The Rough Life
“Around half of estimated 12,000 rough sleepers covering the area of Osaka City seem to have had experience as day laborers in Kamagasaki.”1
The numbers are shaky–the quote above reports 12,000 in Osaka City, while other sources project 20,000 in just the 0.7km2 stretch of Kamagasaki2, a small slum-district in Osaka. The number of homeless3 is often combined with day laborers, shooting the figure somewhere beyond 30,000. At nine in the morning outside the Airin Labor and Welfare Center, already the day’s laborers had gone to work. What remained behind were the real shit-jobs, paying as little as 9,000 yen for a day’s work–approximately ninety dollars for ten hours of hard labor–hardly a living wage in the modern world. White vans with job descriptions in Kanji that marked what was likely construction and demolition work are scattered about in sparse density compared to the population of unemployed and unemployable homeless laying about the center’s tile ground floor. When I look at these old men, I wonder if they do not take the jobs simply because they pay too little–if it’s related to pride–or if they simply do not care. While both might be true, the main reason, Bryan Cloud explained, was that you had to qualify to work through the Airin Center; according to the center’s standards, most of these men were too old, too sick, or too injured to do a day’s work. And as soon as Bryan Cloud mentioned this to me, it became obvious: some of these men were missing fingers, arms, legs; their old hair marked their decaying years; and many of them had vacuous expressions of insanity. The choice jobs go straight to the healthiest, youngest workers–the ones with real muscle–and these older men, the few who qualify, are forced to take up low-pay positions. The jobs themselves are mostly in construction, and injuries are abundant–creating a catch-22 for these day-laborers. The apparent irony in these men’s lives reflects the attitude towards the homeless in Japan: no one wants them, and few are willing to help.
Having grown up in California, the concept isn’t foreign to me: poor sons of families that illegally emigrated from Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, some from as far south as Ecuador or Bolivia, pooling together on the corner of 3rd and Delaware in downtown San Mateo hoping to get picked for whatever job so that they can feed their families for the night. There is no government agency directly monitoring these workers or their pay–no registration and no qualification. The despair and frustration of not getting picked is apparent in the mid-day eyes of ten or fifteen men lingering around for the faint hope of a new job that might arise before five, when most contractors stop working. Maybe it’s not hope, but that there’s nothing else for them to do but wait for a job. Maybe they’re afraid of going back to their families and telling them that they didn’t spend the whole day at least trying. Because they are illegal immigrants, these people, no matter how destitute, cannot receive any federal aid as income.
The story in Kamagasaki is similar, but has different twists: these people are legal immigrants and citizens, most of them from Osaka’s rural surroundings, and many of them as native as any other Japanese. Most of them are second or third sons in their families and have no claim to inheritance, so, knowing they will live the poor life, they come to Osaka for a shot at a little more. But all of them invariably get old, sick, and injured, keeping them from eligibility. Many of them become alcoholics, and, so dependent on alcohol, they cannot function without it in their systems.
There is a welfare system at work here for the working poor. People who work twenty-eight days every two months get to collect. One day short of the twenty-eight, however, and they’ll have to weight until the next sextile.
Littered about the Airin Labor and Welfare Center, aside from countless men sleeping mid-day, there are pools of vomit, beer cans, sake jars, and coffee drinks, marking the lifestyle these men have: always trying to get out of whatever state they’re in. Sake and beer to escape the pain from living so poor, and coffee to sober up for the job. I should point out that this is not the case for all of the laborers here–while most of these men are alcoholics, some abstain. In the giant room that serves as a lobby to the pay counter–the trucks I mentioned earlier, waiting outside for people to employ, they stamp this book the laborers have, and on Fridays, the laborers bring their stamped books to the pay counter to redeem cash. Inside this room, a group of men play cards, three or four men sit up on their cardboard mattresses reading newspapers. Some of these readers even have glasses. Some have wildly long hair, some have beards, others are clean shaven with sharp hair-cuts. All of them are in the same reality, doing the same thing every day for the same result of barely scraping by.
Underneath the Airin Center, on the other side of the building from where the vans park and pick up workers, a small hospital takes in injured homeless and day-laborers, but only a maximum of 127 people at one time. Out of somewhere between 12,000 and 20,000 people, only 127 of them can be injured at one period of time and get medical attention. Consequently, there’s a maximum two-week stay attached to all patients, regardless of injury or illness. It’s still the best health care these people can hope to get–other hospitals will turn them away, because they know the poor cannot afford the bill.
