. Despite hefty benefits, the newspaper industry is presently having a hard time recruiting boys or men to deliver newspapers. When he's not working, such as Sunday afternoons, Harada rides the trains in Tokyo to meet people, or stops in parks and public squares. He says there are more non-Japanese in the area than when he first started. "I enjoy meeting foreigners. They tend to have cheerful dispositions and respond to my silliness better than the Japanese do," he says. "Although I can't speak their language, we understand each other through smiles," he continues. "Regardless of one's background, smiles could communicate happiness, and that's what turns me on."

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