I keep meaning to write a long post about my visit to Japan this time, but vacationing gets in the way and internet/computer access is spotty. However, in the short time I have right now, I thought that I’d at least post some news on my visit to the 39th Annual Kamagasaki Summer Festival. Kamagasaki is the archaic name for what is now known as the Airin area of Japan, located near the Shinimamiya station on the JR line in Nishinari Ward, Osaka and famous for being a densely populated home for mostly aged and homeless day laborers.
The actual population of the area is unknown, but estimates suggest a population density of 20,000 people per acre. The Japanese government only counts people who have permanent addresses within it’s rolls, so an accurate census count is impossible and it is doubtful that the political will exists to extend a proper census to the region. Airin residents often do not possess an official permanent residence, so, as with the census, they are excluded from the voting rolls and routinely denied citizen rights afforded to regular Japanese, in addition to receiving no representation in government. Riots are naturally commonplace and disdain for the wider governmental powers runs deep. It could be argued that the residents of Airin are even further discriminated against than any of the ethnic minorities in Japan. At least the Korean minority exists in the eyes of society, these men do not.
Most Japanese people have never visited Kamagasaki. Residents of Osaka will advise visitors not to enter the area as it is perceived to be a dangerous slum (of course, being told this, I immediately wanted to go there). I had contact with the place back in the late 90’s when I did some volunteer work at a local daycare for low income families and special needs children. At the time, I found Kamagasaki to be a mostly harmless collection of aged and forgotten men living in squalid conditions akin an American skid row, and less the haven for violence and drugs that it’s perceived to be by the average Japanese citizen. Drugs can certainly be bought here and violence is likely high by Japanese standards, but compared to any American slum, Kamagasaki is relatively placid.
Unemployment is ubiquitous due to the crash of the bubble economy. Workers came to the Kansai region for employment on large scale construction projects but when construction halted, many men remained. Conversations with men in Kamagasaki will quickly reveal that most are not from Kansai, but rather from outlying country areas where work is scarce and poverty plentiful. A highly disproportionate number of men come from Okinawa and Tokunoshima, two outlying islands traditionally not even part of Japan and famous for being largely marginalized from Japan’s economic successes and from the central government. Many Okinawans came to Osaka after Okinawa was returned to Japan from the US government and faced heavy discrimination upon arrival.
The health situation in Kamagasaki is reprehensible in the context of one of the world’s wealthiest countries, with mental illness, addiction, TB and chronic diseases running rampant through the local population. A local public hospital serves the locals, but it is clear the challenging mix of poverty, marginalization, economic strains and bad policy work against any gains by dedicated health and social workers. As these men often have no families at all, deaths are premature and often forgotten. A local groups of nuns posts a board of recorded Kamagasaki deaths and includes names and pictures of those who have passed.
The mentally and physically ill are immediately, as in all countries, largely excluded from finding gainful employment. Aged persons (past 65) are able to receive some amount of money from the local and federal governments to provide themselves shelter and food. However, Japanese companies routinely set specific age restrictions on hiring workers so that many uneducated men over the age of 50 have little opportunities to work even if able. “Hello Work”, a government sponsored employment bureau will not provide introductions to men over the age of 50, a widely expressed sore point when talking to the locals. Societal prejudice against individuals who do not have the luxury of a deep family safety net keep men in Kamagasaki from. What is striking, is that in an Asian society where age is to be respected, these men are marginalized due to nothing more than being old. If Japan is to survive it’s exploding elderly population, it will have to ease restrictions of age for employment. Simply, there will not be enough young people to work. In addition, shrinking Japanese families will be unable to support there aging relatives, making the ability to work well past traditional retirement ages a necessity.
Every year, however, local religious and charitable organizations sponsor the Kamagasaki Summer Festival, timed to coincide with Obon, or the Japanese season of honoring dead relatives. I was able to attend only by pure good fortune. I had planned to make a journey to Kamagasaki’s Triangle Park while in Osaka, but didn’t know the event was planned for the day that I was to be there. The event is primarily attended by local residents and a stage is built to house 4 days worth of musical acts, culminating the Bon-odori or the Japanese dance of the dead. Beer is drunk, food is eaten and a good time is had by all. Musical acts are largely locals, either older residents or younger people who live and/or work in the Nishinari and Naniwa wards. Pictured is Ei Tokushi, a shamisen player from Tokunoshima who performs frequently throughout Japan.
Demand for spots is incredible and most have to be turned away, according to local charity worker and event organizer Father Testuro Honda. Honda has run the event, now in it’s 39th year for more than 20 years and cuts hair for residents of Kamagasaki at the local church run support office, Furusato House. It’s rare to run into catholic clergy in Japan, so I was immediately interested in how he came to this arena. Apparently he entered the Franciscan seminary at a young age and quickly found that church, in it’s common state, is often nothing more than a social group for those who already have. He explained to me, in no uncertain terms, that to truly follow the message of Christ, one must get into the trenches with those truly in need. He has lived and worked in Kamagasaki for more than 30 years.
The Kamagasaki Summer Festival, in addition to providing entertainment, also serves as a sounding board for political messages, calling for wider attention to the plight of local residents and for marginalized populations all throughout Japan. The sign behind the stage basically operates as a laundry list of current hot topics relevant to Kamagasaki, including “Steady Work for All Kamagasaki Residents”, “Abolish age restrictions in hiring”,”Follow Article 9 (Japan’s constitutional agreement to not send military abroad)”, “End the American-Japanese Military Protection Agreement”. The first two are rather obvious. The second two are more nuanced.
Conversations with men in the area (and with Japan as a whole) revealed a strong anti-American sentiment. Men repeatedly told me that the agreement between the American and Japanese governments, which requires that the Americans provide military protection to Japan, is to blame for the plight of Kamagasaki. The argument as was related to me, is that, money which goes to support the American presence in Japan, is taken directly from money that could be earmarked for social services. It is of course doubtful to me that the Japanese government, given it’s unwillingness to recognize this population, would actually send money to this area even if they had it, but it appears to serve as a convenient straw-man argument to deflect blame in a community known for sporadic rioting. While there is a larger call for peace and a non-militarized Japan at this festival, the issue of the relationship with the American government is a deep and festering issue here. One could write a book in the issue and it’s repercussions.