is a report on a visit to Kamagasaki and several tent communities in Osaka in
August 2004 by the two authors. The
visit was a part of their research on self-organized, self-managed, and
self-initiated housing and communities. The
authors believe that it is the responsibility of researchers to give information
back to those who are the participants in and subjects of their research. This helps assure that the perspectives of the participants
and subjects are not misunderstood and distorted, and it additionally lets them
know what the researchers are thinking as they conduct their research.
The authors welcome feedback on their report and their research.***
Dear Friends at Dignity Village,
We are back from our visit to Japan. We spent two days with the friends in Osaka and we promised to give you a report. We have not used names – even the aliases and street names people use. We received some disturbing information about the level of harassment and violence the activists in Osaka have been subject to from the police, other government offices, and others unfriendly to the cause. Since you are likely to copy this to others, we decided to leave out names. In addition to being concerned in general, we are university-based researchers and so we are responsible for protecting people’s confidentiality by Canadian and U.S. rules about research. So we are particularly concerned that we do not put anyone in additional danger.
The colleagues (we’ll
use the terms “colleague” or “friend” rather than comrade, since in
contemporary American English that term often implies a Marxist-Leninist
affiliation) in Osaka are doing some amazing work. In all we visited three camp communities that the
Kamagasaki Patrol and others affiliated with it are assisting, and we saw
several others that they are in solidarity with.
“J” met us at the Shin Osaka train station (where the Shinkansen
bullet train stops in Osaka). “J”
is great. He is enthusiastic, kind,
with lots of energy and totally committed to the cause.
He must never sleep. In
addition to spending days and evenings working on homeless/day laborers’ issues, he is the one who communicates with
colleagues internationally and he is really well read on current events,
activism, and countless other topics. On
the first day we visited the Nagai Park community and spent most of the
afternoon with them. Over
the ice coffee that they bought particularly for us, we heard various stories
from several residents (and an ex-resident) and supporters/activists at the
Nagai Park Tent Village. We shared the message from Dignity Village, which was
much appreciated by the residents. “M”
from the Kamagasaki Patrol provided us with some of their previous newsletters
and other relevant paper resources. “M” and the resident/activist “K”
(who himself lives in Nagai Park and visited Dignity Village last year) earlier
had gone to protest the City’s eviction threat posed to the tent village
residents at Utsubo Park, another park that often works in close coalition with
Nagai Park. There was no eviction that day. We were to meet the President of the
Tent Village Association at Utsubo Park later that day at the gathering in
The Poor People’s
Association of Nagai Park (established in 2000) now has 20 residents with 8 more
people just leaving their personal belongings there while they live primarily
elsewhere. Approximately 20 others are sleeping on park benches. During the
so-called Bubble Economy in Japan (late 1980s to early 1990s), there were about
5-10 people sleeping at Nagai Park. After the Bubble Economy burst (early to
mid-1990s), the largest number of “rough-sleepers” (the term Canadian
activists use for those who sleep on the street.
We will use both American and Canadian terms and spelling for this
report) in Nagai Park counted to 700-800 people. With Osaka’s bid for the 2008
Olympics and anticipated sponsorship of World Cup in 2002, there was negative
public sentiment against rough-sleepers at Nagai Park (Nagai Park is the site of
some major athletic facilities). Many people held and still hold the stereotypes
that the rough-sleepers are “scary”, “dirty”, and “dangerous.” This
led to the City’s attempt to clear out “blue tents” in 2000. The Poor
People’s Association of Nagai Park was established then, in strong coalitions
with other like-minded organizations including Kamagasaki Patrol, Senior Special
Labour Program Union, and Nishinari Park Yorozu
Soudan Centre (yorozu = various; soudan
Park Nakama no Kai structures
(Poor People’s Association of Nagai Park)
in the center of the picture (covered with blue tarp) is the kitchen. There is a
dining room in the far left of the picture but the residents do not use it much
during the summer months and mostly eat outside at the tables (which feels much
nicer in the hot months!).
at Nagai Park Nakama no Kai (Poor
People’s Association of Nagai Park).
The city has contracted with a nonprofit organization to do everything they can to make life difficult for those living in the camp community, with the ultimate aim of forcing them to leave or move into shelters. This includes chain-link fencing off a great deal of the park to prevent others from setting up new tent and semi-permanent wood/metal/fiberglass homes. The nonprofit agency and the city claim that the fences were constructed to prevent the plants and trees from being hurt by the people who are living in the park, but clearly the aim is to harass and prevent new homes from being built. Inside the fences, there were trees but much of the ground surfaces were covered by tall weeds and it did not seem that these plants were well-taken care of. This nonprofit also comes around to survey how many tents there are, mostly to guarantee that no new ones have been built. When someone leaves their home it is destroyed and the area it occupied is roped-off to prevent a new home from being built. There are 20 people per day working as guards (10 persons at a time). When there was an incident that puts some park residents in physical danger, Nagai Park residents confronted these guards and the park administrative office about why they did not protect the residents. What the guards/office admitted was that it was not part of their job descriptions to protect the people at the park, but to count the number of tents and make sure to report when the tent city residents move out! The park authorities also have gradually been replacing the traditional benches in the park, which were unobstructed and permitted people to stretch out on them, with benches that have two armrests in the middle section in addition to armrests at each end. This prevents people from lying down on the benches. Despite this, the folks living there have remained upbeat, inventive, and are doing a lot to promote their own community and the broader community of people who are without permanent homes.
