Japan's biggest slum is nation's dark secret
All it takes is a short train ride to be transported from the affluent, neon-lit streets of central Osaka to the grinding poverty of Japan’s biggest slum.
However, you won’t find Kamagasaki on any official maps. Osaka’s bureaucrats would rather the world knew as little as possible about the maze of dingy streets, tarpaulin-covered parks and high-rise dosshouses that symbolise growing social inequality in the world’s second-biggest economy.
When jobs are plentiful, life in Kamagasaki continues largely unnoticed by the rest of Japan. But these are hard times for the thousands of casual labourers who descend on the local employment-welfare centre every morning at dawn, not knowing if they will spend the day earning hard cash on construction sites, or queuing for handouts at the local soup kitchen.
The lucky few clamber aboard waiting trucks, to be offloaded at building sites across the region, where they will earn enough to pay for a room in one of Kamagasaki’s dozens of cheap hostels.
The less fortunate will sleep on the streets, sustained by a combination of free meals, cheap alcohol and a camaraderie that comes of shared adversity.
In June, the plight of Kamagasaki’s workers came under renewed scrutiny when the neighbourhood erupted into violence amid accusations of police brutality against a local resident. It was the first major disturbance since anger at collusion between local police and the yakuza—Japan’s mafia—prompted five-days of rioting in October 1992.
There had been previous clashes between police and residents. The first that drew nationwide attention was in 1961. Kamagasaki has a history of lawlessness. In 1966, the official solution to ridding the region of its crime-ridden image was to rename it Airin-chiku.
It is likely that this year’s violence would have gone unreported by the media had it not coincided with a meeting of G8 foreign ministers a few kilometres away at the Osaka International Convention Centre.
Welfare officials insist the violence was an aberration: the real threat to the semblance of social cohesion they have spent years trying to build in Kamagasaki comes instead from Japan’s latest brush with economic crisis.
At the height of the bubble economy Kamagasaki’s labourers were guaranteed regular work, says Sen Arimura, an official at the Nishinari Labour Welfare Centre, a 1970s structure whose breezy forecourt is dotted with men napping.
“These days, there are fewer jobs due to stricter building regulations and the rising cost of materials,” he says. “There have always been peaks and troughs in the construction industry, but the peaks are much lower than they used to be ... and the troughs much deeper.”
Today, Kamagasaki is home to about 25 000 mainly elderly day labourers, an estimated 1 300 of whom are homeless. The rest are spread among two state-run shelters and dozens of cheap hostels that charge as little as ¥1 000 (abou $9) a night.
Arimura, who also runs the non-profit Kamagasaki Community Regenerative Forum, says besides the obvious deprivation, most of those in greatest need are caught in the safety net that includes free healthcare and advice on accommodation and insurance claims for work-related injuries. “We are trying to create a sense of community here. It’s not all bad news.”
Yet evidence of Kamagasaki’s incongruous role in Japan’s postwar economic success are everywhere: sprinklers dot the pavements to deter anyone sleeping rough; barbed-wire protects the police station; the illegal, but tolerated, gambling dens; and just two crumbling primary schools.
“You hardly ever see women or children around here,” says Masaharu Takezawa, a former homeless man who is acting as the Guardian‘s guide and unofficial minder as we pass groups of thin, weather-beaten men drinking cheap sake and occasionally hurling abuse at passing police cars.
“It’s a man’s world. All they have to look forward to is an evening meal of cheap grilled meat and plenty to drink ... and the freedom to sleep it off where they drop,” he says.
Takezawa is one of Kamagasaki’s few success stories. After losing his job at a cinema when the economic bubble burst in the early 1990s, he spent several years sleeping near Osaka’s main railway station before ending up in Kamagasaki.
He now lives in cheap social housing, and earns “just enough to make ends meet” working as a guide and helping out at a children’s playgroup.
“I don’t drink or smoke, and the clothes I’m standing in cost less than ¥800,” he says. “I’ve never had a pair of shoes worth more than ¥1 000.”
But Takezawa, a fit, affable man in his late 60s, is a rarity. Around him the personal stories are more often of broken marriages, financial ruin and ill health.
The tuberculosis infection rate in Kamagasaki is three in every 100 residents, 30 to 40 times the national average. Afflictions associated with extreme poverty are common: hepatitis C, high blood pressure, alcoholism, depression and, less commonly, drug addition.
Though Arimura denies that alcoholism is any worse here than in Japanese society at large, for many Kamagasaki men, drinking is a way of life.
Some will even eschew free accommodation to fuel their addiction.
As dusk descends there are still beds to spare in the area’s two 1 040-bed homeless shelters. “Some people are working out of town, but a lot have decided to sleep rough tonight,” says a shelter manager, Shinji Kawasaki. “We don’t allow any alcohol here, so on a hot evening like this they prefer to drink outside and sleep in the park.”
“Koji” Yamaguchi, a homeless labourer, is not among them, however. Gripping a shelter ticket that entitles him to a bunk bed and blanket, a shower and a packet of biscuits, the man from Hiroshima remains grateful for small comforts.
Though he has secured three days of work this week - earning about ¥10 000 a day—he has barely worked for four months and has no idea what tomorrow will bring. “I’ll be up at 3am to find out,” he says.
The 60-year-old, who spent 18 years living on the streets after a messy divorce and a bitter row with his siblings over inheritance money—of which he received none—now considers Kamagasaki as his true, if dysfunctional, home.
“We have a freedom that other Japanese don’t have. We get three meals a day and it’s easy to make friends. I’ve made lots of friends here over the years—and I’ve seen lots of them die.” - guardian.co.uk