August 22, 2008


Beyond the bright lights, Japan's biggest slum is nation's dark secret: Life in a district with few women, children or jobs but plenty of drink and poverty ( Justin McCurry, 8/22/08, The Guardian)

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. [...]

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 yen (£5) 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.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 22, 2008 7:27 AM
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