One example of this that is particularly impressive is the
farm that they have established. One
of the residents, “T”, explained to us what they do, why they do it, and
what they would like to do in the future. The land is about 1/4 acre (=991 m2
= 300 “tsubo”) and it is about 45-minutes
away by bicycle. This farming initiative is called “Satsumaimo
Nogyo Club”, or Yam Farming Club. They grow a variety of seasonal,
organic vegetables (for the summer
they are harvesting corn, watermelon, tomato, cucumber, edamame/soy beans,
eggplant, daikon radish, satsumaimo yam, etc.).
In addition to using some of it themselves, they also sell it to make
they’d need a permit to sell vegetables at a public park, they pack up
vegetables in small bags and price every bag 100 yen for sale. They call this
popular sale, “100 yen kanpa sale”
(or 100 yen donation sale; 100 yen is about 90 cents US). It was the Nagai Park residents’ idea to hold this kind of
sale to increase the meaningful connections with community residents and to
change the too-often negative perception toward the homeless and gain more
support. In addition to this sale at the park once a week (Saturday or Sunday),
they also hold a “100 yen kanpa sale” at one of the supportive local
churches after their Sunday service, which has also been received favorably.
There are other places (e.g., another church) that request this “100 yen kanpa
sale” but one of the residents of Nagai Park said that they do not at this
point have capacity to increase the level of their production, which they wished
they could. The money, and
more of the grown vegetables, is used in a food program
(takidashi = a kind of soup kitchen) for other people who are homeless (twice a month – the first and third Sunday of the month) and for
other support work. Their
next goal is to dig a well in the land to improve the access to water (now they
have a water pit in the middle of the land to collect rain water, but when the
water level is low, they’d have to carry buckets of water for 30-40m, which,
undoubtedly, is a lot of work in itself).
of the “Satumaimo Nogyo Club” (or
Yam Farming Club) at Nagai Park
Nagai Park residents
are very proud of the farming initiative. They have been taking care of the farm
for the past one year. Prior to that, for about one year, they were cultivating
a rented lot in the city community garden. “T” explained to us that nobody
really had prior farming experiences, but they proved to themselves that they
had the ability and commitment to farming the year prior in the city community
garden. They rented from the City, about 4.5 tatami mat size of the farming lot (very small; 0.0018 acre or about
3 yard squared) for 30,000yen/year (about $270US).
However, last year they lost in the lottery to have access to this
community garden (as there are many more people than available lots). Learning
about their ability to farm lands, one of the supporters decided to lend his/her
private farm land to the Association of Poor People in Nagai Park as s/he could
not cultivate it for the last 3 years and harmful weeds were growing which were
bothering the owners of surrounding farm lands. Nagai Park residents, therefore,
had to start by clearing the land that was covered with tall, tough weeds, but
since then, farming has been going really well despite the distance and watering
difficulties they face, especially during the hot season.
The owner of the land is very happy with this situation as well as the
land is well-taken care of. So it
is a win-win situation. “K” also told us later that the bicycle ride was
very “far” in the beginning (45 min to 1 hour), especially in the extremely
hot weather, but the more he goes, the shorter the ride feels to him. After 1
year, he does not feel that it is that far any longer. People involved seem to
be very much enjoying this farming initiative.
Another activity that
the Nagai Park Tent Village organizes, “T” explained to us, is a monthly
family bicycle ride. This is an opportunity for children (and their parents) to
experience some farming, while at the same time enjoying a bicycle ride and
lunch at farming site prepared with the vegetables they grow.
Children in urban areas do not have farming experiences or simply messing
with dirt. It sounds like another
wonderful experience to create different venues to broaden understanding of the
tent village communities in the general public. However, “T” said that the
number of participants has been limited to several supporters of the Nagai Park
Tent Village, and they need to advertise the event more to increase and broaden
the participants in the future.
other economic activities include collecting various saleable resources, such as
aluminum cans, large electronics that have been disposed of, and copper.
