The Disposable Heroes

 

An elderly man in his room in a Kotobuki-cho's flophouse, Yokohama. Kotobuki-cho, Osaka's Kamagasaki and Tokyo's San'ya are Japan's three main "doya-gai," literally "cheap lodging place." These areas were born as "labour-towns," where daily labourers would flock to seek employment and with time have become a sort of last-resort refuge for the aging workers and troubled men escaping Japanese society's stigma and shame.


Japan’s post-war economic growth had its genesis among the unremarkable grey buildings of its labour-towns, dotted with signs advertising rooms by the night and men loitering in the alleyways. San’ya in Tokyo, Kamagasaki in Osaka and Kotobuki-cho in Yokohama offer a stark contrast with other areas in the same megalopolises. These communities flourished during the‘70s and ‘80s springing up around recruitment sites for daily labourers, but have withered following Japan’s economic collapse in the ‘90s, to become neighbourhoods inhabited primarily by welfare recipients mostly aged 60 and over. 

Towering skylines and capitalism were built on and are supported by a religious veneration of work and its central role in society. The work culture that resurrected the country from devastation now crushes it inexorably. In Japan, one’s profession is closely linked to identity. It is a cultural pillar, subtly replacing the ancient feudal model but ever entwined with the pursuit of “shokunin.” The term has no direct translation in English, but roughly means ‘mastery of one’s profession’ and is associated with taking strong pride and joy in your work and showing loyalty to your employer. It also has a more sinister side, with its link to another Japanese concept – “karoshi,” or death by overwork, which is also likely connected to social alienation and destitution. 

Today, in the face of the looming crisis of an aging population, the workforce pyramid still acts as a modern form of feudalism. The forgotten souls, who helped build the world-class cities of Japan, have been swept aside by the turbo capitalism and urban existentialism of a modern society ruled by millenary traditionalism, and more dependent on electronic devices than aware of its citizens’ potential disposability by age, gender, education and suitability to production standards.


Daily labourers await the beginning of their shift, or to be hired again, in a common area at the Airin Labor and Welfare Centre in Kamagasaki, Osaka. Kamagasaki used to be a bustling labour-town, today following the decline of work demand, the area is home to roughly 25,000 mostly elderly former daily labourers, 4 percent of which live on the street. 

A homeless man collecting card board pushes a cart on Sakai Suji in Osaka. Back in 2009 Osaka had a population of roughly 3,724 homeless. A 2018 survey states that the number dropped to 1,110. However reliable numbers are hard to come by as many individuals relocate to Kamagasaki district to live anonymously on the street. 

Shinichi 69-year-old, right, tries to escape the heat of his room along with his next door neighbour in the flophouse where they both live in Kotobuki-cho. Officials counted 6,318 Kotobuki-cho's residents in 123 cheap lodgings in 2014, 68 percent of them aged over 60.  

A "betting den" in Kotobuki-cho, Yokohama. Places like this have often drained the daily earnings of many labour-town dwellers. Legal and illegal betting is generally run by the Yakuza, the well known Japanese crime organization. The mobsters oversee and speculate on all the activities happening in the labour-towns, from the contractors' hiring process, to the entertainment business.


           "Despite their grim situation some patiently await for the next job"


TOP LEFT: The Kamagasaki Airin Welfare and Labor Centre in Osaka. Inaugurated in 1970, daily labourers have flocked for decades to the complex when work demand was high. Roughly 16 years ago an experienced carpenter was getting paid ¥ 15,000 (USD 190) a day. Lately wages have been steadily declining as much as the demand for daily labour.

TOP RIGHT: A group of elderly men chill in Kotobuki-cho, Yokohama. The government's 10 year plan, started in 2002 plus a 5 year extension in 2012, drastically reduced the homeless population of the labour-towns and literally turned them into welfare communities. However the sustainability of this project is currently in jeopardy due to the rising debt of the local administrations. 

BOTTOM LEFT: Yuki and his friends hang out in a Kotobuki-cho playground, Yokohama. Cheap lodging and several forms of adult entertainment attract backpackers and youngsters to the area. Unconfirmed rumours state that "shabu" drug circulates in the labour-towns. Back in 2014 the film "Fragile" set in Osaka's Kamagasaki was pulled out of the city festival under accusations from the director of having been censored on several matters including illicit substance use. 

BOTTOM RIGHT: A daily labourer is seen in the streets of Kamagasaki. The increasing lack of jobs in the construction industry does not discourage many individuals from flocking to the area hoping to get hired. Some of them sleep nearby the recruiting sites and despite their grim situation patiently await for the next job.


A fence separates Sumida city, a middle class Tokyo neighbourhood, from the Sumida riverbanks. The area attracts homeless from the nearby labour-town of San'ya. There is a marked separation between the destitute and the rest of society, despite the fact that many of them helped rebuild post-war Japan. The names of the labour-towns have recently disappeared from the official maps, enhancing the betrayal and invisibility these individuals feel within Japan.

A homeless man walks by a group of salary-men having post-work drinks at Ueno market, Tokyo. Apparently the two worlds seem far apart. However the stagnation of economy and the variabilities of a society devoted to turbo capitalism, make the two extremes very close. The Japanese derogatory term for homeless is "furousha," literally "flotsam people" or individuals discarded by society to float.


                   "No company in Japan on the Nikkei index has a female boss"



TOP LEFT: A woman wearing a traditional outfit in Umeda, Osaka. The traditional role of women in Japan has been defined as "three submissions": young women submit to their fathers, married women submit to their husbands, and elderly women submit to their sons. 