The hospital is government run, but most charity work done in this area is by private non-profit organizations. The NPO’s run project-housing, senior centers, centers for alcoholics, day-care facilities, orphanages, soup kitchens, and out-reach programs. The government won’t fund them, and they cannot obtain private grants because they won’t gain donators a tax rebate since all of these NPO’s are religious affiliates. Japan is, apparently, too secular to allow private companies to donate to parochial charities and get away with a tax break.
There’s a government-run senior-work center just down the road from the Airin center. Those too old for most jobs can come here and earn unstable careers in waste-disposal management. It sounds like a crap job, but almost a solution at best–one catch: the city doesn’t need more than 250 senior garbage men and other custodial professionals in a given day, while there are 2,700 registered jobless in need of work. __________, who runs a local over-night shelter, commented on the situation: “Because there are so many people working here, most people only get one job in ten days–that’s 5,000 yen for ten days.”4 I asked him about the set-up, and he tells me there’s a rotation system, so everyone gets to work. Because they’re only eligible to make 15,000 yen working three days a month, these elderly cannot afford to live on this job alone.
__________’s the onsite manager of an NPO that provides over-night housing for Osaka’s homeless. The facilities at his shelter house around four-hundred people on each night in six two-story buildings. The shelter provides its occupants with the bare bones and decency: clean sheets, blankets, pillows, a bunk bed, and the proof that someone cares. With forty-four beds to a floor, twenty-two “rooms” face a central hallway and are partitioned only by a respect for privacy. Between _________’s shelter and one other, they house a little over a thousand homeless a night, but only in the winter. In the summer the temperature is as hot as 37°C inside these plastic ovens. In this temperature, the homeless would rather sleep the night on the street.
While it may be a more luxurious option in the summer time, danger in recent years has emerged surrounding homeless in the streets: Teenagers, firebombs, and anger at a declining economy. The three put together make a deadly combination, especially for the homeless, whom the Japanese high school students have firebombed and beaten on several occasions for being in the way, for being too drunk, for being too old, for being a drag on society.
That’s how it ends for a few in the streets. Between three and four people froze in the winter of 1999, creating public outcry against such a preventable way to die. One winter a man went to sleep against a wall brandished with sprinklers, to discourage homeless from sleeping against them. He was found dead, frozen, the next day. At a Lutheran-run retirement community, the memory of 149 souls takes its residence in a special room on the second floor. The markers are spread out across two walls. Set up on a grid, each with its own shoebox-sized cubby, the details of each deceased cannot go unmissed. Some shoeboxes with ashes, some without, most with pictures, all with crosses and the names of those who died in Kamagasaki. In shoebox F-10, a photo from the 50’s or 60’s of a young man in the military. In shoebox H-10, a posthumous photo of a fat man on a pillow. In shoebox D-4 a hideous photo of a scrunched-faced man with a tumor on his forehead. The dead hold no earthly burdens, no worry for starvation or winter’s chill, and no need for money, but in the room with the rows of shoebox graves, you can only feel the warmth radiating from wall to wall in this sanctuary.
Is there a solution to the homeless issue in Japan? Like all things political, it’s somehow more complex than turning Japan’s community awareness toward these people. More than simply caring about the weak or the fallen or the strong, upright poor. Relative to the standard of living in the rest of Japan, the conditions of Kamagasaki mark the gap between compassion and action. Its classism prevents Japan from giving aid to these tens of thousands of homeless men and day laborers. People beneath the dignity of those who can afford to live. Kamagasaki has some things going for it, but longevity and a high quality of life are not among them. To save these people or at least ease their pain, the practice of resenting and then ignoring needs to end, and Japan needs to demonstrate a level of human decency.
The cynic inside all of us must face the reality of the situation and ask, “On the other hand, who cares about the deaths of thousands in the way of progress, thousands who are too old and too big a drag on society? Is it Japan’s place to damn itself, economically, to save ineffective human beings?”
In going about the business of progress, Japan’s citizens, and especially youth, must remember: Alcoholics can rehabilitate, the elderly are a window into our past, and the drag is only going to grow if the system creating it is not changed.
2 Anonymous, “Introduction of Kamagasaki”.
3 It’s hard to say because of the mixed definition–Americans use the word homeless in reference to people who are living in dilapidated houses, in houses from which they are to be evicted, or impermanent housing, in addition to those living on the streets, in parks, and in tents. In Japan, the term is used in reference to only those who live on the streets, in parks, and in tents.
4 __________ Interview September 22, 2005