Collecting and selling aluminum cans is the most stable economic activity
and thus is quite popular. Aluminum cans sell for 100 yen (about 90 cents) per 1
kg (2.2 lbs; about 41 cents for 1 pound). They could collect 10-15 kg per person
at night which amounts to 1,000-1,500 yen (22-33 lbs; about approx. $9 to $13.5
US). They cannot do this every night, so if everything goes well, one person can
make about 6,000-7,000 yen (approx. $54-63) but recently the competition is so
severe that one can only make 3,000-4,000 yen (approx. $27-$36 US).
“T”, who was hailed as the
expert in can collection by some other residents, shared that recently
housewives and salary-man (businessman), too, are collecting cans for extra cash
because the economy is bad. In
addition, community groups (children’s group, seniors groups, self-governance
group of geographical areas) are actively collecting aluminum cans and other
recyclable materials for their cash income. “T” explained to us that there
are two methods of can collection common among the rough sleepers.
One is “haritsuki” (to
paste oneself in), which is to stand by certain public garbage cans/bins all day
to collect cans. He said that usually there are “regulars” in the spots
using this method. The other method
is called “nagashi” (to flow, to
draft), which means that one would ride a bicycle around all day to collect
cans. Currently, the Nagai Park Tent Village residents work together, pulling
cart, and collect cans regularly (we think they said twice a week).
Used TVs can sell for
500-1,000 yen each ($4.5 to $9 US; up to 19 inches or so), and a stereo can sell
from 2,000 yen ($18 US) to 7,000 yen ($63 US) if it’s really a good one (that
is rare). There is even some
market for broken electronics, since the parts can be used. “T” said that collecting disposed electronics is not a
reliable way of making money because you’d never know if you could find one
and it’s rare to get something really good.
Copper (“red wire”) can be sold for 110 yen/kg, a bit better rate
than aluminum cans, but again, the supplies for collection are usually limited.
Some, in the past, fixed up bicycles and sold them for money, too.
As we were leaving
Nagai Park to move to Ougimachi Park, “S” (one of the residents) gave us T-shirts
from the Dairin Matsuri
(Dairin Festival, or big circle festival; http://de.geocities.com/nagaipark_nakamanokai/).
One of us (Jim) was particularly
delighted to see this t-shirt
because it had an I.W.W. “One Big Union” slogan on it!
Other words on the t-shirt include
the names of the parks to show solidarity across the tent village residents in
these parks (Nagai Park, Ougimachi Park, Utsubo Park, Osaka Castle Park, etc.)
with a nice graphic on (you can see the photo of the t-shirts at the above
In the evening we visited a second camp in Ougimachi Park. There folks spread out a large blue tarp, later expanded to two tarps, and we all sat around and talked. They were really interested in the conditions of people who are homeless in Canada and the U.S., and the various efforts of Dignity Village, the folks in Toronto, and others. Activists from Toronto had sent a flag along with the researchers as an expression of international solidarity, and it was presented to them. This park was much more central than Nagai Park and used by a variety of people. There was a large office building of a conservative TV station at one end, a city hall (of the City Ward) next to it, etc. So there were many people milling around, and none of the fencing off of areas that we saw in Nagai Park. We think the popularity of the park prevented that. However some of the pictures sent by “J” to Dignity Village website show a police action at that park, so perhaps it was not always so peaceful. The community of people living there were in one corner of the park. The people living in the park and the people using the park for recreation seemed to be coexisting well. The park was a perfect open place to see a fireworks display going on off in the distance (typical during the summer in Japan), and there was a really good interaction between the people living in the park and others as they watched the fireworks. Our sense is that the people living in this park were harassed far less than folks in Nagai Park.
There were back and forth questions for about 1 hour. The
Ougimachi Park residents were very interested in finding out what is happening
in North America and how poor people there are dealing with similar issues that
they experience. After that there
was a small party with a huge bottle of
shochu (a kind of distilled liquor;
so-ju in Korean) mixed with various kinds of tea and juice, some whiskey
brought as a present, and some okaki/osenbe (rice crackers) and bread. One
of the residents well known for his cooking also fed one
of us (Jim) some really delicious rice and fish cake he prepared,
while Jan was talking to other residents (including one of the 4 female
residents among about 80 men). We
should add that we were fed constantly and in general pampered and taken
care of. We are really grateful for
the hospitality and generosity we were shown.
At Ougimachi Park, we
also learned about one of the tent city
residents who had gone to an
East Asian conference of homeless
activists in Korea (this network includes
activists, for example, from Hong Kong, Korea, Tokyo, and Osaka).
One of the resident leaders explained to us that the Ougimachi community (about 80 tents) does not have a hierarchical leadership structure, but does have three work groups with a lead member for each. These groups include cooking/soup kitchen, patrol, and donations. Of course some of the residents were more involved than others, but in general people were engaged, well informed about local and international issues, and supportive. We stayed there until about 8 or 9 pm. Our host, “J,” along with a couple of more Nagai Park residents, made sure we made it back to the train station we were staying near.
