James Doolittle

September 29, 2005

The Rough Life

Filed under: Papers — jdoolittle @ 10:11 pm

“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.

1 http://www.kamagasaki-forum.com/en/overview
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

September 26, 2005

Belated update 1 of 3

Filed under: Uncategorized — jdoolittle @ 5:13 pm

The weekend following my debut in Japan flowed through seamless transitions of sightseeing and a taste of Kyoto’s night scene. Upon arrival on Thursday night, Zaak Kersteter and I made our way down to where Imadegawa Michi comes across the Kado river, and headed south for a while until hitting a giant mall-like market downtown. Most of the stores were closed by the time we got there, but the people were still parading about en mass—or so I thought. At that early point in my Japan adventure, I lacked the wisdom of how massive the crowds can be.

There was little in terms of entertainment, aside from people watching and walking down the back alleys to discover what I thought to be strip clubs, though they were probably brothels. Hair is a big deal down here, hair and fashion. From high to low fashion, the mall-culture of America was taken to new heights in Japan; people from all walks of life dressed up, dressed down to make their promenade to and from coffee shops, to and from clubs and restaurants. Hipsters to businessmen, disenfranchised youth in army-green cargo-pants to high school girls in their Sailor-Moon mini-skirts, bums and derelicts, glamour-goth queens and punk kids—all of them out and about in the lingering madness of closing time.

I call it mall-culture, when people dress up to parade around—these people are shopping, but not for something to add to their style, not another t-shirt or bandana. They’re all shopping for accolades and tribute, they’re marching up and down the strip so they can show off their fashion-genius and pick up fresh tips, before they’re over-popularized. In America, teenagers do this all the time, they go hang out at the mall, and in Japan it’s the same event, only the Japanese seem to take everything America does to a more intense level—an overly broad generalization, I know, but while I cannot prove it fully, I have yet to find evidence in Japan to contradict this philosophy.

All along the strip, Zaak and I fit in—me with my California-hippie garb, and Zaak with his unique American-hardcore wear. I have jeans, a hemp belt, and a faded t-shirt too small for my shoulders, complete with worn Birkenstocks to boot; Zaak brandishes his stylish remains of a Mohawk—his hair has grown since, and the sides of his head are no longer buzzed to a millimeter’s length—his hardware, eyebrow and lip piercings, and an all-black ensemble. He’s ornamented with a phone cord around his neck—the spirally, stretchy kind—and his customized Fossil watch attached to three inches of studded leather cuff.

Despite our outlandish fashion, we didn’t raise any eyes, get any glances, or win any hearts, much to our disappointment. We relied on the ubiquitous bright-flashing lights (see arcade on the right), t-shirts in nonsensical English, and mysterious Japanese signs to provide us our amusement for the evening.

September 14, 2005


Filed under: Papers — jdoolittle @ 10:38 pm

To a Northern Californian acclimated to my educational disposition–one particularly inclined to meditation, yoga, Sufi dancing and chanting, and many other “new age” activities–the concept of Shodo, the art of Japanese calligraphy, intrigued me for two reasons: first, as a writer and an art fanatic, the aesthetic quality of the brush strokes in combination with the meaning of the words written held a certain idea of mystic beauty–I have always viewed the fusion of writing with art with accolades. Second, as a horrible penmen myself, I wondered how the experience of practicing shoudo would treat me. While the subtleties of making perfect brush strokes far eluded me, I found experiencing the activity as a meditation frustrating and then beneficial before losing my ability to concentrate on the activity. But beyond personal interest in Shodo, its cultural significance is rich because its place in Eastern society differs so much from its western counterpart; the mastery of handwriting holds little value in the main stream of Western society.
With the rapid shift in the evolution of writing from analog to digital, the value of the handwritten word has dropped significantly in the west. Scribes and scholars that would have once been paid their weight in goal for the work of composing and transcribing books–especially in the reign of the Holy Roman Empire–are now hired for wedding invitation and anniversary announcements, invitations to debutant balls, and the composition of diplomas and certificates. Hand-written texts were invaluable before invention of Johannes Gutenberg’s movable-type printing press technology, whereas now, a pirated copy of a book can be easily purchased for less than the price of a gallon of milk. In this era of multimedia, handwriting–from a Western view–serves only the aesthetic purposes of a society capable of supporting Mazzlo’s highest level of self-need, and Shodo, the art of Japanese Calligraphy, is the perfect example: it broadens one’s spiritual understanding of the world through its meditative qualities; Shodo provides an artistic outlet for those adept in their understanding of Kanji, used most in Shodo of the three alphabets, Kanji, Katakana, and Hiragana; calligraphy by famous artists and dignitaries is honored throughout the world in museums and in private art collections.
Before attending an Area-Studies class introducing Shodo, in Kyoto, Japan, I read much about using calligraphy as a meditation, for it requires, I read, discipline and concentration. What I did not expect out of the class was the essential need to leave my ego at the door: I expected people to be of varying levels of talent, varying levels as skill (as there were many students who transfered or were visiting from other Universities, with unknown interests that might encompass Shodo, or other forms of calligraphy), and varying levels of discipline. I did not, however, care to think about my own level of talent, experience, or discipline in the art. I found myself very frustrated, seated between one student who would have had amazing talent for a studied practitioner of Shodo, in spite of it being her first encounter with it, and another who, though lacking in the expert artistry of my leftward neighbor, seemed intent to compose the basic brush strokes, over and over again, before endeavoring the harder practice of writing Kanji. He accomplished clear progress with whatever stroke on which he worked before moving on to the next repetitive phase of line, after line, after line of a new brush movement. I felt angry with myself for my years of slopping handwriting in English, and for my lack of ability to simply visualize what I was working on, and apply myself to doing it. My attention darted from place to place, examining the work of others in the room, finding the need to stand and stretch from my seated position frequently, and occasionally exhausting myself with the application of a short stint of concentration. It became evident by the end of the class that, although I had not thought greatly about my performance with Shodo, I realized that I had very high expectations for myself; that I could not live up to them, became a personal failure to myself by the end of the class.
In contemplating the reason for more shortcomings, I felt less discouraged by the end of the class in understanding that I had these unrealistic expectations of myself at heart–in fact, holding them and feeling so frustrated while attempting to attain the “calligrapher’s mind”–mentioned on the essay distributed before the class (4), which “must be clear and relaxed–meditative”–proved more beneficial in my experience of the meditative aspect of the practice.
The class itself consisted of a brief introduction of the materials used in Shodo, and approximately three hours of course work while Oko-sensei made her best attempt at giving every student personal attention. To a complete novice, I feel the class taught me very little, especially in technical assimilation of assembling the Kanji, as I had only two consultations with the instructor throughout the time-period of the class. Not knowing what an Area Studies course was going to be like, I came into the class with the expectation of a history lesson on Shodo rather than actually experiencing the practice; because of my lack of skill in Shodo, I resented the class for its lack of academic quality, keeping myself from appreciating the experience to my fullest potential. Although I was disappointed in the function of the class as a class, I enjoyed my time working through my own personal barriers while appreciating the artistic beauty of the kanji, as well as the thoughts it evoked about the function and aesthetics of calligraphy in the modern world.

