Osaka Guide: Kamagasaki / Airin, Nishinari Ward, Osaka 西成区, 大阪
Osaka's Homeless and Day Laborer Area 釜ヶ崎 / あいりん地区
In the years leading up to 1912, the then far south of Osaka was a huge construction area. An ambitious new part of the city was being built with a name to match: Shinsekai, translating as "New World." Partly modeled on New York, partly on Paris, Shinsekai signaled that Osaka was ready to keep up with all the shiny new attractions its eternal rival Tokyo was building for its first World Fair, planned for 1912.
The Tokyo World Fair, titled the Grand Exhibition of Japan, was postponed to 1917 and eventually cancelled. Osaka on the other hand had Shinsekai ready for its grand opening in 1912. The first Tsutenkaku Tower was modeled on the Eiffel Tower, and with a height of 64m was the second highest building in Asia at the time. The Tower was connected to the neighboring Luna Park amusement center via an aerial tramway and surrounded by a large assemblage of fantastically shaped buildings. In 1915, adjacent Tennoji Zoo opened its doors.
Visitors marveling at the newly created wonders poured in, and business was thriving. Yet in all the frenzy of success a certain group of people were left out of reaping their deserved rewards: the people who had actually built Shinsekai.
The Day Laborers
The large-scale Shinsekai project required much manpower and offered plenty of job opportunities for people from the lower ranks of Meiji society. Landless farmers and day laborers of all stripes filled the ranks that did the hard construction labor for little pay. They were housed in the area just south of Shinsekai, just beyond the railway tracks of the Joto Line (now part of the Osaka Loop Line) in the neighborhoods today officially known as Haginochaya and Tobita.
As much as the Osaka authorities may have wished for them to simply disappear after their initial job was done, those workers stayed on, finding short term employment in other parts of the city. The area became known as Kamagasaki throughout Japan and a magnet for everyone ready to call it quits when they were unsatisfied with the situation at home, when they were looking for a hide-out to escape an overbearing spouse, crushing debts or the police after committing a crime.
Right next to and initiated by the fantastic futurism of Shinsekai, a slum began to fester. Flophouses sprung up offering cheap accommodation, construction companies came looking for cheap labor, and basic needs were served by decidedly cheap eating and drinking joints. Yakuza groups took control of the area.
The fortunes of Shinsekai as an entertainment center ebbed and flowed over the years but Kamagasaki was there to stay.
The first Tsutenkaku Tower was destroyed by a fire in 1943. The steel structure of the tower went right into the steel mills to support the war effort.
A new Tsutenkaku Tower was erected in 1956, after a strong demand was made by the Osaka public. The new tower was 103m high - over half as high again as the original.
After the war Shinsekai bounced back as an urgently needed entertainment area, providing desperately needed relaxation at a time when Osakans worked hard at rebuilding their city after the large-scale destruction caused by the war.
At the same time, Kamagasaki grew exponentially. The Kamagasaki day laborers were at the forefront during the post-war reconstruction of the city.
While Japan in general recovered from the worst of the post-war poverty by the mid-1960's, Kamagasaki remained a pool of cheap labor, its denizens living in squalor and on the hope of a job the next day to pay for meals, drinks and flophouse rents. Anger and resistance began to boil.
It took only small incidents of perceived police mistreatment of a fellow day laborer for the neighborhood to explode into large scale riots. The largest riot in the history of the area took place in 1961.
The police cracked down hard on those protests. But the damage to Osaka's reputation was done - the nation's media reported extensively on the riots and exposed the festering sore of poverty, crime and hopelessness Kamagasaki had become.
The Osaka city authorities had to act. In a first move, they decided to change the name of the area. The area name Kamagasaki was seen as synonymous with poverty, filth and decay. It had to go. In 1966, Kamagasaki was officially renamed Airin. The bureaucrats successfully pushed the map makers to mark maps of Osaka from then on with the new name. It was not that easy with the press, which still occasionally uses the old name of the area, and it certainly didn't work with the inhabitants, who continue to use the name Kamagasaki up to this day.
It didn't stop further riots either. See here footage from a particularly fierce Kamagasaki riot in 1993: www.youtube.com
Airin - New Name But Same Old Kamagasaki
Meanwhile, the Osaka construction boom went on, amplified by the building of the 1970 Osaka Expo grounds. Men from all over Japan flooded into Kamagasaki, seeing it as an anonymous haven to escape from problems at home.
Another large influx was that of Okinawans who saw Kamagasaki as a possible first chance to get a foothold on the mainland - where they believed the chances for a decent future life were better than on the then still American-occupied southern archipelago.
At the same time, Western ideas of social management took hold in Japan. Integration of the poor and marginalized via social work and assistance became the new strategy.
Airin Labor Welfare Center
In 1970, a huge new building complex was opened in Kamagasaki - the Airin Labor Welfare Center (Airin Rodo Fukushi Senta). It offered job placement services, social and psychological help, a hospital for the infirm, and served as a meeting place as well as a place to rest during its opening hours (5am - 6pm). The center had a cafeteria and showers to use for free. The distribution of free meals, provided by both Osaka city entities and private or religious charities, was centered on the building. A grand liberal-leftist dream of reaching out and helping the poor and destitute was realized when the building opened.
Though all those services are still offered to this day, it didn't take long before the Airin Labor Welfare Center turned into a ghastly nightmare, Japan's deepest pit of hell.
Visiting the Area Today: Flophouses Turned Into Cheap Hotels
The subway stations Dobutsuen-mae (Midosuji Line and Sakaisuji Line) and Shin Imamiya (Osaka Loop Line) both straddle the line between Shinsekai and Kamagasaki. Walk out of the north exists and you will be in the world of entertainment and cheap traditional eateries.