The next day we needed to be at the labor hall in Kamagasaki at 6 am. We were met by “K” who then walked us to the labor hall and introduced us to “I” who would stay with us throughout the day. “K” had to leave around 8am to provide counseling/guidance/ information (soudan) at Nagai Park. There are four traditional areas in Japan where people who work day labor jobs live and work, including people who formerly worked these jobs but are older or injured now, and people who do not have regular homes (these areas are commonly called yoseba). Kamagasaki is that area in Osaka and one of the largest in Japan (the others are Sanya in Tokyo, Kotobuki-cho in Yokohama, and Sasajima in Nagoya.).
Labour Center in Kamagasaki (Airin
District Public Employment Stabilization Center). Behind the building is the
Hospital which is part of the Osaka Social
Osaka City has constructed a large two story concrete building – about half a city block big – that is used for various activities related to day labor. On the ground floor is a large open pavilion surrounded by roll-up doors (like garage doors). Day labor brokers employed by construction companies drive up to the pavilion in vans and advertise their jobs on posters on the front of the vans. Day laborers line up or mill about the pavilion, starting about 4 – 5 am or so (the roll-up doors opens at 5am and people might line up even before it opens). Not all of the posted jobs are for that day. Some are future jobs, and some are for a one to two week period. The brokers are also milling around. You can pick them out because they have fanny-packs around their waists with money in them. The serious workers come with backpacks with their work clothes, safety shoes and tools inside. There are others in the pavilion, too – people who are a little older, ill or with injuries. They are often sitting on benches, talking in groups, or sitting or lying on cardboard on the floor. They are not looking for work, but are there because 1) their sleeping places (often shelters or small single rooms don’t let them stay during the day and, for some rough-sleepers, it is a safe place to sleep during the day because often they are not able to rest during the night on streets because of random attacks), 2) the pavilion is a social place where people can meet and talk, or 3) they have other business at the labor hall that we will describe below.
People interested in working can look at the posters on the
vans. The brokers also approach
people, mostly people with backpacks and
are regarded as fit for work (e.g., looking younger, healthier).
The posters are often vague. If
the job is in a remote or undesirable location, they might post only a general
area of the city or the prefecture; if the work is undesirable, they might just
say something like construction or general work; etc.
So people interested in a posted job need to decode the posters.
If the job is for a one or two week period, the employer puts the workers
up in dormitories on the job. The
labor brokers work for large contractors. The
contractors have permanent workers and others they employ for specific jobs, so
the day laborers fill in around those workers and have the least status at the
job site. They work the 3-D jobs – dirty, dangerous, & difficult.
We heard that the jobs often get more difficult later in the work
contract. If a worker leaves before
the end of the contract period, the employer makes out by not needing to pay
people all that they are owned. We
met a friend of “I” and others, an Okinawan worker (“N”)
who stayed with us throughout the day and told us about conditions of
people from Okinawa in Kamagasaki. In
addition to experience in Kamagasaki, he had experience in the movement by
people in Okinawa to free themselves from U.S. military domination (after World War II, Okinawa was under the direct US rule until 1972).
There are also other “ethnic” communities among those in Kamagasaki:
People from a Japanese outcast group (hisabetsu buraku),
Japanese born people of Korean ancestry, and undocumented Korean workers).
According to “N”, there are different power dynamics among these groups of
people. He also told us that the
sizes of these communities generally reflected the political powers that these
communities have as well.
Upstairs in the labor hall is a different scene. There are inexpensive small food stalls/restaurants in the middle, and at one end are windows where people who qualify can get their unemployment benefits – doled out daily just to make it inconvenient. People need to be there with their white employment books that certify that they are eligible based on the number of days they worked that month (at least 28 days/2 months, 14 days each month). At 8:00am the windows open and they must bring their books and drop them off. The windows close a short time later (8:15am). If they miss the open window, they are out of luck for that day. Then a few hours later the windows open again and they get their daily benefit (11:00am). Again, if they miss that they are out of luck. It is obviously designed to discourage and degrade people.
“I” then treated us to breakfast at one of the stalls
upstairs. It was affordable
for the workers and designed to sustain people throughout the day – a piece of
fish (or omelet), miso soup, some
vegetables, and a big bowl of rice
plus cold tea (the weather was hot and humid). “N” told us that the food and drinks in Kamagasaki are the most
inexpensive in the entire Japanese islands, for example 70 yen for a canned
drink in a vending machine, as opposed to 110-150 yen in other places in Tokyo.
At the other end of the second floor is a program for older
workers. Our host for that
day was “I,” who operates the union for senior
workers as well as the union for day
laborers in general in the Kamagasaki-area and the “various counseling centre”
(yorozu soudanjo) at Nishinari Park.
