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 conformity to production standards.


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