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Monday, 9 November, 1998, 20:26 GMT
Japan's winter of discontent
By Hugh Levinson
Until recently, recession in Japan has been largely invisible. In the city centres, shopping is still a serious pastime; and in the entertainment districts, corporate hospitality still sends the grey-suited and the red-faced reeling into the streets in high spirits. The economic downturn has been evident mainly on the financial pages of the newspapers: in stories of banks failing and of government bail-outs and of plans to stimulate the economy that somehow never seem to work.
The blossoming of the blue encampments becomes ever more noticeable on the approaches to the infamous Kamagasaki District. For decades this has been home to Japan's largest community of day labourers, supported by a rudimentary welfare system and by voluntary groups, many of them Christian.
Twice daily a line of men, stretching far down the street and around the park, shuffles past, each one receieving a bowl of zosui (rice and vegetable porridge) in a plastic bowl. For most of them this meagre ration is the only regular nourishment.
"This is it," says Sister Sharon. "There's nothing else for them to eat." She says one man told her that his friends had starved to death, and that he was the only one of his group of day labourers left alive.
Sister Sharon has worked in the area for a decade, but in the last two years she's noticed a change. Kamagasaki's population is ageing rapidly, as more and more men come into the area after losing regular jobs or seeing their businesses go bust. One man in his mid-60s, says he came to Kamagasaki after losing jobs in the restaurant trade and then as a security guard. He was addicted to pachinko, or Japanese pinball: his wife divorced him and his family disowned him. From February to October, he was homeless.
"I was worried about what would happen if I became sick - what would I do then? I was afraid I would die there on the streets," he says. He now lives at the Deai-no-ie, a local shelter for the elderly and home to 70 men, who sleep on the floor, packed close together.
At the height of the building boom in the late eighties, 8,000 men were hired each morning. Now, even on a sunny day, when working conditions are ideal, fewer than 2,000 will be wanted. Those rejected face a dismal search for shelter. When work was plentiful, labourers could pay for rooms in Kamagasaki's 200 flophouses.
Today these establishments with their sadly pretentious names - Ritz, Hilton and Paradise Inn - are mostly empty, as day labourers cannot even afford the modest Y1,000 (about £5) they charge for a night's accommodation. The men are reduced to sleeping rough and their number has helped to swell the ranks of Osaka's homeless from 3,500 to 10,000 in just two years.
By 10 a.m. anyone who has found work has long since left the Labour Centre; and on wet days many of the men remain beneath the railway arches, sleeping on the concrete floors or huddled in groups playing cards. As the day goes on, the scene becomes increasingly squalid: the floors fouled with pigeon droppings and littered with waste paper, empty cans and broken glass; and the smell of poverty, compounded of cheap food, unwashed bodies and the bad breath of sake drinkers, grows more oppressive.
Father Honda leads from the front. He is often on the steps of City Hall, wielding electric clippers, administering severe haircuts and beard trims to his troops. He wants them to look their best, to give the public as little reason as possible to dismiss them as derelicts and down-and-outs.
He also wants a public works programme to generate jobs while the recession lasts. He points out that even according to official figures, more than 700 men died on Osaka's streets last year, mostly during the winter. He is determined it will not happen again. "It's impossible to understand in a society (that is) so developed economically," he says. He adds that TB in Kamagasaki has reached more than thirty times the national average, and approaching Third World levels. Undernourished men sleeping in the open are especially vulnerable.
The fate of this and other similar areas - like Sanya in Tokyo and Kotobuki-cho in Yokohama - is generally ignored by the Japanese media. Kamagasaki only hit the headlines after the area exploded violently in 1990, in the worst urban rioting in Japan of the last 20 years. More than 200 people were injured in protests over suspected collusion between yakuza gangsters and the police.
The disturbances hardly helped the Japanese public's view of the area; generally unsympathetic to the homeless, most people assume that their plight is the result of fecklessness or sloth. This public indifference or ignorance means there has been little political incentive for the government to take notice of what is still a small, if embarrassing, minority.
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