September 12, 2005

Melting Genres

Filed under: Uncategorized — jdoolittle @ 4:26 pm

Money Shot

Originally uploaded by [email protected].

Melt Banana is a true delicacy of Japan–in a blend of technologically advanced beats, sounds, and synthetic doctoring, the lead singer, Yosuko, screams a symphony of hotness as she sings her high-pitched punk melodies. Though often on international tours, I happened to catch them in their native nation, in a dingy punk club called Fandango in Osaka.

September 9, 2005

Interesting Progress

Filed under: Uncategorized — jdoolittle @ 3:08 pm

Japanese is indeed a difficult language. Learning numbers has been especially taxing because I’m not only dealing with a new phonetic system, but I’m also trying to attach that system to the numonic system that I know to be one, two, three, ad infinitum. Because I’m attaching the new phonetics to the system I already know, I am very slowly registering ‘1′ in my mind as ‘ichi’–this is using romanji, the use of roman characters to voice the japanese kana or kanji, as the case may be. My oral assosiation in Japanese with the roman numerals forces me to change my thinking in an area rooted as deeply as grade school. To compensate for this, for my slowly paced reading of japanese numbers, I had been using the romanji for the number rather than its numeral counterpart; that’s when it dawned on me. I know the Japanese kana–the Japanese phonetic alphabet–phonetically, and the numbers would be listed in such fashion anyway (not to mention that I would, at the same time as learning my numbers, be practicing my hiragana). Unfortunately, there’s a seperate system for recording numbers comprised of a combination of kanji and hiragana; thus proving the lesson: never look for a pattern in Japanese.

September 7, 2005

Dreaming my dreams

Filed under: Uncategorized — jdoolittle @ 8:58 pm

Dream from last night:

I was in some weird super-post-apocalyptic world. I was an old woman floating as though a ghost would through this cage, remembering the world that was there before, and the events that lead to this position.

There was a great threat to the earth, and the humans were all but destroyed when they discovered a hero amongst the last straggling few herds of beings before their final demise–presumably before I became a wondering ghost of a woman. This hero, however, could not defeat the enemy presence in this time, because they had become to powerful–instead, we sent him back in time to eliminate the threat before it became one.

And he did. The hero cleanly destroyed the enemy. In fact, no other adversary to humanity existed thereafter, and all humans became lush, happy, peaceful people. So peaceful, in fact, that all forms of destroying life were outlawed–to such an extent, in fact, that they went back in time and killed off the hero before he killed off the enemy-threat.

Then, the future from which the dream began became the reality. The futility of time travel. The vein try to change the past–because the present is exactly as it is.

September 6, 2005

The New Blog Situation

Filed under: Uncategorized — jdoolittle @ 2:59 pm

After years of using agents like livejournal and myspace, I’m switching to a slightly less commercial site. This will be the main source for my thoughts in and concerning Kyoto, Japan.