TOP MIDDLE: Two women hop off a taxi in the Chiyoda district, Tokyo, home of several governmental institutions. Government figures state that 2.7 million women would be willing to work but several reasons prevent them from doing so. "Mata-hara," or harassment for getting pregnant and taking maternity leave is one of the most cited factors. 

TOP RIGHT: A woman wanders the busy streets of Shinjuko, Tokyo, along with her work colleagues. In Japan, the ratio of women to men on the job is still disproportionate. A woman cannot head the imperial family. No company on the Nikkei index has a female boss. Prime Minister Shinzō Abe aims to have women in 30 percent of government and corporate leadership positions by 2020, in what he calls: "dynamic engagement of all citizens." 

BOTTOM LEFT: A young man sleeps in an internet cafe booth, in the Tsukiji Market area, Tokyo. It is not uncommon for "salary-men" to work long hours without returning to their homes. The traditional concept of work in Japan is based on the "Shokunin" principle, literally "mastery of one's mission" while taking pride and joy in your work. However, overwork burnout is common within the Japanese workforce, and a more sinister side of employment is defined by the term "Karoshi," which translates as "death by overwork." 

BOTTOM MIDDLE: The rear of a traditional Japanese home in Sumida city, Tokyo. The average Tokyo rent is around ¥ 100,000 (USD 900) a month. However only regular salary-men seem to be able to access this market, due to the high fees to initiate the renting process. Daily labourers, irregular workers, single women, youngsters away from home and the categories at the bottom of the workforce pyramid, all struggle to make ends meet. 

BOTTOM RIGHT: Toshiori, 73-year-old, sleeps next to his belongings in the street beside the Airin Welfare and Labor Centre, in Kamagasaki. After he retired from a job at a meat processing plant, he went through a divorce and became homeless. He has been living on the street for the past 10 years. Despite a complete working cycle, disposability and destitution are endemic and unpredictable within Japanese society.



A man tidies up at Shin Imamiya station, Osaka. A growing segment of the population, mostly irregular workers, lives an erratic life among internet cafes and cheap lodgings. According to a 2011 survey by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communication, the number of irregular workers, with little benefits and no job security, has been steadily growing and replacing regular workers. In 1990, 20 percent of the workforce were irregular workers but by 2011 this had increased to 35.4 percent. Currently irregular workers account for roughly 40 percent of the Japanese workforce.


A tv in a cheap lodging in San'ya, Tokyo, plays adult movies. Adult entertainment of all sorts employs many irregular workers, mostly women. Given the nature of the industry the disposability of workers increases dramatically with age.

A woman is seen strolling in the Nipponbashi district, Osaka. Multiple "hostess bars" are located in the area. Young women, mostly irregular workers employed by these clubs, wander the nearby streets to attract clients to these venues.  


LEFT: A foreign sex worker in the streets of Shin Okubo, Tokyo. Sex industry, technically illegal in Japan, is a flourishing business which takes advantage of irregular workers and several scapegoats to get around the prohibition. Sex trafficking based on fake marriages and debt bondage is a common practice in Japan and Yakuza is highly involved with it. Back in 2003 some police reports accounted for 150,000 foreign sex workers in Japan. 

MIDDLE: A man shows his gold-studded grin near a hostess bar in the Ueno area. These clubs have been part of the Yakuza network for decades, always targeting accomplished salary-men and executives in search of companionship. 

RIGHT: The Tobita Shinchi red light district, Osaka. All the brothels in the area operate as restaurants serving tea and snacks, in order to get around the anti prostitution law. The majority of the sex workers in the area are Japanese irregular workers.


          "Smartphones are a key ingredient for happiness among millennials"



LEFT: A millennial woman walks the nightlife district of Kabuki-cho, Tokyo. According to a Manpower Group's survey, 37 percent of Japanese millennials expect to work for the rest of their lives, making their retirement expectations some of the lowest in the world.

MIDDLE: A Japanese pop idol's performance at Roppongi Hill, Tokyo. Often cross dressing or cos playing, j-pop idols sing about a reality hung between dream and daily life Japan. Extremely popular among youngsters, the movement seems to perfectly address the millennials' anxieties. 

RIGHT: A lonely woman is seen staring at her mobile, early morning in Ginza, Tokyo. More and more individuals choose to remain single. Sociologist Noritoshi Furuichi affirms that friendships, in Japan, appear to make young people more content than partners. 


School girls in Shin Okubo, Tokyo. In 2012, 98 percent of female students were able to reach senior high school. Of those 45.8 percent continued with undergraduate studies, although 10 percent of these female graduates attended junior college. A recent investigation from the daily newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun revealed how the Tokyo Medical University altered the admission test scores in order to limit the access of women to the school. 

Suidobashi amusement park. The exhaustion of young Japanese in contemporary Japan is mainly linked to their expectations for the future. More and more youngsters in urban environments tend to remain trapped between reality and imagination due to the lack of hope in a stable job and a sentiment of rebellion toward Japanese traditionalism.


A little girl watches a fireworks show in the Umeda area, Osaka. The number of children in Japan has fallen for the 37th straight year in a row. With fewer and fewer regular workers paying taxes to support a growing senior population in need of pensions, housing and healthcare services, Japan's economy is facing an unprecedented challenge.

Namba district, Osaka. Loneliness is widespread in Japan, a country with the oldest population in the world. An estimated 6.24 million Japanese people over 65, and a total of 18.4 million adults live alone. Projections suggest that by 2040, 40 percent of the country’s inhabitants will be solo dwellers.


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