The union for senior workers fought
hard for a government program to employ older workers.
We were told that this program is run by
a third-sector/non-profit organization, but the employee’s union clearly is
affiliated with the Communist Party (The Communist Party does not have
the same connotation or extreme marginal status in Japan that it does in the
U.S. For example, one of the large teachers unions is CP
affiliated) and matches workers and city provided jobs.
Each qualified older worker (55 years old and older)
would register with this non-profit organization and is given a
special photo ID card with an ID number for this program, name, and birth-date. Each day about 200 jobs are available. The workers have to stay aware of when their number is
coming up for one of the 200 jobs, and the numbers are called out and posted on
a closed circuit TV monitor. When
their number is called they come into the office and can choose from among
several jobs on a first come basis. Jobs
are for things like weed cleaning on river banks, trash picking, etc. Given
the current availability of the jobs (defined by the budget allocated to this
project) and the number of registered workers, they are able to work
about three days per month,
which would result in the income of a little over 15,000 yen (about $140 USD).
We heard that many people who are out of work and do not even qualify for the
special unemployment program (white booklet) have difficulty obtaining the
welfare benefits if they are male and below 60 years old.
Thus, this special employment program for seniors is a very important program
for those who are unable to secure income due to age and health conditions among
other things. “I”
and others are very proud of the program and of their solidarity in getting the
government to provide it. It must
have been a great accomplishment based on significant struggle.
“I” told us that people are proud to be working the jobs provided
them. Currently, “I” and others are
pushing the government to provide more jobs as it is expected that (1) the
workers generally like the program and are requesting more work than just 3
times per month because working 3 times per month still provide barely enough to
survive, and (2) the number of registered workers will continue to increase.
We then toured Kamagasaki.
Just outside of the labor hall people have set up stalls and tarps to
sell various things – used clothes and tools, magazines, new work clothes, and
food. Apparently there had been a
lot more of the stalls a few weeks
ago, but the police came through and cleared out those stalls, many of which were operated by undocumented people from
Korea. Jim asked if these were entrepreneurs – people who were using their
creativity to avoid day labor. The
response was the opposite. These
were mostly people who could no longer work the day labor jobs because of age or
We stopped by another fenced park that was full of blue
tarp tents. This site won a battle
with the police several years ago (about 10
years) and have controlled the park
ever since. “I”
explained to us that it was also a very symbolic victory because this park was a
site for an earlier battle in Kamagasaki and the police had closed off the park
with chains. With the more recent battle, the laborers broke the chains off,
stormed into the park, and have been successful in controlling the park since
then. “I” was, of course, very
proud of this battle. The park was described as self-governed and
was a bulletin board for the residents (about 10 or so) living inside this park.
The name of the self-governance body is called “Aozora Jichikai” (or Blue
Sky Self-Governance). We were not invited in and did not go in.
We think it was a privacy
issue. One of the residents came out and
chatted with “I” and “N”. He said he was going later to line up for the Special
Employment Program for Seniors that “I’s” union helped create. Another
resident came out from the park and donated a couple of expensive whisky bottles
to “I” to their surprise. He
did not explain and just went back to the park right away, but “I” and
“N” gladly received this donation.
This tent village/park was across from a school. Apparently tents also used to line the sidewalk next to the school, but the police cleared them out and added raised flower beds with concrete boxes at the bottom (with mostly weeds in them), obviously to keep people from putting up the stalls. However, there were a few that re-built there.
“I” and the friend from Okinawa (“N”) then took us to see the shelter run by NPO Kamagasaki –
a nonprofit organization started by other supporters of Kamagasaki workers (with
the leadership provided by some activists who were involved in union/labor
rights work) who incorporated under the new (1998) nonprofit organization
law in Japan. They were obviously more reformist in their mind set.
For example they had also organized the doya
(single room hotel) owners. They
were apparently former radicals from the 1960’s-1970’s, which included a
strong and confrontational university student movement.
The shelter they ran was in the middle of Kamagasaki.
Our activist hosts and the NPO Kamagasaki were “friendly foes.”
Our host expressed respect for their commitment, if not their
methods or the compromises they made.
managed by NPO Kamagasaki
This shelter was several long metal structure dorm-like
rooms lined on each wall with bunk beds. Each
set of bunk beds was separated from the next by a thin wall, open at one end,
and with rotating fans on the ceiling to cool off what must be very hot space.
There was a medical screening clinic going on as we were there, run by a
public health professor from a local university.
This professor organizes a group of
academics interested in the issues of homeless/day laborers and got a national
grant to support activities like this.
People who spend the night at the shelter must leave early in the morning (5am), and they receive a packet of very hard but supposedly
nutritious crackers/biscuits (kanpan)
that are normally used for emergency rations in disasters.