Take the other exits and you will ascend onto a nameless wide thoroughfare. The street is lined with new hotels offering very cheap accommodation: single rooms for 2,500 yen or less per night.
These are very clean and safe hotels aimed at international customers. The rooms may not offer much more luxury than a Japanese prison cell (with added TV), but they are still several classes above most backpacker hostels which accommodate their guests for similar prices in large dormitory rooms.
Those hotels are a booming commercial outgrowth of the old Kamagasaki. In Kamagasaki, flophouses called doya offered cheap places to stay for the day laborers. Around the turn of the millennium, the doya owners discovered that international backpackers were an easier clientele to deal with than the often troublesome day laborers.
They started to advertise their places in English. By now, most of the old doya on that main street have been torn down and replaced with large hotels aimed at price-conscious international middle-class tourists. The excellent train connections to all parts of Osaka, commercial Shinsekai being in the immediate neighborhood, and Tennoji being walking distance away all provide a draw that overrides most concerns about the poverty just south of the main road.
The Airin Labor Welfare Center Today
The Airin Labor Welfare Center is located on the same main road, just across from the Sun Plaza Hotel, a popular tourist hotel. And yet, it's worlds away.
Entering the narrow street between the Airin Labor Welfare Center and the elevated tracks of the Nankai Main Line means entering the heart of Kamagasaki. The ground floor of the Airin Labor Welfare Center consists of a large hall populated with elderly homeless men camping out in cardboard boxes or just sitting motionless on the floor, staring into the void.
The wall below the railway tracks is today blocked off by a fence. In the 1990s, there was a busy flea market, partly specializing in illegal goods like uncensored pornography.
Those days are gone. The number of the homeless is significantly lower today, too, and the ones who remain are almost all well into their 60's if not older.
Entering the ground floor of the Airin Labor Welfare Center is like walking into the pits of hell in a Dostoyevsky novel. It might shatter all of your impressions of Japan as a wealthy, advanced country. This is Japan in filthy rags. Men sit on the ground with dirty, bleeding sores, quietly drooling into wild beards unkempt for a decade or more. The reek of death and desperation is stronger than the ubiquitous smell of urine.
Wide staircases lead to the second floor. There you will find another big hall, similar to the one below, but much darker due to a lack of daylight.
The despair exuded by the dirty concrete walls is overwhelming. Here too, aged homeless men sit motionless in their cardboard boxes or sleep on the floor. Some of the homeless downstairs might try to peddle something, show some sign of life. Up here, it's eerily quiet, people sit on the floor with bowed heads, motionless, waiting for the day to pass.
At 6pm the welfare center will close. Everyone will have to leave, metal shutters will block off the whole complex until 5am the next morning.
At night, many homeless will sleep right outside the Airin Labor Welfare Center, others will roam the area, looking out for empty cans, cardboard and other collectibles.
Old Kamagasaki Still Alive
The area south and southeast of the Airin Labor Welfare Center is dotted with old-style doya, cheap day laborer flophouses. Elderly men sit or sleep on the sidewalks, drinking cups of shochu from vending machines.
These vending machines are often grouped into a roofed space, sometimes with benches and a table right next to them. The machines are in service 24 hours a day, thus turning those vending machine corners into popular and always dependable self-service bars.
Another peculiarity of the area is the many long-term luggage storage spaces you see along the streets. Day laborers without a fixed address need dependable places where they can keep their belongings.
The deep center of Kamagasaki is Triangle Park (Sankaku Koen), right next to the Nishinari-ku Police Station. A fenced-in triangle with gravel on the ground and a few trees passing as the "green" of the park. This is the main gathering spot for the area's day laborers and homeless. Some homeless always try to hawk a few wares here, giving the park the feel of a bottom-end flea market.
There are people next to the park offering small selections of vintage (legitimate) VHS tapes at 4am. When asked about urabideo (illegal tapes), they vehemently insist that those are forbidden and that they don't carry any.
Triangle Park is a grim place but not as depressing as the ghastly halls of the Airin Labor Welfare Center. The folks here are still struggling on.
No one knows the exact number of the homeless and day laborers of Kamagasaki. A few thousand have registered the Airin Labor Welfare Center as their residence in order to stay within the bureaucratic framework and receive pensions or welfare benefits. Many others have not.
Virtually all of the homeless are ethnic Japanese though most likely there are a few down-on-their-luck Asian migrant workers among them. The latter keep a very low profile.
The majority of the Kamagasaki homeless population is male and elderly, most of them are in their 60's and 70's. According to the Airin Labor Welfare Center, the homeless population has shrunk to about one third of what it was in the late 1990s.
Younger homeless are almost nowhere to be seen. They do exist in Japan but they tend to stay away from this neighborhood. They prefer the safety and cleanliness of 24 hour manga/internet cafes over the squalor of Kamagasaki.
If indeed you plan on visiting the area, be sure to be on your guard. Many if not most Japanese would not visit Kamagasaki fearing for their safety.
By all means, do not try to take photos of Kamagasaki homeless without asking them for their consent first. Some homeless might get aggressive if they see a stranger snapping pictures.
Access - how to get to Airin
Subway: Dobutsuen-mae Station on the Sakaisuji and Midosuji Lines, Shin Imamiya Station on the Osaka Loop Line.
Railway: Shin Imamiya Station on the Nankai Main Line
Airin Labor Welfare Center (Airin Rodo Fukushi Senta) website: www.osaka-nrfc.or.jp (in Japanese)
San'ya Blues: Laboring Life in Contemporary Tokyo by Edward Fowler
Though mainly focused on Tokyo and a bit outdated, the book is still the best English language book on the life of the homeless and day laborers in Japan. It contains a chapter on Kamagasaki.