***This 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 Ougimachi Park. 

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 = Counseling/Information/Guidance).

Nagai Park Nakama no Kai structures (Poor People’s Association of Nagai Park)

Right 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!).

Kitchen 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 money.  Because 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). 

Sign 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.

Besides farming, 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 link).

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.). 

The Labour Center in Kamagasaki (Airin District Public Employment Stabilization Center). Behind the building is the Hospital which is part of the Osaka Social Medical Center

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 injury. 

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 egalitarian.  There 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. 

Shelter 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 Dignity Village.

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.  

Nishinari Shelter

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 Japanese. 

A 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.

Some 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