We were told these are crackers/biscuits that the local government keeps in the millions in
case of disasters like Kobe earthquake of 1995; however, before these crackers expire the government wants to make use of
them. Shelters apparently became
one of the distribution outlets. While
the crackers might be nutritious, people’s teeth were in terrible condition.
So they would be very difficult to eat.
People were told to soak them in water!
Jim was given a packet of
them which he will send to Jack at
Our host also
commended the health initiatives like health check-ups of the workers at the NPO
Kamagasaki. This is because the health conditions of the day laborers and rough
sleepers without jobs, especially older workers, have deteriorated
significantly. With fewer jobs
available and a generally bad economy the health conditions are so bad that some
of the workers have actually died, for example, while eating lunch during the
day assignment through the special employment program for seniors. These workers
have compromised health conditions already but push themselves to take on the
assignments through the program for seniors because it may be the only reliable
way to earn a living. Summer and
winter months are especially tough. For example, this summer, the so-called
“mid-summer days” (i.e., the days with the temperatures reaching 30C and
above = 86F and above) have lasted for 40 days in Tokyo, and Osaka is known to
be even worse-- hotter than Tokyo because of its low ratio of greenery
compared to large paved surfaces). In
general, “I” explained to us that those who qualify for the special
employment program for seniors (workers 55 years old and above) would want to go
to the assigned jobs whenever it is their turn (3 times per month maximum) as
that may be the only way to earn money especially for those who are weak and may
have chronic conditions.
“I” and “N”
then took us to the union of day laborers office.
It is a one room structure stuffed with books, material, and a largely
unused computer. “I” counsels
people there and offers information, assistance, and advocacy.
For example, if a day laborer has been cheated out of wages they will
often come to “I” for assistance. In
addition he sometimes counsels the lower level contractors (“oyaji”)
of construction companies, when these oyaji’s
themselves are cheated out of contract money by the larger construction
companies (therefore oyajis may not
have money to pay for the workers). These companies are called hamba
(means “meal place” in Chinese characters) because they not only hire day
laborers but provide accommodations and meals while the workers are on contract
with them. “I” is wise,
always busy, and very committed. While
we walked through Kamagasaki, many laborers on the street would raise their hand
at “I” and say hi to him. He has
been working on day laborer issues for decades, and is in constant danger
but seems to be largely unaffected by it in his work and in his commitment.
From the office we then walked across Kamagasaki, through a
several block long shopping arcade (the typical for Japan covered street, lined
on each side by shops), and to Nishinari Park that is adjacent to the city
arboretum (that is a satellite of the city zoo nearby).
The entrance we took to this park is a narrow path with tall chain link
fence topped by barbed wire on each side. That path leads for about 400 meters
(400 plus yards). The fence
presumably prevents any new tents from being constructed and controls who has
access to the rest of the park and arboretum. At the end of the fenced-in walkway is an open space with
lots of tents, some of which are more permanent structures with wood and some
corrugated fiberglass roofs. Besides
organizing the Day Laborer’s Union and the Seniors Special Labor Program
Union, “I” also works at the Nishinari Park Yorozu Soudanjo (Counseling
Center). This dedicated man
apparently work from 4am (when he starts flyering around the Kamagasaki Labor
Center) to late at night, and has been doing so for 20 some years.
“I” said that when the Nishinari Park residents wanted to have
somebody who could counsel some issues they asked “I” if he could help out.
The Nishinari Park Yorozu Soundanjo (“the Center”) is housed in a
semi-permanent structure with wood and raised floors.
The Nishinari Park Yorozu Soudanjo.
The same agency that was hired to harass the residents of
Nagai Park was hired to do the same here, with the same kinds of rules.
So interspersed with the homes there are some areas roped off where this
agency is trying to prevent new homes from being constructed, areas from which
others have moved. Additionally,
there is a large (200 bed) shelter (Nishinari Park Shelter) built
as a two story metal building plus other smaller buildings in a compound about
300 meters behind this camp. This
agency and the city are trying to convince people to move to the Nishinari
Shelter. It has been up for two
years, but they have not been very successful in convincing people to move from
their homes to this shelter (in early
August we were told that there were about 20 plus residents)!
The shelter was fenced-off, but “I” told us that they have no curfew
as a way of trying to entice people to move there.
However, perhaps portending the true nature of the managers of the
shelter, they were very upset when we started to take pictures of the shelter. “J”
said it looks like a concentration camp. The
camp is actually much larger than it first seems, and is laid out in a square.
When we were there a Korean Christian group had set up a
soup kitchen. Only a few residents of the camp attended, but people from the
center of the Kamagasaki area
walked over to get food.
They were required/encouraged to sing songs and listen to preaching
before they were fed, not unlike some similar services in the U.S.
It reminded Jim of the
religious groups that come by Dignity Village with “donations.” We could not see for sure but there were perhaps 30-40 people sitting on
the ground attending this service. From
the distance, the service had different speakers and leaders, and continued for
at least 30 minutes or longer before we left the site. The food had not been
served yet at that point. The
banner next to the speakers read “Jesus Heaven, Non-Believers Hell” in
van that belongs to a Christian group that provides the soup kitchen at
Nishinari Park weekly.
The homes in this and the other two communities are mostly built from collected wood, metal, corrugated fiberglass, and a lot of blue plastic tarps. There are few of the semi-permanent houses found in dignity village, although the Nishinari Park community has more of these – perhaps in part due to how long the camp has been there and in part to there being an experienced carpenter among them who will build homes cheaply. Conveniently there is a toilet and running water right at this camp.
of the structures at Nishinari Park.
One of the things
that was noticeable in this Tent Village was the large number of pet dogs living
with the residents. Going around the park, we probably saw 15 or more dogs. They
were mostly mid- to large-sized dogs, too. These dogs were mostly lounging at
around the tents near their owners, looking tame. However, “N” commented
that at night, these dogs walk around the area in groups in the dark, and
sometimes are dangerous to people. We
also noticed that many dogs had mange (a skin condition).
After leaving there we walked back to Kamagasaki with some
of the Patrol members and then met with activists – “Commander N”
(“commander” is his nickname), “J”, “M”, “I”, “K”,
“N” - to talk about conditions in North America while we were treated
again to lunch. That was a good
exchange and again showed the level of commitment these colleagues have and
their broad contact with other homeless activists. We think that it
also reflected a thirst for knowledge about activities and tactics of
like-minded people elsewhere. After
that we strolled (!) through Kamagasaki again: we saw the shelter and hall run
by the Franciscans, who have a long-time commitment to people in Kamagasaki (it
is their major charity work in Japan); we saw the Triangle Park (Sankaku
Kouen) that was the scene 15 or so years ago of a battle between
yakuza armed with traditional Japanese swords and Kamagasaki residents armed
with wooden swords and pipes, a battle won by the Kamagasaki residents.
In addition to this fight, there were big “riots/battles” in Kamagasaki, for example in
1961 and 1990, against the police and other establishments.
There will be an annual summer
festival at the Triangle Park soon– our hosts were preparing for it and in
particular preparing to re-assert control by Kamagasaki residents over the
celebration, since it has taken on a national flavor. For example our hosts were trying to make sure that even those who are older
and do not have enough money could enjoy the festival (e.g., people can exchange
30 aluminum cans for a drink & savory Korean pancake). They were
raising funds for that. We
also saw a large bug infested shelter that the city claims it does not have
enough money to fix (Triangle Park Shelter; 600 beds), met an anarchist poet, and
saw how the gambling operation in Kamagasaki works. Then we all went to dinner at a small restaurant near
Kamagasaki and stayed and chatted for two hours or so.
It was a chance to talk on a more personal level, so it was a nice way to
end the visit. “J” and “M”
then rode to Shin Osaka station with us to make sure we were OK.
To summarize our impressions, we were struck by a few things:
1) The people we met are activists who live in one of the parks or Kamagasaki, activists who come to that area daily but live elsewhere (sometimes for their own safety), and non-activist residents of the parks and Kamagasaki. The level of harassment and violence towards the activists is tremendous and it seems systematic – we think much greater than we have heard about in Portland or Toronto, which we know also has a high level of harassment and the threat of violence. One of the main reasons these tent city communities come together has to do with mutual aid and support to protect themselves from daily threat of violence and harassment by the random youths/adults and the police. Japan has a somewhat different tradition of civil liberties and legal protections than in Canada and the U.S. Also, there is a bit more focus on the rights of workers/day laborers than in Portland and Toronto, and this puts them in conflict with construction companies, Yakuza (Japanese mafia), and government authorities and police. We think it is really important to respond to “J’s” appeals for expressions of support and letters of protest when he asks for them.
2) The non-resident activists try very hard, successfully we think, not to undercut the initiatives and leadership of the residents. There is always a danger of well intentioned people from the outside coming in and dominating. We know, for example, that Dignity Village has worked very hard to limit the role that non-residents have in the village to preserve their own leadership and initiatives. It is a good thing that these and the residents and activists in other countries (e.g., OCAP, TDRC) are so aware of this potential danger. There seemed to be a very good cooperative relationship between the residents and the activists, with initiatives coming from each and leadership assumed by residents. In two out of the three communities we met directly with resident leaders, and it was obvious that they were prominent in the third community as well.
3) The lack of women’s presence in the tent villages and rough sleepers in general was noticeable. We met/saw three women in the tent village communities in two days compared to hundreds of men. In the pictures of events on the Nagai Park web sites and other related organizations, there are some women (perhaps including some non-resident supporters) as well. In Kamagasaki, the only women we saw were vendors/store workers who sell food and other materials and Catholic nuns (there is a Catholic convent by Triangle Park). In the Labor Center, the washroom only had men’s room. In Triangle Park and Nishinari Park, we saw the standard park washrooms that have both men and women’s sections, but men were freely going in and out of the “women’s” washroom and the partitions between the men’s and women’s sections were not closed off all the way. The shelter we saw (managed by NPO Kamagasaki) only had a generic section, and apparently they are meant for men. It was obvious that Kamagasaki is largely a male space, with women playing some supportive roles or are buried in the massive male presence. The situation of the homeless in Japan is different from North America in that the homeless are only narrowly defined as “rough-sleepers” and the largest group of rough-sleepers is middle aged and above single men, a majority of whom are former itinerant workers. As the Japanese economy is still struggling, it is said that there are many white collar workers becoming homeless as well as younger men in their 20s and 30s and some women. However, women’s homelessness is still largely invisible. The four women in Ougimachi Park, according to the woman resident we talked to, are all attached to male partners, and another man commented that “It’s not possible for a woman to live (sleep rough) alone.” We were not sure if that is completely true, as the woman we were talking to said she was sleeping rough alone in a major train station before relocating to Ougimachi Park (she said she found her partner shortly after coming to Ougimachi Park). However, at the same time, the high level of violence and harassment for rough-sleepers in general definitely makes it difficult for women (as well as for other visibly “different” individuals) to be sleeping rough in public spaces.
4) The government - as police, welfare and labor agencies, park administrators, and funders of nonprofit organizations - is a looming presence over people in Kamagasaki and the parks. Additionally, the “corporatist” nature of the Japanese state and its economic planning has meant that the government has been involved in planning for and implementing policies that led to the legendary economic growth Japan experienced from the 1960s through the 1980s. This included the massive construction of buildings, roads, and other public works projects. The older residents of Kamagasaki and other yoseba were the backbone of these construction projects, often working the most dangerous and difficult jobs. These same workers were discarded when the economy soured and when their health was compromised. Thus there is a strong sense that the society, through the state, owes these workers for their contribution. As a result, some of the work of the activists was directed at getting the government to do or not do something. An example was the movement to get the government to fund the older worker program. Another outcome is that the activists in Osaka are focused on worker and housing issues, while in many other cities the focus may be on housing, homelessness, and building mutually supportive communities.
5) At the same time there are some really wonderful examples of self-initiated projects that do not involve the state at all, and may in fact undercut the influence the state has over these communities. The Satsumaimo Nogyo Club” (Yam Farming Club), 100 yen Kanpa sale, and self-run food program (takidashi) are examples. As with other things we saw on this visit, we were struck with the similarity of the economic survival work people did in the various tent communities we have visited and heard about. Dignity Village has also had periodic access to a farm. Bicycle repair and selling seems to be common between Toronto, Osaka, and Portland. “Urban recycling,” or scrap metal gathering, can collecting, and other forms of “dumpster diving” is common among poor people all over the world. There may be considerable untapped potential in Osaka as well as Portland, Toronto, and other cities to innovate additional self-initiated and self-directed projects that build and strengthen community, ensure the long-term survival of these communities, and generate income. We wonder if the friends in the various tent village communities around the world could benefit from some organized sharing of ideas and strategies, or even benefit from creating some transnational joint projects. Jim also wonders if some of the U.S.-based foundations Dignity Village has applied to might find transnational projects interesting to fund, since nothing like that exists.
6) Regarding other transnational issues: We were struck with how aware the friends in Osaka were of international events and issues, of how connected they felt to the work of people in other countries, and especially of how close they felt to folks in Portland and Toronto. Although it may be obvious to everybody it is worth saying nonetheless that given the level of opposition that exists to self-initiated housing efforts, it is really important to keep up the connections between people doing this work in different countries and supporting them as much as possible.
More than that, however, we wonder if some strategic discussion between cities would benefit everyone. Jim knows that Dignity Village has offered strategy advice to others (e.g., Denver, Eugene, Tacoma, etc.). Perhaps some more sustained discussion of strategy, perhaps even collected into an on-line manual of sorts, would be if benefit. For example, would Wendy’s group be interested in applying for funding and possibly mediating that kind of project? We would be willing to help look for funding. Jim could also see something like that get published, for example through Loompanics or a similar publisher. That kind of effort would not only solidify the connection between those involved in the various cities, but it would provide added legitimacy for the communities involved.
7) We have commented on “J”, “I”, and “N” among others. But we did not mean to single them out. For example, “M”, Commander N and others have similar commitments, bravery, and kindness. They are really a remarkable group and we came away with a great deal of admiration for them, individually and as a group. We want to thank all of our hosts for their hospitality, their kindness, and for their friendship.
August 23, 2004
Jim & Jan